Material Lessons from a Plastic Beach

Kim De Wolff, PhD Candidate, Dept. of Communication, UC San Diego

 Kamilo [Kah-MEE-loh] Beach, Hawaii: meeting place of land and sea, lava and marine life, and floating plastic from all around the Pacific. Here sea turtles swim in surge channels decorated with snarls of nylon fishing gear and the shattered remains of consumer goods; the overwhelming plastic content making ‘sand’ worthy of scare quotes. Though covered in discarded human products, this is not litter in the conventional sense. Kamilo is a remote beach near South Point on the Big Island, accessible only by miles of four-wheel drive road as ragged and devoid of people as the shore. Plastic is brought here by the intricacies of wind and water currents, not dropped or dumped by humans directly. The giant circulating current system of the North Pacific ‘Gyre’ draws flotsam toward the center of its spiraling path, which runs right into the windward side of the island. The very same tides that once delivered rare logs for canoe building, now offer up a far more regular supply of synthetic materials.
Though I am here on a research trip, my visit feels more like a pilgrimage. Kamilo’s spectacular accumulations have almost mythical status among plastic pollution scientists and activists. I have been following plastic waste around the North Pacific in their company for the past year, sailing the open ocean on a research expedition, sorting microscopic plastic bits from animal ones at a Los Angeles laboratory, cleaning beaches and interviewing oceanographers, marine biologists and educators from Seattle to San Diego. And now I stand on the shore in the early morning light, captivated by disturbingly beautiful confetti at my feet. What stories can this strange archive tell? What can these anonymous bits teach us about plastic materials, and their capacities to travel and to transform landscapes?
1. Not all collections are curated by humans.
The contents of the shoreline are selected as much by the caprices of currents as by human design. Kamilo is a ‘collector’ beach, one of many stretches of shoreline around the world where large quantities of flotsam wash up: here coconuts, palm fronds and seeds called ‘sea beans’ and an exceptional amount of synthetics. Where many discussions of the giving, trading or taking of artifacts work from the assumption that humans alone are the ones doing the collecting, Kamilo exemplifies the capacities of nonhumans to collect and display, in this case plastic things on and as the sand. The resulting collection is made to matter as it gets caught up with the interests of specific people, entangled in relationships of ongoing care. These relationships are formed in part by objects themselves, which in Latour’s formulation of ‘matters of concern’ are awarded the agential capacity to ‘gather’ diverse actors.[1] Just as the ocean draws objects to the shore, the plastic ‘gathers’ scientists, volunteer cleanup teams, and on this day, two veteran beachcombers (Ron and Noni) and one communication and science study scholar.
Surveying my surroundings becomes a practical lesson in what is made of plastic and what floats. With help of the beach collection, I learn by looking that toothbrushes, rolls of tape, bicycle pedals and umbrella handles qualify in both categories. The single-serving water bottles symbolic of the broader problems of plastic pollution, however, are conspicuously absent; made from a type of plastic resin that does not float in seawater, they sink without their caps (which do float, and are here in great numbers). As we walk miles of coastline, two people with small bags made from old t-shirts, the very presence of millions of bits and pieces stand as argument against the possibility of cleanup. Instead, eyes scouring the ground, pausing to dig with hands through deep piles, we look for treasures. My bag grows heavier with representative samples, and objects that I learn with both material and human guidance are rare – a weathered lion, a red letter ‘E’ fridge magnet, and even a glass bottle base labeled ‘U.S.S.R.’ I work and think in collaboration with plastic and the sea, becoming part of what is gathered.
Still other pieces are catalysts for stories. Picking the shreds of a black bag from the sand, Noni tells of a Hawaii ‘knot your bag’ campaign based on the assumption that tying up loose bags before disposal would keep them grounded. The tattered clump is a now bag-less ‘knot,’ one of many to be found washed up along the shore. While acting as mediator between the local community and myself, this plastic piece also thwarts local efforts to control it. As with the other materials on the beach, the knot serves as challenge to studies of objects both lost (as in waste mobilities) and found (as in art history), to attend to the capacities of discards that travel not only unintentionally, but along paths that are sometimes more than human.

