The Plastic Island That Isn’t There: How Absences Matter for Science and the Ocean
The mainstream media consensus seems irrefutable: there is an island of plastic waste floating in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean. But despite agreement on its location and a proliferation of claims about its size, no one can find it; not on Google Earth, not after weeks at sea. Marine scientists dismiss the trash island as misleading and inaccurate, but they cannot explain why it endures in the public imagination. This talk draws on science and technology studies to move beyond questions of accuracy to explore how the trash island became and remains so powerful. In this talk, we will travel on a boat through the garbage patch, meet scientists, activists and even an architect, as the missing island variously appears as myth, plastic ‘soup’ and an island-to-be. I will argue that the physical form plastic pollution takes at sea is inextricably connected to whether and how people care about it. Even missing things are powerful actors that shape both knowledge of global environmental crises, and the kinds of action that become possible in return.
Almost a year to the day since my first visit, I find myself headed back to Kamilo, the famously plastic-covered ‘junk’ beach on the Big Island, Hawaii. It’s just after 6am, and I am bleary-eyed and over caffeinated, having just arrived on a date-line crossing flight from Tokyo the day before. I’ve signed up as a volunteer helping with a research project looking at the rate plastic is accumulating on the shore and have been promised a long day of hard labor shoveling sand. For the moment though, I’m using all my strength to keep my head and the truck roof from colliding as we bounce along the incredibly rough ‘road’ crossing the jagged expanse of a’a lava along the shore.
I am very curious to see how the beach has been changing, as Japan tsunami marine debris began reaching Hawaii’s shores just after my last visit. At the same time, I’ve noticed that news coverage featuring Kamilo tends to gloss over the history of plastic accumulating here, presenting images of large amounts of disaster debris that to me, just look like the beach as ‘usual.’ In any case, I am expecting to see more, not less plastic. But arriving at the beach, I can’t help but notice that Kamilo appears much cleaner than last year. I didn’t quite manage to take a photo from exactly the same angle, but you can see how the row of debris along the high tide line contains noticeably more wood and coconuts than synthetics. You still can’t walk or look anywhere without seeing plastic, but there seem to be far fewer consumer objects like dustpans, umbrella handles, and shampoo bottles, and even the sand seems less synthetic.
So if there’s supposed to be more debris arriving then why does the beach look cleaner? For starters, the Hawaii Wildlife Fund has been at Kamilo in full force, ramping up the number of cleanups both large and small over the past year. Thanks to their hard work, a lot of the most visible pieces have been picked up. But what about the microplastics, the bits that seemed to outnumber grains of sand, that were piled up several feet deep in places among the rocks? Most of them are still here, but they have shifted position. A storm in January drove all kinds of pieces, especially the small stuff, up into the bright green naupaka plants that line the shore, just out of reach of more usual tides. Though this keeps bits from being washed back out to sea, it also ensures that they are even more impossible to pick up, all mixed up with wood and soil and roots.
But cleaner looking is not clean, and plastic problems have not gone away. The plastic here has just become more like plastic in the ocean: less visible and less photogenic. I have to gather objects with my photos, like nets are used to concentrate plastics spread out across the surface of the sea. Picking up a white Japanese brand Lotte bottle that used to contain Xylotol gum (and still holds a foil packet of silica preservatives), I can’t help but think of how this object ended up in the sea especially once given the coating of coral-like bryzoa characteristic of open-ocean crossing. While such a discovery last year would simply have been evidence of distance travelled, this time I wonder about the conditions of loss and the stories these objects could tell.
But science calls, and there’s little time for leisurely beachcombing. In practice, measuring the rate of accumulation involves sifting the top 15 centimeters (6 inches) of sand from five sizeable plots. At first sifting is a lot like playing in a giant sandbox, watching plastic bits and rocks get caught in the screens, dumping screen contents in buckets of water to see what floats. But as the day goes on and the tide comes in, the sand gets heavier and my arms turn to jelly.
There’s little time to examine the plastics caught in the grid with so much sand to move. But one item is impossible to miss: a big yellow float mysteriously centered right in the middle of plot 3. After figuring out that the float’s position is a joke (and need not be brought back to the lab weighed as evidence of accumulation), we notice that it reads “MADE IN JAPAN” in big block letters. A moment of unorganized silence ensures as the possible implications sink in.
