Ocean trash is building up. This artist reveals what’s out there.

Barry Rosenthal started collecting plastic garbage on a New York shoreline. His photographs reveal the variety of water-borne trash.

Rosenthal chose oddly shaped plastic objects for this composition.
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.

Learn more about plastic waste and take the pledge to reduce it at <i><a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/graphics/plasticpledge">natgeo.com/plasticpledge</a>.</i>
Learn more about plastic waste and take the pledge to reduce it at natgeo.com/plasticpledge.

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.

“We need a paradigm shift in all packaging design,” he says. “Not just plastic bags and straw bans to make people feel good.”

This story is part of Planet or Plastic?—our multiyear effort to raise awareness about the global plastic waste crisis. Learn what you can do to reduce your own single-use plastics, and take your pledge.

Read This Next

Ötzi the Iceman: What we know 30 years after his discovery
Sanctuary gives hope to chimps, rescuers
Golden hour dazzles at these 10 national parks

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet