When art becomes a pollution awareness tool
The planet's beaches share many characteristics: sand, water, bathers in eco-responsible swimsuits , sea breezes, but also plastic waste. At Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, the coastal area where artist Barry Rosenthal showcases his craft, trash is rapidly accumulating and layered, like at an archaeological site.
Marine pollution is gaining ground
One of the biggest threats to our oceans is human-made pollution. Discarded plastics and other residential waste, pesticide and industrial chemical discharges end up in the sea with devastating consequences for marine life and the habitats it depends on. Boating accidents and oil spills add additional toxins to the mix.
It is estimated that around 80% of marine pollution comes from land. Land-based pollutants – such as agricultural runoff and nutrients from sewage – contribute to ocean “dead zones” – areas that can no longer sustain life because they have low or no oxygen. Today there are some 500 such dead zones around the world.
In addition, rapid urbanization along the world's coasts has seen the growth of coastal "megacities" (cities with 10 million or more inhabitants). In 2012, 13 of the world's 20 megacities were located along the coasts. In these regions, the implementation of effective initiatives for waste reduction, recycling, eco-responsible actions (such as the choice of ethical swimwear), and effective waste and wastewater management is essential to improve the health of our oceans.
Waste recycled into works of art
No doubt plastics will be the artifacts of our time, especially in the 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 every year.
Artist Barry Rosenthal constructs these works with this waste to illustrate the extent of marine pollution. He keeps trash in his studio for months, sometimes years, until an anthology of colors emerges. These objects have little in common beyond their shades of white and their slow degradation by ocean waves, sunlight, sand and salt. Rosenthal, for example, created an angular portrait from pens, pencils and markers. He finds these items scattered by the hundreds on a New York beach, many of them no longer usable.
Rosenthal observed how bottles, toys and food wrappers wear out and never go away. He started building and photographing ocean trash sculptures to illustrate the problem of marine pollution. Eventually, he set about collecting rubbish to use as art material, cleaning up a small stretch of the coast again and again. “I started collecting as much as I could and going back to my studio to sort it out,” he says. Each Rosenthal sculpture has a theme, by color, shape or intended use.
Manufacturers design products such as plastic utensils and take-out cups to be used once. But these items don't disappear after you get rid of them. Scientists even believe that some plastic waste lasts forever. Rosenthal's artistic project thus acquired a second objective: social and environmental awareness . The artist now travels to talk about ocean pollution and what could help stop it. The most significant progress, he says, would be to rethink the way we consume, such as buying sustainable swimwear !