Though reported to NOAA, the float will never be confirmed as of tsunami origins. Despite all the news coverage, not a single item washed up on Kamilo has definitively been traced to the Japan tsunami. NOAA, it seems, is being rather stringent with the criteria: a found object must have identifiable markers like a person, company or place’s name; said entity must then be contact and asked to confirm that it is likely that they lost the item in question on March 11, 2011. While this makes sense in terms of scientific objectivity (the floats for example are used by oyster farmers in both Japan and Korea), it is somewhat at odds with common sense understandings of those most familiar with the beach. When three Japanese refrigerators washed up on the beach in close succession, and only one ever seen before at the beach, it doesn’t seem too far to reach to assume the conditions of their origins. But who writes their name on mass produced kitchen appliances?
Had this been my first trip to Kamilo I might have been disappointed by the relative lack of spectacular piles of trash. Not finding what you’re looking for has a tendency to be kind of disappointing, even when the thing you’re looking for is plastic garbage. Just ask anyone that’s gone looking for the ‘trash island.’ But as a return visitor, I find the changes somewhat encouraging if only symbolically. Plastic problems are far from resolved, but should we manage to stop producing so much plastic, there’s hope for reducing the rate of accumulation that we’re busy trying to measure, for cleaning up at least the visible stuff if not all the associated toxins. We are not the only creatures to notice the difference. A very large Hawaiian Monk seal also visits the beach, coming up to rest on the sand. It’s a rare sight as monk seals are endangered because of entanglement with plastic, and only 1200 seals remain.
On a sunny spring morning we walk the Arahama coast near Sendai, the largest city in the Tohoku region that experienced the March 2011 tsunami. Two years and a few days later, yellowed grass stands in cracked concrete outlines of houses, bathroom tiles still recognizable. A team of green-shirted volunteers is hard at work near the river, and in the distance, smoke rises from an incinerator built specifically for disaster debris. A telephone pole lays in the sand near the concrete seawall lining this stretch of beach; remains of a metal roof rest bent and twisted in damaged trees.
I never intended to study tsunami debris or write about disaster. But I began fieldwork following marine debris in spring 2011, and plastic paths have led me across the Pacific to Japan where I am honored to attend a series of tsunami debris forums organized by the Japan Environmental Action Network (JEAN). The events bring beach cleanup coordinators from Hawaii, Alaska and Oregon together with coordinators in Japan and with those closest to the tsunami with the aim of fostering understanding and collaboration across the Pacific. Like the other participants, I have considerable experience looking for plastic on the shore, but today I walk a beach that does not feel like any I have visited before.
The sand is windswept and free of footprints except for our own. Large debris has long since been cleaned up, but bits and fragments are scattered everywhere. Bottle caps. Broken glass. A cup half buried in the sand. Tattered scraps of wood and other building materials. These objects are at once familiar and strange, as mass produced and anonymous as items I have seen on other beaches, yet haunted by the conditions of their loss. Those who have careers cleaning up objects from beaches ask permission before touching anything. At the tide line I pause, staring down the horizon, thinking of California so many thousands of miles away yet connected by ocean currents and all kinds of crossings of people and things.
The communities that lived nearby have constructed a memorial site with Buddhist statue and dark wall inscribed with names of those lost. A slow but steady stream of visitors brings small offerings: bottles of tea, flowers, strings of paper cranes. Small waves break in the distance, and the ocean air is laced with incense. I gaze up at the statue, backlit with a halo of morning sun, and try to imagine the clear blue sky as a wall of black water. At seven meters (23 feet) tall, the statue is the same height as the largest wave that inundated this stretch of the coast. The material record echoes in the surrounding trees, stripped of branches and devoid of greenery to the same height.
