This story appears in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Beaches across the planet share many characteristics: sand, water, ocean breezes—and plastic. At Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, the coastal area where artist Barry Rosenthal goes collecting, trash piles up fast and in layers, as if at an archaeological site.
Plastics will indeed be the artifacts of our era, particularly in oceans, where the material invades ecosystems and floats around the world. More than five trillion pieces of plastic already fill the seas, with some nine million tons added each year.
Rosenthal observed how bottles, toys, and food wrappers fade, wear out, yet never disappear. He started building and photographing sculptures of ocean trash to illustrate the problem of marine pollution. Eventually he began to gather the detritus to use as his art materials, cleaning a small section of the coast over and over again. “I started to just collect as much as I could and go back to my studio to sort it out,” he says. Each sculpture has a theme, by color, shape, or intended use, such as the motor oil containers below.
A project begun for aesthetics has acquired a second purpose: raising social and environmental awareness. Now Rosenthal travels to speak about ocean pollution and what might help clean it up. The most meaningful advance, he says, would be to rethink our method of consuming.