This is a review of a documentary.
When I first heard about the Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre, I thought about Neale Stephenson’s Snow Crash. There’s this refugee raft city, cobbled together around a dead tanker that is slowly drifting counter-clockwise from Asia to the States. It’s been at sea for years, turning into this kind of Darwinian pool of only the most vicious and desperate survivors and the whole thing’s going to come ashore in California…
The second time I heard about the Gyre, I was in Montreal. A young woman had just been accepted into a graduate program and she was telling me about this continent of trash that was out there.
“It’s a whole floating island,” she said.
She wanted to do something with plastic-eating fungii for her thesis. She was going to do some research and see if she could seed the floating islands with mushrooms. See if the continent could support life, a kind of enormous artificial island. A sixth Olympic ring the size of one or more Texases.
I haven’t been in touch with her, so I don’t know what happened to her thesis project when her research inevitably discovered that her garbage island is just as fictional as Stephenson’s raft city. What’s actually out there is much, much worse.
Toxic Garbage Island
The documentary, by Vice’s VBS.tv follows a group of filmmakers who take a ride out to the Gyre on the Agalita, one of the few vessels doing research into the Gyre. It’s divided into 3 parts and at some point during the second part, I began to get impatient. When were we going to see the garbage continent?
Getting to the Gyre takes seven days by boat. For the first hour of the documentary, you are given a glimpse into each day. The crew get more and more bored and frustrated. Toward the end of part 2, the Captain explains to the filmmakers that they aren’t going get their money shot.
“Everybody says show me a picture of the Garbage. Well, it’s spread out, it’s diffuse. This is an enormous ocean. You’re not gonna find a dump, there is no trash dump down here.”
Plastic breaks down in the sun. The pieces get smaller and smaller but not nothing eats the polymers. So you end up increasingly tiny bits of plastic suspended in the water. The area the size of one or more Texases is filled with plastic garbage at various stages of breaking down. It’s plastic soup. Chunky plastic soup. Inhospitable to life, chunky, plastic soup.
Water in the Gyre is relatively stable. Before the plastic started to accumulate, biological stuff did. The micro-organisms that feed on that stuff thrived and the creatures that ate them thrived all the way up to large mammals and sea birds. A lot of creatures came to expect that the Gyre would be a buffet. They still go up there, looking for food. So you end up with this (warning: that image is disturbing as hell).
True to the captain’s word, the filmmakers never do get their money shot. But after sitting through an hour of movie voyage, when they come across a construction helmet and then a floating jar and then a tangle of net you begin to get a sense. There are bits of garbage everywhere. They are seven days out to sea, just about as far from humans and land as they can possibly be and they are picking up stuff that you’d expect to see in a poorly maintained marina. There’s a lot of it.
In University, talking about the sublime, we looked at Kant’s interpretation; the feeling you can get of utter smallness and powerlessness in the face of a vast universe. To experience this feeling, you need to come across events or things that reveal your weakness without threatening your existence. A safe enough distance from you that you can contemplate it but immediate enough that that you know for certain that you are powerless in the face of it.
When we used examples, we’d normally talk about stuff like watching a roaring thunderstorm from a cave. We’d compare being chased by a bear (terror, not sublime) to observing the pounding majesty of a massive waterfall (sublime). Sitting in class, ‘lo those many years ago, it never occurred to me that I’d have this feeling in the face of a floating sea of suffocating garbage.