An Ocean Plastics Field Trip for Corporate Executives

8 Aug

The subtropical island of Bermuda does not see many icebreakers, but on a warm May day, Dave Ford is standing on one, welcoming his uneasy guests aboard. Technically, the RCGS Resolute, 400 feet long and eight decks high, is an ice-strengthened expedition ship, one class below an icebreaker. But the choice still seems inspired, because as the factions of environmentalists and plastics executives arrive, the chill on the ship is palpable, and the only way Ford’s vision of some sort of Paris Accord for plastics is going to happen is if a whole lot of icebreaking goes down.

Ford’s company, SoulBuffalo, takes corporate executives on epic excursions (Antarctica, Kamchatka, Zimbabwe), smacks a little kumbaya into them, then sends them home fired up about corporate responsibility. As we stand on the deck of the Resolute and watch the tender deliver more of the 150 passengers joining this four-day mission, he tells me that he started his career as a hard-charging ad man in the tech world, “but it wasn’t filling me up inside.” In 2008, at 28, he quit and bought a one-way ticket to Argentina. For the next two years, he knocked around the planet’s remote corners, then found himself in Antarctica and felt his spirit mingling with the vastness. “That trip opened me up,” he says. “I knew immediately that I wanted to help others access the breakthroughs that can happen with intense travel experiences.”

SoulBuffalo’s previous expeditions have all been for small groups from single companies, but as the scope of the plastics crisis has unfolded (spoiler alert: it’s worse than you can possibly imagine), Ford began to wonder if a big, boundary-crossing, experiential intervention could turn the tide. “I’ve always believed that travel can capture magic in a bottle,” he says. “You know how when you travel with people, your relationship can advance years in a matter of days? That’s what needs to happen out here.”

Ford is tall and scruffy. At 41, he still dresses in the just-slept-in jeans and T-shirts that make it easy to picture him in his young, globe-trotting days. That informality helps take the starch out of the suits, which is one of his goals for this Ocean Plastics Leadership Summit: Put all the stakeholders on a ship, steam out to the plastic-studded wastes of the North Atlantic Gyre, distribute snorkels, and, in a kind of epic swirly, stick their faces in the problem. Then haul everyone back aboard and hack a solution to the fucking thing.

SoulBuffalo had to write a “very big check” to book the Resolute, which was en route to the Arctic from its January cruising grounds in Antarctica, before Ford knew if anyone would come to his party. “We bet the company on this,” he confesses, “pushed all our chips into the middle.”

When I ask why, his voice rises. “How many whales with 60 pounds of plastic in their guts need to beach themselves? How many turtles with straws up their noses?”

Plastic trash on a Bermuda beach (Thomas Prior)
Snorkeling the gyre (Thomas Prior)
Bottles are among the most common forms of plastic pollution. (Thomas Prior)
Bridget Croke, rock climber, recycling guru, and vice president of Closed Loop Partners (Thomas Prior)

More, apparently, because most of the 70 corporations Ford invited said no. But before going down with his very pricey ship, he elected to raise the stakes. “You know what the tipping point was? When we decided to invite Greenpeace. When people realized that Dow and Greenpeace were going to be on the same ship, they were like, Whoa, this is real.”

And while Greenpeace may be the most anti-corporate of the greens on board, it’s not alone: Break Free from Plastic, Upstream, Ocean Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the 5 Gyres Institute are all here to hash it out with Dow, Procter and Gamble, Coca-Cola, Nestlé Waters, GE, Colgate-Palmolive, Hasbro, Mary Kay, Kimberly-Clark, Clorox, HP, and other industry behemoths. (The 391 tons of carbon dioxide generated by this little soiree will be offset by SoulBuffalo through the Kariba Forest Conservation project in Africa.)

Quarters are tight. Unless you’re willing to pay $25,000 for a private stateroom (which a few of the bigwigs are), everyone has to share cabins, and one of the assignments is dropping jaws: the reps from Greenpeace and Nestlé Waters—which have been at war for the past month, after Greenpeace launched a campaign against the bottled-water giant—are bunking in a cramped stateroom with beds three feet apart, at Nestlé Waters’ request. (“Haha,” Ford initially wrote back. “Very funny.”)

As word spread that silos would be crumbling in the middle of the Atlantic, 20 companies said yes. But still, Ford says, “That’s fifty noes!” I won’t call out the chickenshits, but you can pretty much figure it out. There are no retailers on this ship. There are also no oil companies, and plastic is basically oil whipped into a hard, waxy meringue.

But Ford says he’s fine with the noes. “This isn’t a boot camp for clueless executives. It’s a leadership summit.”

And leadership begins with service. No sooner have we all checked into our rooms than we have to get right back off the ship. Roll up your sleeves, Ford tells us. Time to clean up a beach.

At first glance, Long Bay Beach looks suspiciously like paradise. The golden sand sparkles. The waves glitter. Bermuda is a wealthy island that regularly cleans up its shoreline. Sure, the odd flip-flop is poking out of the wrack, but rather than any sort of environmental angst, I feel a strong desire to work on my tan.

Then Marcus Eriksen, cofounder of the 5 Gyres Institute and the expedition’s lead scientist, tells me to look closer. A former Marine with a buzz cut and unyielding blue eyes, he’s been crusading against ocean plastics for 15 years. In 2008, he lashed 15,000 plastic bottles underneath an old Cessna fuselage and sailed it from California to Hawaii to raise awareness. He’s led trips to all five of the world’s major ocean gyres—vortexes of current where microplastics and other marine garbage swirl. He’s published papers about the plastics found there and lobbied relentlessly. 

None of which has made a dent in the business practices of the big plastics producers, something he’s dearly hoping to change in the next 72 hours. “This is huge,” he tells me. “Nothing like this has ever happened. It’s been my dream my entire career to take the people who run the plastics industries out to sea. Once you’re at sea, you can’t go anywhere. You have to talk.”

And one of the things he most wants to talk about is right at my feet.

At first all I see is sand and seaweed. But then, at the high-tide line, something blue catches my eye. Then something pink. I kneel to get a better look, and—impossible—the shell bits resolve themselves into a confetti of colors. Half the flecks I thought were pieces of shell are actually bleached plastic. 

A Bermudan contemplates his future in a plastic-filled world. (Thomas Prior)

The problem with plastic is that it never rots, never goes away. But contrary to popular misconception, Eriksen explains, it doesn’t form floating islands of trash. It disintegrates. “Sunlight makes it brittle, the waves crush it constantly, and the fish and turtles and seabirds just tear the stuff apart.” The pieces get smaller and smaller until they’re tinier than a grain of rice and qualify as microplastic. By Eriksen’s count, there are more than five trillion pieces of microplastic in the oceans—more than there are fish—and despite some well-publicized debacles like Ocean Cleanup’s dysfunctional 2,000-foot-long boom, which was supposed to sweep the seas free, no force on earth is going to get that plastic out. The best we can do is prevent more from going in.

I’m still absorbing this when a local naturalist takes a group of us around a point to Nonsuch Island, a sanctuary for the Bermuda petrel, one of the world’s rarest seabirds. The island is off-limits to the public and doesn’t see regular beach cleanups. As a result, here, collected into a massive ridge, is 18 months’ worth of civilization’s detritus: bottle caps, toothbrushes, tires, coolers, crates, ropes, nets, glue bottles, soda bottles, bleach bottles, jerricans, fishing totes, fishing line, styrofoam cups, shellfish sacks, Parkay bottles, sleds, spackling buckets, mesh, toys, Ensure bottles, Glade air fresheners, car bumpers, fencing, sneakers, flip-flops, car consoles, cushions, spray guns, shotgun shells, mattresses, floats, noodles, sponges, siding, labels, caps, hard hats, ribbons, zip ties, trash bags, grocery bags, pail handles, foam buoys, sunglasses, drink lids, wrappers, milk jugs, tent stakes, boat hulls, and hundreds of plastic octopus traps that washed up from Africa. What’s weird is that almost every piece has serrated edges. “Those are turtle bites,” Eriksen points out. “See those smaller triangular bites? Triggerfish.”

From the largest whales to the smallest zooplankton, everything is eating plastic. Plastic particles at sea act as magnets for toxic chemicals and organic pollutants. Plastic has been shown to make shellfish sluggish. It’s in virtually all seabirds, which becomes obvious when they die, flesh melting away to reveal the plastic within like trash in a spring snowbank.

Back in 1950, at the dawn of the plastics era, the world made just two million metric tons of the stuff per year. By the seventies, we were up to 50 million metric tons a year, and by the nineties, 150 million metric tons. Then production exploded as the Asian economies took off: 213 million metric tons in 2000, then 313 million metric tons in 2010, and now more than 400 million metric tons per year. About half of this is single-use plastic—the bags, bottles, spoons, straws, sachets, and wrappers that make modern life überconvenient and utterly disposable—and most of it has nowhere to go.

Recycling is a joke. For all our careful sorting, less than 5 percent of plastic in the U.S. gets recycled. That’s not a typo. The only types of plastic that are widely recycled are #1 PET (soda and water bottles) and #2 HDPE (milk jugs and laundry-detergent containers), and even they are guaranteed to be recycled only if they’re clean, pure, and not mixed with nonrecyclables. Almost everything else gets incinerated or dumped into the ground or the sea.

In the U.S., which has a well-developed waste-management system, only about 2 percent of recycled plastic gets mishandled, meaning it could potentially wind up in the ocean. For developing countries like China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, 70 to 90 percent goes into the drink. Until 2018, when China stopped accepting most of our recycling, a lot of that plastic started out in America. Chinese recyclers picked out the usable bits and disposed of the rest. Staring at that ridge of very familiar items, I can only wonder how many pieces of plastic I’ve tossed into recycling bins over the years that were dirty or the wrong kind of plastic or just mixed with too many questionable things and wound up in the South China Sea.

Back in 2010, scientists estimate, the oceans contained about eight million metric tons of plastic. Now we add that much every year. Today there are about 75 million metric tons of plastic in the marine environment, and in five years we can expect 150 million metric tons. 

Perhaps this explains why the whales of the world keep beaching themselves and expiring with wads of plastic in their guts, a kind of gruesome global protest. And why bugs in the Mariana Trench, 36,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, are packing plastic.

So are you, but we’ll get to that later.

The North Atlantic Gyre is one of the three great endpoints for the world’s plastic. It and the Indian Ocean Gyre each hold about 60,000 tons of the stuff, a figure topped only by the trash in the North Pacific Gyre (a.k.a. the Great Pacific Garbage Patch), which holds 100,000 tons. Each gyre has its own character, according to Eriksen. “The North Pacific is the fishing-gear gyre. The North Atlantic is more like the bottle-cap gyre.”

The best place to find those bottle caps is inside the free-floating sargassum seaweed that accumulates in an area of the North Atlantic Gyre known as the Sargasso Sea.

“To the heart of the gyre!” Ford directed the captain of the Resolute, a no-nonsense Russian.

“I have no idea where that is,” the captain replied.

“Just head east until we hit seaweed.”

As we knife through calm seas, we begin our three-day “design lab.” That’s tech-bro talk for what used to be called brainstorming: get as many different perspectives as possible on how plastic leaks out of the circular economy, break into multidisciplinary groups, stress-test the best ideas against the needs of all stakeholders, then come back as a group on the final day with concrete action plans.

The ship is a rolling spark session. Bonnie Monteleone­—a North Carolina artist who creates Hokusai waves out of ocean plastic—is schmoozing with Ellen Jackowski of HP, which is incorporating millions of Haiti’s plastic bottles into ink cartridges. Gaelin Rosenwaks, a filmmaker fresh off a submarine exploration of Belize’s Great Blue Hole with Richard Branson, is chatting with the AI guru Tom Gruber, one of Siri’s inventors, who has become a prominent ocean advocate since retiring from Apple in 2018. A dude from the World Bank is huddling with Tensie Whelan, the former president of Rainforest Alliance, who now heads up New York University’s Stern School of Business.

