This story is part of Planet or Plastic?—our multiyear effort to raise awareness about the global plastic waste crisis. Learn what you can do to reduce your own single-use plastics, and take your pledge.
Singer, songwriter, and musician Jack Johnson is known for his soothing melodies and go-with-the-flow personality. But when it comes to plastic pollution tainting the ocean, Johnson refuses to go with the flow.
As a surfer and someone who was born and raised on Hawaii, Johnson spends much of his time in the ocean. Over the years, he has seen the beaches near his home become more and more junked up with litter. So he has begun to speak out about the issue, and work on it through his foundation, Kokua Hawaii Foundation.
Watch: Musician Jack Johnson Wages War on Ocean Plastic - The artist and surfer, who grew up in Hawaii, is driving awareness of ocean pollution.
In June 2015, Johnson was invited to join an expedition to survey how much plastic is getting into the ocean. The trip—to the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic—was led by Marcus Eriksen, an environmental scientist and co-founder of the nonprofit 5 Gyres. The group studies ocean plastics and works on solutions.
Johnson teamed up with filmmakers Ian Cheney and Kizzy O’Neal to produce “The Smog of the Sea,” a short documentary about the group’s experiences on the expedition. They say they saw firsthand how plastic pollution is impacting the ocean they all love so much.
Most of the songs off Johnson’s most recent album, (All The Light Above It Too), came to him on this expedition. Click here to listen to the album, which was released in September 2017.
Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell Set Historic Speed Record on El Capitan
We caught up with Johnson to find out more about his experience and passion:
What did you personally discover on the ocean plastic research expedition?
Once we got on the trip a lot of us were surprised that we couldn’t necessarily see the effects [of plastic pollution] right away, because you couldn’t see any bigger pieces of plastic in the water. We were out in this really pristine area, that was so blue, and yet the trawl would quickly get full. You’d get a handful of plastic every time. I kept waiting for that time when there would be none, but that never happened on the whole trip.
What did you learn about the ecological impacts of all that plastic pollution?
We learned that for every piece of plastic that is one foot by one foot, we’d find 16 pieces that are smaller. And then you take that smaller piece, and again, you’re going to find 16 pieces that are smaller than that. So there are these ratios that they’ve found through their collections that describe this fragmentation.
At some point, it gets small enough for fish to ingest the plastic. When they took fish samples and cut them open they found plastic inside. It’s entering birds as well. It’s harming sea life and it’s entering our food chain. So the real problem is the health of the planet and the health of the humans. (Read: A whopping 91 percent of plastic isn’t recycled.)
Can you say more about how micro-plastics may impact the food chain?
I don’t know the complete science behind it, but what I’m learning is that the plastic can absorb toxins, and when that’s in the fish the toxins can get into the fish itself. And then they can go up the food chain.
Can you tell us about the song you wrote called “Fragments,” which appeared on the documentary?
Sure! That song was written on the trip. A lot of the ideas from my new album (All the Light Above it Too) were born on the trip. We also tried to include thoughts and ideas from the trip in the soundtrack to the film. That’s mostly instrumental, but for “Fragments” I wanted the lyrics to bring in some of the issues, without making it feel like a public service announcement.
We were just talking about the rate of fragmentation, and that’s where the idea of fragments came from. I wanted to let people know it’s a problem.
One theme of the documentary is that it is tough to find striking visuals that demonstrate the scope of the micro-plastics problem. One of the lyrics in your song is “why can’t we relate?” Is that where it came from?
Yeah that was the idea. And that applies to a deeper level than just plastics. It’s about most environmental issues. For instance, most of us acknowledge now that we’re contributing to climate change, yet it’s hard in our day-to-day lives to make the changes that are necessary.
How do you feel about the future?
I feel hopeful. We’ve been touring and working with nonprofit groups for a long time and I feel like I’ve seen a shift in participation. More youth are getting involved. It’s a hip thing and it’s going in the right direction. (See: First of its kind map shows the extent of plastic pollution.)
Going back to how people relate, why do you relate? What gives you your motivation?
It’s a learning process for me like it is for everybody else. I always try to make sure I’m pointing the finger back at myself when I’m singing these songs. And why I’m interested in these things has a lot to do with being a surfer.
We surfers are sort of the canaries in the coal mine with ocean issues. We’re out there every day and we see the difference. We see when friends get sick because of the runoff coming out of a river, which might tie to a farm upstream using pesticides.
We say we protect the things we love and I love the ocean and I love nature, so it’s my turn. And I’m a dad. So that’s how I relate.
How has being a father influenced how you perceive environmental threats?
I think being an uncle first did that for me. After that we started our Kokua Hawaii Foundation, in which we do environmental education in schools in Hawaii. We do farm-to-school programs, plastic-free programs, recycling, and field trips out into nature. I would look at [the next generation] and think about not only the world they’re going to inherit, but also, what could I do with them that was fun?
That’s what I like about environmental education. You get to work with kids in the garden, showing them how much fun it is to grow food, or have amazing moments out in nature discovering things. You don’t feel like you’re learning, but you’re learning more than ever. Being a father has pushed me in that direction even more.
Did growing up in Hawaii influence the way you perceive the environment now? Did your parents recycle?
Hawaii was a different place back then. It’s developed quite a bit since I was a kid. My dad would never have called himself an environmentalist, but he was the kind of guy who would never get new stuff, he would just always fix the old stuff. It was more about questioning your consumption. It was kind of a Zen life growing up. My favourite moments with my dad and mom were camping, out in nature with the family. You get older and you want to preserve that.
Do you think changes need to be driven from the bottom up or top down?
I think both bottom-up and top-down solutions are so important, and really have to happen at the same time. There’s important work to be done on pushing for policy change. And then there is the side making sure people really want those changes.
Take the ban on plastic microbeads [passed in the U.S. in 2015]. People had to educate the public on what microbeads are and why you don’t want them in your face products. You need warriors everywhere.
What can people who are inspired by your music or documentary do to help?
On plastics, there are always little changes we can make in our lives. For food and other products, we can look for options that aren’t packaged as heavily. This is becoming mainstream, but also think about taking plastic bags at stores. I made the commitment to never use a [single-use] bag.
Don’t use single-use plastic water bottles, get a reusable one. Straws are kind of sneaky, you really have to be proactive on them. But that can make a bigger difference than people realize. Sometimes it’s just a tipping point: if enough people ask a restaurant to stop giving them out then eventually they’ll decide to drop straws all together, or at least only provide them upon request. Other restaurants will take notice.
It’s cool to see how my 13-year-old is way more hip to this stuff than I am. He has his own reusable bamboo utensil set and reusable bottle that he uses at school every day. So when we travel he’s better at using them, because it’s always been his way of life. (Read: To save the oceans, should you give up on glitter?)
Last question, what do you think people don’t know about you that might surprise them?
Anything that they don’t know I’m probably happy that they don’t, and I’m not going to share it. (Laughter) I’ve been always trying to balance sharing enough of my life to keep this thing rolling, because I love to get to share music. All the things I put in a song are what I want to share. We just did this interview and I try to share a few more things, but I try to keep some things sacred. I’m trying my best.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Lead Image: Jack Johnson performs in Monterey, California. The musician recently wrote a song, "Fragments," inspired by the ocean plastic problem. PHOTOGRAPH BY C FLANIGAN, WIREIMAGE/GETTY