Screen shot 2016-02-18 at 11.17.01 AM


The numbers don’t lie. The ocean contains around 5 trillion pieces of plastic debris – 269,000 tons float on the ocean’s surface, while around four billion plastic microfibers per km2 are suspended in the deep.* Previously, very little information was known on the location of plastic debris in the Southern Hemisphere, however, in just the last couple years, scientists have ventured there to gather data to paint a better picture of where this debris is accumulating. According to Kara Lavender Law, an oceanographer at the Sea Education Association in Wood Hole, MA, “the first piece is to understand where it is.” Despite this, the location is just the beginning. There are multiple aspects involved in calculating the real damage this plastic waste has on the marine environment. Two additional pieces to consider are the density levels of the accumulating plastic, as well as the process of how it degrades.

The most recent count from researchers at the University of Cadiz in Spain portrays a more accurate picture of the numbers of plastic items in our world’s oceans. One of the issues complicating the process of totaling the plastic numbers in our oceans is the size variation of the plastic pieces. They can range from hundreds of meters down to just microns. The globes pictured below depict the measured number of plastic items per km2 and their location as totaled by researchers at the University of Cadiz.

Number of plastic items in the North Pacific and South Pacific Gyres (Source:

Number of plastic items in the North Pacific and South Pacific Gyres

Plastic in the North Atlantic and South Atlantic Gyres

Number of plastic items in the North Atlantic and South Atlantic Gyres

Plastics in the Indian Ocean Gyre

Number of plastic items in the Indian Ocean Gyre

As you can see from the globes, trash tends to accumulate in the world’s five large ocean gyres. A gyre is simply a large, spinning ocean current. As the plastic gets sucked into the gyre, it degrades over time, and then sinks to the depths, where strong currents sweep the trash to various ocean locations.


Ocean trash can be counted in multiple ways. The most rudimentary method is simple beach surveys. However nowadays, modern technology has provided alternative methods to conventional approaches. Computer models can generate totals in various locations based on samples collected in that certain location. Additionally, totals can be estimated based on the amount of trash that enters the ocean.


The bigger question is what to do with all this trash collected from our world’s oceans. A team in south central Alaska tackled this predicament in a novel way – instead of disposing of this waste, why not repurpose it? The short Film Grye: Creating Art from a Plastic Ocean, produced and directed by J.J. Kelley, chronicled the team’s Alaskan expedition to rid the beaches of waste and put it on display in a museum in Anchorage. The group was a conglomeration of many careers, including artists, scientists,

An Albatross carcass filled with pieces of plastic

An Albatross carcass filled with pieces of plastic

and conservationists. Although differing in their professional paths, the team’s mindset towards ocean trash converged into one. Something had to be done. According to members of the team, the garbage on the southern Alaskan beaches stood out more than the nature. A generation ago, this overwhelming trash wasn’t even an issue. What used to be pristine natural coastline is now a materialized dumping site. Many animals on the Alaska coastline, especially albatross and seals, eat enough plastic to kill them. The goal with this project was to turn trash into art to raise awareness about its effect on the world’s oceans and wildlife.

Members of the public taking in the exhibit

Members of the public taking in the exhibit

The unique aspect of this project was that it went beyond just the science of the issue. Science is a very factual field. It teaches us about the world and the many processes that shape it. However, what science doesn’t necessarily always allow us to do is express how all this makes us feel. This project worked to evoke feelings from those who viewed it by combining science with the aesthetics of art, in the hopes that it would get message across.

So, how does all this trash end up on the Alaskan beaches in the first place? The Alaskan Coastal Current runs in the Gulf of Alaska close to the shoreline. The large North Pacific gyre spins clockwise in the North Pacific. As discussed previously, these gyres contribute to the trash accumulation. Trash is sucked up into the North Pacific gyre and is flung onto the beaches by the Alaskan Coastal Current.

Pam Longobardi was the lead artist for the project. She dreamed of being a marine biologist as a child, but eventually her path led her to become an artist. She viewed the trashed splayed among the beach as more than just waste: “I feel like nature has played a hand in shifting this material debris that we’ve created and its putting it in a place for us to look at.” To her, the end result is not the only outcome from the project: “The action of cleaning a beach changes you. It puts your in a position of care.”

Mark Dion, a visual artist on the team, was fascinated by the colors produced by the debris. He observed the way that the plastics were transformed by nature, both in a textural and visual way. Dion

Screen shot 2016-02-14 at 12.09.10 PM

expressed how the art “pushes the visual language beyond how you might talk about this stuff.” The beach offered such a variety of materials to work with within the waste. “In a way, the beach has become our studio,” Dion said.

Screen shot 2016-02-14 at 12.10.29 PM

Visual artist, Mark Dion, organizing plastic pieces by color

The team worked endlessly to clean up the beaches. They collected the trash, bagged it, and dragged it onto their dinghy to be removed.

The team drags bags of garbage off the beach

The team drags bags of garbage off the beach

Transporting the trash off the beaches by boat

Transporting the trash off the beaches by boat






The museum in Anchorage where the exhibit was held

The museum in Anchorage where the exhibit was held

Once the removal process was complete, the trash was transformed and displayed in a 7,500-foot gallery at the AnchorageMuseum at Rasmuson Center. The exhibit was not only a magnificent display of creative and moving pieces, but also an effective tool in teaching the public about the issue. According to Howard Ferren, a marine conservationist and the expedition leader, “No matter what language you speak, you can understand what is being told through this expedition.” The photographs below show just some of the pieces in the exhibit:

Screen shot 2016-02-14 at 12.45.37 PM

Screen shot 2016-02-14 at 12.45.26 PM

Screen shot 2016-02-14 at 12.46.48 PM

Screen shot 2016-02-14 at 12.48.44 PM

Screen shot 2016-02-14 at 12.48.59 PM

So after all this, we go away wondering, what’s the bottom line? The answer to this question? – to change people’s behaviors. After all, we’re the ones producing this waste. Let’s combat the problem from the source. If we can decrease the amount of trash we create in the first place, and educate the public on proper disposal, we could start to return the beaches to their original, pristine conditions and save the lives of the wildlife who call the beaches their home.

*National Geographic

For a the full film, visit:

All images (with the exception of the Albatross image) from:

Albatross image source: