At Nui, it has always been our mission to create a brand that protects our natural resources and empowers families everywhere to create positive change for the planet. We are committed to giving back to organizations that take action towards a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impact on humans, animals, and the environment.
This past Giving Tuesday, we were fortunate to collaborate with 5 Gyers to support their mission to do just that. As founding members of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a global alliance of organizations, businesses, and thought leaders working toward a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impact on humans, animals, and the environment, they have also achieved notable recognition and special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
We recently had the opportunity to interview Co-founder Anna Cummins, the wife and organizational partner to Marcus Eriksen.
Nui: Why did you create 5 Gyres? Was there a specific moment, an event, or an experience that sparked it?Anna: My husband Marcus and I created 5 Gyres together, after getting engaged on a research trip across the North Pacific Gyre. (Marcus proposed with a ring he made of blue, derelict fishing gear he pulled out of the Pacific.) The expedition intensified our realization that plastic pollution is a massive issue, and that we wanted to do more to raise global awareness. We took on a few unusual projects- building an oceangoing raft from 15,000 plastic bottles called JUNK, that Marcus sailed from California to Hawaii, and then cycling from Vancouver to Mexico to give lectures and drive advocacy around single use plastics.
Both voyages highlighted for us how little we understood about the global nature of ocean plastics - people kept asking if plastics were found in all oceans. So we used wedding donations to start a new non-profit, with a goal of doing research in all 5 subtropical gyres, and using the science to drive upstream solutions.
Nui: For those that don't know the dangers of microplastics, what damage does plastic cause to our oceans and how does this affect human health?
Anna: Plastic pollution in our oceans threatens healthy ecosystems in numerous ways, endangering countless marine wildlife through entanglement and ingestion. Scientists have documented over 1000 species that are harmed by our plastic waste - turtles, dolphins, seabirds, and more. Made with fossil fuels, plastics are not biodegradable, but they will photodegrade, becoming brittle with UV light, and breaking up into tiny particles we call microplastics. Microplastics can also come from synthetic clothing, which releases plastic microfibers into wastewater when washed, from broken down tire materials washing into watersheds, from personal care products containing plastic microbeads (now banned in the US and other countries), and from industry losing millions of pre-production pellets called nurdles into the environment. Microplastics can attract toxic chemicals in the ocean at high concentrations - chemicals that can then desorb into the tissues of animals, working their way up the food chain at increasingly higher concentrations and potentially threatening our own health.
One of the frontiers in plastic science right now is better understanding the potential risks of smaller and smaller particles, from microplastics down to nanoparticles of plastics, on marine wildlife and human health. Micro and nano-plastics have been found in range of consumer products including drinking water, salt, beer, and honey. How might this impact our health? And what will the future implications be if we don’t find ways to stop plastic pollution at the source?
Nui: You use a very scientific approach - how do you gather data during your expeditions and how do you translate that into action?
Anna: We use a method called trawling to do our research, dragging a fine meshed net across the surface of the ocean at regular intervals across thousands of miles, and then analyzing the samples to calculate the amounts per square kilometer. We have sampled plastic pollution across all 5 subtropical gyres, as well as the Great Lakes. In 2014 we published the first global estimate of plastic in the world’s oceans - 5.25 trillion particles weighing over 250,000 tons, a finding that helped to galvanize communities and spark more global awareness.
Our findings in the Great Lakes solidified for us the importance of scientific research to drive awareness and action: we found more microplastics in Lake Erie by count than any of the previous 40,000 miles of ocean we’d surveyed. One sample had over 1,000 pieces of plastic, predominantly made up of tiny, uniform spherical balls. We’d never seen anything like this before. On a hunch, Marcus compared these to the small plastic exfoliant “microbeads” in a common facial scrub, and they matched. We realized that millions upon billions of these microbeads were flushing into our waterways, as they are too small to be filtered by wastewater treatment plants.
We published the findings, and began rallying our partners - NGOs, policymakers, and corporate partners like LUSH cosmetics - in a national campaign to ban the sale of products containing plastic microbeads. In 2 short years, after passing a strong bill in the state of California, President Obama signed the Microbeads Free Waters Act in 2015, Federal legislation to prohibit microbeads from our waterways. This shows the power of good science, coupled with effective campaigning, to change policy for the better!
