Dr. Sylvia Earle, the first person to walk across the seafloor at crushing depths, sat with me for an hour to have her face and hands cast. In her first dives in the 1960’s the seafloor was an unfamiliar frontier, and it still is in so many ecological ways, but the presence of sunken plastic waste is ubiquitous on the seafloor now. There are white plastic cups next to Titanic debris. This cast of Dr. Earle is made from recycled PET plastic waste that was collected and shredded into what recyclers call “flake”.
In 1997 Charles Moore sailed to Hawaii and discovered an ocean covered with multi-colored plastic confetti, the region later called “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. In 2005 and 2008 I sailed with Charlie into the North Pacific to study plastic pollution, reserving some plastic particles to make this mask. As you can see, the plastic that makes up the bulk of the garbage patch, is a fragmented, multi-colored, particulate, laden with absorbed toxins, and biofilms of microorganisms. There’s no island of trash out there, but this soup of microplastics is worse. At this size, it becomes a food mimic, and more and more these days we find these microplastics inside the fish we harvest to feed the world.
Dr. Takada studies how microplastic particles in the ocean absorbs toxins, like pesticides, industrial chemicals, and petroleum. He runs a program called International Pellet Watch, whereby any citizen around the world can send him pellets to be analyzed for their toxicity. He now has a global map of the distribution of plastic pollution, which shows us where the most polluted regions of the sea are located.
This mask of Dr. Takada is made from the same plastic pellets he studies. Specifically, these pellets were from the massive spill of over 50 tons of pellets into the ocean near Hong Kong in the summer of 2012.
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Anna is the co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, having sailed over 35,000 miles across all 5 subtropical gyres to research plastic pollution in garbage patches. Anna is also my wife, and together we chose to have a child, but first she had her blood analyzed for stored pollutants. We found PCB’s, the pesticide DDT, and high levels of the flame retardant PBDE. These chemicals are stored in her body and unwillingly transferred to unborn children, of which we do not know the developmental or long-term effects of this lifetime exposure. You could say that people born in the 21st century are chemistry experiments of the 20th century.
In March 2012, just a few months before the birth of our child, Anna let me her body cast her body, which I later filled with melted plastic we had together collected around the world.
I only know Brennan in coffee shops, which is where we see each other when he’s in LA or I’m in Portland. He’s a software engineer that built the 5 Gyres website, designing all the swirling trash you see in the sea. He’s teaches me examples of social entrepreneurship he finds online, and smart design ideas that are game changers. “We can redesign our way out of this, just like we designed our way into it,” he says. The last time he was in LA I made a mold of his profile and cast it with green plastic coffee stir sticks. Thousands of coffee shops multiplied by millions of customers each day, billions of cups of coffee, and if a <1% trickle meets the ocean through waste washing through our watersheds, then it becomes a significant contributor to ocean pollution. A better way exists – a wooden stick, swirl your cup around or use your finger.
Easter Island Washed Ashore
We organized an expedition to Easter Island from Chile, and found a garbage patch between them. Anna and I walked Anakena Beach on the windward side of Easter Island and collected thousands of fragments of plastic pollution, many brown and discolored by the pollutants they absorb as they cross oceans. Anna is pregnant with our child. Just last year she had her blood tested for synthetic chemicals and found DDT, PCBs, PBDE’s and other man-made hydrocarbons in her body, which she can get rid of through birth and breastfeeding. It’s an appalling legacy. This sculpture is that plastic melted into a mold of her.