How Do You Feel About Plastic?

Soaring albatross. They have rights too. Take a look around your home. How many pieces of plastic can you find in just 30 seconds? Of them, how long will they actually be in your possession before they are disposed of? Water and soda bottles, shampoo and detergent, food containers and toys; these are just a few of the thousands of plastic items that flow through our lives.

When we’re done with them, often in less time than it will take for you to read this article, that’s the end of it right? Most will be tossed into the trash with nary a thought. Some will be recycled into other forms of plastic. None of it will go away. There is no away. How does that make you feel? If you are like most people and are honest about it, you feel nothing.

I’d like to again tell you about an amazing artist who, through his work, helps us face the invisible truths of our time. His name is Chris Jordan. He uses images of small, everyday items to form large wall-sized images of great beauty and even greater significance.

For example, imagine a painting of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, the dinosaur that once roamed the Earth, a symbol of havoc and destruction. As you zoom in on the piece, you begin to see that the image consists of thousands of plastic bags of various colors. In fact, this particular work of Jordan’s displays 240,000 plastic bags, the number used on Earth every ten seconds. Oil is a by-product of the dinosaur era. The artist’s message: They are back, and wreaking even more havoc than ever.

(Note: When viewing Jordan’s images on his website, a single click will initiate a slow zoom to display the details of the composition. A second click zooms back out.)

Van Gough's Starry NightOne image, Gyre II, emulates the famous Van Gough painting “Starry Night” and depicts 50,000 cigarette lighters, the number of pieces of plastic estimated to be floating in every square mile of the world’s oceans. The swirls of Van Gough’s famous painting emulate the swirl of the Pacific Gyre, often referred to as the “Garbage Patch,” a vast area in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where millions of tons of (mostly plastic) debris has gathered over time. Jordan’s work reminds us that our consumption has unintended consequences.

Jordan learned that the effects of the gyre were dramatically evident on Midway Island, the location of one of the largest and most remote marine sanctuaries on the planet. It is home to a once-thriving albatross community, large seabirds with an immense wingspan, known for their graceful ability to glide effortlessly just above the wave-tops. For countless generations, they have hatched their chicks on Midway. They take to the sea in search of food, returning to feed their young. And now their young are dying.

Laysan albatross chick remains by USGS. See ChrisJordan.com for his startling, high-quality images.Midway Island is covered with the carcasses of young birds. As they decay, their remains reveal a startling truth. Their stomachs are full of plastic. Among the items Jordan photographed were bottle caps, plastic forks, toothbrushes, shotgun shells and even parts of a toy robot; all of it fed to them by their parents who thought they were gathering food rather than the floating remnants of a far-away, wasteful culture. Jordan’s poignant images allow us to face the reality of our consumption, if we are willing to look (see Midway: Message from the Gyre). On one of the most remote places on Earth, our unconscious behavior brings slow and painful death to these magnificent creatures. Can their extinction be far behind? What about our own?

In a TEDxRainier talk “Midway Journey,” Jordan eloquently explains his motivation. “It is not an exercise in pain or horror,” he says. Rather, it’s about the deep power of witnessing as a means to realize not only the effects of our choices but how much we really do care. It is difficult to make sense of large numbers or abstract information. His images create a window with a different, more accessible view, but it is up to us to look and allow ourselves to feel.

TEDxRainier – Chris Jordan – Midway Journey

May your lives be filled with grief, and terror, and beauty, and joy, and love.”

Artist and photographer, Chris Jordan

So take another look at all the plastic around your home, hopefully with a new perspective. I don’t know about you, but I feel a responsibility to the albatross, and to the billions of other creatures, human and non-human alike, who are affected by my everyday decisions. I feel, and I will change.

The plastic in the image below was gathered at my home in about 30 seconds. Awareness is the key to change.

Household plastic gathered in 30 seconds.

Household plastic gathered in 30 seconds.

An Albatross Encounter

Chris Jordan on The Midway Project

Incidentally, I wrote about this same topic three years ago in a column called “Our Tragic, Plastic World.” My wife and I have reduced and reused, and we recycle everything, but it is hard to avoid plastic completely. We strive to improve as we find new ways to live lighter on the planet.

Steps to Avoid Plastic

  • Stop using plastic bags. Switch to durable, reusable and recyclable shopping bags.
  • Stop purchasing beverages that come in disposable plastic bottles. I’ve been using the same insulated stainless-steel mug for over twenty years and it is as good ever.
  • When dining out, avoid plastic plates, utensils and cups. Eat somewhere else if necessary, but only after gently informing the manager about why you are making that choice.
  • Even when drinking a beverage from a non-disposable container in a restaurant, avoid plastic straws. There is really no need for them.
  • When purchasing plastic products, look for those made with recycled material. For example, the carpet in our home is made from 100% recycled soda bottles. It is beautiful, comfortable and long-lasting, plus it will again be recycled at the end of its useful life as our floor covering.
  • Support legislation that reduces the amount of plastic in our environment. Not too long ago I wrote to city council members in Seattle (as a former resident) asking them to vote in favor of a bill that would ban plastic bags. Not only did they pass the measure, but several of them wrote back to me personally thanking me for my continued interest in their city. (That is much more than what can be expected of current Las Vegas city council members. I recently sent a passionate letter on another but equally important topic which they seemed to ignore. I never received a single response from any of them and they irresponsibly passed a measure to roll back progress on energy efficiency. Remember, good leadership only happens when voters make informed choices.)
  • Think out of the box. Get rid of the box. Figure out how you can live more responsibly and then teach others what you’ve learned.
  • Read books.
  • Know the issues.
  • Do not make abstractions (television, video games, or Fox News) more important than the real world. Chris Jordan helps us see the real world. Study his work. Share the message.

Research by Dr. Jennifer Lavers shows that this is a global issue affecting life everywhere:

If you have more ideas on the topic, please share them in the comments below so we can all learn from each other. Thanks.

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Comments

  1. M. Douglass says:

    I spent a year on Eastern Island during 1963-4, with the Navy.
    It was very emotional to see the current situation. I do re-cycle
    already but plan to pass on your article.

  2. Charles L Shreffler says:

    It is really sad to look at those pictures, but it is also sad to know that plastic is so ingrained in out society and that most people don’t know and don’t care what we are doing to our planet.
    I keep honey bees in my back yard and last spring the bees in one of my hives completely died out. I don’t know for sure but I surmise someone in the neighborhood sprayed something to kill weeds and the bees brought the contaminated pollen back to the hive and they all died.
    It is very discouraging but there is nothing I can do about it, if you go to your local big box stores they have herbicide and pesticides lining the shelves and have adds on TV for their products to kill the weeds in you lawn, and kill the bugs in your trees, it just Kill, Kill, Kill

    • Steve Rypka says:

      It is very sad and your comment about chemical use adds to it. I am sorry to hear about your bees. This is a very serious issue. We can all help by avoiding plastics and chemicals in every way possible. It may not always be easy, but it is certainly worth the effort!

  3. So tragic. Thanks for shedding light on something everyone should see.

    • Steve Rypka says:

      You are welcome John. All I ask is that you share it with as many others as you can. We must get a handle on this.