I sidle up to Bridget Croke, vice president of Closed Loop Partners, an impact-investment firm that steers money from corporations toward recycling innovations. Croke, who is also a pretty badass rock climber, strong-armed a lot of her clients onto the Resolute. “All of a sudden they decided they couldn’t miss it,” she says. 

Considering the speed with which the world is turning against single-use plastic, showing up seems like a no-brainer. Plastic bags and bottles are becoming as socially toxic as cigarettes. Hundreds of U.S. cities, states including California and Hawaii, and countries such as China, France, Kenya, South Africa, India, and Saudi Arabia have all announced bans, and more are on the way.

“The companies that are here are smart,” says Croke. “They understand the trends coming down the pike. What business leader would say no to that opportunity?”

Well, apparently 50 of them, but never mind, the icebreaking has begun in the aft lounge, where Greenpeace and Nestlé Waters are on stage for a “Sleeping with the Enemy” panel discussion. John Hocevar, the ocean-campaigns director at Greenpeace, looks a bit spooked by the eyes of so many longtime foes. “I was just saying to someone on board, ‘Oh, the last time I was at your office I was hanging off the front of your building.’ And the last time I was at Nestlé’s office we were there with a giant trash monster.”

Hocevar is long and lean, with a graying goatee and body-length tattoos. He’d be at home in Brooklyn, but his roommate on this trip is Nestlé Waters’ chief sustainability officer, David Tulauskas. Clean-cut and Midwest friendly, Tulauskas directed sustainability efforts at General Motors before shifting to Nestlé Waters in March 2019. 

When Tulauskas extended his sleepover invite, Hocevar was guarded. “I regularly have conversations with people we’re running campaigns against,” he later confides to me, “but sharing a small room? And a bathroom? That’s definitely next-level.” Many Greenpeacers were against it—espionage!—but he thought it was a rare opportunity. “For this insane experiment to make any sense, we have to establish a real connection,” he says. “We have to build some sort of a human relationship. But ultimately, he represents a company that we are campaigning against for good reason. They have a massive footprint, and they have taken very little responsibility for it.”

A Bermuda beach (Thomas Prior)
Beach cleanup in Bermuda (Thomas Prior)
Dive instructor and marine educator J.P. Skinner (Thomas Prior)
Fibers are a particularly dangerous type of waste plastic. (Thomas Prior)
Dave Ford sets the tone for the summit (Thomas Prior)

Nestlé Waters (whose portfolio of about a dozen brands includes Arrowhead and S.Pellegrino) produces 1.7 million metric tons of plastic packaging every year (topped only by Coke’s three million metric tons), almost all of it single-use. “We’ve done brand audits after beach cleanups around the world,” Hocevar says. “Everywhere we look, we find that the companies producing the trash are American or European.” In 239 cleanups around the globe, Coca-Cola was the most common brand, followed by PepsiCo and Nestlé Waters. Polystyrene was the most common material, followed closely by PET.

For its part, the plastics industry points toward the need to fix waste-management systems in the countries doing the polluting. But to Hocevar, it’s disingenuous to blame people in Southeast Asia. “These companies are fully aware that their packaging is not going to be recycled, and yet they’re flooding those markets with this material.” To him the bottom line is simple: “Single-use plastic has to go.”

Eriksen agrees that would go a long way toward solving the problem. “For a long time, the industry has harped on consumer behavior and deflected all responsibility for how plastic is used in society.” The onus should be on companies, he says, to reduce their packaging and come up with new delivery systems. Instead they’re pushing chemical recycling. “That’s the new buzzword. You’re gonna hear a lot about it on the boat. You’ll hear ‘chemical recycling’ every other word.”

True that. A lot of people here are pretty jazzed about chemical recycling, which can take the worst plastics, all the unrecyclable stuff, and cook them down into fuel. If I’m China or Vietnam right now, bleeding rivers of plastic into the sea, that would sound pretty good to me. But to Eriksen, it’s a Band-Aid that just perpetuates the fossil-fuel economy. Considering the urgency, says Croke, whose Closed Loop Partners invests in chemical recycling, the only strategy that makes sense is all of the above. “There’s nothing we don’t need to do.”

I’m still stewing on that, thinking that whatever PR genius came up with the term chemical recycling should never work again, when a special announcement crackles over the Resolute’s speakers: Sargassum ahoy.

As the ship crane lowers black Zodiacs into the swell, the crew of the Resolute gives us our snorkel briefing: Here’s how to use your snorkel. Here’s how to use your life jacket. Don’t take it off under any circumstances. Accustomed to Arctic conditions, the sailors are a bit freaked out by the thought of 150 bodies bobbing in the water, but they roll with the plan. We flop like penguins from a metal gangway into bucking boats, and then we’re off.

I find myself up front, between Stan Bikulege, the chairman and CEO of Novolex, one of the world’s largest plastic-bag manufacturers, and Bruce Karas, the vice president for the environment and sustainability for Coca-Cola North America. To anti-plastic crusaders, Bikulege is the devil. He’s also a decent guy who hangs on to the back of my life jacket as I lean over the front of the Zodiac to haul passing crates and sneakers out of the sea. But sometimes you just find yourself on the wrong side of history.

Karas is here, as far as I can tell, to not get left in the dust as the issue evolves. Coca-Cola—which has spewed plastic across the planet like few other companies and has staunchly opposed bottle bills, one of the most effective ways to increase recycling rates—has not been a leader on fixing the plastics crisis. From what Karas tells me, he’d like it to be. “I have to be able to carry the message back to our franchisees that I’ve been to the gyre,” he says. “I’ve seen it, I’ve held the plastic in my hands, and it’s real.”

That shouldn’t be a problem. We snorkel through alphabet soup, collecting spoons and toothbrushes and bottle caps. I’m never out of reach of another piece. I grab a hunk of sargassum, I give it a shake underwater, and suddenly I’m in a snow globe, white flecks swirling all around. We don’t see any of Karas’s bottles or Bikulege’s bags, but that’s because such things disintegrate fast, helped along by tiny marine life that can pick a single plastic bag into 1.8 million micropieces.

