5 Gyres Institute
The 5 Gyres Institute is an environmental nonprofit that aims to “create zero-waste and plastic-free communities” to help prevent new plastic from entering the ocean. The group built its profile by sailing on a homemade boat from California to Hawaii in 2009 to raise awareness about mismanaged plastic in the ocean. 5 Gyres manages to take a legitimate concern–plastic litter–and turn it into a zealous campaign to ban consumer products including condoms.
The organization, which has 10 employees according to its tax return, claims to have members in 66 countries. It has partnered with other international anti-plastic coalitions, including the #BreakFreeFromPlastic coalition. The institute, which was founded by husband and wife duo Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen, got its name from the five ocean gyres (rotating currents) that pull mismanaged waste out into the middle of the ocean. The group conducts frequent “expeditions” to study plastic waste in the ocean as they make their case to ban plastic — all while floating on plastic boats, casting plastic nets, and recording their data on plastic phones and computers.
The 5 Gyres Institute’s biggest accomplishment has been advocating for a law that forbids the use of microbeads. Microbeads are specks of plastic used in some soaps and toothpastes that give the product an abrasive quality to exfoliate one’s skin or teeth to rub away grime.
The institute convinced the Obama administration that microbeads should be public enemy number one. They launched a campaign where they targeted cosmetic companies and public officials to push for a ban on microbead products. On the corporate side, they convinced Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, and Unilever to stop using microbeads in their product.
On the legal side, they lobbied for the passage of the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. The legislation was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015 and products containing microbeads were officially outlawed in 2018.
Water Bottle Wars
The 5 Gyres Institute backed legislation that would forbid disposable water bottles from being sold by the U.S. National Parks Service and other federal lands. The legislation did not become law, but the Obama administration encouraged parks to implement the bans. In 2011, water bottle bans lobbied for by 5Gyres and other anti-plastic groups began to be adopted by the parks. In 23 of the 417 national parks, water packaged in plastic bottles were forbidden– though oddly, plastic bottles for sodas — which are often made from thicker plastic than water bottles — were allowed to stay.
When the Trump administration took over, the water bottle ban was canceled. National Park Service Director Michael T. Reynolds said that families should be able to decide what their family drinks while visiting the parks, not environmental activists.
After their mild success with scrubbing microbeads away and (for a few years) water bottles, the 5Gyres decided to create a B.A.N. (better alternatives now) list. The list includes calls to ban common plastic products including food wrappers, beverage bottles, bags, straws, lids, and takeout containers. 5 Gyres argued that each of these items should be replaced by biodegradable products in the short-term and reusable products in the long term.
The list also includes calls to ban tampon applicators, condoms, and disposable diapers. 5 Gyres recommends that families switch to “cloth diaper services” for their infant children and says that couples should use “natural bio-based materials” for their condoms (to prevent new children). There’s one problem, though. According to the activists at Greenpeace, there are no bio-based condoms that can stop the spread of STDs. It’s not clear what the “plastic-free future” activists have to navigate that problem.
In a spin-off of the B.A.N. list, 5Gyres also touts the “Nix the 6” campaign. This is an effort to ban styrofoam and polystyrene — the plastics identified by a number 6 in the recycling triangle. 5 Gyres has dubbed polystyrene the “new microbead” (even though polystyrene is much older than the mass use of microbeads) and has launched a similar effort to outlaw products made from polystyrene.
Despite claiming to want to reduce plastic waste, 5 Gyres has been dismissive of plastic recycling because the U.S. has a low rate of recycling. Just 29 percent of PET plastic — which is used to make beverage bottles — is recycled in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The rate of recycling for aluminum isn’t significantly higher. The total recycling rate for aluminum products is 34.9 percent, according to the EPA. Virgin aluminum can be very harmful to the environment because bauxite strip mining — which is the process of extracting the raw material needed to create aluminum — strips the land of vegetation creating erosion and groundwater contamination.
But for some reason, 5 Gyres promotes aluminum as the best single-use material. The organization wrote, “If you must use a single-use item, choose a material other than plastic. For example, aluminum is accepted at all curbside recycling in the United States.” But so is PET plastic.
Coincidently, one of 5 Gyres’ three “Gold Partners” is Liquid Death. Liquid Death is a water company that exclusively sells water in aluminum cans. Liquid Death has a “death to plastic” campaign in which they aim to ban their main competitor: plastic water bottles. 5 Gyres advertises Liquid Death’s canned water on its website; it is unclear how much money Liquid Death donates to 5 Gyres.
According to 5 Gyres’ 2018 tax return, over half of its budget is spent on overhead (management expenses and fundraising).