Mermaid Tears: Plastic Chokes Oceans and Trashes Beaches

By Karin Schulze

A new exhibition in Hamburg seeks to alert people to the dangers of the plastic in our daily lives, painting a stark picture of how it accumulates in the world's oceans. It reveals how plastic particles can enter into the food chain and return to us through our dinner plates.

The unsightly mess is a must see for anyone who wants to have a bad conscience for the right reason during the orgy of consumerism that is Christmas. A meter-high (3.2 feet) mountain of plastic scrap collected from the sea is piled up in the middle of the exhibition space. A red plastic boat surfs on top of the heap. Underneath, car tires, chairs, bleached flip-flops and rubber ducks with holes are clumped together -- the kinds of things that an increasing number of people are throwing away at an ever-quicker pace. It's a cemetery of mass consumption.

The heap of floating debris comes from the beaches of the Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe, Germany's Baltic Sea island of Fehmarn and the North Sea island of Sylt. The trash mountain is on display as part of an exhibition called "Out to Sea? The Plastic Garbage Project" at Hamburg's Museum for Arts and Crafts (MKG) and it vividly illustrates one of the worst perils of plastic production. Every 10 to 15 seconds, an amount equal to that accumulated in the garbage heap at the museum finds its way out to the sea -- usually because it has been thrown away irresponsibly. And with 64-million tons of trash reaching the oceans each year, it is slowly turning into one big batch of plastic soup.

Mermaid Tears

Already today there isn't a single cubic meter of sea water that is free of plastic particles. Entire gyres have taken shape in our oceans in which a plethora of plastic debris is constantly being washed around in a pattern, trapped by the currents. The biggest water-based plastic trash heap, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is estimated to be about the size of Central Europe. There, whirlpools 30 meters deep (nearly 100 feet) churn with massive multitudes of plastic sludge originating from the Pacific Rim countries.

Of course, plastic does hold many advantages as a material. It is inexpensive, light, pliable and variable. However, most plastic also has one decisive disadvantage: It doesn't decompose into biodegradable material. Instead it shrinks down through friction and light into ever smaller pieces. These pellets of plastic particle water pollution, euphemistically called "mermaid tears," arrive in some parts of the ocean in masses sometimes even greater than plankton. Some creatures mistake the particles for food, putting them directly into the food chain and possibly back on our plates. Mussels, for example, can store polyethylene particles in their tissues.

The exhibition first originated at the Zurich Design Museum (ZHDK) in Switzerland. Inspired by an article about the Pacific Trash Vortex in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper, curators there sought to raise awareness of the topic and transform it into a learning experience. And it certainly makes sense for a museum focused on form to consider products not only through the lens of good design, but also the way in which they are disposed of or how they affect the environment. After a stop in Hamburg, it will continue on to museums in Finland, Denmark and France.

Ecologic Small Talk

Half of the show elucidates aspects of ocean ecology. Information boards and video clips bring the plastic soup to life. Visitors can see how animals mistake our civilization's waste for food with bottles that have teeth marks from sharks and sea turtles. Haunting photos show that sea birds like albatrosses slurp up plastic pieces that damage their insides or even cause them to starve to death because the plastic particles fill their stomachs.

The second half of the exhibit addresses plastic in daily life. The lunacy of take-out food packaging is shown through plastic salad boxes that have dressing in separate containers, as well as the egg and fork wrapped in film. What is less obvious is how plastic whirls through washing machines and bathrooms. Fleece clothing, for example, can leave behind up to 1,900 plastic fibers in every wash. And many cosmetic peeling creams contain polyethylene balls. Just like fleece fibers, they are so tiny that they end up passing through filters, landing in rivers and ultimately pouring into our oceans.

For those who are experts in the field, the exhibition doesn't offer much new. But taken together with the accompanying program of films, debates and tours of sewage treatment plants and recycling plants, it makes the plastic garbage heap easily understandable in a non dogmatic way for laypeople and school children. In Zürich, 400 school groups visited the exhibit. For many visitors, it is the first chance they have to delve so deeply into the issue. Who knows? Some may even go on to become environmental activists or sea researchers. At the very least, many visitors will at least be more inclined to pay closer attention to their consumption habits.

The rest of the lazy visitors? They can at the very least make environmental small talk at parties when others casually tap their plastic forks against their plastic cups. "Did you know," one might ask, for example, "that the mass of plastic that has been produced until today is enough to wrap the Entire earth in plastic wrap six times over?"


"Out to Sea? The Plastic Garbage Project" runs until March 31, 2013, at the Museum of Arts and Crafts (MKG) in Hamburg, Germany. You can find additional information by visiting www.PlasticGarbageProject.org .

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