As we walk inland, shards of roof tile and dishes crunch in the gravel underfoot. A box of dusty CDs is tucked in the corner of one house’s foundations, a fragment of a teacup, white with yellow flower pattern sits carefully perched on a ledge beside another. I imagine those cleaning up carefully placing these objects where they might be recognized. We approach the local elementary school, a designated community evacuation center. It flooded part way up the second floor and not all those who sought shelter there were able to climb to safety in time. With the school surrounded by water, several hundred people spent a long cold night waiting to be evacuated by helicopter, three at a time. We are shown photos from inside the school, chalkboard lists of those accounted for, classrooms organized by community. The damaged gymnasium is about to be torn down, but the fate of the main building is at the center of a debate common to many other communities. While some people want the building kept as a memorial, others do not want such a tangible reminder. A bright white banner hanging from the third floor reads “thank you! dream hope future.”
At the afternoon forum in Sendia’s busy city center, the guest coordinators give presentations showing the arrival of debris in the US. Many presenters emphasize how marine debris problems far predate and will long outlast tsunami debris. But they also detail local efforts to clean beaches, and the care taken to ensure volunteers treat found objects with respect. A succession of audience members express their gratitude and the hope that items can be brought back to Japan, reunited with their owners. There is a strong sense that these objects still belong to someone, that they are ‘pieces of lives,’ one speaker even comparing them to human remains. Like many people in Japan, they do not want tsunami debris treated as or even called debris. Speaking instead of ‘lost things’ or ‘personal items,’ they separate with words what they hope people cleaning the beaches of Hawaii and the West Coast of North America can separate in practice.
Near the end of the event, a speaker points to a yellow fish crate on a table at the side of the room. Lost in the tsunami, it floated to Alaska where it was identified as tsunami material and brought back to Japan with hopes of finding its owner. Word has just come that the owner of a soccer ball that traveled a similar path has finally been located. Though these anecdotes are uplifting, for many in the audience everyday life still means temporary housing and a continued struggle with uncertain futures. While most land has long been cleared, the government is not allowing residential rebuilding near the shore. Many people do not know when and if ever they can go back to their communities. A hand-painted sign at the beach reads, “losing living from Arahama in Sendai is the same as losing history, culture, or even the same as losing our home.” Here ‘home’ is furusato, a Japanese word that carries the cultural politics of origins, linking local and national, nostalgia and future, lifestyle and landscape. Above, strands of yellow flags signal the hope of return.
When I decided to move to Tokyo to share a 160 square foot apartment with my partner (and his bicycle) for six months I had mixed feelings. How were we going to do research and write dissertations – and not kill each other – all in a house that could fit in to one of the two bedrooms in our San Diego student housing apartment? But a romanticized vision of having A Life Experience (“remember when we were students and lived in that tiny room in Tokyo”), and the chance to live in a big Japanese city won me over.
Or maybe it was all those articles about tiny houses and micro apartments I’ve seen circulating the internet. Videos tours of high tech apartments with moving walls and all kinds of hidden amenities like giant TVs that drop from the ceiling. Stories of individuals and families pursuing an alternative to the American Dream, trading picket fences and multiple bathrooms for freedom from debt, and in some cases, from foundations. These spaces embody the triumph of design over everything from rising housing costs (although one Vancouver small house I recently read about cost a whopping $250,000 to build) to problems of environmental sustainability, problems from which I am far from immune. So why not pack light and give living with less a try?
Our Tokyo apartment, while clean and cozy, is not exactly a showcase of exceptional design. It is carved out of the upstairs of an older house on a street so narrow the only vehicles are bicycles and even pedestrians can only pass single file in places. With houses practically touching, windows are opaque for privacy. I took the main room photo from outside on the communal balcony, the kitchen one from our bathroom. Stephen occasionally bumps his head on the low doorframes. We sleep on Japanese futon (which are simply folding mattresses), which we stow in the closet each morning (ok, more like noon) for maximum floor space. We have a two-burner gas stove, and a mini-fridge-microwave-fruit bowl tower. The bathroom sink faucet swivels to fill the tub, and more often than not, there’s laundry drying in the main room. And all of this is pretty unremarkable for a city where living in a small space is not a lifestyle choice, but more simply, a way of life.
