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Our Environmental Albatross: Throw-Away Plastics

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 14, 2010
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
Inspired by scientific exploration of the Great Garbage Patch in theNorth Pacific Gyre, artist Anna Helper has created extraordinary huge, haunting and disturbing translucent structures from plastic waste from a local salvage yard. Her woven cloud-like mass, called The Gyre, was displayed at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art.

A story in The Scientist by Katherine Bagley describes and illustrates Helper's work, and explains she is using many of the same materials to create a new exhibit for the Portland Museum of Art that will be called Great Haul.

Helper says in The Scientist story she has always been fascinated by the color and translucence of plastic, and the work inspired by the island of garbage has disorienting beauty. Her work Intricate Universe shows her fascination with swarms, which might be birds, insects or even plastic particles in water.

Scientists have another view of the plastics and other garbage that are forming a growing floating Pacific ocean mass twice the size of Texas. The Environmental Grafiti blog by Robin Bennett explains how American yachtsman Charles Moore discovered the island of trash. Gyres are ocean regions where ocean currents are slowed by minimal winds and high pressure weather systems. They are spots of deadly doldrums where, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" a doomed sailing vessel was "As idle as a painted ship, Upon a painted ocean." Coleridge also captured the ghastly image of refuse caught and trapped by converging currents.

Yes slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon a slimy sea.
About, about, in reel and rout,
'The Death-fires danced at night.
The water, like a witch's oils,
Burnt green, and blue and white.

The North Pacific Gyre has grown faster than global warming models have predicted, and plastic waste from the U.S. and Asia now makes up 80 percent of the trash mass collecting in that ocean region. Other ocean gyres are gathering trash, but the North Pacific mass seems to be the largest. The millions of tons of plastic don't degrade, but they do break into tiny pieces that are beginning to replace eroding rock as a source of sand. They are alsoenteringthe food chain as creatures absorb and ingest them Bennett points out in his blog that these plastics are reaching the human food supply, with consequences that aren't yet understood. Nineteen of 21 species of Albatross-the bird the Ancient Mariner was cursed for killing-are among the creatures endangered today in part because of the plastic trash. When the birds ingest plastic particles, the space in their stomachs needed for food for their chicks is reduced. The mariner was redeemed, but the future of the great wasteland of trash is unknownand the possibilities for clean-up are not encouraging.

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