Plastic Oceans: Connectivities of waste
Bristol-based Power & Water researchers have been exploring the inter-tidal river banks at Sea Mills, a suburb of Bristol where the River Trym meets the Avon and flows to the Severn estuary. PDRA Jill Payne lives locally, and has observed the extent of plastic waste on the riverbanks, deposited daily by the tides and quickly subsumed into the riverine landscape thanks to fast-growing grasses that cover the waste. The plastic detritus is not biodegradable, however. When we walk on the riverbank, plastics, polystyrene and glass crunch underfoot. The riverbank is impregnated with rubbish.
Marine waste is a truly global issue, due to the processes of production, consumption and distribution that connect people, places and plastics. I was vividly reminded of this recently, when, days after exploring Sea Mills (where marine litter such as deep-sea fishing crates is brought in on ocean currents and tides to land alongside more local detritus – drinks cans, shopping trolleys, etc) with Jill, I found myself contemplating marine litter on a beach in Bali (another feat of global connectivity). I’ve been there before, and recalled the beautiful beaches, lush vegetation and warm waters that contribute to the ‘island paradise’ reputation. What I’d forgotten (or blocked from my mind) is that the paradise is marred by plastic waste, on the streets, on the beaches, and in the seas. Where traditional waste management methods of burning rubbish coped with localized, largely vegetal trash, in a swiftly developing economy and society such practices are inadequate. Increasingly, plastic waste that doesn’t burn easily gets dumped, and washed into watercourses. The situation on Bali has been greatly amplified by the waste generated by its tourism industry. Tourists are advised not to consume tap-water, and in the tropical heat, guzzle bottles of water instead to stay hydrated. But with no island-wide waste collection or recycling scheme, the bottles pile up, or end up in the ocean, along with plastic bags and other non-biodegradable items. Here they meet plastics that have washed up from Java, and further afield. When surfing or snorkeling in Balinese waters, these plastic presences are visible and unavoidable. To give a sense of the scale of the issue facing the island, Bali expects to receive 4 million foreign visitors in 2015. That’s an awful lot of plastic bottles yet to be consumed and discarded.
My experiences in Bali connected with my involvement in project activities at home, particularly working with Jill to develop ideas for public engagement that address the issue of marine litter, as it figures in the lives and landscapes of Bristolians. My previous mental blocking out of the plastic problem on Bali’s beaches encouraged me to reflect, this time round, on expectations of landscape and beauty, vs. realities of responding to environmental problems.
In Bali, I found innovative and committed activism bringing communities of locals, expats and tourists together. I visited the Green School in Ubud, where green values are at the heart of a holistic approach to education that has been commended by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon (who visited in 2014). Two Green School students, Isabel, 12, and Melati, 13, have led a Bye Bye Plastic Bags campaign that has accrued over 60,000 signatures to date, and have succeeded in persuading the Governor of Bali, Bapak Made Mangku Pastika, to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to take measures to minimize plastic bag use on the island by 1 January 2016. Their dream is for Ngurah Rai International Airport to greet tourists with the words: ‘Welcome to Bali, do you have any plastic bags to declare?’ In Bali, student-led activism is making a difference, though it may take time for change to become tangible.
Tourists are also being made aware of their plastic footprint thanks to cafes, restaurants, hotels and guesthouses engaging with anti-plastics campaigning. Guests are encouraged to refill old water bottles (at a cheaper rate than buying a new bottle) or invest in a resusable (non-plastic) container and say no to the always-offered plastic carrier bag when possible. Though the visibility of the plastic problem is evident in Bali, so too are the responses to it.
