From a historical and industrial perspective, plastic, like the petroleum it is derived from, helped to build the twentieth century. The roles of these substances in human progress is impossible to understate, just as their role in environmental degradation is impossible to overstate.
For that reason, eliminating single-use and disposable plastic has been the driving goal of Dianna Cohen for the last several years. A visual artist and co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Cohen has been involved with plastic in some form or another for almost the entirety of her career.
Building a Career on Plastic Pollution
Cohen began that career in the biology department of UCLA.
“At some point,” she said, “I transferred to the Art Department, probably because everyone in the Science Department who saw my drawings told me that I should become a scientific illustrator. And though I love scientific illustrations, I thought, ‘Well, I’m more than that.’” She chuckled. “It might have been a little bit of ego, but I thought, of course, I’ve always been painting my whole life.”
By the time Cohen graduated, she was displaying her paintings in galleries. It was soon after graduation that she began doing the collage work that would define her artistic career.
“Mainly using deconstructed brown paper bags from the market, I started to discover this whole lexicon of symbols and language and numbers and text that were printed on them,” she said. “At some point, I combined a plastic bag that I had found in Belgium that had a botanical image of a plant printed on it.
“I find a really deep irony in printing images of plants and trees and flowers onto plastic bags. Originally, when plastic bags were introduced in a more mass way at markets – particularly in the United States – the idea was that you were saving a tree by using a plastic bag.”
Cohen began exhibiting these collages in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. In 1994, she had her first solo exhibition of the bag series.
By this time she had begun to look at plastic bags in a different way. “I realized that everybody around me was using them,” she said. “You got them every time you purchased anything. I began combining different images and text and interesting fonts and logos and things that I was finding printed on the bags – cutting them up and reconnecting them to each other to make them say things that I wanted to talk about.”
Cohen continued to work in plastic throughout the decade, building up to even bigger pieces that stretched beyond canvases and doorskins and hung from or even brushed the ceilings. But after the first eight years, some of the bags in earlier pieces began to degrade.
“It was mainly on pieces that had been subjected to light,” she said. “Someone had hung one in a very sunny day room in San Francisco and that piece…basically all the colors dropped out of the bags and some of the bags began to get fissures and tears in them. And another piece had the misfortune of being hung near above a heating vent in someone’s home. It too began to shred in the frame.”
Cohen initially interpreted this as a good sign. “At first I got excited because I thought that it meant the plastic bags were ephemeral and organic like us,” she said, “and that they had a finite lifespan.”
Inspired by the idea, she began to research plastic to see if she was correct. She was decidedly not.
“What I found was that plastic never goes away,” she said. “It will photodegrade or heat-degrade by breaking apart into smaller bits, but it doesn’t actually disappear.”
Plastic’s Toxic Immortality
So far as the experts know, plastic has no expiration date. As Cohen discovered, it never truly goes away; it simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, hiding in the environment both in plain and not-so-plain sight. But what’s so bad about a little plastic?
This past December, the 5 Gyres Institute released a landmark paper that contained the first-ever global estimate of how much plastic is floating in the ocean. After six years and 24 expeditions that spanned 50,000 nautical miles, their researchers calculated that there are some 5.25 trillion plastic particles clogging the ocean’s surface layer. This plastic soup weighs a collective 269,000 tons – which is only 0.1 percent of the 288 million tons of plastic produced in 2012. The Institute itself has admitted their estimate is a conservative one and, though 88 percent of the ocean surface contains plastic debris, most of it is still unaccounted for.
One of its most notable destinations is the remote Midway Atoll. Back in November, I spoke with broadcaster and director Angela Sun, whose documentary, Plastic Paradise, explores Midway and the garbage that’s swamping its beaches. The island chain is located near the Pacific Trash Vortex, a subtropical convergence zone where wind and ocean currents suck in all the debris of the Pacific Ocean.
Birds from Midway eat the brightly-colored bottle caps, toothbrushes, toys and nurdles they find swirling in the gyre. Over time, their bellies distend from the undigestable garbage in their diet and they die, leaving behind piles of bones and debris on the beach. The birds also feed this trash to their chicks. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reported that that of the 200,000 to 500,000 albatross chicks born on the island, those that die have twice as much plastic in their stomachs as those that die from other causes.
That is a very visceral representation of the planet’s plastic problem. The more salient threat is invisible. Toxins adhere to plastics very easily. Even in the ocean, PCBs, DDT, pesticides, flame retardants, mercury and other organic pollutants are absorbed by plastic. In the ocean, small pieces of plastic are often mistaken for plankton and gobbled up by creatures big and small. Those toxins then pass into their system, which then pass into the systems of the creatures that consume them in turn.
This is why you’re supposed to limit your tuna intake. Tuna are predatory fish and they spend a long time at the top of the food chain eating up smaller fish that have small concentrations of toxins inside them. These toxins bio-accumulate in tuna until they’re caught and put on your plate. And then it bio-accumulates in you.
The problem is even worse in countries that still burn their trash. When plastic is burned, it releases dioxins and other chemicals in the atmosphere.
Dianna Cohen, who is included in the film Plastic Paradise, said, “Some indigenous people in the Pacific Ocean who live on island archipelagos have pits where they openly burn all their garbage, including all their plastic, and some of the men in these communities – due to inhaling the chemicals from these plastics – have become feminized. These chemicals that are used to make plastics include groups of chemicals called phthalates and groups of chemicals called bisphenols (BpA).”
At this stage, Cohen says she avoids plastic packaging like the plague. However, she is quick to note that avoiding it completely is impossible. “I mean, obviously I’m talking to you on a plastic telephone right now,” she said with a rueful laugh.
Forming the Plastic Pollution Coalition
In the summer of 2009, Cohen and others founded the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a “global alliance of individuals, organizations and businesses working together to stop plastic pollution and its toxic impacts on humans, animals, the ocean and the environment.”
In pursuit of that mission, Cohen has transformed from a purveyor of plastic into a reusable crusader. She has delivered TED talks, worked with schools and directed films that detail the often invisible impacts of this ubiquitous substance.
One project that has shown great promise is the PPC’s “Plastic Free Touring” initiative, which has managed to expose thousands of concertgoers to reusable alternatives to plastic waste.
Plastic Free Touring
About four years ago, during the Glastonbury Festival – the largest greenfield music festival in the world – Cohen had a chance to go behind-the-scenes to the event’s waste management facility. “There were just hundreds of thousands of plastic water bottles everywhere,” she said.
Cohen brainstormed a way to introduce larger reusable containers for various beverages at festival venues, talking it over with various groups until she came into contact with Superfly, the producers of the Bonnaroo festival.
“They were really interested in this,” said Cohen, “and so we made an agreement to launch a small-scale pilot project, which we did last year in June in conjunction with a company called Steelys Drinkware that makes stainless steel bottles and cups. And so in collaboration with Bonnaroo & Steelys, we launched the Refill Revolution.”
That first project was “very small scale,” said Cohen, composed of about 7,500 branded cups that were made available at every point of sale for beer.
The stainless steel cups were nearly double the price of a beer, but they came with valuable perks for the thirsty Bonaroovian: A neoprene strap and a carabiner that could hook onto pants or backpacks, and a dollar off their beer every time they presented the cup to a vendor for a refill purchase.
“Though they only did it for beer, it was very successful,” said Cohen. “They sold these cups out in a day and a half.” In retelling the story, Cohen could not repress a laugh. “And then we heard that people were stealing them from each other. Which I think is a sign of a success.”
Bonnaroo averages about 80,000 attendees a year, and this year Superfly and the PPC intend to scale up the project. Meanwhile, over 60 notable coalition members including actors, athletes, chefs and musicians have thrown their support behind Plastic Pollution Coaltion and many are involved in Plastic Free Touring, among them Kelly Slater, Bette Midler, Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, David Crosby, Benicio del Toro and Jeff Bridges.
“A lot of people who are influential in our popular culture,” said Cohen, “people who care about this and find ways to include it in their own work and behind the scenes on their tours.” She pointed to the program Maroon 5 did with Reverb to encourage people to bring reusable bottles to their shows, as well as the initiative taken by Jackson Browne’s tour producer. “[He] found a way to add a filtration machine to all the tour buses so that they can drink tap water when they hook up the tour buses,” she said. “They also carry these filtration machines with them and have two of them backstage, and everybody in the band has a reusable stainless steel bottle with their name on it.”
“And the thing with Ben [Harper] and Jack Johnson,” she continued, “these are people who ask for this stuff in their rider. They put out a message saying, ‘We want you to know that we are going for as plastics-free backstage as possible. Our focus is reusable and so we will ask you to (whenever possible) provide drinks that are in non-plastic containers.’ So they make it pretty clear, and they’ve done really well. One year, Jackson Browne’s tour saved over 68,000 plastic water bottles.”
Cohen and the PPC are also looking into ways to make the program “accessible to everyone” at smaller venues. “I think that we need to raise awareness and help empower people and give them options, tools, alternatives and solutions that are available right now which they can use to reduce their exposure to environmental toxins and to reduce waste.
“Whatever we can do immediately by making a decision to do it today, is more important than waiting for industry to come around.”
Changing People’s Minds
Though Cohen admits that plastic has served civilization well over the past century, its influence, she believes, is ultimately a toxic one. I asked if she believed more people would be interested in doing away with disposable goods if they understood the extent of the plastic problem.
“I do,” she said. “When people begin to understand the impact to their own health and the health of their children, that’s major. I mean, the chemicals that are used to make plastic bottles and plastic have been linked to obesity, diabetes, attention deficit disorder, prostate cancer, breast cancer, brain cancer, lowered sexual function, sterility, infertility. Babies exposed in utero have been linked to lowered IQ, shortened ano-genital distance, smaller penis, feminization of boys – boys getting breasts – early menses in girls. If this isn’t enough information for people to make a commitment to start changing some things, then I don’t know what is.”
The greater onus, she said, is on the consumer and not the industry.
“It’s our job as consumers, as citizens, and as the public to be more vocal and let them know we’re choosing products that come with less packaging and demanding that things come in glass and other materials. I realize that many people have no options, but once industries start hearing from consumers, they’ll change pretty quickly. And we can work on this through legislation.
“Of course, extended producer responsibility is really important. If a big company like Nestle, Coke or Pepsi were actually required to take back every piece of packaging that they create for every beverage, they might change what they make those containers out of it. Yes, they just might.”