Two-months into this experiment, I am struck by the mundane, but by no means insignificant ways sharing 160 square feet requires redesigning not only where but how you live. In no particular order, we’ve learned to:
Buy groceries more often. With little fridge and cupboard space, you can’t stockpile sale price boxes of Annie’s shredded oats (not that they have those here), or make of ginormous vats of veggie chili for the freezer. Japanese grocery stores (like many I have seen in Europe) cater to this kind of shopping, offering half loves of bread, tiny bottles of mayo and miniature cans of corn (I saw ‘bunches’ of 3 asparagus spears at the store yesterday). You get to eat fresher foods, and whatever you feel like at the moment, but it costs more.
Own less stuff. Shopping means considering not just if I ‘need’ something, but whether there is somewhere to put it. And this extends to books, which are usually an exception to my non-accumulation policy. Understandably, renting all kinds of things is pretty popular here, and with strict anti-piracy policies, video stores are still going strong (seriously, when was the last time you went to blockbuster?). Our local chain even rents CDs and manga.
Do chores more often. When you have less clothing, you have to wash it more often. When you spend a lot of time on the floor, you are compelled to sweep it more often. When you only have two spoons…you get the picture. And if you look in the picture, you’ll see our laundry drying rack occupying precious floor space. With small washing machines and no dryer (as is standard in Japan and pretty much everywhere else I’ve traveled), all clothes hang to dry.
Go out more. People in Tokyo almost never invite people to their homes (regardless of size). Restaurants, Izakaya and coffee shops are living and dining rooms. Parks, most famously Yoyogi Koen, are full of dance troops and music groups short on rehearsal space. Luckily, I am not the one that has to practice tuba outside in January (true story), and going out in an amazing food city is generally pretty fun. But it’s also expensive and I miss excuses to cook for my friends.
Compromise to new extremes. We have very different sleep schedules. I am a morning person (at least in theory). I often wake up with sentences swimming in my head and do my best work before noon. Stephen is not a morning person (in theory or practice). He works best late at night, sometimes until 4am. But you can hardly walk in here when the bedding is out. So as a joke, I invented the 11-11 rule: either person can put the bed out after 11pm and ask for it to be put away after 11am. Except this is kind of the law now.
Adjust in unexpected ways. Small is relative. Even after 6 weeks the apartment does not usually seem tiny, especially if the bedding and laundry are put away. It might just be getting off trains so full you can hardly breathe (for real), or leaving coffee shops where tables and sometimes elbows are touching. You quickly learn to retreat into headphones and adjust expectations. We’ve actually taken to sleeping on a single futon, so there’s less rearranging twice a day. And, as a bonus, I am extra looking forward to having a 325(!) square foot hotel room and queen bed all to myself on my next research trip.
With romantic visions quickly drowned out by the incredibly loud snoring from the room next door, the practical lessons are that much clearer. It’s not the magical small house technology or clever cabinetry alone that makes for green living or happiness on a different scale. Yes, folding bicycles are kind of amazing, but so is figuring out you can use a hot sauce bottle as a rolling pin. More importantly, truly livable small houses are part of livable communities. Here we benefit from the multitude of amazing restaurants, from never being more than a few minutes walk from a grocery or convenience store. Tokyo could certainly use more public spaces, especially green ones, but I will most certainly miss living in a city where bicycles and pedestrians are the rule.
At the end of the day, there’s a huge difference between giving up my oven/ blender/ books/ bed/ garden/camping gear etc. for a few months, and doing so permanently or without choice. So when Stephen hits his head on the door frame, and I sometimes have trouble falling asleep with the light on and someone playing video games two feet away (it’s research, really), it is with the knowledge that we can return to living in more than one room in the near future.
I’ve been asked if I would like to share this plastic pollution infographic from OnlineEducation.net. I’m a bit wary about posting since it seems to be part of a series designed to promote an online college resource website, rather than plastic pollution research and activism more specifically. But the graphic is kind of cute, and I would hate to miss an opportunity to complicate the shiny-happy recycling ending (comments follow).
