When Stiv Wilson was a sophomore at the University of Montana, he and his friends would get drunk on Carlo Rossi wine and steal light bulbs off porches at night.
The thefts weren’t random. Wilson and crew would try to create simple geometric shapes out of the swaths of darkness they left behind across Missoula. Afterward they would climb a hill at the edge of campus to view their handiwork.
One night police busted Wilson. The judge was chuckling, Wilson recalls, as he handed down a small fine.
The prank, while mildly criminal, also embraced the kind of creativity, commitment and indifference to authority that mark Wilson’s work today.
“A natural-born ringleader and happy instigator” is how Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy describes Wilson, his longtime friend.
“A rockstar,” declares state Sen. Mark Hass—speaking not of Meloy but of Wilson.
Eighteen years after his Missoula bust, Wilson is on the verge of either a stunning victory or a shattering defeat in a battle he’s been waging for four years. With Hass’ help, he is seeking to ban from Oregon the ubiquitous plastic grocery bags that clog recycling machines, obstruct city sewers and take centuries to decompose. Oregonians use about a billion of them each year.
Wilson began pushing for a ban in 2007 after visiting a remote Oregon beach. He had parked his Vanagon off U.S. 101, picked up his surfboard and hiked for an hour south of Cape Lookout—only to find a stretch of sand littered with plastic lighters, toothbrushes, polyethylene sinks and bottles, some of them with Chinese characters.
Now Wilson has devoted himself full-time to fighting plastic pollution, sailing 14,000 nautical miles in the past year to document the stain of plastic on Earth’s oceans.
“We’re not trying to rid the world of plastic,” Wilson says. “If I go to the hospital or want a tattoo, I sure as hell want the stuff. But so much of it lasts forever and is used for seconds. That’s what we’re trying to prevent.”
If Hass’ bill passes, it would arguably be the most groundbreaking piece of environmental legislation in Oregon since the state’s pioneering 1971 bottle bill. The proposed ban is being closely watched by lobbyists and activists across the nation.
The bag ban has bipartisan support and is backed by grocers, but its fate is far from certain. The bill is currently tied up in a committee. Hass, a Democrat from suburban Washington County, puts the bill’s chance of passing the Legislature at 50 percent.
If it succeeds, the victory will largely be due to Wilson’s relentless grassroots advocacy. But if it fails, the loss can also be blamed—at least in part—on recently debunked claims about a Texas-sized garbage patch that Wilson and his fellow activists have played a part in propagating.
Wilson’s story proves how much can be accomplished—especially in a state like Oregon—through sheer passion and commitment to a cause. But it’s also a cautionary tale of how idealism can lead to overreach and exaggeration that can threaten even the most admirable of goals.
Wilson grew up in Minneapolis with staunch Republican parents—his mother was the head of an anti-abortion group. His given name is Stephen, but a childhood friend dubbed him Stiv (pronounced like “give”). The name stuck.
At the University of Montana, Wilson would take his friends sailing around Flathead Lake in a 19-foot wooden sloop.
“Stiv was like the Great Gatsby of Missoula, Montana, though I tend to think he was as broke as the rest of us,” Meloy recalls. “He had that boat, and he lived by himself in a nice apartment with two big leather chairs, and he had a car—a Saab—which he would not neglect to remind you was designed by Swedish aeronautic engineers or some such shit.”
Wilson moved to Portland with Meloy and other friends in 1998. They lived in a 2,000-square-foot studio space off Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The goal, says Meloy: to start an art collective.
“It never really happened, but ideas about it were discussed at great length over beers at the Shanghai Tunnel, and it was always Stiv who presided,” Meloy recalls. “You don’t need to know Stiv for very long until you’re suddenly roped into doing something ridiculous for him. And you’re happy to do it.”
While Meloy pursued music, Wilson tried writing. He staged a play, To Have and Have Had Hadley, and cranked out three novels—“all of which suck,” Wilson observes. Money came from freelance writing (he was an occasional food critic for WW) and a job as a sous chef at the now-defunct Tuscany Grill.
In 2006 Wilson joined Wend, a Portland-based adventure magazine founded by his friend, Ian Marshall. Marshall made Wilson editor-in-chief, but he says Wilson’s personality alienated some members of the publication’s small staff.
“He’s very committed and very opinionated,” Marshall says, “which half the people adore and half the people hate.”
The stress of working at Wend, Wilson says, was partly responsible for busting up his marriage to Molly Kramer, a college sweetheart who now works for the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. Five years after they wed, the couple split in 2010.
Today, Wilson lives in a one-bedroom Craftsman home in the Woodstock neighborhood with a roommate and Pork Chop, an 8-year-old Dalmatian-Labrador-Australian shepherd mix. The roommate has the bedroom, and Wilson crashes in the basement. Between freelancing and a full-time job with an environmental nonprofit, he pulls in a modest salary.
His house is cluttered with books (recent reads include The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn and The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins). On a Tuesday afternoon last month the fridge held a bachelor’s collection of assorted condiments, a carton of organic eggs and a plate of leftover sausages from Otto’s (preferred by Wilson because they wrap food in wax paper, not plastic).
