We met Maarten Vanden Eynde in 2010 on the shores of Bermuda as he boarded the Sea Dragon for the 5 Gyres expedition across the North Pacific Gyre to investigate the garbage patch in the Sargasso Sea. That was the beginning of Maarten’s 3 year adventure around the world to islands in all 5 subtropical gyres to collect trash for the PLASTIC REEF. Eventually 2000 pounds of plastic pollution was melted into this sculpture. It’s an artificial reef, but also a warning for the future.
Last week 5 Gyres was invited to Bergen, Norway to participate in a series of lectures about plastic pollution. We reported our recent publication of a new garbage patch of plastic pollution in the South Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Maarten’s sculpture dominated the exhibit hall next door. “It looks so real,” someone commented. But who’s reality? 50 years ago it was an alien material. Today it’s a plague destroying marine ecosystems, and 50 years from now it may be the new normal we resign ourselves to.
I asked the audience the question, “How much of Maarten’s Plastic Reef could have been recycled? All of it or none of it?” I had to qualify the question, by stating that it depends on whether you mean ‘recycling’ in technical sense or a practical sense. The truth here is that none of the Plastic Reef was recycled, and none of it was designed for recycling. The only reason plastic bottles have a reasonable recovery rate is because there are bottle deposit programs that create a monetary incentive. The reason why plastic bags litter or waterways worldwide is because they have no post-consumer value. The problem is not only a litter problem, but one of design and material use. If the plastics industry is going to put most of their effort behind recycling, then every plastic product must recyclable in a practical sense, otherwise design it to be benign in the environment. We don’t want any plastic reefs outside of art museums.