Great Garbage Patch' Not So Great After All
Although garbage in the oceans can certainly be problematic, as illustrated in this photo, reports of the Great Ocean Garbage Patch are highly exaggerated, according to one researcher.
November 21, 2012 --
Artist Claudio Garzón was building a curriculum for a summer art course in Los Angeles when the idea struck. He remembered reading about a soldier in Afghanistan who created action figures out of bottle caps so he tried it himself. Only instead of bottle caps, Garzón used plastic debris gathered from walks along the Los Angeles River. Dubbing his initial sculptures “Plastikobots,” he began teaching art students how to make their own with the intention that they’d learn about ocean conservation at the same time. “When the signs are out there, how could you turn a blind eye?” he said. Here’s a look at Garzón’s steampunk art made from plastic trash.
The L.A. River stretches almost 50 miles from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach. Claudio Garzón lives several blocks from the river, not far from the area where it meets the Pacific. A net there is supposed to catch ocean-bound debris, but small plastic particles still get through, Garzón said. Nearly every day he walks along the river, documenting the pollution he sees and collecting plastic pieces. “A lot of the people who live by the river have formed organizations to go out there and clean it, but they only go out there once a year,” he said. This photo shows the plastic he collected in a single day.
Garzón dons gloves and carries a bag during his three-mile walks. He cleans the plastic he finds by soaking it for nearly a week in a bleach and hot water solution. “I don’t like bleach, but that’s the only thing that’s going to clean it,” he said. He also started experimenting with a small UV disinfecting system modified from the larger kinds that sterilize surgical instruments. While he allows himself to buy metallic paints, glue, and occasionally some screws for constructing his artwork, Garzón said he won’t buy any plastic pieces. “I have to find it,” he said. And he’s found plenty: butane lighters, pen caps, LEGOs, Easter eggs, broken sand shovels, and doll parts for example.
The name for the sculptures comes from the Spanish word for plastic, which is plastico, but Garzón modified it with a K. With support from colleagues in San Francisco, one of the Plastikobots was first displayed in the main lobby of the EPA building there for about six months. Then Garzón said his colleagues urged him to start making marine animals that would appeal to more people. He decided to run with their suggestion.
Garzón has taught workshops and after-school art programs in Los Angeles public schools. In Watts, his lessons include learning about upcycling, turning trash into something of value, and an introduction to marine biology. “Even though they’re young, they still have a responsibility to do their part,” he said. “But the only way to do that is by having people come and educate them about the problem and what they can do.”
Over the course of a 10-week semester, students at the 109th Street Elementary School in Watts learned about the chemistry of plastic, its persistence in the environment, as well as the impacts it can have on marine life, animals and human health. Garzón also taught them about ocean gyres, enormous rotating currents across the planet that are currently collecting all kinds of waste in a sort of swirling plastic soup.
PHOTOS: The Great Atlantic Garbage Patch
Garzón wants to convey a certain vulnerability with the style of his turtle sculptures. “I try to give it a little more emotion within the eyes,” he said. “A lot of people when they buy one of the turtles they say there’s something about the eyes of the sea turtles.”
Garzón co-founded a nonprofit called Save Oceans and Seas, or SOS for short to bring attention to local debris accumulation. In addition, he’s collaborated with several ocean advocacy groups, including Heal the Bay in Santa Monica and the San Francisco-based organization Sea Stewards to support awareness campaigns. “The awareness and attention these pieces have received has been overwhelming,” he said.
During one visit to a local park where families and children like to play, Garzón noticed that Styrofoam plates left behind were getting scattered around by seagulls. So he began to clean them up. Adults in the park stared at him and one woman even asked why he was picking the plates up. “I go, ‘because it’s an eyesore. You don’t want your little grandson coming over here and playing with the plates,’” he said. “I can’t ignore it.”
Recent rain in Los Angeles triggered a warning about high bacteria levels in the river. When he was a child, Garzón didn’t remember hearing about things like that. Now, chemicals go into the water and plastic stuck there starts leaching. In the land of fish tacos and sushi, the impact can end up on the plate. “More than likely your fish has come in contact with this,” he said. “Think about it: How many pieces of plastic are out in our ocean?”
ANALYSIS: Ocean Plastic Hiding Below the Surface
One time Garzón found what looked on the surface like an empty container of cooking oil. On closer inspection he made an unsettling discovery. “There were actually mussels growing on the inside of that piece of plastic,” he said. “On the outside you had barnacles.”
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During his sculpture process Garzón takes photos showing the menagerie of plastic components that go into each piece. While most who see his completed art respond positively, he admitted that there are some who accuse him of glorifying plastic. “They go, ‘You can’t tell it’s plastic.’ I go, ‘you’ve really, really got to look hard,” he said. Once he starts to point out what is what, the pieces sometimes make more sense to them. “The people who actually get it will go, ‘Oh my God I see a butane lighter there. Is that a bottle cap?’ Yes it is.”
A series of steampunk sharks has helped Garzón discuss challenges facing them in the marine ecosystem, he said. In particular, the sculptures open the door to conversations about pressing issues such as shark finning for soup. “(These sculptures) bring awareness to the atrocities that are happening to this majestic predator,” he said.