So I really like the style. It seems thoughtfully constructed, and they certainly know their (website target) audience. The milk jug cyclops and angry bag bunnies are especially cute examples of the ‘plastic monster’ trope. These kinds of characters help audiences relate to a problem without feeling like they are being attacked, meaning that people are more likely to read than run. Even the color scheme tells a neat story as it progresses from black and gray to many shades of green. But maybe the story is a bit too neat…
I’m going to try not to get lost on a recycling rant here, but this is a great example of the tendency to present plastic recycling as a magical ‘simple solution’. Yes it is better to put a bottle in the recycling than in the regular trash. Yes recycling uses less oil and less energy. But the process is not so simple. Almost all the plastic ‘recycled’ on the West Coast of the US (San Francisco included) is shipped across the Pacific for processing. Not all of this recycling necessarily results in new consumer things – sometimes plastic is burned for fuel releasing toxins into the atmosphere and making for dangerous working conditions. Moreover, recycling plastic almost always requires the addition of new that plastic that takes so much energy to make – you can’t make a plastic bottle straight into a new bottle the way you can with aluminum cans.
I totally understand that space is an issue in making these kinds of things, you need a simple message to follow through and don’t want to add a lecture on the problems of global inequality when you’re trying to keep things positive. But I can’t help but feel that supporting recycling alone is supporting consumption as usual rather than challenging the ways things are made and used. The calming lull of the recycling rhetoric (just put it in the right bin, and carry on) is not the antidote I seek for my plastic nightmares. I think the new R’s I’ve seen from various nonprofits, and more importantly, the order in which they are presented are a much better ‘simple solution’: Refuse. Reduce. Reuse. And then, only then, recycle.
We are obsessed with absolutes. Ban bottles. Zero waste. BPA free. A world with good and bad neatly slotted on either side. You are with us or against us. At the same time, we can’t do everything, so we applaud ourselves for tiny efforts. Refill a bottle. Bring a bag. Doing something is better than nothing, and maybe little moves can change the world, or at least make us feel a lot better.
Thinking in absolutes while acting through small compromises is one strategy for dealing with a complicated world. We simplify to get by, living mostly by habit, as it is impossible to carefully consider each and every move. When it is time to think about change, we like lists. 4 facts you didn’t know about plastic. 10 canned foods to avoid. Suggestions for shopping that neatly organize the world into good and bad objects. Easily digested consumer choices that fit with how we already live.
But what needs to be challenged is how we live, and how we live with plastic. We need to make big moves, but not totalizing ones. Responsibility cannot come from unbendable rules but from constantly engaging with – and responding to – the messy world we have made. We need to think more of rather than less of plastic; deal with not demonize; approach as powerful, not just bad.
In the spirit of resolutions (and yes, lists), I offer a set of numbered provocations for thinking about and living with plastic. These are suggested starting points for proceeding responsibly through complicated worlds where facts are constantly in motion and solutions cannot always be mapped in advance. What if we live everyday by treating plastic as if:
1. Plastic has a life of its own. It will always do things that humans can’t control. Getting into oceans, escaping from our best plans to recycle or bury it. To justify production or use based on assumptions of best-case scenarios is to underestimate plastic’s own powers.
2. Plastic is toxic. Plastic is not stable or inert; it leaches and attracts chemicals. Like household bleach, it is sometimes necessary in small doses, but even tiny amounts of the chemicals in plastic can cause devastating effects to living creatures. To be free of BPA is to be full of something else that just hasn’t yet been deemed dangerous.
3. Plastic is durable. Plastic does not always remain in a form or place that is immediately useful to humans, but it does not disappear. It is often made to break or made for single-uses, but it could be made differently. To confuse disposable with short-lived is to fill the world with plastic.
Yes, they took me to the middle of the Pacific Ocean in the summer of 2011, but since then they’ve also let me hang out at their office and lab and taught me a ton about plastic pollution science and education. As I wrap up another session of fieldwork with the Algalita Marine Research Institute, I thought I’d share some of the most memorable moments from the past year.
1. Heathwood Hall Visit
Being part of the team leading a week of student research at the lab helped me realize just how much I’ve learned about the science of plastic in the ocean. I even got to go out sample collecting on the Alguita with Captain Moore and help make this awesome video documenting the research process. The students insisted on including my brief, yet highly embarrassing appearance circa 1:00. And now I know exactly how ridiculous I look when teaching.
From landfill tours to checking trash booms on local rivers and watching Katie rescue runaway 6-pack rings from the marina behind the office (while waiting for the Endeavour flyover), I’ve learned a ton about how plastic moves through the local watershed. Like the little duck, plastic continues to sneak past barriers and head out to sea. Not only do I now have plastic-vision super powers (I see it EVERYWHERE), I have developed a habit of bringing garbage home: there’s a pretty decent collection of plastic curiosities growing on my shelf.
