journalism

Why I "go and see"

In my 25 years of life I have seen a lot of plastic, from childhood toys and VCR tapes and cassettes growing up to shoes and gadgets and accessories as I got older. Today, I look around many places I go and notice nearly everything in our lives has some plastic component to it.

That’s probably because last year I began a journalistic project focused on learning the latest about plastic pollution, science and solutions. I now have what you could call “an eye for plastic.” There is always more to see.

Child inspecting plastic “trash art” at a workshop I led in Poughkeepsie, NY. May 2016.

Child inspecting plastic “trash art” at a workshop I led in Poughkeepsie, NY. May 2016.

Part of this project involves sharing what I have seen and experienced with the public in a series of talks and workshops I am calling “The Go and See Tour: A Discussion of Plastic Pollution, Science and Solutions.” The rest of it involves writing, photography and making art that communicates my findings. This is my first “Go and See” installment; I plan on doing many other projects in this series.

My work involves going and seeing plastic pollution, meeting scientists who focus on learning new things about plastic and learning about groups working to diminish the Earth’s plastic pollution problem. I’m inspired by ocean conservationist Jacques Cousteau, who said, “We must go and see for ourselves.”

Dog standing in water filled with tiny plastic bits, which come from broken up large pieces of plastic. Kamilo Beach, Hawaii. November 2016.

Dog standing in water filled with tiny plastic bits, which come from broken up large pieces of plastic. Kamilo Beach, Hawaii. November 2016.

I see the value of this when I get feedback on my work. It is incredibly rewarding to see a high school student’s eyes grow larger when she sees some of the images I took at sea of plastic debris floating 1,000 miles from land in any given direction. Ditto for when someone emails me to thank me for writing a story about the implications of plastic pollution being found deeper in the water column than ever before, because it taught him something new and made him rethink his plastic use for the sake of the oceans and the life it contains.

Me speaking at Molloy Sustainable Living Institute’s screening of “A Plastic Paradise,” Molloy College, Farmingdale, N.Y. May 2016.

Me speaking at Molloy Sustainable Living Institute’s screening of “A Plastic Paradise,” Molloy College, Farmingdale, N.Y. May 2016.

All of this drives me to continue my work. I have expeditions planned for Italy, Thailand and Denmark again this summer. I’m just wrapping up a trip in the West Indies, where I found plastic is ubiquitous–and not recycled.

It’s not always easy, emotionally, seeing dead animals and plastic washed up on beaches or floating out at sea, or people wrapping food in plastic and burning the plastic when they’re done with it. But my hope is telling this story will help teach others a little more about how their own actions affect the world. Because plastic touches us all.

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Erica Cirino is a freelance science writer and artist based in New York, who is traveling the world to bear witness to plastic pollution and meet with plastic experts. She’s currently giving and scheduling presentations about her findings as part of her Go and See Tour: A Discussion About Plastic Pollution at high schools, colleges and public places. She is the recipient of a 2017 Safina Center Kalpana Launchpad Fellowship, which is helping support this project.

This post was originally published to the Safina Center blog on May 29, 2017. 

I'm sailing across the Pacific Ocean for a good story, for a month, so here's my goodbye message

"The Sarcophagus" AKA my bunk.

"The Sarcophagus" AKA my bunk.

“This is where you’ll be sleeping,” says our captain, Torsten, in his Danish accent, pointing to a cramped space beneath his comparatively spacious bunk.

I peek into the foot-and-a-half-high wooden bunk space and realize I will be sleeping in basically a sarcophagus for the next month or so: It’s shaped wide at the top near my shoulders and narrow at my feet. I’m pretty lean but still—I’m tall and know a comfortable night’s sleep will be a challenge. After one night I also learn my good captain tends to snore. Loudly.

Yet, oddly, I have spent two nights sleeping on the SY Christianshavn, an old but sturdy steel vessel, and I’m pretty well rested. It’s probably all the prep work we’ve been doing: organizing food and supplies, cleaning, cooking, discussing travel plans and more.

In fact, I feel very peaceful for a person about to leave dry land and head out into the open ocean for an extended period of time. And I know it has to do with the people I’m heading out to sea with. In all, there are nine of us—a diverse crew of sailors, scientists, coordinators, an artist–internationally known photographer, found-object artist and filmmaker Chris Jordan–and me, a photojournalist. I’m one of two Americans on the ship, Chris being the other.

I fully expect to be fluent in Danish upon my return to New York. Maybe. I’ve already learned a few words.

I was invited aboard by Henrik Beha Pedersen, the founder of Plastic Change, a Danish nonprofit focused on spreading knowledge about ocean plastics and on finding science-based solutions to the problem. They’ll be collecting science samples at sea for laboratory analysis to better understand the scope of ocean plastics in the Pacific. 

