Tag Archives: plastics

Confronting the North Pacific Garbage Patch

A virtual installation

AIn a stretch of the North Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles away from any territorial state boundary, floats a massive object known colloquially as the ‘North Pacific Garbage Patch’. The term ‘patch’ is a euphemism; this object is so large as to be indeterminate in size, despite the best efforts of marine scientists to measure and model it. Billions of plastic objects and fragments are drawn together in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a vortex effect created by the large-scale clockwise rotation of ocean currents, high atmospheric pressure and the whirlpool effect created by westerly winds on the north side and easterly trade winds to the south. In 1997, Captain Charles James Moore encountered the ‘garbage patch’ while crossing the North Pacific on his way back from a yachting race and, struck by its immensity, attempted to measure the density of plastic particles within it. He  estimated that the visible plastic amounted to about half a pound for every 100 square metres, or 3 million tons of plastic total, a figure corroborated by US navy calculations.N

The ‘garbage patch’ is the site of numerous harms. Seabirds, turtles, cetaceans and plankton, mistaking fragments of plastic for food, ingest them and feed them to their young, whilst playful marine mammals or fish become tangled in ‘ghost nets’ where they drown and decompose. Although synthetic polymers are bio-inactive (that is, they cannot decompose in the stomachs of these animals), they can cause harm to these animals by blocking internal organs, preventing the intake of calories or causing internal injury. It is difficult to estimate how many animals die in these ways as most of their bodies sink to the bottom of the sea or are dispersed  Even though the plastic itself is bio-inactive, it acts as a sponge for toxins such as heavy metals or resilient poisons like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and DDT which, although banned since the 1970s, still permeates Mplastic waste today. Plastic fragments also carry POPs (persistent organic pollutants), which can cause a range of harms in animals from endocrine disruption to mutagenesis or carcinogenesis. There is substantial concern that these substances may bio-accumulate as they enter and pass up the food chain. Toxins are not the only things carried long distances by pieces of plastic – they also transport micro-organisms that might disrupt the balance of the ecosystems they enter. In addition, the accumulation of plastics may cause the smothering of the sea-bed, a process which can prevent gas-exchange and harden the sea floor, or change the composition of sediments in ways that alter the reproduction of marine species.G

I recently presented a paper (read it here) arguing that the spatial, temporal and ethical boundaries of the concepts of harm need to be challenged, and I used the ‘garbage patch’ as a central (if counter-intuitive) example. To make my points further, I wanted to visualize what it might be like literally to confront the ‘garbage patch’, as if one were directly immersed within it. I like Ian Bogost’s claim that academics can and should make things, and thought I’d give it a go. The result was an installation called ‘Gyre’, which was placed in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland, Australia in April 2014.IMG_6652

The installation is made entirely of plastics consumed or found by myself and co-creator Liam Kelly. It is intended to confront the viewer with the idea that the objects we treat as garbage may not ‘go away’ – instead, they remain, indefinitely, in a shared medium in which we, too, are immersed.  This point is underscored by transposing the mass of suspended plastic into the orderly environment of the university, the suburban neighbourhood – and, of course the air which composes so much of the terrestrial space that humans inhabit. The sculpture and accompanying photos are also intended to perform a ‘cosmopolitical‘ intervention, ‘forcing thought’ about the nature of harm, disrupting the boundaries of ethics and resisting its closure to a diverse cosmos.   But it also reflects the strange, eerie beauty of plastic ‘waste’, when the light filters through its glassy fragments or its filaments spin in a breeze. In this sense, it represents the powerful, abject magnetism of harm.


Thanks to the department of POLSIS, University of Queensland, for hosting this project.

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