Plastics live forever. Well, that’s not quite true, but a plastic ring or piece of garbage can last for hundreds of years before biodegrading. And much of that plastic ends up in the oceans, where by one estimate there is now more than 300 billion lbs. of plastic waste floating in the water.
Because plastic is so indestructible, it poses a unique threat to marine life. Turtles and fish, dolphins and seabirds can swallow plastic pieces, choking on the garbage. So much plastic has accumulated in the ocean that you can find a Texas-sized patch of the stuff in the North Pacific, concentrated by sea currents. It would take years to clean it all up—and instead, we’re just adding to it every day.
In her photo exhibition Soup, the British photographer Mandy Barker documents plastic debris that’s been salvaged from the sea, transforming marine detritus into the stuff of art. She began working on the project after reading about the Pacific Garbage Patch on the Internet, and started noticing all the trash that would wash up along the beach. “It seems there was more debris, and especially plastic, than there were natural objects,” says Barker. “I wanted to find out why that was.”
Barker received bits of plastics and other trash from beaches around the world, and the result is a kind of collage of the waste we put into the oceans. The photos themselves are beautiful, the plastic bits artfully arranged and shot against a black background. For all their artificiality, they remind me of the images brought back by submarines of weird undersea life, coated in unnatural colors and strange shapes. “I’ve received actual plastic fished out of the sea from a container ship off Alaska,” says Barker. “I was constantly shocked by what I was seeing.”
Barker hopes that her work gives her audience pause as they consider just where their toothbrushes and disposable razors and others shards of the plastic life end up. “Maybe people will think twice before they throw these things away,” she says. We may celebrate Earth Day on April 22, but the oceans—which do cover two thirds of the planet—deserve our protection every day.
Mandy Barker is a British photographer. More of her work can be seen here.