Visibility is a useful tool in encouraging people to think about waste, environment, and the possibilities of local activism as part of a global issue. One of the challenges of the Sea Mills site is that the rampant grass effectively conceals the litter beneath. From a distance, or at a glance, this is a verdant liminal landscape. Closer inspection reveals the strata of objects beneath. So one idea that Jill and I have developed for the Power and the Water presence in Bristol’s Festival of Nature (FoN) is to retrieve some of the plastics from the Sea Mills riverbank, and make them visible to Bristolians. We will forage for these non-comestible, non-biodegradable objects, and present them to the public as artefacts of contemporary life, in which ocean currents and local actions both place plastics in the landscape. On our Harbourside stand (12-14 June), people will be able to handle the found items and reflect on what they might tell us about our relationship with land, water, and energy production and consumption. We have also been inspired by project PhD student Alex Portch’s interest in ‘future archaeology’. These objects, already embedded in the riverbank, will form a historical record by which we may be judged in future. What will they say about us, our present time, past actions, and future hopes? Using the found plastics, members of the public may create narratives that express contemporary concerns, or simply tell a story about who we are and what we use in daily life.
The visual remains an effective tool to communicate environmental change, and we are also engaging with artists, notably Eloise Govier to reinterpret found plastics and polystyrenes in creative ways. Eloise’s work will feature on our FoN stand. In this respect, we are connecting with a visual trope in the arts whereby found plastics are reappropriated as art objects and curated in order to stimulate reflection on personal and societal responsibilities, local and global environmental challenges, and natural and unnatural materials. Pam Longobardi’s recovered flotsam artwork Plastic Looks Back graced the cover of Sierra magazine in 2014.
She believes that ‘a persuasive piece of eco-art can be an effective tool in the arsenal of social change’. Alejandro Duran’s series of installations, ‘Washed Up: Transforming a Trashed Landscape’ addresses the presence of plastics in Sian Ka’an, Mexico’s largest federally protected reserve and UNESCO world heritage site and actively seeks to change our relationship with consumption and waste; while UK-based Surfers Against Sewage deployed the highly stylized imagery of maritime tattoos in their latest campaign to highlight the scale of the marine litter problem. As tattoos, they hope, the images convey a ‘sense of permanence, something that the marine litter crisis is threatening if action is not taken soon’.
Visual and material evidence are powerful communicators, and we are looking forward to observing how the different elements of our FoN presence – water samples, historical documents, works of art, and found objects – not only communicate project research to the public but also start conversations and build relationships which will shape our work – both how we research, and how we communicate it – in the months to come. We will also be developing ideas for community-based responses to marine (and other) waste, and welcome interest from groups or individuals who might want to collaborate with us. From Balinese beaches to British riverbanks, rubbish represents cycles of human production and consumption, borne on natural forces of currents, winds, gyres, and tides, and deposited at our feet. Do we walk on, or do we stop and pick up the trash?
 I use the term non-biodegradable cautiously, as recent research suggests that some plastics (polyethylene) may be broken down by gut bacteria in plastic-eating waxworms. Though this offers hope for future solutions for eradicating persistent plastic waste, at the present time plastic remains stubbornly present in our ecosystems, long after its production and use. See Yang et al, ‘Evidence of Polyethylene Biodegradation by Bacterial Strains from the Guts of Plastic-Eating Waxworms’, Environment Science Technology 48:23 (2014), 13776 – 13784
 ‘Bali eyes 4m foreign tourists’, Jakarta Post 15 Jan 2015
 Green School Bamboo News, ‘Governor of Bali signs MoU with BBPB Team’, 1 Dec 2014 <https://www.google.co.uk/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=green+school+plastics+campaign+bali&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&gfe_rd=cr&ei=gxdaVZj0L-3H8gfc_ICwDQ>
 see Laura Watts, ‘Future Archaeologies: Method and Story’ keynote given at Society of Museum Archaeologists Conference, Winchester 2009; and ‘OrkneyLab: An Archipelago Experiment in Futures’, in Ingold and Janowski (eds.), Imagining Landscapes (Ashgate 2012)
 Steve Hawk, ‘Spout: the Finer Side of Flotsam’, Sierra online, September 2014 < http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2014-5-september-october/spout/finer-side-flotsam>