Making art in the hope that a solution to ocean plastics isn’t our white whale

In November 2018, a dead sperm whale washed up on an Indonesian shore. It had 5.9 kilograms of plastic waste in its stomach. Drinking cups, pop bottles, flip flops, plastic bags, and other assorted bits of plastic. This was not the first nor the most plastic-laden whale to wash up. For example, there was a whale that washed up in Spain with nearly 30 kilograms of plastic in its stomach. And then there were the 13 whales that washed up in Germany with things like a 13-metre long fishing net and a 70-centimetre piece of plastic from a car in their stomachs, among other things. Oh and let’s not forget the whale that died in Thailand with 80 plastic bags (and other plastic items) in its stomach. In comparison, 5.9 kilograms seems like child’s play, which is a crazy thing to say.

In planning the lineup for my upcoming solo show, I had already left a placeholder for a mosaic about ocean plastics. I know, I know, it seems like I only just made a mosaic about how the oceans aren’t the only game in town when it comes to plastics. But in planning a show about the Anthropocene, I couldn’t ignore this issue, especially when you consider the staggering statistics. Like the fact that we’re dumping about 8 million tonnes of plastic into the oceans every year, and this number could double by 2025 if we don’t take action. The ocean currents collect this plastic into five gigantic gyres, the biggest of which—the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—is three times the size of France and growing. It contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic.

So, needless to say, ocean plastics earned their spot in my lineup. I initially thought the piece was going to be inspired by the statistic about the oceans having more plastic than fish by 2050 if current trends continue. But as soon as I read the story about that whale, I knew this was the plastics piece I was meant to create and that it was going to be called “In The Belly Of The Whale”.

Can you find the unintentional fish? Didn’t mean for it to get in there, but I love that it happened.

So I rounded up all the random bits of plastic I could find in the house, plus those I had already squirrelled away in my studio, and got to work. There are utensils, the caps from nut milk cartons, zip ties, contact lens packaging, old skin lotion containers, the plungers from syringes we use to give the dog his meds, strips of plastic bags, and so many other random goodies (baddies?).

“In The Belly Of The Whale” (2019), 24″h x 30″w — plastic and styrofoam

For me, the dangling strips of plastic hanging from the belly of the whale (who is, of course, belly up…sorry to be such a downer), are kind of like a strange new species of seaweed made of microplastics. Now, of course whales don’t eat seaweed, but it speaks to how plastics are worming their way into the food web at all levels. They get in at the top when they get mistaken for food and eaten whole (those plastic bags look an awfully lot like jellyfish). And they insert themselves at the bottom once they’ve been broken down into smaller micro- and nanoplastics and taken up by things like plankton, insects, fish, birds, etc. So organisms at the top of the food web get a sort of double exposure, as they get tricked into eating whole plastic items, plus their normal food now also contains plastics that have been concentrating in predators and prey right up the food chain.

Tentacles!

So the bad news is that we probably can’t filter out the plastics that have already made their way into the ocean, especially the microscopic bits. But we can stem the flow of plastics into the oceans, because the vast majority of the plastic that ends up there comes from sources on land (e.g., it’s not from marine activities, like fishing vessels). I’ve already provided a list of easy actions you can take in my post about freshwater microplastics, but here’s a refresher:

  • Nix the bottled water.
  • Carry a travel mug and even travel utensils. For instance, I have a very strict rule for myself: if I can’t get it in a “for here” mug and if I don’t have my travel mug with me, I don’t get to buy a coffee. Pretty good motivation to have that mug with you!
  • Take a hard look at what you buy and how it’s packaged, and look for alternatives, like taking your own reusable containers to the Bulk Barn (and thanks, Bulk Barn, for letting us bring our own containers!).
  • Just say no to plastic bags. (Your fruits and veggies will be just fine without one. Trust me.)
  • Watch what you wear. You can deal with microfibres up front (e.g., limiting your nylon or fleece duds) or you can grab something to catch the rogue fibres in the wash.
  • Use beeswax cloth instead of plastic wrap.
  • Break up with any of your toiletries that contain microbeads.
One thing you can do: recycle properly (if you can’t eliminate the plastic in the first place)

I hate that I find these plastic bits so inspiring, artistically speaking. It unsettles me. And that’s probably a good thing, because while I try to be conscientious about what I buy and to limit the plastic I use, it’s still surprising how much of it creeps into my life. Working on this mosaic made entirely of plastic—the majority of which was just from our house—has served as a good reminder to me that I can (and will!) do better.  

Knotted strips of plastic bag in with the plastic bits

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11 Responses to Making art in the hope that a solution to ocean plastics isn’t our white whale

  1. gregorylent February 16, 2019 at 11:24 am #

    what is the glue?

  2. Heather Smith February 17, 2019 at 1:36 pm #

    your piece will serve as a reminder to all of us to do better. I really have to nix the plastic bags I use for some produce.

    • Julie Sperling February 17, 2019 at 10:27 pm #

      I find the plastic produce bags the hardest. And we even have some nylon ones we can use, but somehow they just find their way into our life. Sneaky little bastards. I’m determined to try harder.

  3. elizwhit February 18, 2019 at 9:37 am #

    Brilliant piece Julie. I’m a recycler too and will now pay even closer attention.

    • Julie Sperling February 18, 2019 at 12:40 pm #

      Thanks Elizabeth! Yup, we’re now taking a good hard look at what’s coming into the house and trying to stop it before it has to be recycled. We’re not perfect, but we’re making progress!

  4. lynnadamo February 18, 2019 at 11:21 am #

    It is scary how beautiful the white plastic tesserae are! A thing that saddens me is that the market for recycling plastics is greatly diminished. Most of the plastics people think they are recycling end up in landfills. So yeah, reducing plastics we use should be our first step (and a hard one!)

    • Julie Sperling February 18, 2019 at 12:39 pm #

      Yup, the 3 Rs are in that order for a reason :-) So hard, even when one is conscientious.

  5. Gail Coppock March 5, 2019 at 9:28 am #

    I find both your philosophy and your art inspiring. Thank you!
    More mundanely, what is the backing that you glued the plastic to?

    • Julie Sperling March 7, 2019 at 9:13 pm #

      Thank you! The plastic is stuck using mortar onto a substrate made of insulation board wrapped in layers of mesh and mortar.

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