Nui: You’ve achieved many impressive milestones as an organization. What are you most proud of and why?
Anna: We have had some exciting wins collectively - with our partners and coalition members, like the Microbeads Ban, Global Estimate, and Trashblitz in Los Angeles. We know we can only achieve big victories with radical collaboration. And knowing that our team and our work has played a role in engaging bigger audiences on the plastics issue is gratifying.
But what really keeps me going is being able to work with the next generation - giving talks to schools, working with youth, and seeing them get inspired and take action. I received an email from a Kindergarten mother at my daughters school, who said that after my talk there, she now wants to do a beach cleanup every time they go to the beach.One of my favorite examples of how quickly small change can spread, was working with Thomas Starr King school in Silverlake, LA. The students got inspired by the plastics issue, and had a few amazing teachers who supported them in their quest to eliminate styrofoam trays from their cafeteria. They created a very visual art piece on campus, stringing a weeks worth of trays from a tree on campus. And they took initiative in replacing their foam trays with reusable ones. This saved their school a whopping $12,000, and eventually inspired the entire district to ban styrofoam trays - the second largest school district in the country!
These are the kinds of moments and impact that I love, knowing the ripple effect that small changes can have!
Nui: How do you educate the public and kids to why this is important and what they can do?
Anna: Working with kids has been something we are deeply committed to since our inception. When I first began working on plastic pollution, it was through doing school presentations all over Los Angeles. Seeing how immediately and naturally young people empathize with animals, and want to take action is heartening. And seeing what a profound impact young people can have - changing policies at their school, inspiring their parents, and even speaking out at city councils - gives me glimmers of hope. We are now seeing a new rise in youth activism on climate change globally, fighting for their future, and it reinstills our commitment to continue working with the next generation.
Nui: How old is your daughter and have you gotten her involved in the organization and educated her on the ocean?
Anna: Our daughter is 7, and she has been with us on this journey from day 1! She joined us on her first short voyage at age 2 - from Miami to the Bahamas - and has traveled with us to do outreach and research - from Iceland to New Zealand. She’s heard us give a gazillion talks on plastic, and could probably give her own lecture at this point!
Engaging her in our day to day work is important to us - we want her to know that we are working for her future, and we want her to understand that she can also make a difference. I’ll never forget the day in pre school that she asked another mom why she packed her daughters lunch with so much single use plastic! This mom heard her loud and clear, and made some changes! One is never too small to inspire their community.
Nui: As makers of organic merino wool clothing for children, Nui Organics has been a passionate voice to our following about the effect of synthetics in their clothing and microplastic pollution in the ocean. How do you shop for clothing for you and your family? What do you look for in the brands you shop at?
Anna: As someone who came to sustainability through a desire to leave a lighter footprint, consumerism is one of the areas I think about a lot. Historically, I have tended to do the majority of my clothes shopping at second hand stores - Goodwill has been my main clothing source!
That being said, in the last few years, since learning about the microfibers issue, I now have more information about the impacts of synthetic clothing: polyester, nylon, athletic clothing - all of this sheds small pieces of plastic into our waters when we wash them!
Because of this, I now look for more legacy pieces of clothing, things that will last a long time. And since having a child, I look for clothing for her that is made from natural fibers - organic cotton, wool, etc. When I look at Nui’s offerings I love what I see: long lasting, beautiful pieces that won’t threaten the future of the very beings that are wearing them! I’m grateful for companies like Nui that think beyond the bottom line, and are conscious of the impact they have on our ecosystems.
Nui: Is there anything about you that we would be surprised to find out?
Anna: My journey towards environmental work began in my local creek as a child - a creek that flows into the ocean. I spent much of my childhood tromping in the watercress, catching frogs, and beginning to make the connection between land and sea. Later as a 14 year old, my fascination with compost and my transition to becoming a vegetarian further inspired me to learn more about sustainability. I’ve been composting ever since then, and often fall asleep watching videos on permaculture, soil health, and new composting techniques. In my next life, I want to be a soil scientist or a mycologist.
In my spare time, I play tango and classical violin, dabble in surfing, join my husband on an annual dinosaur dig in Wyoming, and grab any form of workout that parenting allows - yoga, cycling, or just grabbing a shovel and turning my compost heap :)
Anna thank you so much for sharing your journey with us. We are so grateful for your organization and efforts to create positive change.