5 Gyres cofounder Marcus Eriksen (Thomas Prior)

Back on the Resolute, we pile our booty into a creepy altar, capped by a toilet seat, and break into a dozen design-lab teams. Croke peels off with the money folks to crunch ideas on funding. People from Dow, the World Bank, and the Pew Charitable Trusts put their heads together on new markets for used plastic. Tulauskas leads a wildly eclectic squad trying to disrupt retail packaging that includes executives from Dow, Clorox, and Kimberly-Clark, the founder of a startup called TAP that’s been billed as the Waze of water, an official from 5 Gyres, NYU’s Tensie Whelan, Gaelin Rosenwaks, and Ovie Mughelli, the hulking former fullback for the Atlanta Falcons, who has started his own environmental foundation.

The groups huddle; the hours fly by; voices rise in frustration and fall in consilience; the windows of the Resolute fill with Post-it Notes as I dolefully watch the blue sea flash by behind them.

That evening I drink a beer with Tulauskas and ask him how he’s getting along with his roommate. “Great,” he says. He and Hocevar have shared lots of personal details. “I know that his parrot is freakin’ crazy, and I know he has a beagle named Otis and a blue­tick hound.” The night was not without issues, however. “Apparently, I kept him up with snoring, for which I apologize. I was hoping the rocking of the ship would make me sleep like a baby.”

Somewhere amid the snoring and small talk, they got into it. “We did exchange high-level business perspectives,” he says. “He shared his view on Nestlé Waters. We talked about his criteria for corporate engagement. It was enlightening. I feel like it would be a lot easier to reengage if we ever get the chance.”

Powerful day, Tulauskas admits. “Seeing all that plastic speaks for itself. How do we close the loop? We can design lighter bottles. We can do it in ways that make recycling more efficient. We own that. But we need to move faster and farther with the use of recycled content, and there’s great partners here for that.” (Days after the trip, Nestlé Waters will announce that Poland Spring plans to be the first major water brand to convert to 100 percent recycled bottles.)

We drain our beers and watch the sun sink into the ocean. “This needs to be a transformative experience for me,” Tulauskas says softly. “I need to come back a new person.”

By day two, I’ve identified the espresso machine on deck five as the choke point through which the entire summit funnels. I stake out a nearby table, and people stumble past and tell me things they shouldn’t.

I hear that Coca-Cola is secretly planning for a post-single-use-plastics future. Ask Coke about that, my source whispers to me. I can’t, because I’m not supposed to know. 

I learn that, back in December, when it looked like SoulBuffalo wouldn’t be able to pull the trip together, Ford’s partners began referring to it as the Gyre Festival, after the disastrous Fyre Festival that so famously belly-flopped in the Bahamas in 2017. But the scoop that darkens my day is the rumor of a disturbing new study, not yet released, estimating that we each have about a credit card’s worth of plastic in our body, to which I respond: (A) What the fuck are you talking about?, and (B) How do I get it to scan?

Later I check out the details with other scientists on the ship. There’s a grim consensus that the plastics crisis is much more than an ocean issue. As microplastic keeps breaking down, it eventually becomes small enough to pass through cell walls and migrate into organs and flesh. Yes, that means it’s in our seafood, but crossing calamari off your list won’t help. It’s in our beer, our salt, our tap water, and our bottled water, sometimes at concentrations of thousands of particles per liter. The average wash load of clothes launches 700,000 plastic microfibers. A single car trip whips clouds of microparticles off our tires. Plastic sloughs from civilization like hay off the back of a chicken wagon. 

No one actually knows what effect it’s having on our lungs, guts, blood, or brains. The science is too new. One source tells me to look out for some freaky news about what it’s doing to our joints. Another mentions carcinogens and endocrine disrupters. But the reality is that we don’t know shit. It’s one big worldwide experiment. Check back in 30 years.

And that, Hocevar believes, may be why so many corporations are suddenly interested in changing their business model. “I think the time is coming when some of these companies are going to have their tobacco moment,” he says. “I can absolutely picture some of these executives having to stand up in court and answer questions about what they knew about the health impacts of their packaging and what they did about it.”

By day three the bar is empty. The Jacuzzi bubbles forlornly. These people are machines. It’s our last full day at sea; the captain has been told to just drive around, fingernails on the chalkboard of his highly scheduled soul, and even when the call goes out that more sargassum mats have been sighted, almost no one ditches their committees. But I practically run to the Zodiac, where I join the water people: Eriksen, Rosenwaks, a dive instructor and marine advocate from Bermuda named J.P. Skinner, and Tom Gruber, who anticipates my question to him. 

“What’s an AI guy doing here?” he says. “Basically, I do intelligence. Siri was individual intelligence, but I also do collective intelligence.” And that, Gruber says as he tinkers with some huge underwater camera from the near future, is what we desperately need right now. “Our brains didn’t evolve for giant civilizations. The election process is broken. It no longer produces quality leaders. You end up with Trump and Brexit. So government is irrelevant, but business leaders are starting to step up, and that’s what you’re seeing on this boat. We may be at a turning point in how we act collectively.”

Gruber says he’s been to other save-the-ocean conferences, and this one feels different. “There’s a ray of hope here that’s not typical. Maybe we’ll be able to look back and say, ‘I was on that ship when things started to change.’ ”

And with that, we all back-flop into the water and badger Steve, our minder from the Resolute, to let us ditch our life jackets. 

Greenpeace’s John Hocevar (Thomas Prior)
5 Gyres’ Marcus Eriksen (Thomas Prior)
Post-it Notes aboard the Resolute (Thomas Prior)
The author (far right) on a snorkeling outing (Thomas Prior)
Life-jacket drill (Thomas Prior)

“If you have to dive under to get a photo, we can use the buddy system,” Steve says grudgingly. “Take off your life jacket, hand it to your buddy, and briefly dive under while your buddy keeps eyes on you.”

“Steve, will you be my buddy?” I ask, shucking my jacket.

“Sure, hand it over.”

Eriksen is next. “Steve, can you be my buddy?”

“OK, sure.”

Soon Steve is everybody’s buddy, a floating coatrack, and we’re all dolphining under the sargassum.

