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Plastic pollution: A message from nature, an opportunity for art

On Saturday morning I woke early to a bright, pink sunrise with just one thing on my mind: plastic. Last year I started speaking and giving workshops to young people and adults as a writer and artist covering stories of plastic pollution, science and solutions around the world. I have an upcoming workshop making plastic art with students for which I’ll need a lot of plastic. I decided this was the perfect morning to go out and find some.

I ended up driving about 30 minutes west from my apartment to my favorite beach on Long Island’s North Shore. It’s located at the edge of a large New York State Park with 1,520 acres of forest and shoreline on the Long Island Sound. I grew up living within walking distance to this beach and would visit daily to run, walk or take photos of osprey, hawks, seals, turtles, deer and other animals. Over time I noticed fewer animals and more people—and more trash.

©Erica Cirino

It’s a two-mile walk to the beach from the park’s main lot. I stuck to the primary trails, veering off into the woods any time I saw plastic…which seemed to be everywhere. I found bottle caps, wrappers, water bottles, plastic food containers, a bungee cord and a foamy football mixed into wet, crunchy leaves and branches. A lot of it was covered or half-buried in mud. Along the way I took photos of all the trash I collected before stuffing it into my backpack. I’d already filled it about halfway before I set foot on the sand.

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

On the beach I collected plastic for about an hour, focusing mostly on its tall cliffs. That’s where a lot of lighter trash blows—things like balloons and rope and plastic bottles. The beach was generally covered with household trash: lots of food wrappers and containers, lighters, pens and construction debris. When I finally got down to the wrack line, my backpack was bulging, but I wanted to see if I could find any unusual items that had recently washed ashore.

©Erica Cirino

Immediately my eyes were drawn to something that wasn’t plastic: a decaying rose bouquet that had been tossed on the beach. Was it to memorialize someone? Was it to celebrate a Valentine? Was it from a wedding?

©Erica Cirino

I started photographing the bouquet, mesmerized by the depth of the red rose petals—some still attached to the flowers and others plucked and wilting on the sand—in the now-grey midmorning light. Lying belly-down on the damp sand, I wriggled around for the best low angle. When adjusting my camera settings, I noticed a red bottle cap sitting by my elbow. It reminded me of one of the wilting petals. So I placed it near the real petals. Then I realized I could easily find more bottle caps, and other red pieces of plastic. I realized this could be a statement about mourning the loss of unspoiled nature due to plastic pollution.

©Erica Cirino

Excitedly, I leapt up and started looking in the reedy wrack line and by the muddy cliff. Within a minute I had two handfuls of red plastic trash. Then I noticed a group of cyclists on beach bikes with big, crushing tires cruising toward me through the sand. I ran to the bouquet and stood protectively over it, like a human safety cone. The cyclists chattered about their opinions on the best brand of beach bike as they nonchalantly veered around me. Clearly, I was the only one made anxious by the close call.

With the cyclists gone and the bouquet unscathed, I started placing the red plastic items into the vicinity of the petals. Then I flopped back onto the ground, adjusted my camera and started snapping photos.

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

Afterward, I grabbed the red plastic items and slipped them into my backpack, and started the hike back to my car.

It’s this kind of spontaneous thought I hope to inspire in the students I work with in my plastic-art workshops. I hope that they too can look at plastic trash collected from a beach and see the messages nature is sending us. Sometimes we have to look at the painful things in life in order to understand why protecting the things that are beautiful is so important.

©Erica Cirino

Erica Cirino is an international science writer and artist covering stories about plastic pollution, science and solutions. In the past year she’s twice sailed the Pacific, crossed from the East to West Coasts of the US, traveled twice to Europe, and visited some of the most polluted beaches in Asia and the West Indies. Her stories on plastic appear in Scientific American, VICE, Oceans Deeply and other popular science publications. Learn more about Erica’s work with plastic here

This post was originally published to the National Geographic “Changing Planet” Blog.  

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