NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

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Gyre: The Plastic Ocean, now on exhibit

By: Asma Mahdi

Gyre: The Plastic Ocean is now on exhibit at the Anchorage Museum. It features debris from a 2013 scientific expedition to study marine debris in Alaska and debris artifacts from across the globe.  The exhibition will run through Sept. 6, 2014. Take a peek at some of the pieces on display at the museum:

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Alaska’s Gyre Exhibit Opens This Weekend

By: Asma Mahdi

Gyre: The Plastic Ocean, an innovative and hands-on exhibit on marine debris, opens this weekend at the Anchorage Museum. The NOAA Marine Debris Program is a proud partner on the Gyre project, which brings perspective to the global marine debris problem through art and science. It examines the complex relationship between humans, the ocean, and a culture of consumption, all the way down to how debris affects the pristine Alaska wilderness.

The exhibit takes a close look at the evolution of plastics from its use to advance technology, such as transportation, to its use in everyday disposable items, such as single-use water bottles. The exhibit tells a global marine debris story through the work of artists from around the world. It includes a National Geographic film, documentary photography, hands-on activities, and findings and trash gathered during a 2013 scientific expedition to study marine debris in Alaska.

The exhibit is on view February 7 through September 6 at the Anchorage Museum. It will be repackaged for travel around the United States, but there is no set schedule at this time. In the meantime, here are glimpses of art pieces from this extraordinary exhibit:

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The Department of State’s Marine Debris Art Challenge

By: Kelly Cohun, Dave Gershman and Kira Vuille-Kowing

Tijuana, Mexico -- Marine debris art submitted by Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental.  "La isla del futuro trágico" ("The island of tragic future.")

Tijuana, Mexico — Marine debris art submitted by Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental. “La isla del futuro trágico” (“The island of tragic future.”)

One person’s trash can be another person’s treasure – or an art project, in this case. This fall, the Department of State’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES) teamed up with U.S. Embassies and Consulates around the world for the Marine Debris Art Challenge, elevating international awareness of marine debris for the annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) on September 21. Embassies and Consulates hosted cleanups and worked with local communities to clean up the coast and, at the same time, turn salvaged material into art projects.

In addition to the traditional target of the International Coastal Cleanup – beaches – many Embassies and Consulates organized cleanups of waterways, river and stream banks, harborside areas, and even on the shores of ponds or lakes. Local schools, environmental organizations, outdoor recreation associations, and other community and civic groups worked side by side with U.S. diplomats to make their local marine or aquatic environment a cleaner place – and turned what would have been trash into art!

Marine debris comes from many sources and places, including industrial practices, human behavior, and inadequate infrastructure, and it doesn’t recognize borders. International cooperation through initiatives like the Honolulu Strategy can help eliminate marine debris and reduce the ecological, human health and economic impacts associated with it.

From Thailand to Tijuana to Benin, artists demonstrated their creativity and innovation, making the most out of the debris. The Department of State received some truly excellent marine debris art submissions and stories about cleanup events from across the globe. Check out some of the photos featuring the art projects and the cleanups in the links below:

Are you interested in making marine debris art? You can still submit a project through December 31, 2013. For submission and more details, visit the Marine Debris Art Challenge Flickr Page:

Follow the Department of State’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs on Facebook for updates about the Marine Debris Art Challenge and other initiatives:

Kelly Cohun, Dave Gershman, and Kira Vuille-Kowing work for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Gyre: Creating Art From a Plastic Ocean


In June, our program’s Alaska Regional Coordinator, Peter Murphy, went on the GYRE expedition, an innovative project planned by the Alaska SeaLife Center that brought together scientists, removal experts, educators and artists aboard the R/V Norseman to observe, discuss, and explore the issue of marine debris in Alaska and work on ways to raise awareness nationwide. Peter lent scientific expertise to the conversation and, using the unique opportunity to access remote beaches, collected marine debris survey data during stops.

A National Geographic crew came along to document the expedition. Take a look at producer JJ Kelley’s stunning final product.

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Hawai’i Marine Debris Tours Europe

By Cheryl King, Guest blogger

Every year, tons of marine debris from all over the Pacific Ocean funnels into Kaho‘olawe’s remote Kanapou Bay in Hawai’i.  Now, thanks to a lot of hard – but fun – work by more than 100 participants, Kanapou is now cleaner than it has ever been. And even better: some of the debris is now on display at a museum in a sobering exhibit on marine debris.

After receiving a generous grant from the NOAA Marine Debris Program, the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) removed 31 tons of debris from Kanapou Bay during 10 cleanup trips (most were 2-3 night camp outs) in 2010-2011.