We’re sailing from Los Angeles through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to Honolulu and then to Big Island. The whole trip will take about a month.

While packed into the small sailboat with eight others, I am learning, teamwork will be key. Respect too, is critical. In order to get my work done—documenting life on board for various publications to which I contribute—I will need to pull my weight. If just one person lets up in helping the boat function—helping sail, clean, cook—then we all sink. I need to manage my time wisely so I get both the ship’s work and my work done.

So with that, I close this “goodbye” post. Now you know a little about what I’m doing and where I’ll be when I’m off the grid. These are my first impressions and thoughts. What I leave is a scratchboard of my thoughts, which I hope to reflect upon when I return to New York in mid-December.

 While I don’t know what will happen at sea—we’re at liberty of the winds, the weather and the science—what’s certain is this will be one hell of an adventure.

 Skol!

(Cheers!)

-erica

On graduating, moving forward, making progress

The graduates of the SBU MS Journalism Fall 2015 crew, plus two professors (far left and right-center).

The graduates of the SBU MS Journalism Fall 2015 crew, plus two professors (far left and right-center).

Today I graduated with my masters in journalism-concentrating in science, health, environment and tech reporting. So...

WAIT, STOP.

I know exactly what you're about to ask me. It's the same thing the hundreds of thousands of other college students were asked at their graduations at the culmination of this fall semester. It's the same thing people asked me after I earned my BA in May 2014: 

"What's next?" 

For me, what's next is a continuation of what I know and love: freelance writing, art, and graphic/web design. But is a little - ok, kind of big - things I've been thinking about. And now that school's over and I have a little more time, I can actually get into the planning/decision-making/DOING stages of those things: traveling, exploring, learning new skills and knowledge, living....

But I will do all of these things while focusing on sustainability. With the state of the environment the way it is, from climate change to air pollution to plastic ocean gyres, it's critical now that we think and live for the long term. (Which, remarkably and somewhat ridiculously, our predecessors on this planet largely failed to do.) 

It's become my mission to learn about how to live more sustainably so that I can reduce my own impact and help others reduce theirs. By most people's standards, I'm already pretty good: I recycle, don't buy/cook more than I need, I drive as little as possible, I reuse tinfoil and plastic zip-top bags, I carry re-usable shopping bags to the store....

Before you shake your head and say, "One person can't make a difference," take a look at all the earth-friendly things I was able to accomplish as a part of TerraCycle, "a company that makes the non-recyclable recyclable." 

Let me begin by explaining a well-known fact: Runners tend to eat a lot of energy bars. Especially when they're on the go to practice and races. But these wrappers create a lot of waste. Better is to make your own energy bars, which is what I usually do (and I'm happy to share my recipe). But when I do eat energy bars, I save the wrappers. When I see my friends and family, and sometimes strangers, about to toss an energy bar wrapper in the trash, I stop them and ask if I can please have their wrapper. Though occasionally I get an odd look, most people don't mind.

No, I'm not a hoarder. I am able to earn "points" by sending these wrappers to TerraCycle. These points are redeemable for all types of sustainable charitable gifts. 

By collecting more than 15,000 wrappers over the past few years, today I redeemed my 16,215 points to "purchase" the following:

TerraCycle allows users (joining and sending in waste is completely FREE, by the way) to donate to many other important causes and purchase sustainable items, like the planters. You can even add your own charities, which will receive your donation in cash. Pretty awesome how easy it is to do good!

All the "waste" TerraCycle receives - check out what kind of things it accepts here on its website - it recycles or upcycles into useful items like messenger bags, binders and notebooks. I've been a member for about seven years, and in that time I have collected more than 700 drink pouches and more than 21,000 energy bar wrappers, allowing me to donate more than $300 to charities! Plus all of that waste was turned into other things. It was NOT left sitting in a landfill.

Pulling out a snack from my TerraCycle messenger bag made, entirely of Clif Bar wrappers.

Pulling out a snack from my TerraCycle messenger bag made, entirely of Clif Bar wrappers.

As I've mention above, reducing the amount of waste you produce in the first place is most important when it comes to living sustainably. But if you do create waste, it's certainly worth it to recycle, or TerraCycle it!

I want to note that my earlier recitation of the things I do to lessen my impact was not done to be boastful. In fact I am the first to admit I am not as sustainable right now as I would like to be. I only discuss what I'm doing to establish my sustainability "baseline" so as I learn more I can gauge my progress. "Being green" should be about progress, not perfection. Every small positive action is still positive. No bashing or put-downs allowed, so long as we're moving forward.

I hope this little anecdote and tidbit of knowledge have left you feeling a little more hopeful about what you can do to help the planet. I urge you to follow me on this sustainable journey. If you have tips, knowledge or leads to sustainable projects please reach out and let me know!