Ocean rubbish is building up. This artist reveals what’s out there.

Barry Rosenthal started collecting plastic on a New York shoreline. His photographs reveal the variety of water-borne trash.

By Daniel Stone
photographs by Barry Rosenthal
Published 9 Aug 2019, 15:15 BST
Rosenthal created an angular portrait out of pens, pencils, and markers. He finds the writing utensils ...
Rosenthal created an angular portrait out of pens, pencils, and markers. He finds the writing utensils strewn by the hundreds on a New York beach, many of them no longer usable.

Beaches across the planet share many characteristics: sand, water, ocean breezes—and plastic. At Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, the coastal area where artist Barry Rosenthal goes collecting, trash piles up fast and in layers, as if at an archaeological site.

Plastics will indeed be the artifacts of our era, particularly in oceans, where the material invades ecosystems and floats around the world. More than five trillion pieces of plastic already fill the seas, with some nine million tonnes added each year.

These objects have little in common beyond their shades of white—and their slow degradation by ocean waves, harsh sunlight, sand, and salt.

Rosenthal observed how bottles, toys, and food wrappers fade, wear out, yet never disappear. He started building and photographing sculptures of ocean trash to illustrate the problem of marine pollution. Eventually he began to gather the detritus to use as his art materials, cleaning a small section of the coast over and over again. “I started to just collect as much as I could and go back to my studio to sort it out,” he says. Each sculpture has a theme, by colour, shape, or intended use, such as the motor oil containers below.

Among the trash that lines the shore are wrappers for sweets, crisps, and other snack foods.

A project begun for aesthetics has acquired a second purpose: raising social and environmental awareness. Now Rosenthal travels to speak about ocean pollution and what might help clean it up. The most meaningful advance, he says, would be to rethink our method of consuming.

“We need a paradigm shift in all packaging design,” he says. “Not just plastic bags and straw bans to make people feel good.”

This story is part of Planet or Plastic?—our multiyear effort to raise awareness about the global plastic waste crisis. Learn what you can do to reduce your own single-use plastics, and take your pledge.

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