Out front is Wilson’s Volkswagen Vanagon, with a Westfalia pop-up roof and a bumper sticker that says “Nature Bats Last.”
Marshall taught Wilson to surf—his gangly limbs and tall frame made him a powerful paddler, and he excelled at the sport. Wilson joined the Portland chapter of Surfrider, a conservation group for surfers. It was his first foray into environmental activism.
After encountering the plastic garbage at the remote beach surfers know as Boy Scout Camp, Wilson made the plastics issue his own. And his lifestyle began to morph.
At restaurants, he began refusing carry-out food if it came in plastic boxes. He stopped using disposable razors. Plastic straws became verboten. And he started using paper instead of plastic bags to pick up after Pork Chop.
“Which is hardcore, I’ll tell you what,” Wilson deadpans.
It’s to the point now where Wilson refuses to wash his hair because shampoo comes in plastic bottles.
“What’s really funny is that a lot of my friends are afraid to use plastic around me,” he says. “I’m not a Nazi. I realize we live in the world.”
Wilson came to believe that one major culprit could be easily eliminated—the plastic grocery bag.
“For me, it’s the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “It’s not that difficult of a behavior to change. All the places that have done it [see context, below], there have not been riots in the streets.”
Wilson took the idea to Surfrider, and the group signed on to push for a city-wide ban in Portland. In early 2009, Wilson approached the office of newly elected Mayor Sam Adams, still smarting from the Beau Breedlove scandal.
Adams’ staff told Wilson the mayor was enthusiastic. But by spring 2010, Wilson says, he was growing frustrated with the lack of progress at City Hall.
So Wilson rallied other environmentalists to the cause. He and other volunteers launched a petition and letter-writing campaign, and they filled City Council chambers with supporters of a ban—including the spectacle of several people dressed as plastic-bag monsters.
Adams had enough votes on the Council. But at the last moment, Hass—the state senator from Washington County—persuaded Adams to hold off so Hass could seek a statewide ban. Adams’ ordinance became a nonbinding resolution. It was a delay—perhaps ultimately, a defeat—snatched from certain victory.
But Wilson had already entered a wider battlefield in the fight against plastics pollution.
In early 2010, a nonprofit called the 5 Gyres Institute invited Wilson to sail on a 72-foot steel-hulled cutter from the Virgin Islands to the Azores to see how much plastic is bobbing in the North Atlantic Gyre—an enormous, swirling mass of water set in motion by currents and prevailing winds.
The inspiration came from a similar voyage in 1997 by a retired furniture refurbisher named Charles Moore who sailed across the North Pacific Gyre and reported seeing widespread plastic debris.
“I couldn’t come on deck without seeing plastic waste,” Moore told WW. “It impressed me to the point where I thought, ‘I have to measure this.’”
Moore launched a publicity blitz to draw attention to the problem. In interviews with reporters, he described plastic littered across an area the size of the United States. Other scientists jumped on board, describing the gyre as an area twice the size of Texas. As Moore and his supporters tell it, it was the media that twisted those statements into reports of an enormous, floating island of plastic.
No one today seems able to pinpoint where the claim was first made. But the story was repeated in the mainstream press until it became an accepted fact.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2007 on a “heap of debris floating in the Pacific that’s twice the size of Texas.” In a story published Nov. 28, 2009, The Oregonian called it “a flotilla of plastic and debris in the Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas.” Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire program to the issue. Sitting at a table stacked with jars of plastic waste, Oprah called the Pacific garbage patch “the most shocking thing I have seen.”
Wilson says his first voyage with 5 Gyres confirmed that a similar problem exists on the opposite side of the globe, with plastic infesting the North Atlantic Gyre the same as in the North Pacific. In spring of last year he penned a long article for Wend entitled “Greetings from the North Atlantic Garbage Patch.”
“It is often mistakenly referred to as a floating island the size of Texas or America—almost giving the impression that you could tie your boat up and live there quite comfortably for a while. But these descriptions, though media sexy, are a misnomer,” Wilson wrote.
He continued: “Try to think of the plastic in the ocean as the lava in a lava lamp. If you could accumulate it all in one place, like the lava at the bottom of the lamp when you turn it off, the debris would become a mass about double the size of Texas.”
Wilson quit his job at Wend and became communications director for 5 Gyres, which counts world-renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben on its board of advisers. Wilson serves as the organization’s public face, prolific blogger and video producer.
“We found fish living in buckets, we found lots of shotgun shells, we found rollerblade wheels,” Wilson says. “The ocean is so unbelievably huge, and everywhere you look, you find plastic. When I had the revelation of that type of scale, that’s when I realized I had to work on this full-time.”
In January of this year, Wilson was on another excursion checking on the South Atlantic Gyre with 5 Gyres (there are five major oceanic gyres across the planet, hence the name). Again, Wilson and the crew documented widespread plastic pollution, as seen in videos shot by Wilson (watch them at wweek.com).
While Wilson was on that trip at sea, there was trouble back on land.
