Following the success of our glass bottles, The Seven Stages of Degradation (shown at the Royal Academy Summer show and other exhibitions, see the other post), and the prototype ‘Ghostnet Chandelier’ at the London Design Festival 2018 (see this post too), this installation piece continued to develop our ideas around the theme of ocean plastic. Working with Louis Thompson once again and with hand-blown glass and waste glass fragments, found ocean plastic from Hawaii and other beaches around the world and recovered ghost nets this piece references the chaotic beauty of an entangles ghost net being pulled out from the deep ocean. These hand-crafted colourful objects represent a horrific future that our Anthropocene age threatens to leave behind if we do nothing about our dependency on plastic and its easy disposability.
Marine litter is one of the clearest symbols of a resource inefficient economy. These objects that litter our beaches and impact our environment should be captured for their value before the reach the seas and create problems, but this currently does not happen at the scale required. Adopting a more circular approach, which puts emphasis on; designing systems that prevent waste and encourage recovery of valuable materials, designing products that use materials that can easily be recycled and reused, and simplifying the use of plastics, especially in packaging would be the most effective solution for marine litter.
The plastic fragments used in this series were collected in 2014 on a trip to Kamilo beach, Hawaii. This remote beach (also known by the locals as Trash Beach) sees the results of the global plastic waste tragedy wash up onto its shore every day on every tide. The amount of plastic-to-sand ratio is shocking. Everywhere you look plastic is present, deep in the fabric of the beach and seemingly almost impossible to extract. Everything picked up had a story; a journey from Japan after the Tsunami or from the landfills of the USA. There are snatches of words on bottles bleached by the sun. Some plastic had been in the sea under the hot UV sun so long it turned to powder when touched.
Using these fragments along with images of microplastic swirling around the ocean gyres as inspiration the pair created work using waste glass to illustrate this chaos and intrusion into the natural environment. The creation of each vessel starts with picking a plastic ocean waste fragment to inform the shape.
This is followed by a process of gathering and adding waste glass, shaping and blowing. Some of the waste shards are engraved and enamelled with illustrations of seas, nets and packaging details. The piece is completed by the addition of the original plastic piece.
Using images of fragments of plastic swirling around the ocean gyres as inspiration these large vessels use waste glass fragments to illustrate their chaos and intrusion into the natural environment. The creation of each vessel starts with picking a plastic ocean waste fragment that will inform the shape. This is followed by a process of gathering and adding waste glass, shaping and blowing. Some of the waste shards have been engraved and enamelled with illustrations of nets, seas and ships. The piece is completed by the addition of the original plastic piece.
These smaller hand-blown glass bottles have waste glass fragments melted into the surface, clinging on like the barnacles attached to floating plastic in the gyres. Pieces of the waste glass are etched and enamelled with illustrations of ocean currents and fragments of nets. Each piece has a bottle top recovered from oceans around the world referencing the bottle’s once useful life.
The work was shown all together in a large installation called Broken Ocean at the 2019 Collect Open. Broken Ocean used nearly a ton of salvaged ghost nets, pulled out of the ocean by Surfers Against Sewage and represented the rubbish truckload of plastic that enters our oceans every minute. The installation won the prestigious Collect Open award.
Plastiglomerate is a term that was proposed by Patricia Corcoran, Charles J. Moore and Kelly Jazvac for a stone that contains mixtures of sedimentary grains, and other natural debris (e.g. shells, wood) that is held together by hardened molten plastic. .
For our exhibition pieces Louis Thompson and I developed different ideas on how to represent these strange fossils using traditional glass cane techniques used by Murano glass chandelier makers to create the pieces of discarded fishing rope.
The final faceted glass rocks contain the representations of cut knots from discarded fishing nets and ‘plastic shards’ etched and enamelled with details taken from found ocean plastic pieces.
The Plastiglomerate pebbles featured in the ‘Broken Ocean’ installation at Collect Open, Spring 2019. See separate post on this full piece.
Sometimes, using different media to talk about current issues can create arresting outcomes. This collection of pieces is the outcome of a collaboration between myself as a creative campaigner and Glass artist, Louis Thompson. The work is part of ongoing collaboration representing the challenge of the colossal flow of plastic pollution that runs into our seas every minute of every day – currently a rubbish truckload a minute.
The process of making this first series of solid glass bottles called ‘The seven stages of degradation’ is very hands on. Each bottle was created from the inside out, using waste coloured glass shards and forming them onto molten clear glass cullet, then dipping and rolling in coloured chips and strands to represent the breakdown of plastic into smaller and smaller pieces. Colour, one of the most seductive things about glass, was chosen very carefully for each stage; very little red or yellow in the end as these would have been consumed by sea creatures by then. The glass was formed into bottle shapes thentwisted and dented to represent the distortion from the power of the oceans. There are seven disformed bottles in all, each representing the stages of photo-degeneration of plastic in the oceans. The bottles themselves get darker and darker with pollution and each have a bottle cap from my collection picked up on Kamilo beach in Hawaii.
They have now been exhibited in many places including the London Glassblowing Gallery for Synergy II 2017, The Royal Academy Summer Show 2018, Collect Open 2019, British Glass Biennale 2019 and will be at Vessel Gallery as part of group show; New British Glass from November 4th to the 21st December 2019.
Louis Thompson MA RCA is an acclaimed glass artist winning numerous awards and commissions and he has been invited to create installations for various museums and international exhibitions. His work has been exhibited extensively at galleries in the UK, Europe, Japan and the USA.
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.