In the water, I forget all about the plastic. I’ve snorkeled the Caribbean, barrier reefs, and crystalline lakes, but never in mile-deep ocean. I gaze down through the bluest blue I’ve ever known, and my mind goes as blank and content as a child’s.

Eriksen shoots beneath me in a MORE OCEAN LESS PLASTIC T-shirt. Rosenwaks mermaids by in a wetsuit, shooting video on her two-handed camera. Skinner is deep underwater holding a GoPro straight overhead, slowly pirouetting toward the surface like Esther Williams. Everyone looks like X-Men against a blue screen.

I churn sargassum beneath the surface with my arms and dive down through it. The color makes me gasp through my snorkel, golden galaxies in a cobalt cosmos. When I surface, a petrel has come winging over to see what the heck we’re doing in its world, and then Rosenwaks pops up beside me. At that moment, the Resolute and the Zodiac are somewhere in the distance behind us, and it’s just her and me and the sea and this sleek little bird turning gyres around us. Rosenwaks says she feels so small, and I babble unintelligently about the blue before coming out and saying what I’m really thinking: It’s the color of God, and I can’t believe it’s still here.

As we head back toward Bermuda, 100 miles and closing, the design sprint pushes well past dinner. In the morning, we’ll arrive in port and head back to our lives, and you can feel a hint of panic set in. We know that one of the world’s most challenging problems is not going to get solved in three days on a boat; we just need to know that we’ve turned this icebreaker in the right direction.

Late at night, the bleary-eyed teams share their ideas. A few sound refreshingly real. Mary Kay announces a new rewards program to get its beauty consultants to recycle their cosmetics containers. A group including executives from Dow and the World Bank proposes a fee on virgin plastics, to be used as a credit to reduce the cost of using recycled plastic. It’s like a carbon tax, and we all turn and stare at one another. Did they really just say that?

The most original idea comes from David Tulauskas’s team. ZeroHero, as it’s called, would be a section—heck, maybe a whole aisle—of big-box stores devoted to zero-waste products. To qualify for the ZeroHero aisle, products could be package-free, refillable, delivered from a dispensary, or otherwise ultralight in their footprint. The program would have its own label, promotion, possibly even a dedicated check-out line. It’ll need a big-box retailer to play ball, but half the brands on the boat are already in, and plans are quickly made for cross-industry working groups in the U.S. and UK.

It’s wildly ambitious, and Zero­Hero gets an ovation. Just like that, a faint glimmer of collective intelligence emerged from the primordial capitalist muck.

Siri codeveloper Tom Gruber (Thomas Prior)

Even Hocevar sounds willing to give his roommate the benefit of the doubt. “I do think he came to Nestlé Waters to try to turn the company into a sustainability leader,” he says with a sigh. “I don’t know how on earth he thinks that’s going to happen. But he seems like a gamer.”

So does Ford. Before I disembark the next morning, I tell him to get some sleep. No time, he says. “I’m trying to secure the ship for next year’s summit.”

I ask if he’ll be reaching out to the 50 noes.

“Absolutely. I’m optimistic we can turn most of them into yeses.” Then he pauses. “But to be honest, two of the biggest oil companies in the world have already told me resoundingly that they won’t be a part of any collaborative summit like this. So I’ll take 48.”

I tell him I’ll be curious to see who’s on that boat, then I race to the airport to catch my flight back to New York. As the plane takes off, I can see the Resolute in the harbor, a ridiculously small oval shrinking to a speck, all of Bermuda dissolving into the eggshell blue around it. I push the seat back, massage my sore snorkeling legs, and refuse the flight attendant’s offer of a plastic cup for my water three times.

Contributing editor Rowan ­Jacobsen (@rowanjacobsen) is the author of seven books, including Shadows on the Gulf and The Living Shore.

Hacking Your Genes Has Never Been Easier

6 Sep

Josiah Zayner and I are drinking fluorescent green beer at the ODIN, his Oakland lab. The tables are scattered with pipettes and disposable blue gloves, cases of Red Bull and Slim Jims are near at hand, and Drake is pulsing on the sound system. It’s not St. Patrick’s Day, and the beer isn’t really all that green. It’s the ghostly luminescence of jellyfish pulsing through the depths. That’s because it’s chock full of glowing jellyfish protein. 

But no jellyfish were harmed in the making of this beer. Zayner is the world’s most notorious biohacker—a new breed of garage tinkerer experimenting with DNA and biological systems outside the confines of traditional research. In this case, he genetically engineered a common brewer’s yeast by adding a jellyfish’s green fluorescent protein (GFP) gene that he ordered online. As long as you know the DNA sequence of the gene you want—the A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s of the genetic code—you no longer need the actual critter the gene came from. You just run off the code on a special DNA printer containing cartridges filled with liquid A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s. Then you insert the new DNA into which­ever organism you want to modify. The process is shockingly easy.

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I raise my glass and pause. Zayner’s yeast suffuses the beer with a gauzy haze. I have no idea which species of jellyfish the GFP gene came from, but my hunch is that it has never been a regular part of the human diet. Zayner assures me it’s safe. Genetic engineers love GFP because it’s such an easy visual. They include it with whichever other gene they’re trying to insert, and if their organism glows, they know the experiment worked without having to send off a sample for DNA sequencing. Scientists have engineered glowing cats and mice using GFP, he points out, and the creatures lived just fine. 

I eye Zayner. He has drunk a fair amount of GFP beer himself, and while I wouldn’t say he looks normal—he sports dozens of piercings, plugs in both earlobes, and a spike of bleached hair that is sometimes blue and sometimes white—he seems healthy enough.

“Dude,” he assures me, “we did all the normal FDA tests. It’s nontoxic, nonallergenic.” As further proof, he shows me his left forearm. Right next to the tattoo that says CREATE SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL is a row of four tiny wounds. “I modified myself with it. It’s fine.”

