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Ban-Ban and the Power of Sympathetic Vibrations: Notes from the Gyre Symposium in Atlanta

Source: The Daily Catch/Barbara de Vries - April 10, 2015 in Adventure, Featured

Ban-Ban and the Power of Sympathetic Vibrations: Notes from the Gyre Symposium in Atlanta
Photo: Chris Arend for Anchorage Museum

plastic gyre

“Only beauty gives heart and warmth to science,” says Captain Charles Moore, the keynote speaker at the 2015 Welch Symposium Plastic GYRE: Artists, Scientists and Activists Respond at Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA, March 26th/27th. Moore, the discoverer of the “Plastic Gyre” in the North Pacific (NPPG) in 1999, laid out the most convincing argument yet for legislation that stops plastic waste from entering waterways and oceans. Based on fifteen years of research, Moore finds that the amount of plastic in the Gyre increases with each research trip. Most of the plastic has broken down to small particles, micro-plastics that now outnumber plankton (fish food) at least six-fold. These particles absorb toxicants and enter the food chain and have been found inside 177 different species of seabirds, ocean mammals and fish. Moore calls the ocean the womb of our planet, the place where life began and evolved over three billion years, and points out that the introduction of plastic by humans (a mere 60 years ago) is the biggest threat ever to a living ocean and the future of all life, both on land and in water.

The symposium lasted two days and brought together over 35 speakers, a mix of scientists, artists, activists and industry leaders that represented the core of plastic pollution activists in the US. Early on the first day it was brought to our attention that a new law had been proposed in the Georgia legislature, which would make it illegal for individual communities to start a “ban the plastic shopping bag movement.” One audience member noted that this ban already existed in Florida, restricting local governments’ ability to enact plastic bag laws. Introduced by the plastics lobby in the Sunshine State this law passed under the radar in 2008. We were baffled. How could this be? It seemed like a bad joke and we facetiously called it “Ban-Ban,” unaware that Ban-Ban would soon be the galvanizing metaphor for the entire Gyre symposium.

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Pam Longobardi addresses the Symposium.

The event was organized and chaired by artist Pam Longobardi, a distinguished professor at Georgia State University. Pam opened by saying that the symposium was a call to activism with the intent to end our addiction to plastic. Longobardi is the founder of the Drifters Project and first came across ocean plastic in 2006, when she visited a remote beach in Hawaii. She still remembers this beach as a crime scene and has since dedicated herself to raising awareness through art and activism that exposes the falsehood of the plastic panacea. “Art can bear witness to every crime, it speaks for that which has no voice and communicates things that science cannot.” A force of nature herself, Pam assembled an extraordinary group of women and men that are, each in their own way, deeply and passionately involved with plastic through art, activism, research and science. Every individual speaker contributed a single part to what became one cohesive entity by the end of Friday.

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From left to right: Pam Longobardi, Barbara de Vries, Jeff Gold, Asher Jay, Paulita Bennet Martin, Ellen Caldwell.

I spoke at 5pm on the first day, in a group that Pam called “The Good News Blitz,” anticipating that at this point people might need a positive boost. There’d been tears when National Geographic photographer Susan Middleton told about her trip to Midway Island (North Pacific) in 2004.

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Photo: Susan Middleton

A baby albatross lived near her shed and Susan named him Shed Bird. She took his picture as he explored around his nest, lost his baby down, grew into a gangly teenager, first spread his massive wings preparing for flight but the last picture of Shed Bird made him iconic beyond all expectation. The image that National Geographic published of Shed Bird was of his opened corpse, showing

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Photo: Susan Middleton

a belly full of plastic, and alongside it an eerily compelling image of all the individual pieces of plastic that Susan had extracted and displayed in a perfect circle.

I remember this photo. I cut it out and it still hangs, like a faded omen, over my workbench – a reminder of who I was ten years ago, only weeks after I’d come across my first beach plastic on the Bahamian Island of Eleuthera and just before I started making jewelry from beach plastic.

As each of us spoke we realized just how connected we were; we used the same vocabulary to describe our experiences and the plastic was identical, whether it was found in Alaska, Bali or Florida. Once up on stage we were so impassioned that it was hard to stop talking. There was relief that we were not alone and what resonated most was a sense that if the currents of the oceans could converge and create massive gyres of plastic from the inert waste of our culture, we too could converge to create a gyre of living and breathing ideas, intentions and solutions to this (our) plastic problem in a yin-yang collusion of energy and matter.

There were several speakers whose reputation preceded them, like Marcus Erikson from the 5Gyres Institute and Dianna Cohen of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Marcus had just flown in from a trip to Antarctica and was still shaky from being chased by a fur seal. He compares plastic pollution of the oceans to emissions smog in the air, and intends to call the Plastic Soup “Plastic Smog” instead. He advocates making the same legislative effort as has been enacted to limit smog, through closing the plastic production/recycling loop, waste diversion, phasing out problematic plastics, producer responsibility and consumer accountability.