On Jan. 14, Oregon State University sent out a thunderbolt of a press release. Angelicque “Angel” White, an assistant professor of oceanography at the Corvallis campus, called bullshit on the longstanding claim that the North Pacific garbage patch is twice the size of Texas.
“There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is troubling, but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists,” White wrote. She called the claim “grossly exaggerated” and said it threatens to “drive a wedge between the public and the scientific community.”
Taking the highest amount of plastic ever reported at sea in previously published research, White calculated that if you pushed all of the plastic in the North Pacific together, it would actually be less than 1 percent the size of Texas.
In other words, somewhere between the size of Rhode Island and Delaware.
White’s findings rocketed around the globe, with papers that had once trumpeted the Texas claim (including The Oregonian) rushing to print stories debunking a legend they had helped propagate.
White sailed the North Pacific on a research trip in 2008 and saw for herself there was no plastic island. She tells WW she was sick of hearing inaccurate claims—including, she says, from Adams when he was pushing for the bag ban in Portland.
“It’s not just one source,” White tells WW. “It’s just pervasive.”
It wasn’t only reporters and politicians who had inflated the myth. Wilson and other environmentalists were also responsible. And some continue to perpetuate what White calls “hyperbole.”
Even after White’s work gained widespread circulation, the website for Environment Oregon for weeks prominently displayed the “twice the size of Texas” claim. The Greenpeace website still calls it “the size of Texas.”
Asked repeatedly by WW whether making that claim hurts the conservation movement’s credibility—as White maintains—Environment Oregon’s Dave Mathews insists it does not.
“We recognize that there is a scientific debate,” Mathews says. “Our fundamental message is still that there’s way too much trash.”
Keiller MacDuff, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace, defends the wording and says it makes the problem “meaningful” to the public. “They just mean that it’s really freaking big,” MacDuff says.
For his part, Wilson maintains the exaggeration was mostly the work of the media. Activists, he concedes, were guilty of failing to correcting the mistake.
“How do I characterize this to save a little face here?” Wilson says. “My thinking has changed on this in a year’s time. I would never write that they would be twice the size of Texas today.”
Wilson insists there’s not enough data for White or anyone else to make authoritative claims about how much plastic is in the ocean. A key goal of the 5 Gyres expeditions, he says, is to gather more information and establish a baseline.
But now that the Texas-sized claim has been debunked, it threatens to sink Wilson’s long-held dream of banning plastic bags.
“That’s one of a dozen things that the plastics industry has seized upon to confuse Oregonians on this issue,” says Hass. “It’s very difficult when you’ve got an expensive, high-profile disinformation campaign to deal with.”
At a hearing last month in front of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, an employee for a large plastic-bag manufacturer called Hass’ proposed bag ban a seriously misguided effort. One of his main arguments was White’s release about the size of the Pacific garbage patch.
“The patch is hyperbole and an exaggeration that drives a wedge between public and scientific communities,” said Roger Vingelen, a Portland employee of Hilex Poly, pulling his words straight from the White’s press release.
Other opponents have seized on White’s work to argue against the ban, including the editorial board at the Salem Statesman-Journal.
Of course, the issue is a red herring—plastic bags wouldn’t be found on the ocean’s surface because they sink. Instead, they’ve been reported to litter the seabed and foul anchors.
“It shouldn’t be part of the debate at all,” White herself says.
A central criticism of environmentalism—one voiced by conservationists and skeptics alike—is its seeming addiction to doomsday scenarios. A 1995 book by Gregg Easterbrook, a journalist sympathetic to environmentalists, argued that the movement damages itself by refusing to acknowledge its own success.
Wilson may be partly responsible for helping spread an exaggeration that could help defeat the bag ban. But he also recently saved the bill from a premature death.
Last month, Hass says he received an attractive offer from Hilex Poly. The company, he says, promised to build a recycling center in Oregon, creating jobs in a state starving for work. The tradeoff? Hass had to kill his bill and also pass a law preventing local bans. (Hilex Poly disputes that version.)
Torn by the offer, Hass phoned Wilson, who took the call on his living-room couch. Within minutes, Wilson had persuaded Hass to throw the offer back in the company’s face.
“He just sort of brought me back to reality,” Hass says. “It clearly helped convince me that these guys were not playing in a straightforward way. They were just trying to buy their way in.”
Minutes after hanging up the phone with Wilson on Feb. 24, Hass dashed off a strongly worded letter to the company’s president and CEO, Stanley Bikulege.
“Your offer goes against the grain of everything that makes Oregon special,” Hass wrote. “Mr. Bikulege, this is not how we do business. Oregon is not for sale.”
FACT: If Senate Bill 536 passes, Oregon would be the first state in the nation to ban plastic grocery bags. A statewide ban failed to pass in the California Legislature last year. Local bans are in effect in San Francisco and Los Angeles County as well as smaller cities in Florida and North Carolina. The nations of Italy, South Africa, Bangladesh and Thailand have bans.
Paper Or Plastic?
WW tested both kinds of bags for strength—holding beer, of course. Watch the results: