© 2024 WVIK
Listen at 90.3 FM and 98.3 FM in the Quad Cities, 95.9 FM in Dubuque, or on the WVIK app!
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Now at the Putnam: The Global Crisis of Plastic Pollution

Imagine living on this raft for 13 weeks.
Imagine living on this raft for 13 weeks.

Sitting in a foxhole in Kuwait back in 1991, Marcus Eriksen made a promise to himself, to build a raft. And after traveling the length of the Mississippi River, and seeing so much plastic and other trash, he decided to do something about that.

The exhibit "JUNKraft: The Global Crisis of Plastic Pollution" is now open at the Putnam Museum in Davenport, and it displays the results of his travels around the world.

For his first trip, down the Mississippi River, he built his first raft using plastic bottles.

"And I had a friend drop me off at Lake Itasca and I came through Davenport 20 years ago on a smaller raft. Got to the Gulf of Mexico in five months, and what I saw was an endless trail of trash, so much plastic leaving America's greatest watershed."

Following that trip, Eriksen co-founded the 5 Gyres Institute in California. Its mission was find out how much plastic is in the world’s oceans, where it's accumulating, is it hurting people and the planet, and what can we do about it.

For the institute's first big project, he built a much bigger raft, with thousands of plastic bottles, some sailboat masts, and the fuselage of a small plane. In 2008, he and partner sailed from California to Hawaii. That whole raft is the centerpiece of the exhibit at the Putnam.

"But our first expedition of 20 sailing voyages was this junk raft to bring attention to the issue. We thought an adventure story might do it and thus this rafting voyage."

But instead of 3 weeks, the trip took 13 weeks, picking up plastic along the way.

"An interesting research paper recently showed that of all the trash leaving rivers 75 per cent gets kicked back on land. That 25 per cent still goes out to sea - the plastic bags, the bottles, the cups, the straws. What we find is that stuff, unlike fishing gear, is very flimsy and it fragments very quickly. So if you're in the middle of the north Pacific garbage patch right now, it's not really a patch or an island. What it is - I call it a "smog" - it's a plastic smog of microplastics. And we just published a paper last month estimating 170 trillion microplastic particles in the global ocean."

After seeing the exhibit of his "JUNKraft" and other "artifacts" picked up during his travels, Eriksen wants people to realize that "your choices matter."

"What's in your lunch box, what's in your school cafeteria, what you buy at the store, and where the packaging goes. And I often don't put it on the consumer, I put it onto the manufacturers of packaging. Are there smarter ways to package our goods for consumers. What inspires me, having done this for 20 years, I see so many young entrepeneurs and innovators. When I meet young people, the kids coming here to the Putnam, I'll ask them if you see a problem are you going to step up or step back, and if you step up what can you do ? What excites you about this exhibit ? Do you want to go on your own sailing adventure ? Then you could re-invent packaging. There's a place for you in solving this problem."

This is not a traveling exhibit - it's only the second or third time the whole raft from that 2008 trip has been on display.

"Elements of this go on display all the time - we'll send tangled balls of netting and a few little graphics. This is the first time in a long time we've everything at one place, at one time to tell the entire story. So it's pretty exciting for me."

"JUNKraft: The Global Crisis of Plastic Pollution" will be on display at the Putnam Museum through October.