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Alaska Debris, David J Sencer CDC Museum, Sonya Kelliher-Combs

As one of the hosts of the event, Plastic Pollution Coalition co-founder and CEO Dianna Cohen is a whirlwind of positive energy and it’s easy to see how she recruited coalition members as diverse and notable as Sylvia Earle, Kelly Slater, Jack Johnson, Bette Midler, Jeff Bridges, Laura Dern, The Girl Scouts of America, Greenpeace, Danny Glover, Teamsters President James P. Hoffa Jr. and many, many more. Most recently the Coalition partnered with the Bonnaroo Music Festival and started a full-on refill revolution by selling reusable stainless steel cups and bottles that come with one dollar off on beer and free refill water. Seven thousand five hundred were sold in 2014 and the festival has doubled its order for this year, thus making a big impact on reducing the total plastic waste generated by the festival.

Antonia Calafat, chief of the Organic Analytical Toxicology Branch at the Center for Disease Control, showed data of plastic studies on humans and how our ever-increasing dependence on plastic affects our health as plastic toxins not only enter the eco-system but also our own system in cumulative amounts. Plastic chemicals are known to cause cancer, obesity and infertility. Antonia showed numbers that indicated improvement after the new legislation against the use of BPA plastic for food related application was introduced, but at the same time the new BPS chemicals, created to replace BPA, were showing signs of harmful effects in early testing.

Plastic Pollution CoalitionChelsea Rochman, Smith Fellow in Conservation Biology at UC Davis, has completed further field research on toxicants in ocean plastic in the eco-system as hundreds of species ingest plastic particles that are contaminated and how these toxicants subsequently enter our food chain. The cocktail of toxicants found in ocean plastics includes BPA, PBDE, phthalates, styrenes, PCb’s (banned in 1980), and DDT among countless others. She studied plastic ingestion by fish caught by commercial fisherman in both Key West and Indonesia and discovered an equal amount (26%) inside fish bound for the dinner table. This further proves the presence of plastic particles in all the oceans—fish as far apart as 11,000 miles ingested equal amounts.

Laura Seydel, chairperson of the Captain Planet Foundation gave one of the most empowered talks of the day. As an environmental activist she mobilized her local community to stop the pollution of the Upper Chattahoochee River. Daughter of media mogul Ted Turner, Laura read a letter from her father that expressed his support for the Gyre Symposium and his regret for not being able to attend personally. She also gave us an update on the Ban-Ban. In a fateful turn of events, the Georgia house was voting on the controversial law on Friday morning, the second day of our convention. Little did the plastic lobbyists know that the largest force against their bill was gathered a mere three miles away. Laura, a powerful local figure, learned the vote would be close and the symposium hosts immediately dispatched a team of Ban the Bag activists to lobby for the civil right to petition against plastic proliferation.

Speaker Jeff Gould, founder and CEO of Nexus Fuels, showed us how difficult-to-recycle plastics can be up-cycled by converting them to synthetic crude oil as an alternative fuel source, keeping plastic away from garbage dumps and providing another solution to the overwhelming amount of plastic waste we generate. Carter and Olivia Ries, the founders of One More Generation were the youngest speakers at ages 14 and 12, respectively. Their first passion is animal rescue and preservation, but they recently launched the Plastic Awareness Coalition and their goal is to get a plastic awareness curriculum into every elementary school and provide each student with their own stainless steel bottle and reusable cloth bag.

The trailer for Plastic China, by filmmaker Juliang Wang of Berkeley University, gave us a shocking account of what happens to discarded plastic when it is sent to China for “recycling.” We saw how entire Chinese villages are buried in plastic waste that is delivered from the “developed” world, yielding the recycling companies only about $700 per ton. Women were sorting through mountains of crushed soda bottles while their children played with found syringes as if they were squirt guns. Fresh water has to be trucked into these villages because toxic plastic chemicals have contaminated the groundwater. These were some of the most devastating images of the symposium since they, like Shed Bird ten years earlier, bore witness to a never-seen-before, tragic consequence of our plastic dependence.

Some artists use shock to engage, others use beauty, humor or love. Like artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs, who showed her Alaskan family tree, pictures of kinfolk, and how her love for domestic life in simple fishing villages inspires her art. Her relatives reuse everything, neighbors share their tools and containers and no-one ever wastes a thing, yet the Alaskan shorelines are awash in plastic waste thrown away by the neighboring culture – the one that calls itself “civilized.”

