Upcoming Talk at St Thomas University


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.



Occupy Trash Island?

Making slides for a recent conference presentation, I googled across this image:

Intrigued, I click though to its source, an article titled “Paradise Recycled: Architects Dream of Turning Great Pacific Garbage Patch Into Habitable Island,” which outlines plans for a floating metropolis to be made from plastic waste gathered from the sea. I gaze in wonder at images of occupants lounging canal-side outside plastic high-rise homes, no longer convinced that stories of people ready to invest in garbage patch real estate are only jokes.

While the article implies that ‘trash island’ is not already existing as such, explaining that ‘new land’ needs to be made not simply found, the project is clearly inspired by accounts of a large, dense mass of plastic at sea (“as big as France and Spain combined”). Such grand plans, however, do not emerge exclusively from the image of garbage patch as island. A few weeks ago, after an Algalita presentation on ‘toxic soup’, I listened politely as one audience member continued to insist on the possibility of filtering plastic fragments from entire oceans without harming marine life. He refused to be swayed by reminders of the elusiveness of plastic bits or the vastness of global seas. We do not, it seems, suffer from a lack of imagination or conviction when it comes to grand technological fixes that ensure consumption as usual.

“Frightening” Headlines

I must confess, the word “frightening” making news headlines was uttered by none other than myself. I can qualify, however, that most of what I said was edited out. You know, the part where I emphasized how the big chunks were quite dispersed, how when you’re out there it mostly just appears as clean blue ocean until you look closely and see all the little bits. That what’s ‘frightening’ is how the everywhere-bits have to be stopped at the source because it would be impossible to sift the surface of the entire ocean, sorting synthetic bits from sea life.

The reporter I was speaking to was well aware of what she called, pardon my paraphrasing, “the media misrepresentation of trash island.” And at least the Province article suggests someone was listening when the Algalita/5 Gyres teams carefully spoke of the North Pacific Gyre, not the Garbage Patch, and described how the handful of particles in the jar are the results of skimming an area equivalent to three football fields.

And yet so quickly did this conversation become FRIGHTENING GARBAGE PATCH! as it circulated through Canadian news papers. And so quickly did those commenting jump to dismiss its existence without seeming to have read the article. Talk of toxins seeping into ecosystems might be a central concern from the scientific research perspective, but it is striking images of visible pollution that those reading the news seem to be demanding. This could suggest the futility of positioning ‘better’ representations of scattered, yet toxic bits against the islands being imagined or rejected. It is definitely a reminder of the difficulty of explaining something so far away from everyday experience and impossible to photograph because it is at one so invisible and so widespread.

The seemingly impoverished single picture of a jar of bits is nothing like the experience of capturing those pieces in the middle of the sea, or even having a conversation about that experience with those that were there. About what it feels like to be so far from land that the sighting of a single bird brings everyone on deck while plastic debris sightings become routine. About the cold hard work it takes to haul the trawl back onto the deck of the rocking boat in the middle of a wet night watch to check for fish samples. Or about the difficult decisions those on board face when recounting the voyage once back on land: feed the current story and hope it sparks change, or struggle to explain exactly why you paid so much money to acquire a sprinkling of well traveled confetti?

I have to agree, in part, with the cynical responses and admit that we cannot produce a shocking photo of a floating dump ‘twice the size of Texas’ as evidence. But the lack of alarming images does not mean plastic pollution ceases to be problem for the oceans and for us. I seemed to have managed to fuel the fires of fear and doubt while attempting just the opposite, but at least I was brave enough to say something this time – at the sendoff party in Hawaii I mostly cowered and hid when the cameras came near.