There is no doubt that we humans have grown very fond of plastic in the past few decades. It is seemingly ubiquitous in modern society, used to wrap just about every common household product you can think of. However, the convenience it offers comes at a very high price. Only 15 percent of plastic worldwide is ever recycled. This stands in stark comparison to the 88 percent recycling rate for steel, and the 63 percent rate for paper. Part of the problem is that plastic does not biodegrade. In fact, it can remain intact for up to a thousand years, before finally breaking down into countless, invisible microplastic fragments. Plastic that is sent to landfill can cause serious environmental problems in the location of the landfill sites, as it leaches a variety of toxic chemicals collectively referred to as leachate. Leachate can break through the protective lining of a landfill and pollute the surrounding groundwater.
Meanwhile, a sizeable amount of plastic waste finds its way out of the landfills and into the oceans: approximately 8.8 million tons every year, in fact! Approximately 270,000 tons of plastic debris are believed to be floating around on the surface of our oceans alone, while 700 marine species are at risk of extinction due to the abundant amounts of plastic waste to be found in marine environments all over the world. Researchers have predicted that if our current rate of irresponsible disposal continues, there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. This has grave implications for human life, as oceanic ecosystems provide us with a staggering 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe, in addition to providing us with many other resources that help us to sustain our lives as we know them. In the face of this grave situation, a growing number of artists, photographers, and other creative figures have sought to draw attention to the threat posed by plastic.
James Whitlow Delano, renowned photographer and founder of the Instagram photojournalism page, Everyday Climate Change, is one of these figures. Delano’s work has earned a variety of prestigious awards, including the Alfred Eisenstadt Award (from Columbia University and Life Magazine), Leica’s Oskar Barnack, and Picture of the Year International. He has lived in Asia for 20 years, which has given him ample time to witness the scale of plastic pollution in countries such as India, the Philippines, and Vietnam. He currently lives in Japan. Delano’s most recent project, “I Dream of Plastic,” juxtaposes the reality of where most plastic ends up – particularly in developing countries that lack efficient waste processing systems – with the shiny, neatly packaged versions of plastic that we see on store shelves throughout the developed world.
For example, this picture portrays the bleak future in store for most of the single-use plastic bottles that get manufactured every year.
The images demonstrate that while we may use an item of plastic for just a few minutes, its ultimate effect is much more long-lasting.
While brightly colored plastic is often used to appeal to consumers and make products look more interesting, the end result of humans’ rampant plastic consumption is far from glamorous.
Delano called his project “Dream of Plastics” because the series aims to contrast the “dream” of the convenience, ease and durability that plastic packages seem to offer us, with the “nightmare” future that these very qualities could have in store.
Speaking of his inspiration for the project, Delano told Fast Company, “I chose to photograph the ‘Dream of Plastics’ in the developed, postmodern world because there is a tremendous mental disconnect between consumers in the developed world and the residents of developing countries, especially how plastic affects the lives of people living in those very different circumstances.” He wanted to highlight the fact that although countries such as the U.S. have an abysmally low recycling rate for plastics (the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only 12 percent of plastics in the U.S. are recycled), plastic waste in developed countries often do not even make it to a landfill, and instead create enormous environmental problems for the people and wildlife of these countries.
“In the rural developing world, 30 to 40 years ago the counterpart to plastic might have been a banana leaf or palm frond, which broke down and returned organic materials to the land, enriching it,” Delano explained. “Now, many of those same places are being choked with plastic. The developing world simply cannot keep up with one-time use plastic packaging.”
Sadly, the impact of plastic can be felt everywhere in places that lack effective waste processing systems to manage them.
While the problem of plastic pollution may be particularly acute in the developing world, those of us who live in the developed world are by no means free from culpability.
“I had a wake-up call with recent travel to India and the Philippines, finding mountains of plastic, and then returning to Tokyo and suddenly realizing that, in shop after shop, almost every product was either made with some plastic components or packaged in plastic to give it a slick, appealing appearance,” Delano stated. “I stood there and thought how I was literally standing in a sea of newly minted plastic and wondered where would all this plastic end up in the near future.” The escalating problem of plastic pollution is truly a worldwide problem that could threaten the future of life as we know it, unless we all take action to cut down on our plastic usage today. To find out more about how you can reduce your use of plastic, check out the posts below. More examples of Delano’s work can be viewed on his website.
- 5 Simple Go-To Tips to Shrink Your Plastic Footprint
- 5 Innovative Ways to Use Unavoidable Plastics in Your Life
- 10 Simple Actions That Just Might Save Our World’s Oceans From Plastic
You can also make an enormous difference in the fight to save our oceans from plastic by joining One Green Planet’s #CrushPlastic campaign.
Let’s #CrushPlastic! Click the graphic below for more information.
All Image Source: James Whitlow Delano