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  • Writer's pictureJago Bayley

Three rowers, three thousand miles and 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic: An interview with HODL

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

Matt Siely, Cutu Serruys, and Luca Feser are rowers for Team HODL (Hold On for Dear Life). On the 12th of June, they will embark on a 60-day, 2800-mile (4800km) row from Monterey, California, to Nawiliwili Bay on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, all while raising funds and awareness for The Ocean Cleanup. This not-for-profit organization is striving to remove 90% of floating ocean plastic by 2040. In the process, the trio will row alongside the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), one of the world's five oceanic garbage patches and the site of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. To put that into perspective, that's 250 pieces of plastic for every human being on the planet. And this only accounts for the plastic floating on the surface in one garbage patch.

At the beginning of May, we sat down with Luca, who had the initial idea for the row. He said that a combination of factors gave rise to the project. Instead of looking for the challenge first, Luca has been following the Ocean Cleanup for "quite a while now." The group was motivated to contribute to the cause, although they were unsure how at first. Upon realizing that the organization did work in the Pacific, Luca started considering whether they could do a challenge to cross it. Rowing made more sense than sailing, so they decided to row from California to Hawaii. Crossing the entire ocean is "a completely different beast" and beyond the scope of people doing ocean rowing for the first time. Besides an enthusiasm for the work of Ocean Cleanup, Luca also cited a strong desire to be part of a team again, a team that "constantly thinks about performance," as a key motivator to take on the challenge.

The Ocean Cleanup's ultimate goal is to put themselves out of business. This objective really resonates with Luca, who sees the organization as very "actionable" and "real," one that is "building the tools" to combat ocean plastic pollution. Such tools mainly include floating barriers that are towed by vessels through areas of the ocean concentrated with plastics to capture floating debris and river-intercepting barriers to halt the flow of plastics into the ocean. Although Luca acknowledges the notable fossil fuel consumption of these vessels, he affirmed that when you look at the scale of the problem, the positive externalities "outweigh" the negatives.

Ocean plastic pollution is a global issue. According to Ocean Cleanup, 0.5% of the 400 million metric tonnes of plastic produced globally enters the ocean each year, due to incorrect disposal practices that cause plastic to enter waterways, transferring plastics to the coast. Once in the ocean, plastics are moved around by gyres, which are multi-directional ocean currents that turn clockwise (North of the equator) or counterclockwise (South of the equator). It is this circular motion that draws plastics towards the center of the gyre, where they become suspended in the currents. Over time, this agglomeration of plastics has led to the formation of five global garbage patches that span the world's major oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest of the five, has a surface area approximately three times that of France, although, in reality, it is made up of several groups of plastic instead of looking like its own country.

The overwhelming source of oceanic plastic in the GPGP is the fishing industry, which represents around 80% of the debris. In addition, plastic fishing equipment is made of some of the most resistant plastics found in the ocean. The impact of this ocean plastic on wildlife is severe marine animals such a turtles can mistake plastics for food, and microplastics may be consumed by smaller organisms, like phytoplankton, which leads to bioaccumulation of plastics in the food chain, eventually affecting humans.

At the surface of the GPGP, there is 180x more plastic than food, which highlights the extent of the problem for organisms who need to feed in this zone. When we consider that some of this plastic reaches the deep ocean, either by sinking or ingestion by organisms, this represents both a strength and a limitation of The Ocean Cleanup.

On the one hand, the organization’s current technology and objectives only allow the removal of surface ocean plastic. However, as Luca points out, by removing the larger debris we can “stop microplastics being formed”. When coupled with river interception and sufficient scaling up, the prevalence of plastics and microplastics in the GPGP and other patches could be significantly reduced.

Preparing the row has been a huge logistical effort – the team have had to secure sufficient sponsorship to raise the £150,000 necessary to get to the start line, most of which came from organisations that strongly back the underlying message of sustainability and net-zero such as eEnergy, one of HODLs key sponsors. For Luca, the training aspect is actually the “easier part” of the equation, and managing the balance between being a rower, project lead and social media manager. He has had to stop working over the last 6 months because preparation was taking up all of his time.

Supporting the core trio of rowers, there are also a further four team members, referred to as “The Engine”, who are performing social media, rowing coaching and psychology roles. Rowing on and off for two hours shifts, every day, for 60 days clearly wasn’t enough: the crew also intend to collect data and raise awareness of plastic pollution through social media. Using the Global Citizen app, which Luca highly recommends to anyone interested in combatting plastic pollution, the team can take photos of rubbish they see during the row and upload it, enabling the movement of rubbish in the oceans to be tracked – this is highly useful to organisations fighting ocean plastic pollution since ocean the debris can be hard to locate using satellites, especially since a great deal is very small. Luca suggested that their project may lead to increased public visibility of the organisation, which could help it to secure a partnership with one of HODL’s sponsors or a company further afield – such agreements are crucial to maintaining The Ocean Cleanup’s work.

Not everyone can row across half of the Pacific in 60 days, so we asked Luca for other ways that young people act positively to address ocean plastic pollution. On a day-day basis, simple actions like using a reusable water bottle and buying a reusable handsoap bottle (which you can supply with sachets) are affordable options which gradually help to “change consumer habits” and thus the disrupt the more polluting products which sell often best.

Recognising that ocean plastic pollution has often been a neglected issue in the media, often because we don’t have a personal, emotional connection to it like we might with other charities, Luca emphasized how engaging your local community and personal networks can constitute an effective form of activism.

By holding in person events with sponsors, friends and family, people have been able to “dig deep” into and “own” the plastic pollution problem, which has led to some local companies adopting plastic policies in the workplace. Luca said that one company is now doing an annual beach clean, taking place on a normal pay day. This has led Luca to suggest that “sometimes we should start small and start in our community”. Team HODL are looking to build a “blueprint” for rowing across the Pacific, whilst making a positive contribution to the efforts of The Ocean Cleanup.

Although the plastic pollution problem is a large one, this organisation is taking important first steps in tackling it. Be sure to follow Team HODL on Instagram and Luca Feser on LinkedIn for updates about the row and the actions of Ocean Cleanup.

You can also donate to the charity on their website, We hope to speak to Luca again in September to discuss the row and its impact!

Good luck Team HODL!


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