I first remember hearing about ocean gyres vaguely on television while I was still in high school, half-watching the evening national news in my parents’ house. I mostly remember seeing an astonishingly large amount of small, everyday plastic products washed up on some remote Hawaiian shore.
The next mention I heard of gyres was in the review of a book called Moby Duck. The basic premise of the book is that a man quits his job as a teacher after becoming slightly obsessed with the story of a cargo container that went overboard in 1992, spilling 28,800 plastic bathtub toys into the Pacific Ocean (though people mostly only remember the yellow, floating rubber ducks) and the journey of those toys from the middle of the ocean to distance places such as Maine and Alaska.
What is an ocean gyre? An ocean gyre is “any large system of rotating ocean currents, particularly those involved with large wind movements,” and those currents tend to gather any pollution in the ocean and bring it together into a clump known as a garbage patch. The largest constituent of the world garbage patches is plastic.
I was lucky enough to catch the Gyre: The Plastic Ocean exhibit while it’s at the Anchorage Museum. The main premise is to educate visitors about the lifespan of plastic — it doesn’t biodegrade, it just breaks down into tinier and tinier pieces — and the effect of plastic on the natural world. The exhibit manages to find a nice balance between educating people and using art to demonstrate the longevity and multi-functionality of plastic. There were some facts and tidbits that I suspect a lot of people have already heard before, about turtles eating plastic bags that they mistake for jellyfish, and the reiteration of reduce, reuse, recycle.
There were other dimensions of the exhibit that were unique. The picture below of bread bag clips is one image that’s stuck with me. I never thought before about how many of those must exist in the world and the fact that after a week or so they get thrown in the trash. Now whenever I open a loaf of store bought bread, I always notice that little piece of plastic and turn it over in my hand a few times. The exhibit in general has made me think about how I can reduce the number of small, useful yet short shelf-life plastic items that I unconsciously use everyday. I try not to use produce bags anymore, when I can avoid it.
Another piece in the exhibit that has really stayed with me is the picture below of an albatross chick that was found dead, with its stomach decomposed so you can view all the little bits of plastic it accidentally ingested thinking those bits were food. There is something profoundly sad about the fact that this happens.
I’d like to think that’s the aim of the artists who participated in making Gyre: The Plastic Ocean. That placing those images and information in front of people will cause them to pause during ordinary moments in their day and think about the impact of the products they use on the environment and animals. And subsequently that those little pauses will cause people to make different choices than they have in the past, instead of mindlessly consuming and discarding what’s put in front of us on a daily basis.
If you’d like to read more about the creation of Gyre: The Plastic Ocean, this is a good resource.
Additional images can be found here.