Melissa Aguayo didn’t always see herself as an environmentalist.
“Growing up as a first-generation American in Los Angeles, I never considered myself a conservationist or anything like that. It wasn’t until I got to college where I discovered environmental activism that I fell in love.”
At UCLA, while volunteering and becoming a student activist, Aguayo established her mission: connecting people to the plastic pollution movement who had been left out “because maybe they moved inland or they are people of color.”
Today, Melissa is the Advocacy and Education Director at the 5 Gyres Institute, an organization whose mission is to raise public awareness and increase corporate responsibility towards plastic pollution. 5 Gyres promotes the idea of a circular economy, which aims to keep waste to a minimum and materials within a recurring cycle of use, from manufacture to consumer.
“It’s really about connecting people to the ocean and to the fact that we all rely on it and it relies on us.”
Aguayo’s love for the environment has long been centered around the ocean. “Whether I’m happy or sad or celebrating, the ocean has always been my happy place,” she explained. This passion led her to education: “I think when we have the right information we can make better choices. One of my favorite sayings is ‘know better do better.’ I really believe in using our voices and relying on our community to start making those positive changes.”
When 5 Gyres began 10 years ago, it was the first organization to travel across the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, looking at plastic pollution up close and personal in the Southern Hemisphere.
Years ago, Melissa had heard about “this plastic island that’s twice the size of Texas” and was catalyzed. The picture was something the media could latch onto and people could wrap their heads around, but it was misleading. As it turns out, it’s more like a plastic soup.
“And actually, there is no island; it’s not all concentrated in one area. It’s like smog and it’s everywhere.”
“We saw how this was a problem, not just in the North Pacific but really in all of our oceans and all of our waterways. A lot of what we did back then were these large-scale expeditions, crossing oceans and gyres, sampling to study the problem at that source.”
Now, armed with years of data, “the movement as a whole is moving the conversation upstream.”
“Once it gets to the ocean, it’s probably too late,” Melissa lamented. That’s where 5 Gyres programs like Trash Blitz come in, identifying the top polluting sources before they reach the ocean.
Now, conversations revolve around plastic as pollution, “not just at the end of its life cycle but throughout its entire life cycle — so from the point of extraction to consumption to disposal.”
Melissa helped launch Trash Blitz, the organization’s latest community science program where they developed a new web app using UN-aligned protocols and methodology to go out and discover a region’s plastic pollution footprint.
“We tracked trash, looked at the type, material and brand associated with it, and were able to log over 18,000 pieces.”
Interestingly, the Los Angeles inland dataset proved similar to the Ocean Conservancy’s beach dataset.
“A lot of the times, when you talk to policymakers who are inland, they’ll say that that data doesn’t relate to the work that they’re doing or matter to their constituents,” Melissa said. “But we found that the data sets are really similar, which proves our connection.”
“It really shows how plastic pollution is a problem whether you’re inland or on the beach.”
Anecdotes tend to penetrate the mainstream media, but 5 Gyres relies heavily on data to get its message across.
“It’s one thing to say that there are a lot of straws out in Council District Two, but if you can actually pull up a number and show how that is contributing to plastic pollution, and how much it’s costing us to pick up litter, it’s a lot harder to argue against.”
As David Jensen, the UN’s head of environmental peacebuilding, aptly told WIRED, “You can’t manage something if you can’t measure it.”
“The video of the turtle with the straw up its nose that went viral is really hard to watch. It caused a lot of people to make changes in their lives and to reject single-use plastic straws, but that’s not necessarily going to make a difference to the policymaker that’s inland,” Melissa said.
In line with this data-driven mindset, 5 Gyres has put out a Better Alternatives Now list, which merges different data sets from all over the United States and compiles them into the Top 20 Most Polluting Items.
If 5 Gyres had its way, what would the world look like in 15 years?
“Zero waste cities,” Melissa said without skipping a beat. “A circular economy—and that will be different depending on where you live. Because of scale, natural resources, and other factors, a zero-waste city in Los Angeles is going to look very different than a zero-waste city in Indonesia.”
“Here in LA, I can take my reusable water bottle and use the tap pretty much anywhere I go. That’s not going to be the case in some other countries.”
Getting to that point requires both institutional and individual changes. Melissa had a few suggestions for what we can do today–reusing as much as possible and refusing single-use plastics.
“When you purchase a product, you’re not just purchasing the product but you’re purchasing the packaging as well,” she explained.
The plastic glut traces back to the 1970s, when plastic became the packaging material of choice. And even though it was disposable, the industry spun — and continues to spin — its recycling potential.
“Plastic bags can be reused in more than 17 different ways, including as a wrap for frozen foods, a jogger’s windbreaker or a beach bag,” the industry-backed Plastic Grocery Sack Council told the Los Angeles Times in 1986.
A look at our oceans proves that this is not the case.
Of course, action extends past what we buy and don’t buy. It’s about getting involved with the right organizations, calling our representatives when we see a bill that can help the cause, and “flexing our civic muscle as much as we can.” It’s about having conversations with local restaurants about their straws: “Sometimes all it takes is a couple of conversations to make a change.”
Through its Mi Mar program, 5 Gyres took students from Sunburst Youth Academy out to sea to do ocean trawling and analyze samples. Students could see first-hand how plastic trash impacts marine life and our communities.
“At the end of the boat trip, we talked about how they can make changes in their lives. They ended up getting their school to go off of single-use utensils because of that,” Melissa said. “It was amazing to see the direct impact that one class had on this school for years to come.”