ANALYSIS: US Shark Fin Soup Appalling and Widespread
Each sculpture ranges in price from $480 to $680 for the robots and $850 to $1,600 for the steampunk marine animals in the Oceanic Series, Garzón said. But on occasion he has forgone the asking price in the name of a bigger cause. “I’ve donated several sculptures to different organizations and nonprofits I believe strongly that they are doing good work,” he said.
“Each piece is unique. Each piece tells a story,” Garzón said of his steampunk artwork. “There is no blueprint.”
A World War II era breakwater in Long Beach that still exists today prevents waves from coming in and out, Garzón observed. That means debris -- particularly plastic trash -- collects in the water and along the beach. “It’s almost like our own personal Pacific gyre,” he said.
Art can be a form of environmental remediation, Garzón says. His eye-catching sculptures are a way into conversations about plastic pollution, ocean conservation, and the impacts all that waste is having on marine life. “We can’t solve the problems if we don’t have enough of an army of marine biologists,” he said. “We have to teach the next generation and say, hey this is cool, saving the environment is cool, saving the ocean is cool, saving the animals is cool.”
Garzón has an inclusive teaching style, ready to share his enthusiasm and what he’s learned with a younger generation to empower them so they can make an impact. “When you walked in that door, you didn’t have any idea of what was going on in the Pacific or any of the oceans around the world,” he tells his students. “As an individual, what do you want to do? How are you going to make that small change?”
The catalyst for Garzón came during a difficult personal time. While reflecting on his life, he began thinking about his daughter and young niece. Garzón vowed to do something positive so he started working with plastic and teaching. “I have my associates (degrees) in design and graphics, but I was always creative,” he said. His parents and teachers he had growing up challenged him and wouldn’t let him go astray. “I want to do the same.”
PHOTOS: Sea Monsters Real and Imagined
- A well publicized collection of garbage in the Pacific Ocean is not nearly as dramatic as many reports suggest.
- Instead of mounds and towers, most plastic in the sea is tiny and widely dispersed.
- The truth may be worse than the actual hype when it comes to threats toward wildlife and the environment.
It's been called the Great Garbage Patch and "the most shocking thing" Oprah has ever seen: a massive island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean that, according to many reports, is twice the size of Texas, outnumbers plankton, and has killed millions of sea birds.
But many of those claims, according to a new analysis, are huge exaggerations. Others are downright false.
Plastic is definitely a problem in the oceans, both for animal life and the environment, said Angel White, a microbial oceanographer at Oregon State University in Corvallis. But there are not floating towers of milk jugs, toilet seats and rubber duckies swirling in the middle of the ocean.
Instead, the majority of plastic in the sea consists of confetti-like specks that are spread out widely and nearly impossible to see with the naked eye.
Setting the record straight about what's out there is key to regaining the trust of a wary public, White said. In 2008, she joined an expedition with the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education. It was a boat trip from Hawaii to California, through the heart of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
"None of us on that cruise had been to the patch, but we had all heard that it's twice the size of Texas. That's in a textbook," she said. "These statements are so frequent and in so many places that they are accepted as fact. But they undermine the credibility of those advocating for reduction of plastic pollution in the terrestrial and marine environments."
"Plastic is everywhere," and it's insidious, she said. "But it's not a patch."
White's main goal on the research cruise was to look at relationships between plastic and marine microbes. Along with experiments on microbial respiration and productivity rates, she and colleagues tediously counted and sorted pieces of plastic that were caught in nets towed behind the boat.
Although garbage in the oceans can certainly be problematic, as illustrated in this photo, reports of the Great Ocean Garbage Patch are highly exaggerated, according to one researcher.iStockphoto
When the scientists extrapolated their results into estimates of how much plastic is swirling in ocean gyres, their numbers were just about the same as what other studies have found. But those numbers don't match up with the imagery often described in the media, White said. She has presented her findings to other experts and is preparing a paper for publication.
"You might see a piece of Styrofoam or a bit of fishing line float by at random intervals after hours or 20 minutes, but greater than 90 percent of the plastic was less than 10 millimeters in diameter," she said. "If you filled a thousand Nalgene water bottles in the North Pacific, three to five would have one piece of plastic in them the size of an eraser."
On an expedition through the garbage patch last summer with the Sea Education Association and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, author and biogeographer David M. Lawrence noticed a similar pattern. Most of the plastic their boat picked up was tiny, widely dispersed and invisible to the naked eye.
"I was under the impression that you had these big conglomerations that were like Empire State buildings-tall," said Lawrence, who's based in Mechanicsville, Va., and was not surprised by White's analysis. "But that's not what it's like."
Even as the garbage patch fails to live up to the hype of a floating continent, Lawrence added, the truth might actually be worse and far more insidious. Compared to a big mound of trash, for one thing, it's impossible to clean up tons of tiny and widespread specks of plastic. You can't just scoop them up.
Without a dramatic metaphor expressed in "units Texas," White said, it also becomes more challenging to define the extent of the problem to the public. Even scientists still don't know how deep the plastic goes or how much of it is now sitting on the seafloor.
Still, small bits of plastic pose a variety of threats to the environment. They often end up inside fish and can work their way up the food chain. And plastics that are exposed to the elements release chemicals as they break down -- all with unknown but worrisome consequences for animals, water quality and human health.
"There is no reason to have plastic in the marine environment," White said. "But I think we undermine the issue by overstating the results. It's like crying wolf. That's the danger."