Ten years ago, I found myself standing on my favourite beach with something in my hand. It was soft and dirty-white, slightly fuzzy, with little arms coming out from the centre. It took me several minutes to realise it was a knot, from a fishing net, and it must have been in the sea a long time.
Looking up I noticed more of these knots, and then other items that seemed equally out of place – plastic bottles, fragments of brightly coloured plastic, lumps of foam, nylon rope and plastic bags. I picked them up, stuffed them into my backpack and took them home.
Since that day I have continued to clean up plastic ocean debris – the bits and pieces of plastic that travel the ocean currents and get washed up on every beach with every tide – whenever, and wherever, I can. I have picked up on my own, dragged along friends and family, and collaborated with other artists. We have cleaned beaches in the UK, Europe, Canada and Asia. We have worn hi-vis vests and red super-hero pants. We have taken the cleaning to roads and footpaths and parks. And always, we end up with bags full of plastic.
It is a strange and sometimes troubling occupation, this picking up after other people in public places. To be on the beach is a wonderful thing, but to be on the beach just to look for, and pick up, plastic debris, is something of a niche calling. It is an extension of the unpaid, domestic labour that typically occurs in the home, as well as a moral act, and an exercise in futility. For years I was filled with rage against a world that keeps on producing more and more virgin plastic and fails to recycle it effectively after use. I even tried walking away from the whole enterprise – but I live by the sea and the beach keeps calling me.
Nowadays I take a philosophical view of whatever I find: it’s already there, so getting aggrieved about it won’t make anything go away. And I can choose what to do when I find debris – walk on or pick it up.