2. Objects fall apart.
Beneath the oil containers and brush handles, cheap toys and fishing gear, the sand is sprinkled, mixed and in places obscured by layers of plastic fragments. Made brittle by sunlight but not actually consumed by organisms, plastic breaks into fragments that get ever smaller without biodegrading. The scattered crumbs of artifacts mingle with pre-production plastic pellets (little round beads-without-holes, there are at least 15 visible in the image) that are waste before they become consumer goods. While there is a tendency to privilege objects as carriers of meaning, as the very embodiment of history (sets of objects neatly containing the story of whole cities and worlds), Kamilo beach is a place where their material substance cannot be ignored. The ‘sands’ of Kamilo beach support efforts to put the material in material culture (such as Shove et al.’s 2007 suggestion for a ‘social science of substances’).
While I am constantly drawn to beached items with writing or other clues to origins and intended form, the vast majority of the colourful bits that demand attention on the beach are recognizable only as plastic. To help make sense of these meaningful fragments, I again enlist matters of concern, where Latour takes care to distinguish between objects and things. As matters of concern, objects do not simply ‘exist’ as bounded stable entities (a plastic bottle); instead, they ‘persist’ as things given in experience and by associations (with bottle-on-beach-as-waste). “Things,” Latour quips, “cannot be thrown at you like objects” (2004: 237). While objects tend to fall apart (especially when thrown), plastic continues to matter on the beach. Materials, like those constituting Kamilo’s sand, persist in forms and relationships that might not be seen as traditional objects of material culture studies, but they are meaningful cultural traces that matter. And with them come new kinds of questions: How to understand culture as shards that cannot be reassembled to approximate recognizable forms? How to imagine responsibility for traces that cannot be traced?
3. Movement Matters.
Despite my concern for the confetti-bits, I cannot resist the allure of rare fragments of writing molded into the plastic waste. Chinese, Japanese, Korean and occasionally Russian characters provide proof of travel for their respective pieces, but also validate the disparate trajectories that constituting the collection as a whole. Here plastic waste matters when and because it moves; because it crosses open seas to accumulate seemingly without or in spite of human desires. If plastic piled up where it was produced or stayed where it was dropped, it would not be the same kind of thing. On the beach plastic displays its remarkable ability to long outlive single uses. But on Kamilo (and I would argue elsewhere), to gather and endure is to transform and be transformed. For things to persist as matters of concern, is to be tied to trajectories that “define what they have been and what they might become” (Latour 2008: 17).
If Kamilo Beach is a landscape altered by plastic, plastic itself is transformed, changing material form as it travels. It is washed up in storms outpacing cleanup efforts, only to be drawn back out to sea with the next tide to make another lap of the North Pacific Gyre. It breaks down in the sun and waves, leaches and accumulates synthetic toxins (things like BPA, DDT and PCBs sticking to its oily surface), and provides mobile homes for marine life. The bicycle pedal I pull from the tide line not only floated here from afar, but attracted lacy communities of bryozoa, tiny filter-feeders that now live and die with plastic. While I drop the pedal back in the sand (my own carrying capacities at their limits), other materials intercepted by humans embark on new sets of circulations, further transformed as scientific samples through the lab, as garbage for the landfill, as the curiosities in my now full my bag. Out-maneuvering human expectations for objects of solid waste, the material agency of plastic is tied to its movements.
Of all the things I encounter this day, I am particularly moved by a small clump of weathered but still-green plastic. With strangely poetic irony, I find myself picking fake grass off a plastic beach. If Astroturf is loaded with symbolism – of the failed promises of modernity, the artificial culture of consumption, a whole world plasticized – here it constitutes a mixing that is by no means superficial, human materials not representing but actively ‘becoming with’ worlds (Haraway 2007). Kamilo is the name of a shore, but my research site is circulation itself as much as it is a place. To take a walk on this beach is to step into the space between gatherings and movements, it is to confront the entangled malleability and durability of both materials and culture.
As I further plastic circulations through images and words, I should note that this is the best the beach has looked in years. Fishing nets, ropes, floats and containers are no longer piled waist high, thanks to the diligent clean-up efforts coordinated by the Hawaii Wildlife Fund. But since my April visit the confirmed arrival of debris from the March 2011 tsunami has spurred new gatherings of journalists and cameras and care that alter relationships between plastic, beach and humans once again. Confronted with the impossibility of containing plastic, I am left contemplating new ways of living more responsibly with plastic and of understanding how our things connect us with and across the sea.
Works Cited
Haraway, D. J. (2008). When species meet (Vol. 3). University Of Minnesota Press.
Latour, B. (2004). Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Inquiry, 30(2), 225–248.
Latour, B. (2008). What is the Style of Matters of Concern?: Two Lectures on Empirical Philosophy. Amsterdam: Van Gorcum.
Law, J., & Hassard, J. (1999). Actor Network Theory and After. Wiley-Blackwell.
Shove, E., Watson, M., Hand, M., & Ingram, J. (2008). The Design of Everyday Life. Berg Publishers.

[1] The concept of ‘gathering’ is similar but not identical to the conception of relationality that defines Actor-Network Theory (ANT) more broadly where nonhuman entities, as much as human ones, are performed and made durable in relationships But it is important to note that Latour has since refuted the ANT framework (Law 1999).

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