Agar plates and vials of microbes at the ODIN lab. (Justin Kaneps)

Zayner claims he was the first to genetically modify himself with another species’s DNA. For what he would call a science experiment and I would call conceptual art, he removed dead skin cells from his forearm (just rub the same spot with a toothbrush 200 times) and used a tattoo needle to punch jellyfish DNA into his skin. The DNA was attached to a common virus that specializes in infiltrating human cells and parking itself there. Those skin cells then began manufacturing the GFP along with all their regular proteins—though, to Zayner’s disappointment, not enough to see the glow with the naked eye. He also performed a DIY fecal transplant on himself, which was chronicled in the recent documentary Gut Hack, curing himself of years of irritable bowel syndrome.

I’m not sure what I think about any of this, starting with my beer. I tend to favor pilsner over jellybrew, but I’m trying to maintain my chill biohacker persona, so I chug. We’ve spiked it with enough blood orange juice to cover any weirdness, and frankly it goes down pretty easy. Just like that, this crunchy Vermonter who always shunned GMOs filled his belly with them, and starts looking forward to the week ahead.

I’d always thought of genetic engineering as something done in million-dollar labs by corporate powerhouses like Monsanto. Extracting the DNA from life forms and inserting it into other life forms seemed like the kind of thing that required high-tech machines and years of trial and error. And it used to. But that was before Crispr, Science magazine’s 2015 Breakthrough of the Year, an engineered protein that can snip out sequences of DNA wherever you want. It’s like a search and replace function for genes. It works on bacterial cells, it works on mouse cells, and it works on human cells. It’s been used to engineer immune cells that kill cancer, viruses that kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria, female mosquitoes that can’t reproduce (to crash the population), and a yeast infused with genetic code from poppies and rats that makes opioids out of sugar in a tank. But the crazy thing about Crispr is that it’s so easy to use and cheap to make that it also allows any budding hacker with some basic biology and a mischievous mind to play God in their garage.

The only thing missing is someone to share this knowledge with the multitudes, and that’s where Zayner comes in. He started out traditionally enough: wunderkind Ph. D. candidate at the University of Chicago and then research fellow at NASA, where he adapted organisms for life on Mars. But then, in 2015, he veered off to become the pierced Prometheus of genetic engineering, bringing it down to us mortals from the labs of academia. “In this field, there are a bunch of people with a lot of knowledge and a bunch of people with a lot of crazy,” he says with a smile, “but there are very few with a lot of knowledge and a lot of crazy.”

Not for the first time, I smile back at Zayner and try to gauge the crazy. For now I’m coming down on the side of “like a fox.” He’s made a huge success of the ODIN—short for Open Discovery Institute and inspired by the Norse god—the combination lab and mail-order business he founded in 2013 to make DIY bio accessible to everyone. The ODIN sells pre-engineered GFP yeast ($80) online, along with DIY Crispr kits ($150), fluorescent-yeast-engineering kits ($160), something called the Amino DNA Playground ($349), and a complete Genetic Engineering Home Lab Kit ($999) stocked with pipettes, tubes, scales, antibiotics, agar, light-activated bacteria, bioluminescent bacteria, Crispr, and a PCR machine, which makes copies of DNA through polymerase chain reaction. The ODIN’s clients include community colleges, high school kids, and mysterious individuals.

Jars of Crispr. (Justin Kaneps)

All ODIN kits are designed to engineer bacteria or yeast, the cheapest and simplest critters to work with, and they focus on obvious visuals like GFP. They are the Easy-Bake Ovens of genetic engineering. They offer quick success to rank amateurs like me and a tantalizing taste of the endless possibilities. Where we take it from there is up to us. 

Zayner and his fellow biohackers are big on genetic freedom. Everything your body makes or does is encoded by a gene. And the more we learn about the gen­etic basis of human processes—from disease and life expectancy to athletic and mental performance—the closer we get to being able to reprogram our bodies. “I think we could do substantial changes to ourselves right now,” Zayner says. “You could go a little more crazy than scientists have been willing to let on.”

For years there have been rumors that people already are. Gene doping, as it’s called, could theoretically give anybody the ability to burn oxygen like a Tibetan mountaineer, to build muscle like LeBron James, and to never get heart disease. It’s all in the genes. It’s in the hard work and good habits, too, but without certain tools you can only go so far. And in either the shady present or the not so distant future, we’ll all have access to those tools, which Zayner finds pretty exciting. “This is the first time in human history that we’re no longer stuck with the genes we had at birth. It fucking blows your mind.”

He sees no reason to let corporations and ivory-tower institutions have all the fun. Hence the Easy-Bake Ovens. Give a man a cookie and he eats for a day. Teach a man to cook and you’ve stolen fire from the gods.

Josiah Zayner. The name screams Marvel Comics. The backstory, too: Country childhood on an Indiana farm. Pentecostal parents. (His brothers are Micah, Zachariah, and Jedediah; the dog was named Jeremiah.) Missionary in Peru. Teenage member of the late-nineties hacker collective Legions of the Underground. Biophysics Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Synthetic-biology fellowship at NASA’s Ames Research Center. Then something goes horribly wrong.

In Zayner’s case, there was no lab explosion. No rampaging through the streets of Mountain View, paralyzing Google employees with jellyfish tentacles sprouting from his back. No, what went wrong is that Zayner discovered that NASA was deadly dull. Empty offices. Stultifying bureaucracy. A supervisor who actually told him to spend less time in the lab. Not the place for someone who wanted to change the universe. So he did what any budding superhero would do: he went rogue.

Crispr and pipettes. (Justin Kaneps)

As his two-year NASA fellowship neared its end in 2015, Zayner launched an Indiegogo campaign offering contributors their own DIY gene-editing kit. He’d learned just enough while getting his Ph.D. to realize that genetic engineering was way more accessible than most people knew, and he couldn’t wait to liberate it from the elite labs he loathed and bring it to the people, because, as he told me, “I was always that poor-as-dirt kid dreaming that he could do some great experiment.” The pitch video featured shots of Zayner swigging from a flask at the lab bench (his kitchen counter) while the voiceover asked, “If you had access to cutting-edge synthetic­biology tools, what would you create?” The campaign raised more than $70,000. 