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Alaska Debris, David J Sencer CDC Museum, Sonya Kelliher-Combs

Art tends to flourish in controversial times and the second day of the Symposium was dedicated to the opening of the GYRE exhibition at the David J. Sencer CDC Museum, Atlanta. Julie Decker, the curator and CEO of the Anchorage Museum, created the show in 2014 by pulling together the work of 25 international artists. The groundbreaking exhibition is considered a benchmark for plastic-pollution awareness. After Atlanta, the show will go to the Los Angeles USC Fisher Museum of Art and will continue from there, adding local artists with site-specific work to the existing mix as it travels and gathers momentum.

Shown alongside the Gyre exhibit is the National Geographic documentary The Gyre, Creating Art from a Plastic Ocean, by director JJ Kelley. The film follows artists and scientists led by Howard Ferren of the Alaska Sea Life Center as they explore the Alaskan shoreline by boat.

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Barbara de Vries’ beach plastic jewelry.

The comprehensive experience of the film and the exhibition drives home the message that we live in a manmade world, are plastic people and that archeologists will probably call this the Plastic Age. These might well be alien archeologists since (unlike plastic) planet earth is not disposable. To illustrate the 10 million cubic tons of plastic that end up in the oceans every year, a selection of plastic straws, bottles, caps, nylon rope, etc. from the Alaskan expedition is “sorted” in clear Lexan boxes. The artists in the show hail from places as far afield as Finland, Australia, Canada, the USA and the United Kingdom, and their art is often literal, disturbing, playful and beautiful. All the pieces depend heavily on the repetition and volume that are inherent to the subject.

The last panel of the symposium on Friday afternoon addressed Social Justice. It was short two panelists, who were still at the Georgia House lobbying for votes against the Ban-Ban bill, but lawyer Lisa Kaas-Boyle, co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Heather White of the Environmental Working Group, and Rashid Nuri of Truly Living Well, spoke passionately about empowering people to lead healthier lives in healthy environments, free from plastic pollution. While the panel spoke about urban farms, how to reduce plastic use in poor communities, and how to introduce new legislation, several members of the audience frantically checked their iPhones and gave updates on the state of affairs at the House. We were told that the vote was “close” when it had started.

Introduced by six senators, Bill 139 passed in the Senate last February in a 34-18 vote. Anticipating a bigger battle today, plastic lobbyists had been canvassing aggressively all morning, but they were up against panel member and former state Representative Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, as well as delegates from Athens and Tybee Island. This island community had been preparing to institute bag bans to protect their beaches, turtles and other wildlife in support of the tourist trade that comes to the island specifically for a pristine nature experience.

The real-time paradox of social justice as a both concept and reality wasn’t lost on anyone. The irony of the situation also generated a sense of nervous anticipation and when Dianna Cohen suddenly called out “…we won!” two hundred people erupted into cheers and hugged, laughed and wept. As a perfect illustration of self-determination, the vote to pass Bill 139 failed by a vote of 65 to 85, and social justice had been served.

Plastic Pollution Coalition2

Because of the party atmosphere that ensued, keynote speaker Captain Moore started late and I had to leave before the end to catch my plane. On my way out, I passed the caterers as they prepared for the closing reception. I noticed that water would be served from glass bottles, wine and beverages in glasses, the buffet was stacked with earthenware platters, and the plates and cutlery were made from reusable bamboo. Tables were set up with colorful glass centerpieces, which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be laboratory flasks filled with water and layers of multi-colored beach plastic. Was this morphic resonance?

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Table Centerpieces, Paulita Bennett Martin

The idea that, through a telepathic effect or sympathetic vibration, an idea raised in one mind can then arise in another. How many times had I used my collection of beach plastic to decorate a dinner party? I’d often written the names of my guests on pieces of beach plastic, used cool plastic shapes as table centerpieces, and made party-favor bracelets out of drift rope for every female guest. I loved the way Pam brought ocean plastic, art and science together with the flasks, whereas I made my friends wear the beach plastic. I wondered what the other artists used to decorate their parties. Only a few of us knew each other beforehand and we’d come from all over the world, yet everyone was tuned to the same sympathetic vibrations, which had been honed tightly after spending two days together. We had gained a deeper understanding and felt empowered by winning the Ban-Ban. Together we will carry the message to an ever-broader audience, making waves and creating the swell of a huge movement, until every shore is reached and every person touched.

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Barbara de Vries, founder of Plastic is Forever, first became involved in ocean plastic activism in 2006, when she noticed plastic debris on the pristine beaches of Eleuthera, The Bahamas. As the former design director of CK Calvin Klein she uses her fashion experience to create collections that highlight the problem in collaboration with Barneys New York, The Nature Conservancy, Oceana, Surfrider etc. She has shown at Art Basel Miami, Gallery Diet Miami, the Coral Gables Museum and Mildred’s Lane, PA. Her work is featured in the documentary One Beach and her TEDx talk. Aware that one single person will never make a difference to the amount of plastic that washes up on every beach with every wave, Barbara teaches workshops and encourages everyone to incorporate beach plastic in their creative process.

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