The debris was sorted and recycled when possible after being brought back to Maui by boat and helicopter: we sent 9.3 tons to the Maui landfill, shipped 6.6 tons to a Swiss museum, and reused, studied, or recycled another 2.2 tons. Thirteen tons of nets were strategically placed in Kaho‘olawe’s gullies as a novel method of erosion control. We also collected nearly 6,000 “sharkastics,” which are pieces of plastic that show evidence of bite marks.

Now, this beautiful bay no longer looks like it does in the picture that is displayed if you search Wikipedia for “marine debris.”  For more information about this successful project, including my project videos and conference presentations, please visit KIRC’s website.  Mahalo to NOAA for the support!

Before and after photos of Kanapou.

But the story continues! After responding to an on-line request for marine debris, I worked closely with the Museum Für Gestaltung (Museum of Design) in Switzerland to stage a 40-foot shipping container on Maui, where we were sling-loading the debris from Kanapou.  We packed the container with about 6.6 tons of assorted debris, filled out all of the customs paperwork, and shipped it off.  It arrived safely in Zurich about 2.5 months later.

A 40-foot shipping container is loaded with debris headed to Switzerland’s Museum of Design.

And the happy ending…  The helicopter contractor (Jacob Freeman of CDF Engineering) and I were graciously hosted by the Museum for the opening weeks of the exhibit, titled “Out to Sea?” Kaho‘olawe’s debris is the focal point of the exhibit, with highly informative displays surrounding it.  It was very surreal to see the debris displayed in such a foreign (but beautiful!) place on such a grand scale.  The museum has done a wonderful job, and it’s a dream come true to see it being used like this instead of clogging up Maui’s landfill.

Marine debris from Kaho‘olawe is featured in the museum’s “Out to Sea?” exhibit.

We explained the clean-up process during museum tours, which was an even more interesting experience due to having a translator (most speak a good bit of English, but their primary language is Swiss-German).  The attendants and museum team were very intrigued by the exhibit and our experiences, and we had many lively discussions (over delicious food and drinks!) about local and global plastic pollution issues. We formed lasting friendships that will hopefully inspire multiple positive changes, especially as the exhibit travels around Europe after it departs Zurich at the end of September.

This project is a very effective forum for educating the world about marine debris. If you get a chance, grab your passport and go check it out! Or, visit the exhibit website at


Cheryl King is the founder of and the Vice President of Hawai’i Wildlife Fund.

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Quote of the Day

By: Dianna Parker, Communications Specialist, NOAA Marine Debris Program

John Dahlsen, an Australian contemporary artist who uses marine debris he finds on local beaches to create art, said in an October 2010 interview that he hopes someday he won’t have material to work with anymore:

“I would be delighted if I could walk along the beaches here and find that there’s just nothing to pick up. That it’s just – it’s not there anymore. Because what that would do is, it would first of all tell me that there’s been a significant shift in mankind’s intelligence and that we have become much more environmentally conscious and that we’re not doing that sort of thing anymore.”

Dahlsen was one of the artists featured in a digital stream of marine debris art displayed at last year’s 5th International Marine Debris Conference. The display, put together by Pam Longobardi of the Drifters Project, featured 27 artists from all over the world who see inspiration in bits of plastic, metal, Styrofoam, and other debris that wash ashore.

Maybe (hopefully) artists won’t have debris to work with someday. Until then, we’ll rely on beautiful images like this to help bring home the message that litter – or, “environmental vandalism,” as Dahlsen calls it – is a very real, very ugly problem.

“Blue Rope” by John Dahlsen


Art in Marine Debris Education

 By guest bloggers Pam Longobardi and Wayne Sentman

Pam Longobardi,”Consumption Driftweb,” in OCEANOMANIA at Nouveau Musée National de Monaco, 2011

Art can be premonitory; it can be seen as a red flag or a warning as sensitive artists notice and respond to change and impactful events. More and more artists around the world are responding to the degradation of our ocean systems by human-made plastic pollution. Art created from this material is increasingly being used as a mechanism of environmental education, helping to create an emotional connection to the problem among the viewing public, utilizing marine debris as a material to create awareness among multiple communities. Creative artists now play a role in both interpreting this environmental challenge to the public and helping to inspire creative solutions to what at times seems like an unsolvable problem. Public art installations can help create a new public consciousnessthat promotes pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors.

Laysan albatross carcass with ingested plastic debris. Photo courtesy of C. Fackler, NOAA ONMS.

 On Midway Atoll, a remote National Wildlife Refuge in the North Pacific, Wayne has witnessed the effects of plastic marine pollution firsthand for many years. Albatross chicks’ decaying carcasses have filled viewers with a sense of “culpable ignorance.” Seeing these decayed bodies laden with plastic where their stomachs would be reminds us that we are connected to the natural world. That plastic toothbrush that we threw out, those bottle caps that we walk past on the street, and the multitude of plastic that we have not recycled ends up where we least expect it. Over the years artists have been the messengers of the “un-natural” history of this problem so easily viewed in the field at Midway. The albatross at Midway are a harbinger of the amount of plastic in the ocean since they happen to feed along one of the largest concentrations of marine debris in the North Pacific. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researchers have estimated that each year at least 5 tons of plastic marine debris is brought to (landfilled at) Midway Atoll by albatross regurgitating to their young. Recent studies indicate that marine plastic pollution is also ending up in fish from these same areas and is now integrated into the marine food chain.

Additionally, artists are starting to work collaboratively with scientists and activists to create a synergistic, multi-disciplinary approach to raising public awareness and defining positive actions that can be undertaken to address the issue. The United Nations Environmental Program and NOAA co-sponsored the 5th International Marine Debris Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, and the conference was a model of this type of relationship. The unique thing about this conference was the enormous presence of art at what was basically a scientific conference. UNEP and NOAA invited us to put together the art program, and we were able to raise enough funds to hold a professional fine art exhibition within the conference. Pam also put together a digital stream of nearly 40 other artists from around the world working with this issue. The overwhelming response by artists all over the world to my call for artwork was in itself a wonderful and heartening experience. The conference brought together the plastics industry, scientists, artists, and activists like Surfrider Foundation and Plastics Pollution Coalition – people from all over the world (440 people from 36 countries). Many of these stakeholders are on opposite sides of the issue, but the conference managed to provide a forum that brought everyone to the table. What resulted was the Honolulu Commitment, which we see as the “Kyoto Protocol of plastic.” The artist/activist contingent worked very hard to get specific language about micro-plastics, endocrine disruptors, and heavy metal contamination into the document that all parties agreed to. It felt momentous.

Pam is also working on a project with the Alaska SeaLife Center and the Anchorage Museum to send an expedition of artists and scientists to the remote stretch of the Aleutian Islands off Alaska that form the northern rim of the North Pacific Gyre. We had our first planning meeting of all the partners in June and filmed a promotional video that involved a beach landing in Resurrection Bay, with Carl Safina and Pam surveying what was found there. This project is very large scale and still over a year away from being initiated, but Pam and Howard Ferren, Director of Conservation at the Alaska SeaLife Center, have already been working on it for over a year and it continues to evolve and take shape.

Few people are able to visit remote places such as Midway Atoll or the Aleutian Islands. Art can serve as the bridge to these wildlife populations and the environmental issues that could only otherwise be appreciated through firsthand field experience. When professional artists from around the globe begin to explore the topic of marine debris the public is made aware that this problem is not simply limited to a remote island group, but is global in scale and therefore we all are connected to, and part of, the problem. Once a viewer appreciates this connection, discovered through viewing art, they may become engaged with the marine environment and more invested in finding solutions to reducing marine pollution sources.

Art is a powerful way to increase public participation and awareness of the problems of marine debris by showcasing it in an educational yet judgment-neutral manner across a diverse stakeholder base. When students and community members view and interact with items of collected marine debris in large-scale works of art, the intimacy with the items will facilitate an understanding of individual connectedness to this problem. Art can showcase the problem, helping individuals to become motivated to contribute to solutions without assigning blame to other segments of the community.

~Pam Longobardi and Wayne Sentman, July 2011

 About our guest bloggers:

“The first time I came face to face with enormous piles of plastic debris on South Point of the Big Island in 2006, I was amazed at the beautiful colors against the black lava beach, because that’s what plastic does, it charms and seduces us. Then I got closer and I could see what it all was, it was all our JUNK, and it just hit me like a thunderbolt. There was even a toilet seat among the piles, and it was such a sick sad metaphor for how we treat the earth. It changed me right then and there, and I began gathering it up and cleaning beaches, to drag it back and show it, to put it in front of people so we can see what the material legacy of the human race has become. This was the start of the Drifters Project.



As an artist, I have always dealt with trying to understand the psychological relationship between humans and nature. We are in a kind of dualistic isolation from it, at once an integral part of it of it and yet somehow outside of it. I am interested in the idea of the positioning of the ego in an attempt to locate the self amidst the incomprehensibility of the external natural world at large. Culture functions as a way to try to navigate or map this territory.”  ~Pam Longobardi

After many years working in remote field locations around the globe, where I witnessed the impacts on wildlife related to marine pollution, I have become very interested in the value of art as a way to interpret “hidden” environmental issues to the public. Art has the power to facilitate an understanding of an individual’s connectedness to this problem. ~Wayne Sentman