In certain areas of the North Pacific garbage patch alone, plastic bits have been found to outnumber vital zooplankton six to one (at a rate of 1.9 million pulverized plastic bits per square mile). Sadly, even North Atlantic water samples have yielded as many as 520,000 pulverized plastic bits per square mile, giving credence to the belief that 60-80% of our global marine debris is plastic-based.While somewhat difficult to fathom, the majority of this pervasive waste begins on land before migrating out to sea via streams, rivers, coastal areas and sewers. It is then caught up amid powerful ocean currents that trap and pulverize the material into micro-bits, resulting in a chunky plasticized soup that is not only impossibly challenging to clean up, but also a toxic eco-system time bomb thanks to the existence of Bisphenol A and other persistent organic pollutants that get passed through the food chain back into, well, humans. It’s no surprise that eco-artists around the world have strived to transform this environmental pox into new incarnations that possess strange yet undeniably emotive beauty. Rather than plunge into the depths for their artistic wares, however, they are more likely to pluck eyesores such as ubiquitous plastic water bottles, forgotten children’s toys and throwaway fashion accessories from coastal areas before working their creative magic on them. Perhaps Chris Jordan is the ultimate overachiever with his symbolic and visually arresting masterpiece — a mosaic ode to Hokusai’s iconic Great Wave Off Kanagawa created with 2.4 million pieces of actual Pacific Garbage Patch plastic waste. Not to be outdone, the artist collective known as Plastic Century demonstrated how incredibly all-encompassing plastic has become in our ecosystem by setting up four water coolers filled to the gills (pun intended) with garden-variety plastic trash. As far back as 1999, Judith and Richard Lang began collecting odd bits of post-consumer ocean debris while exploring a remote section of Northern California’s Point Reyes National Seashore. The self-confessed beach-combing geeks recall seeing black seaweed clusters tangled with “a thick confetti of plastic bits and chunks. Tiny flecks of white and blue and pink, big pastel nuggets, drink bottles and the strew of their lids. Soccer ball-size fishing floats (some with the net attached) and gobs of plastic line and rope of all sizes” twisted into a “stupendous mess.” Certain pieces of waste stood out to them far more than others — things like disposable lighters, BB shotgun shell containers, combs, discarded Kraft Handi-Snack cheese spreaders, Asian shampoo bottles, milk jug caps — you know, the usual suspects. In one year, they ultimately collected well over 600 disposable lighters, and that was just the beginning. The Langs then made a habit of sorting, washing and color-categorizing all of their finds so that they could then make a real visual impact with their collaborative works of art. Creating carefully arranged collections of similarly themed and/or pigmented objects, perhaps their creations are so visually arresting because they reflect our chronically careless regard for the environment. It boggles the mind to see the pervasive scope of our plastic debris playing out in their three-dimensional works of art, whether with their 1980 Chevy pickup truck completely carpeted with white plastic waste (plucked by hand from Point Reyes) or their candy-colored, textural furniture display boasting an impossible number of plastic castaways. Even their simple plastic waste studies, in which similar items are photographed on plain white backdrops, evoke natural questions such as, “How is it possible that so many people chuck hair combs, or yellow squeezable lemon juice containers, or bottleneck pull strips?” The most enthusiastic consumer is reminded that seemingly miniscule plastic items never really go away, and perhaps through a bit of self-reflection, are even inspired to re-evaluate their own personal contribution to the plastic waste vortex. All in a day’s work for the Langs.
With four confirmed plastic pollution zones churning around within the world’s seas — including vast deposits in the North Pacific Ocean gyre, North Atlantic gyre, South Atlantic gyre and Indian Ocean — the ratio of manmade waste to marine life has become severely out of whack.