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Scientist-sculptor works with plastic to highlight its impact on the environment

by Alana Rinicella | Off-Ramp

Eriksen holds a bronzed casting he made of a mangabey, one of the most rare and endangered monkeys on Earth. Alana Rinicella/KPCC

Off-Ramp's Alana Rinicella profiles scientist/sculptor Marcus Eriksen, whose work in plastic reflects his concern for its effect on the environment.

Apple boxes line the walls of scientist Marcus Eriksen's workshop. Inside one of them, he takes out a sculpture made of chains and bronzed animal heads.

"I've taken these casts and I’ve had them bronzed — seventeen different animals — and I've chained them together," Eriksen says. "Kind of an art piece to talk about how even animals in captivity, like in zoos, as much as zoos are arcs of conservation, they're also where we display trophy animals."

During college, Eriksen started casting animal skulls that the L.A. Zoo used for its education department. In his animal death masks, you see details that normally escape you at a zoo — the markings on a spider monkey's tail, or the whiskers on a tiger's face.

VIDEO: Marcus Eriksen talks about finding random plastic on an ocean voyage

In 2009, Eriksen co-founded the 5 Gyres Institute, an organization dedicated to eliminating plastic pollution in the world's oceans. They created "Plastisphere," a traveling exhibit about the environmental impact of plastic marine debris.

"We thought, 'People aren’t gonna enjoy seeing plastic trash in buckets and boxes. It's not that interesting,'" he says. "But to find the scientists, the activists, the people who are intimately involved in plastic waste in some way, and then cast them with that plastic waste — so I can use people as a context for a conversation about waste, how waste impacts people and the environment."

One of those castings is of Anna Cummins, Eriksen's wife and a co-founder of 5 Gyres. At the time she was five months pregnant with their first child, and the couple wondered what plastic chemicals she might pass on to the baby.

They had her blood tested and found high levels of DDT, PCBs and flame-retardants.

"There was a great study done by Environmental Working Group called '10 Americans,'" Eriksen says. "Looking at the umbilical cord blood of 10 newborn babies, from day one, they found 284 different synthetic chemicals in their blood. So we have this body burden of chemistry, but the long-term effects we don't know."

The life-size, plastic version of Anna is a mosaic of colorful trash. Eriksen filled it with melted plastics they'd collected from around the world.

Right now, Eriksen is working on a casting of Minar, a young trash collector from New Delhi. He supports his family by gathering plastic bottles. Trash collectors like him are why you won't find many of those bottles littered around India.

"The river is so polluted. There are millions of plastic bags," says Eriksen. "And I asked Minar, 'Look, there are all these bags, where are the bottles?' He said, 'There are no bottles there because I pick them up.'"

As a trash collector, Minar knows which plastics are designed for recovery. In a way, that makes him the best person to ask about recycling design. The importance of his work is reflected in the casting. His jawline juts out from the mold and his closed eyes show a quiet strength.

"Making these casts gives us a broader reach, gets us in to college campuses to talk with young, passionate people who want to see a very different world than the one that they were born into," Eriksen says.

To see more pictures of Eriksen's work, visit his website. You can find updates on his plastics research at the 5 Gyres website.

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