It also freaked out critics. “Zayner’s campaign is worrisome because it does not seem to comply with the code of conduct,” Todd Kuiken, a scholar in the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, wrote in Nature in 2016. He was referring to the nonprofit founded in 2008 to foster safe practices in DIY biology. For example, he noted, “The video that accompanies his campaign zooms in on petri dishes containing samples that are stored next to food in a refrigerator.” Kuiken also believes there needs to be a “robust public dialogue” about the responsible use of Crispr. 

The refrigerator comment still annoys Zayner. “So are you saying that being able to do science is a class thing? Only people who can afford second fridges should do science?” But he got his act together and bought another fridge, in part because he was already under scrutiny from the FDA, which had threatened to seize his equipment because of his Internet sales. Zayner has also been warned of possible prosecution by officials in Germany, where biohacking is banned. But the practice is perfectly legal throughout the United States, mostly because it has never occurred to legislators to outlaw such a thing, and the ODIN is doing well. Zayner sells thousands of gene-editing kits globally every year, and he expects to gross at least $400,000 in 2017. The world wants this.

The workday at the ODIN starts late-morning. One employee is multi-tasking, packing kits for the day’s orders while he propagates new batches of microbes. Zayner’s brother Micah is scarfing Chinese takeout on the couch. The air is redolent with the funk of E. coli bacteria and young male. Zayner solders new wiring onto used PCR machines (“There are few things I’m one of the world’s leading experts on, but finding functional lab equipment on eBay is one of them,” he says) while guiding me through an attempt to engineer antibiotic resistance into E. coli using Crispr. Despite the punk trappings, Zayner is gentle, kind, and a very good teacher.

We rehydrate some dried E. coli in a test tube, pour it into a petri plate containing nutrients, and set it aside overnight. In the morning, we have a flourishing colony of fuzzy white bacteria. We scrape it up, divide it into two plastic tubes of liquid, and to one tube add a few drops of Crispr programmed to change a single A to a C, which will flip the electrical charge of a protein in the bacteria from positive to negative at the point where streptomycin normally attacks it, repelling the antibiotic molecules. Then we pour the two batches onto fresh agar plates laced with streptomycin and incubate everything at 99 degrees for 24 hours. 

Genetically modified beer. (Justin Kaneps)

The next day, I pull our agar plates out of the incubator and examine them. Eureka! The normal bacteria is stone-cold dead. But the plate with the modified bacteria is studded with survivor colonies. We’ve created GMOs in a day. They and their trillions of descendants will be immune to streptomycin.

Or they would have been if we hadn’t killed the whole colony with bleach and thrown it in the trash. As crazy as our creation sounds, it turns out that it was pretty innocuous. This particular version of antibiotic resistance is so simple—just a single changed letter of DNA—that bacteria come up with it on their own all the time. We weren’t introducing anything the world hadn’t seen before, and anyway our weak lab strain was about as dangerous as a cocker spaniel. Yet I can’t help but wonder about all the biohackers out there who aren’t bleaching their experiments. What could the wrong person do with this knowledge? 

That’s what I asked Ed You, the biological-countermeasures specialist at the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction directorate. You is the government’s point person on bioweapons; it’s his job to worry about this stuff, but he had bigger things on his mind than the ODIN. “The most dangerous bioterrorist out there is Mother Nature,” he told me over the phone. “We’re getting hit with emerging and reemerging infectious diseases all the time. Bird flu, MERS, SARS, Zika, West Nile. If you think about a clear and present danger, it’s that. So we absolutely need the innovation that comes from the life sciences, from DIY bio, to make sure we develop the right counters.”

Wait a minute, I said. You actually want them out there tinkering? Yes, he replied. “Biology is proliferating quickly, but how do we address security in a way that doesn’t handicap forward progress? If you shut down DIY bio, then you run a completely different national-security problem. If you stifle innovation, then you’re going to be missing out on opportunities to come up with new vaccines, new biodefense, new countermeasures, new businesses. And if that happens, then you’ve developed a whole different kind of vulnerability.”

You pointed out that the field was moving so fast that agents could never keep up with the pace of the advances. Instead, he’s cultivated a neighborhood-watch mentality among the country’s scientists and biohackers. “They’re best positioned to see where the advances are coming from,” he said. “If someone like Josiah gets a suspicious order of some kind, he knows that he’s got a local coordinator in the San Francisco field office he can contact.”

Agar plates. (Justin Kaneps)

It all sounded strangely progressive for a bunch of G-men, but every expert I consulted told me that they had no concerns about Zayner. Forget the garagistas, they told me; worry about the academics. Many labs now have the technology and know-how to make some fearsome beasties. Last year, a scientist in Canada shocked the world when he managed to bring to life horsepox, a smallpox cousin that went extinct in the 1980s, by synthesizing its DNA from a sequence stored in a computer database. Are we entering a new era of bioterror?

Probably not, Zayner told me. “Let’s imagine you’re the worst person in the world and you want to hurt people with biologicals. First you have to have the knowledge. Then you have to have the facility. Then you have to think about how it’s going to spread. It would be an astounding feat. Could you kill one or two people? Sure. But you can do that with a fucking kitchen knife.”

That night, Zayner and I celebrate our successful biohack over pig-ear fries and sake at a Korean joint before heading over to Counter Culture Labs, a communal biohacker space where he occasionally teaches. Amid the lab benches and anarchist posters are shelves of strange plants under grow lights and a pig heart in a vat. One woman is attempting to create vegan cheese by inserting cow milk-producing genes into yeast, while another man is quietly sequencing the DNA of the mushrooms he collects in Mexico each summer. A small team are hard at work designing an organism that can produce human insulin. In keeping with the hacker ethos, they will gift it to the world open-source.

