A Battle at Midway

You Should Know / by Greg Boustead /

We talk with photographer Chris Jordan, who recently traveled to a remote part of the Pacific Ocean to document effects of the world’s largest known mass of garbage.

What happened to that disposable Solo cup—the one you used once at a work party—after you tossed it into the garbage? For that matter, what happens to any of the countless plastic products (shopping bags, coffee stirrers, water bottles, etc.) we use and then discard on a daily basis? Of course, conventional plastic doesn’t readily biodegrade; so where is it now? If you live in North America or Asia, there’s a chance that cup is trapped in a broad ocean current, known as a gyre, in the middle of the northern Pacific Ocean along with an untold number of other pieces of litter in what has been named the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Click for slideshow: Appetite for Destruction

The mostly plastic mass of marine pollution is giant—the gyre is actually made up of a pair of large vortices that stretches from Japan to about 1,000 kilometers off the western coast of North America—but it’s not a contiguous “garbage island” one could walk on or even see in satellite imagery.

Near the center of this giant swarm of pollution are the Midway Islands, a series of small atolls in a remote area of the Pacific, about a third of the way to Tokyo from the Hawaiian Islands. Here, some of the effects of the patch are just now becoming apparent. A full third of the resident Albatross chicks die due to feeding on the ubiquitous plastic, mistaking the ingestible bits as baitfish. The phenomenon threatens more than the biodiversity of marine wildlife at Midway. Many researchers view what’s happening at Midway as a bellwether for ecosystems across the globe, with the Albatross as proverbial canaries in the coal mine, alerting the world to an environmental toxicity that could ultimately impact us all in ways we’re just beginning to understand.

Chris Jordan, a photographer whose work on visualizing impossibly large numbers we featured last week, traveled to the Midway Islands last year to document the Garbage Patch. What he returned with is visually shocking: a series of ghastly images of Albatross carcasses bursting with wholly undigested bits of plastic waste. The photographs quickly spread throughout the internet, bringing worldwide awareness to the potential threats of treating the ocean as a garbage disposal. Seed’s Greg Boustead recently caught up with the artist-cum-activist to talk about his trip, the art of capturing a nigh-invisible phenomenon, and what his pictures of grotesque, plastic-filled carcasses tell us.

Seed: In your digital mosaic “Gyre,” which depicts the 2.4 million pounds of plastic that enter the world’s oceans every day, you photographed an impressive number of individual pieces of plastic recovered from the Pacific Ocean. How did you acquire all that litter?
Chris Jordan: The plastic that I got for the Gyre piece came from the laboratory of Captain Charles Moore, a marine scientist from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. He’s the person who discovered and named the Great Pacific Garbage Patch about ten years ago. A real man of the sea, he’s been making trips out there ever since, studying it and taking water samples. He drags a giant net behind his boat for a few kilometers at a time to catch the plastic, and then brings it back to his lab to examine. That’s where I got all the plastic. In the process of researching for the work, I learned about the phenomenon of birds ingesting and dying from plastic at Midway. And it struck me as a visible, compelling way that the patch surfaces—it’s like a little peephole that we can look through to see the garbage patch. It’s otherwise an invisible phenomenon. There’s no way you can take a picture of it.

The patch is generally thought of by the public as a giant floating pile of garbage twice the size of Texas. That meme has been well-circulated, and it’s how people imagine it. I have to admit that the photographer part of me was delighted by the concept that I could sail a boat to the middle of this thing and take the most horrendous photo of garbage—because that’s my thing, I take pictures of giant piles of garbage. I was like, “Woo-hoo, the world’s biggest pile of garbage, I’m going there!” And I had this idea of climbing to the top of a sailboat mast or maybe going up in a helicopter and doing 5,000 individual images of garbage and stitching them all together into some monumental horizon-to-horizon panorama of trash.

Seed: Why can’t you do that?
CJ: Well, I was disappointed to learn that the plastic is all mostly underwater, and the vast majority of it has broken into tiny pieces that range in size from a fishing float, all the way down to individual molecules of plastic that are invisible to the naked eye. What’s happening to the plastic out there is that it’s slowly deteriorating into the water. For instance, a plastic bag that enters the ocean will break apart into a trail of plastic as it travels. The best mental image I can think of is Pig-Pen from the Peanuts cartoon. Everywhere he went he was shedding this cloud of dirt. That’s what it’s like with plastic waste. There’s this constant cloud of plastic molecules coming off any plastic object that’s out in the ocean. Pretty soon it gets thin enough that it splits into two pieces; and those two pieces break into four, and on and on. And within some amount of time it’s seemingly gone. But barring some unknown mechanism, the individual molecules of plastic are not gone, and they won’t break down any further than that for the entire future of Earth. It’s there to endure for the however many billions of years the planet itself remains.

The problem with these little molecules of plastic is that they’re just about the size of phytoplankton. And the little filter feeders that eat plankton, they can’t tell the difference. These filter feeders and the small fish that eat them make up the basis of the food chain for marine ecosystems around the globe. When you consider that half the world’s food is fish, it starts to constellate into an alarming phenomenon.

Seed: What are the potential ramifications of this plastic soup?
CJ: We don’t know. Scientists are just starting to investigate that. A team of Japanese researchers [led by Hideshige Takada at Tokyo University] has begun to look at these individual pieces of plastic to measure the concentration of other substances that they absorb. Resin sticks to other resin. So most of the industrial chemicals—DDT, fallout from automobile exhaust, PCBs, car tires, commercial pesticides and fertilizers, all that nasty stuff—make their way into the world’s oceans. But the oceans are so big that it’s diluted: We’re talking in parts per billion or parts per trillion, and the fish swim around in it without major toxicological effects. However, what’s happening is the little particles of plastic are absorbing this industrial waste at concentrations a million times higher than the surrounding water.

Just to get an idea of the relative prevalence of these “plastic plankton,” Captain Moore recently sampled water from the gyre and analyzed it using electron microscopy. He discovered that the ratio of plastic particles to phytoplankton in this water—water that came from the remotest part of the world’s largest ocean—is six to one. Six particles of plastic for every phytoplankton!

Seed: The pictures of the Albatross carcasses are sensational and tragic. What do you think we can learn from them?
CJ: What’s happening on Midway is richly symbolic. To me, the birds look like us: filling themselves with something that is not nourishing, thinking that it is, and killing themselves in the process. Isn’t that what we’re all doing as a culture? Our spirits are dying from our overconsumption of toxic plastic crap. As I stood over these birds, I saw a mirror of myself.

Originally published February 18, 2010

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