Beach Bums

On a dark, gray San Francisco afternoon in late April, a group gathers around a white-and-black art installation at Civic Center Plaza. It looks like a Zen garden, with sand groomed mindfully into neat furrows and black rocks placed in careful chaos. But as you draw closer to the 18-by-44-foot piece, you realize that isn’t sand, and those aren’t rocks.

As I chat with artist Judith Selby Lang’s husband Richard Lang, also an artist, a man walks by, glances at the work, does a doubletake, and halts, his eyes wide.

“Oh, non-art gallery crowd,” says Richard, clearly delighted. The man is precisely the sort of person the Langs hope to reach with their art.

“Is that a car engine?” the man asks Richard, gesturing to one of the “rocks.”

“Nope, plastic!” says Richard, a bit gleefully.

“Plastic!” The man can’t believe it. “All of it? What about that?” He gestures at an oblong shape stuck to the side of one of the islands.

“That’s part of a milk crate,” Richard says. Other shapes are more recognizable, and the man starts to pick them out: a flip-flop, a comb, a vacuum nozzle, an oil container. Then he notices that the orderly white rows of “sand” consist of more than 6,000 white plastic bags, timely given San Francisco’s March 2007 ban on the ubiquitous objects, 180 million of which are distributed in the city every year.

“Did you paint all this stuff?” the man asks, gesturing to the black rocks.

“No, this is black plastic,” answers Richard. He explains that he and his wife need only walk into their barn to find black or any other color plastic; the barn contains thousands of pounds of plastic sorted by color, collected from Marin’s Kehoe Beach near their home.

The man shakes his head and tells tales of trash he’s seen on beaches, and how different it was around here when he was a boy. It couldn’t get any better: The Langs hope their art will make people think about human impacts on the environment and what happens to our garbage after we’ve thrown it away.

This piece is Judith’s brainchild, but another piece they created together, called “Lunch,” displayed a rainbow of milk containers, a toothbrush, a flip-flop, plastic cutlery, bottlecaps, shotgun wadding, prescription bottles—the flotsam and jetsam of our daily lives—dancing its colorful way down a 70-foot-long cord strung along a bright, windowed corridor. The Langs picked up all the material during a 90-minute stroll at Crissy Field.

The Langs’ art projects draw attention to an alarming problem: Plastic never biodegrades. And, says Captain Charles Moore, founder of Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF), as much as 2.5 percent of all plastic ever manufactured is now floating around in the world’s oceans. He estimates the debris at 100 million tons, which could double in less than half the time it took to reach that level. He bases this calculation on the exponential increase in plastic usage, which he calls “the lubricant of globalization,” and points out there is no recycling infrastructure in most of the world.

“It’s probably the clearest evidence we have in everyday life of the wastefulness of our culture,” says Richard. “We think we can dump it in the ocean and it disappears. But there’s so much of it now that it’s not disappearing. Nor did it ever.”

While there’s plastic throughout the world’s oceans, gyres—where high-pressure zones swirl currents together “like a toilet that never flushes,” according to Moore—are dense collection points. Scientists now give gyres nicknames like “Eastern Garbage Patch.” Moore has led several research trips to the world’s largest, the Great North Pacific Central Gyre, an Africa-sized gyre that spans 10 million square miles. Other gyres include the South Pacific Gyre, the Sargasso Sea, the South Atlantic Gyre, and the Indian Ocean Gyre.

Moore says, “I believe the so-called Eastern Garbage Patch has united with the Western Garbage Patch off Japan and now the entire north Pacific from 20 degrees to 40 degrees latitude and 135 W to 130 E is a plastic soup where plastic fragments outweigh plankton. This was brought home to me during my voyage last November aboard the Greenpeace ship Esperanza that sampled an area near Hawaii. I had found that area nearly plastic-free in 2000. Now it has three times as much plastic as plankton.”

Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer who’s spent 40 years studying plastic in oceans and who publishes the newsletter Beachcombers Alert, explains, “Plastic does not biodegrade. After a while, it becomes pieces that can’t be caught in Charlie Moore’s nets. His nets have a mesh the size of plankton&. But it’s still there. It gets into the food chain. Charlie has found places in the Pacific where there’s six times more plastic than plankton. That’s pretty horrific.”

Because the gyres were traditionally rich in zooplankton and other food, wildlife visit them to feed. But this allure now makes them dangerous. Hannah Nevins, beachcomber coordinator with Moss Landing Marine Laboratories at the California State Universities, has found many dead fulmars, pelagic seabirds, their stomachs stuffed with plastic. Scientists don’t know whether pollutants leached from the plastic are poisoning the birds or whether the plastic’s physical obstruction of the gastro-intestinal tract leads to starvation. Moore says that Laysan albatross chicks also die in large numbers from eating too much plastic.

Ebbesmeyer says, “A single albatross can eat 300 to 400 bottletops. Because they like to glide, they swoop down near the surface and scoop up anything that floats, which is a lot of plastic that can’t be regurgitated. Within the cluster of bones from albatross skeletons are hundreds of pieces of plastic.”

There’s little doubt of plastic’s toxicity. “There’s a whole bunch of chemicals in plastics that mimic estrogen,” says Ebbesmeyer. “& PCBs, DDE, and DDT&so if a male mammal ingests them, you’re altering the balance between testosterone and estrogen&. You wind up with populations worldwide where the males are becoming less male.” In Deborah Cadbury’s book Altering Eden, she suggests that these chemicals are significantly lowering the human male’s sperm count.

Marine debris has adversely affected at least 267 species worldwide, including 86 percent of sea turtle species, 44 percent of sea bird species, and 43 percent of marine mammal species, primarily through ingestion, starvation, suffocation, and entanglement, according to D.W. Laist in Marine Debris—Sources, Impacts, and Solutions.

The National Academy of Sciences estimates that 6.4 million tons of litter enter the world’s oceans each year. Globally, plastic accounts for 60 to 95 percent of that waste, according to J.G.B. Derraik’s 2002 report in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Moore says this is because much of our garbage does not make it to landfills or recycling facilities as we might intend. “Eighty percent comes from rivers or is windblown from land-based sources,” Moore said. “Twenty percent comes from ships at sea.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only 5.5 percent of the plastic consumed in the US in 2001 was recycled, while the rest ended up in the oceans, landfills, or elsewhere.

Recycling plastics is increasingly difficult because many products are made of composite materials that are hard to recycle. And once plastic waste hits the ocean, cleaning up the mess is impossible. “It’s like trying to put dust back into a bottle. Once it’s out, it’s out,” says Ebbesmeyer. “The only way we have is to control the source.”

To that end, experts are working in a couple of key areas. A three-year study in Southern California conducted by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation and funded by the California State Water Resources Control Board counted 2.3 billion plastic items discharged into the ocean during three sample days: two days following rain events and one day after a dry spell. The study examined ways to drastically reduce the amount of municipal waste flowing down rivers into the ocean.

One solution is to change plastic’s components. Steve Mojo, executive director of Biodegradable Products Institute, says in three to five years, “plastics will serve as a food source for animals and microorganisms in the marine environment and will biodegrade safely, much like natural materials.”

But these products are planned for use on ships; they’ll break down in cold, wet environments. They will differ in composition from compostable plastics already on the market, which decompose in warm, damp environments such as compost heaps. Unfortunately, compostable plastics intended for municipal compost bins don’t break down in the way they’re designed to when they end up in the cold ocean.

Of course, plastic will become more costly to produce as oil prices continue to rise; Mojo says industry will increasingly use feedstocks from renewable sources. But for now, Moore says, “A ‘plastic curtain’ of ignorance exists about plastics’ chemical constituents and environmental impacts.”

It’s that curtain the Langs hope to lift with their art. “Beauty and making interesting things to look at is an effective way to create an environmental message,” says Judith. “Instead of pounding people over the head, by creating something that’s curious, we’re actually inviting people to join us on the adventure.”

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