There are dozens of biohacker enclaves like this around the globe, such as Gen­space in Brooklyn, New York, where hipsters can take Crispr classes and attend Biohacker Boot Camp. The U.S. has been the hub, but now Europe is coming on strong. has nearly 5,000 members in its Google Group and boasts 99 local chapters, from Madison to Mumbai. Most biohackers never get beyond simple experiments with microbes, but a few have taken it further. David Ishee, a dog breeder in Mississippi, is editing heritable diseases out of his dalmatians. Sebas­tian Cocioba, a plant hacker in New York, engineered a pioneering blue rose gene, using a DNA sequence from a tropical clam that produces an intensely blue protein, as well as a “beefsteak” tomato that produces cow protein in its flesh. Cocioba, who operates out of his 12th-floor apartment in Long Island City, is so skilled that he has been asked by MIT to spearhead a top-secret flower project, the details of which can’t be shared except to say that in a few years it will capture the world’s attention.

And what about people? I ask. How long before cyclists start giving themselves the EPO gene to produce more red blood cells, or lifters start playing around with the gene for human growth factor?

Zayner laughs. “Dude, either people are already doing that shit, or it’s going to start immediately. I’d be very surprised if there isn’t somebody out there doing it already. It’s so hard to test for. What are you going to do, look for DNA? If a professional athlete came to me right now and said, ‘I’ll give you $100,000 to make me a piece of DNA,’ I’d be like, ‘Hell yeah.’ ” 

Zayner believes we should all have access to DIY bio. (Justin Kaneps)

Surprisingly, this is perfectly legal, though it’s long been banned by sporting organizations. Athletes and life-extension buffs have been sniffing around gene-therapy clinics for years, ever since pioneering physiologist Lee Sweeney, from the University of Pennsylvania, showed that mice injected with the gene IGF-1, or insulin-like growth factor, significantly increased their muscle mass. Sweeney has also shown that mice injected with endurance genes were able to run 70 percent farther on the wheel than their unmodified peers, and that couch-potato mice ran 44 percent farther. 

Just this June, a team of U.S. and Israeli scientists announced the discovery of a rare genetic mutation linked to ten years of extra longevity in men. And in 2015, Liz Parrish, the CEO of the startup BioViva, announced that she was the first person to attempt to reverse her own aging with gene therapy. “I am patient zero,” she wrote on Reddit. “I will be 45 in January. I have aging as a disease.” Parrish traveled to a clinic in Colombia (the therapy isn’t approved in the U.S.) and received injections of one gene to extend the lifespan of her individual cells and another to block myostatin, the hormone that regulates muscle deterioration. 

Myostatin is the holy grail of potential dopers who believe they can both arrest the natural deterioration of muscle and build more in their youth. Muscle is metabolically expensive to maintain, so myostatin’s job is to stop new muscle from being made once you’ve got enough and to atrophy muscle you aren’t using. You can find images online of dogs, cows, and people with a rare mutation that shuts down the myostatin gene and turns them into Incredible Hulks. Scientists in China recently used Crispr to turn off the myostatin gene in two beagles. The dogs look healthy, happy—and ripped. 

But I’m less interested in what athletes are doing than in something Zayner said to me on my first day in the lab: This is the first time in history that we’re no longer stuck with the genes we had at birth. If Zayner has his way, we’ll all be sculpting our own evolution.

Let’s be clear: don’t try this at home! Although hundreds of gene-therapy trials are under way, and many experts believe they will eventually transform almost every aspect of human health, few have been proven safe. When you start scrambling your DNA, very bad things can happen. You can get cancer. Your immune system can attack the unfamiliar DNA, as happened when an 18-year-old with a rare metabolic disorder died during a University of Pennsylvania gene-therapy trial in 1999.

But sick people won’t wait for years of trials, Zayner says. He hears regularly from people willing to roll the dice. He’s been consulting pro bono for a man using Crispr to treat his own Huntington’s disease and another who is treating his 32-year-old wife’s advanced lung carcinoma with genet­ically engineered DNA vaccines. “A lot of people contact me with stuff like that—‘I’m suffering. Can you help?’ ”

Zayner sticks to the free advice, helping people figure out the sequence of the DNA they need without supplying anything himself, but he knows where this is headed. “The only thing holding people back is morality. I have no doubt there are places in Singapore or Thailand or the Philippines doing it. They could totally create individualized cancer treatments right now. Clinics will pop up. You’ll go to shops in the back alleys of Bangkok and hand $10,000 to a synthetic biologist and he’ll take a blood sample and make you up a vaccine in a couple of days.”

I’m flashing back to Blade Runner’s replicant shops—“I just do eyes”—when Zayner gets a funny smile and cocks his head. “Want to try something kind of creepy I’ve been thinking about?”

For our final piece of conceptual art, Zayner and I swab the crevices of our skin and inside our mouths with Q-tips and swirl the gunk into tubes of distilled water. We spread the contents over agar plates and incubate them overnight.

The next morning, Josiahthing is nearly barren, but Rowanthing is crawling with cells. “Look at those big fat yeasties!” Zayner mutters with envy. All I can think is, if this works, it will give new meaning to the term homebrew.

We scrape up some Josiahthing and Rowan­thing and put each in its own micro­centrifuge tube with some chemicals that soften up cell walls so new DNA can get inside. We pipette ten microliters of the jellyfish DNA into each tube, shake them up, let them sit for a few hours, then pour them across new agar plates and cross our fingers. “If this actually works, I might make it a kit,” Zayner muses.

By then I have to catch a flight home, so I tape up my petri plate and pack it, along with yellow-tint glasses and a blue LED, which makes the fluorescence easier to see. TSA doesn’t bat an eye.

The next day I get an e-mail from Zayner: “Any growth on that plate?”

“Yep! Four or five nice, puffy little white colonies.”

“Put on the glasses and shine blue light on them. Do they glow?”

I don the glasses and hit the plate with the blue LED. There are a dozen tiny colonies that stay dull under the light, but there are also five large conical colonies fluorescing like the Green Goblin. “Totally!” I write back, and send a photo.

“Amazing! So cool! So jealous. Mine didn’t work.”

I feel as proud as Victor Frankenstein. I’ve created life from my own spit. In the following weeks, Rowanthing develops an apex so green you don’t even need the glasses to see it. Whatever it is, it’s new to this planet, and it’s burbling away in my basement, waiting to meet the world.

Contributing editor Rowan Jacobsen (@rowanjacobsen) is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. Justin Kaneps (@Justkaneps) is an Outside contributing photographer.