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.
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.