3. Youth Summit at the Google Office
Inspired by people half my age twice as articulate, I found my cynical academic-self challenged make peace with optimism. Maybe reusable bags, straws and sporks really do lead to something bigger, especially in the hands of youth upset about the global problems they’ve inherited. I learned a thing or two about public speaking (no crossed arms, tell a story), and got to eat pizza cooked by a dragon before helping to scrub google’s shiny counters free of flour.
The big events are easy to highlight, but it’s really all the little everyday things that make them and my research possible. Like microplastics at sea, the things that matter are not always the most photogenic. A giant north pacific subtropical gyre-sized thank you to Algalita for always, always making me feel so welcome. And don’t worry, I’ll be back for more adventures!
For a relatively small dose of my more academic writing, check out my guest post over at Material World. Lots of great articles and announcements for material culture folks, and a really interesting short entry on attempts to care for and return photos and other items lost with the 3/11 tsunami.
Yesterday I walked the Long Beach shore in the late afternoon sun. As usual, I was on the lookout for plastic, but I also had a more specific mission: I was hunting for nurdles. But what, you ask, is a nurdle? Nurdle is the nickname given to pre-production plastic pellets. Not to be confused with crumbled bits of Styrofoam, these little beads-without-holes are what plastic looks like before it’s molded into more familiar objects. They are far more difficult to pick up than to find, once you know what they are and where to look in the sand (you can see at least eight in the blog banner image too). Freshly produced nurdles are smooth and bright, but over time the pellets get worn by sun and waves, and tinted by the synthetic toxins that stick to their oily surface (think all those nice things like BPA, PCBs and DDT that we’ve been flushing out to sea for decades). The more yellowed or browned, the longer they’ve been at sea and the more chemicals they’ve amassed.
As I walk the beach, I fill a grocery bag with more visible trash, collecting the expected remains of styrofoam cups, bottle caps, and straws. But the handful of nurdles I patiently picked from the tide line are especially important because they represent a whole class of plastic that slips right past solutions grounded in consumer recycling: nurdles are waste before they are consumer goods. Shipped by giant container loads from refineries that ‘crack’ them from gas or oil at high temperatures, to factories that melt and shape them into more recognizable objects, round pellets slip through cracks and roll right into storm drains and waterways. Despite some local improvements, nurdles continue to flow down LA’s rivers and out to sea.
Long Beach is a particularly good place to think about plastic’s industrial ties. The small islands just offshore are oil-drilling platforms in disguise. Designed in the 1960s by the theme park architects responsible for Disney’s Tomorrowland, they are decorated with palm tress and artificial waterfalls, drills hidden in condo-like structures with blue ‘balconies’ (hint: the towers move!). I am still convinced that they are mad-scientist laboratories. The port is just beyond the islands, massive container ships on the horizon shuttling consumer goods and plastic waste back and forth between North America and Asia.
As the sun begins to set over the oil rigs and port cranes, I pluck a green plastic army man from the sand, adding the military to the web of primary resource extraction, shipping and consumption on display in front of me. With synthetic materials heavily developed during WWII, chemical companies looking for postwar markets helped establish plastic’s current ubiquity (not to mention the place of oil in ongoing conflicts). While he takes aim at the sea, the tiny figure gives no clue as to where he was molded, and I wonder how many times the plastic materials have crossed the Pacific.
Beached nurdles are by no means unique to Southern California. My well-traveled friends over at 5 Gyres report that they have yet to find a beach anywhere in the world without at least a few nurdles to be found. Most recently a huge container spill near Hong Kong left shores buried in plastic. As volunteers scrambled, to pick, shovel and even vacuum tons of nurdles from the shore, whole farms of fish unable to distinguish the beads from their usual feed pellets perished, floating belly up with stomachs full of plastic.
Next time you are at the beach, any beach, take a look along the tide line where bits of wood and seaweed and other debris congregate. Look for the pieces that are a little too round, a little too buoyant. You will see them. The nurdles are there.