Following the launch and talk at Pentagram in 2015 I have continued to talk about the work and tour the pieces around the world. The pieces have been from London to Brussels and are currently in Barcelona.
Alongside these pieces I created a limited edition publication. Here is the text and selection of images.
The first toothbrush I ever found was in a Victorian dump in Oxford. In the mud, amongst the bottles and broken crockery I pulled out a strange stick, made of bone, with faint blue lines and a grid of dots at the top. My family were appalled but I was fascinated, and though the bristles had long gone, I knew it was a toothbrush. The shape was basically the same as mine. It hadn’t changed for 100 years.
What had changed was the stuff it was made of. Toothbrushes are no longer bone but generally co-molded from a number of different plastics (including nylon, high density polyethylene or polypropylene and a rubber substitute called kraton, which has amazing resistance to heat and chemicals, just what you need in a toothbrush!). It is a really good example of an everyday product that is disposed directly into our waste streams. On average a person uses around 350 toothbrushes in their lifetime. The bad thing is all those different plastics are impossible to separate and cannot be recycled together, which creates enormous amounts of waste. Over 25,000 tonnes of toothbrushes end up in US landfill every year.
Plastics are now one of the most common pollutants of ocean waters worldwide. Pushed by winds, tides and currents, plastic particles collect with other debris and merge into large swirling accumulation zones, known to oceanographers as gyres.
In the broad expanse of the northern Pacific Ocean, there exists the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre: a slowly moving, clockwise spiral of currents created by a high-pressure system of air currents. Due to its lack of large fish and gentle breezes, fishermen and sailors rarely travel through the gyre. This, however, doesn’t prevent the elements to collect some of the 8 million metric tonnes of plastic that enters the sea each year, and create what could be called the largest landfill in the world.
This area known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of five major accumulations of rubbish drifting in the oceans. One of the closest pieces of land near this patch is Big Island, Hawaii and Kamilo Point is the closet beach. Kamilo beach (or ‘Trash beach’, as it is called by locals) is near the southern most point of the USA. It is an hour further along the volcanic coastline from Green Sands beach, in a deserted part of the island where no-one lives. If you ask many Hawaiian locals if they know Kamilo Beach you mostly get a blank look. It’s not a tourist destination or a local hotspot. It’s also really hard to get to, as it’s not on what you would call a drivable road. You need a 4WD and a very good sense of direction.
My enthusiasm to go and physically see this tragic scene, with my own eyes, was set in motion by the Algalita Foundation who were looking for people to join them on a boat expedition to the Pacific Garbage Patch. However, having young children and being prone to awful sea sickness put a stop to that particular dream. But after interviewing David De Rothschild about the Plastiki voyage, and having run numerous workshops at recycling and recovery facilities (including one with Cape Farewell) my next stop had to be Kamilo beach, Hawaii. The islands of Hawaii are extraordinary, diverse and incredibly beautiful. But their magnificent beaches are becoming tainted by the results of this global plastic waste tragedy every day, on every tide. The plastic-to-sand ratio at Kamilo beach is shocking, and in my half hour walk along the coastline I picked up 18 toothbrushes alone.
I brought back what I could carry, feeling bad that I could not clean up more. Everything I picked up had a story: here a journey from Japan after the Tsunami; there a long haul drift after being blown from a US landfill. The snatches of words on bottles bleached by the sun – flotsam poetry.
There were tops of bottles, locally known as shark plastic, that sea birds and fish had gnawed away at the edges to give a ragged effect.
Some of the plastic had been in the sea, under the hot UV sun, for so long they turned to powder when I touched them. Other pieces had been conquered by nature, becoming a home for new life, new coral and new animals. Everywhere you looked plastic was present, deep in the fabric of the beach and seemingly almost impossible to extract.
90% of the world’s rubbish that floats in oceans is plastic and currently only 5% of the world’s plastic is recycled. We cannot just cut out plastic from our lives – it is the ‘workhorse material of the modern economy’ but we need to find ways to deal with it.
Cleaning up the oceans is one option. It is, however, not efficient. The oceans are too big, the estimated 5.25 trillion micro plastic pieces sitting on the bottom of the ocean are too small and no one country is directly responsible. And so the currents continuously move the pollution and the gyres continue to act as ‘shredders’ to the plastic before dispersing it across the globe. The solution to this truly global challenge must be therefore to tackle the problem at its source.
The global growth of plastic consumer goods is projected to increase significantly over the next ten years (current output is approximately 6bn metric tonnes a year). Unless steps are taken to manage wastestreams connected to this growth, the ocean could contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of finfish by 2025 (EMF).
Marine litter is also one of the most visual impacts of a resource inefficient economy. These objects that litter our beaches and fill our seas should be captured for their value before they reach the oceans.
Adopting a circular economy approach, which puts emphasis on: designing systems that prevent waste and encouraging recovery of valuable materials; designing products that optimise materials for their effectiveness in use stage; and simplifying the use of plastics, especially in packaging so that recycling can be streamlined and efficient, would be the most effective solution for marine litter and this tragic outcome.
Statistics from: Lucy C. Woodall, Marcus Eriksen Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey
Many thanks to all those that helped make this exhibition and publication possible: Dan for enjoying the terrifying drive to find Kamilo and agreeing to my madcap plan to go to Hawaii. Stella and Aaron for putting up with journey. Alan Kitching and Marta Dos Santos at Letterpress workshop for giving me access to bigger woodblock and a critical eye. Tamara and Jack at TM for giving up their weekend to help photograph pieces of plastic waste. Calverts Co-op for the waste ink. All at Thomas.Matthews including Alexie for getting the word out. Naresh and Zuleika at Pentagram and Do The Green Thing for their brilliant support.
But no thanks to those that do not recycle their plastic waste.