By: Eleanor Ryder, The Forever Project
Earth is unique amongst the universe’s known planets. It enjoys an atmosphere, climate, incredible biodiversity and is dominated by deep, blue, beautiful oceans. These oceans cover 70% of our planets’ surface and are home to untold numbers of fascinating marine creatures. The ecosystems of our oceans produce half the oxygen we breathe and provide food for over 60% of the world’s population. The ocean nurtures and sustains us and mankind enjoys a relationship with the sea that has existed since time immemorial. Today, however, our oceans are in peril, with international research providing compelling evidence that marine plastic pollution is an enormous environmental issue and that the world’s oceans are reaching a dangerous tipping point creating huge implications for the health of the marine environment and its biodiversity.
The problem of marine plastic pollution has developed over the past sixty-five years as plastic has become one of the most extensively manufactured and widely used materials on the globe. In truth, plastic is a valuable commodity and provides consumers with a safe, hygienic, cheap and extremely adaptable material, which we would, in all honesty, find hard to do without. The problem with plastic arises not from its manufacture or application, but from how we dispose of it. At present we simply throw it away and consequently plastic has entered our oceans from a myriad of sources including streams, rivers, sewerage outflow pipes, landfill sites, rubbish bins, marine vessels, general littering and accidental and purposeful dumping. Consequently, there are now estimated upwards of five trillion pieces of plastic rubbish in our oceans and in some regions, plastic pieces outnumber plankton 6:1. Once in our marine environment, the plastic floats around the world, carried along by ocean currents and accumulating in huge concentrations in the world’s ocean gyres where it slowly breaks down into increasingly smaller and smaller pieces.
In the summer of 2015, I walked many of Cornwall, England’s coves, inlets, and beaches and as I walked I collected all the plastic debris I could see; bags of plastic rubbish. At the end of each walk I put all my plastic finds into sacks, took them home, photographed them and what developed from this was The Forever Project – which is a collection of images focusing on meta-plastics all of which had been retrieved from local marine ecosystems, and micro and nano-plastics sourced from beauty products we use every day.
When I first tried to picture the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch; I imagined huge islands of plastic debris, meters deep. When I investigated, however, I found the truth of the matter to be very different. In fact, if you traveled through most gyres you would see very little plastic on the surface, certainly not islands of it. In reality, most of the plastic floating in the sea is below the surface, creating more of a plastic soup than a garbage patch. These particles, suspended like dust motes in the ocean columns, are micro-plastics and the even tinier nano-plastics; plastic particles so small that they can no longer be seen with the naked eye.
At the time I began my study there was lots of publicity in the news and online about microbeads in beauty products and their environmental impact. Taking this as a starting point, I began looking at other such sources of plastic, and whilst I found very few products containing the banned micro-beads, what I did find was truly shocking as I discovered countless numbers of beauty products still including plastic in their list of contents. These products were makeup, eye shadows, lipsticks, lip glosses, hair products, body products and bubble baths, which contained microparticles of glitter and other plastic reflective compounds in their ingredients. When we lick our lips and ingest our shimmer lipsticks, or wash these products off our bodies in the shower, they are washed down the drain and into the sea as they are far too small to be stopped by present filtration systems in sewerage plants. These microplastics, already tiny in size, are being disgorged into the sea every day to become part of the plastic soup already polluting our oceans.
My photographs of The Forever Project are taken using a skill called microscopy, which enabled me to create images that are greatly magnified, thereby enabling you to see the truth of the matter; hundreds and thousands of microscopic shards of brightly coloured plastic all of which are eventually destined for landfill or our oceans. In these images, I have captured the tiny, the imperceptible, the invisible and the apparently insignificant, but I firmly believe that what we wash so haphazardly away has the potential to be the most damaging and insidious pollution in our oceans. That is why we, as consumers, need to say no to plastic in our beauty products. Its inclusion is relatively new and the only reason plastic is there is because it is a cheap ingredient. We have been managing to adorn ourselves effectively for millennia with plastic free beauty products, so why do we need it now?