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Thicker Than Water: Alumna Erica Cirino Seeks Solutions to the Plastic Crisis

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Stony Brook alumna Erica Cirino working at the Safina Center. Photos by John Griffin.

From a very early age, Erica Cirino ’14, ’15 has felt a strong connection to nature.

“Nature was my refuge,” said Cirino, who grew up in Huntington, NY, near Caumsett State Park. “There was a wildlife hospital there, so when I was 15 and needed to fulfill community service hours, I went to the park and asked if I could work with wildlife and rehabilitation.”

That volunteering opportunity led to a paid position and later, a license as a New York state wildlife rehabilitator.

“I loved it so much, but it was very hard work, not only physically and mentally, but also emotionally,” she said. “I witnessed so much death and sadness, and I became very aware of the impacts that humans were having on wildlife. Most animals that came into our care were there because people had done something that harmed them, either intentionally or unintentionally. People can be terrible for various reasons, and our prolific use of plastic is one of those reasons.”

She saw birds with fishing line wrapped around their wings, animals with fishing lures down their throats, and other wildlife entangled in balloon strings.

“I realized that plastic was a terrible problem,” she said. “I saw it in increasing amounts in nature and I was aware of it, but it wasn’t apparent to me why this was happening.”

After years of working with and writing about wildlife, Cirino investigates how plastic has become a global threat in her first book, Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis, which was published on October 7 (Island Press). Cirino worked on the book for the better part of five years, including spending three years conducting research in Copenhagen, Denmark.

In it, Cirino takes readers on an international journey to meet the scientists and activists telling the story of the plastic crisis and actively seeking solutions. She discusses how plastic pollution threatens wildlife and human health, and explores the deeper environmental injustices plastic’s production and disposal forces on communities of color.

“I’m grateful to the people who shared their stories with me while I was researching my book because some of it’s really ugly,” she said. “Plastic is a scourge. It’s an amazing material, but look how it’s been weaponized against society. I dove in innocently and now I can’t stop swimming because there are so many nuances and layers, and it’s a crisis that I believe we can fundamentally address.”

Cirino completed both her undergraduate and graduate studies at Stony Brook, earning a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies in 2014, and a master’s in science communication in 2015. She initially considered wildlife rehabilitation as a career, perhaps becoming a field biologist, but her outlook changed when she took a freshman year course on environmental literature and film taught by Heidi Hutner, an associate professor of English and sustainability.

“Dr. Hutner was the first person to inspire me to take a creative approach to communicating what I felt and what I observed,” she said.

Hutner also introduced her to Carl Safina, an endowed professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, which opened some critical doors.

“He takes a literary approach to discussing the fundamental ways we could change in order to benefit wildlife and the planet,” she said. “I wanted to put my love of writing to use. My whole mission was to write a book about plastic.”

“Erica did what I thought was impossible,” said Safina. “Right out of school, she started making a living as a writer. She’s relentless and almost shockingly efficient. Her book on plastic opened my eyes to implications I had not even thought about.”

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After graduating, Cirino went to work for the Safina Center to manage its outreach campaigns and media. She also began writing professionally. “I started freelance writing because I’m a very restless person and I believe in seeing things for myself,” she said. “I just have to go and figure it out. There’s a Jacques Cousteau quote, ‘We must go and see for ourselves,’  that speaks volumes to me.”

Cirino reported on various stories, including the persecution of endangered Mexican gray wolves and failure to protect endangered killer whales in the Salish Sea, before returning her sights to plastic.

“We’ve been kind of brainwashed by the corporations that make money off of our ignorance of plastic, literally,” she said. “For them, plastic is the perfect consumable; people just throw it away so they have to keep buying more and more, it makes corporations huge amounts of money, and for the most part consumers don’t think about any of this.”

In 2016, Safina was invited to go sailing on a research trip with Chris Jordan, an internationally known artist whose works depict mass consumption and plastic pollution, including a well-known photograph depicting an albatross cut open to reveal plastic inside its body. Safina was unable to go because of prior commitments, so Cirino was offered the opportunity in his place.

It proved to be a life-changing trip.

“I went on a boat with Jordan and seven Danish researchers,” she said. “It was the simplest possible boat you could imagine. We didn’t have a working refrigerator, shower or even a toilet. We had to eat food out of cans and bags.”

On that journey, the group conducted some of the earliest research in the Pacific that explored below the ocean’s surface.

“Even as late as 2016, it was not well-known that plastic completely permeates the oceans,” said Cirino. “It was unbelievable to see what the garbage patch actually looks like.”

The group was on the boat for 24 days, traveling more than 3,000 nautical miles from Los Angeles, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii, with no electronics except for the emergency satellite phone. No TV, no cell service — no distractions. “It was literally the fundamentals of living,” Cirino said. “I saw what really mattered, and that was the message I wanted to come across in my writing and in my book. What do we need to live? What can we live without?”

In the end, Cirino is trying to do all she can to support a healthy planet. Nothing illustrates her unflinching dedication to the cause more than her current undertaking — building a sustainable house in Connecticut that uses absolutely no plastic.

“It’s quite a challenge, but I want to walk the walk if I talk the talk,” she said. “I don’t want to be in the same place years from now; I want to be more knowledgeable, more empathetic and more understanding, hopefully in a world that has also gone through its own metamorphosis and is more accountable. There’s a lot of reporting about division, but I’ve worked with a lot of people that care, too, and that has given me hope.”

— Robert Emproto

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