Spreading environmental awareness by creating plastic animals from the debris that is killing the real ones
That was what a neighbor whispered to the young uncertain Benjamin Braddock in 1967’s “The Graduate.” It was probably good career advice even if it held environmental menace. Since the 1960’s, we’ve manufactured more than a billion tons of all kinds of plastic. It’s become the ubiquitous material of modern consumer society: bottles, cups, jars, containers, food packaging, shopping bags, toys, furniture, plumbing, more and more plastic in more and more applications.
There’s a moment in the new “Finding Dory” movie when the star swims through junk and winds up stuck in a plastic six-pack holder. It’s almost lost in the overwhelm of visual delights, but it’s there to remind us that our behavior makes a big imprint on the natural world, even in a cartoon movie.
Most of the plastic we’ve made is still with us. Most of it does not biodegrade. It might break down into smaller and smaller particles, but the molecules do not become food for other microorganisms and it stays in the environment.
When it’s burned, it releases noxious chemicals. When it’s left in dumps and landfill sites, it becomes a likely source of carcinogenic leaching. When we ship off plastic bottles for recycling, the energy used to do the recycling is a drain on our energy resources – and we still have the plastic. And, oh yes, the manufacture of most plastics requires significant amounts of crude oil.
All of this was prelude to an exhibit a few years ago at the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco. “Washed Ashore” was a collection of colorful sculptures – Henry the Fish, a musical sea star, whale bones – all made of plastic dumped or washed or spilled into the ocean.
The debris was collected on the beaches of coastal Oregon, and shaped into beautiful bittersweet creatures by Angela Haseltine Pozzi, an artist and educator who admits that like most of us she looked past the junk on the beach to admire the sea. But once she looked, she was drawn to the story of ocean waste and the terrible mountains of plastic trash being swept on the currents of massive gyres, continent-sized whirlpools of visible and subsurface contamination.
From a distance, the sculptures were whimsical, charming, magical, inviting. Up close, they were devastating. These were a few artifacts made from some of the debris captured on one short stretch of beach along the coast of one state. It does not take much math to imagine the size of the iceberg if this is just the tip of the tip. There are five enormous gyres of non-biodegradable trash making their deposits on beaches around the world. Chinese plastic trash routinely makes it to the Oregon beaches.
There is work being done on biodegradable plastic, some of it made from starches and other organic material. Consumer demand will drive the industry to move faster, perhaps.
Why was this exhibit at the Marine Mammal Center? Elephant seals, sea lions and other marine animals ingest the trash, get caught in plastic nets and drums and crates, get sick, get injured, and occasionally get rescued by places like the Center.
Here was a place to witness the immediate impact of our wasteful, disposable behavior. What better “bait” than one artist’s inventions to draw us to a seaside hospital where we could take a moment to consider what we are doing to the oceans and their animals. These are the lucky ones: a million birds and more than 100,000 animals die each year from plastic waste in the oceans.
Hardly any statistics were necessary in the company of plastic animals made from the junk that is killing the real ones.