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Dianna Cohen: Tough truths about plastic pollution

April 16, 2010

Artist Dianna Cohen shares some tough truths about plastic pollution in the ocean and in our lives -- and some thoughts on how to free ourselves from the plastic gyre.

Dianna Cohen - Artist and activist
Dianna Cohen co-founded the Plastic Pollution Coalition, which is working to help end our cycle of plastics use. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm a visual artist,
00:15
and I'm also one of the co-founders of the Plastic Pollution Coalition.
00:17
I've been working with plastic bags,
00:20
which I cut up and sew back together as my primary material for my artwork
00:23
for the last 20 years.
00:26
I turn them into two and three-dimensional pieces
00:28
and sculptures and installations.
00:31
Upon working with the plastic, after about the first eight years,
00:34
some of my work started to fissure
00:37
and break down into smaller little bits of plastic.
00:39
And I thought, "Great.
00:43
It's ephemeral just like us."
00:45
Upon educating myself a little further about plastics,
00:48
I actually realized this was a bad thing.
00:51
It's a bad thing that plastic breaks down into smaller little bits,
00:54
because it's always still plastic.
00:57
And what we're finding
00:59
is that a lot of it is in the marine environment.
01:01
I then, in the last few years,
01:03
learned about the Pacific garbage patch and the gyre.
01:05
And my initial reaction --
01:08
and I think this is a lot of people's first reaction
01:10
to learning about it --
01:12
is, "Oh my God!
01:14
We've got to go out there and clean this thing up."
01:16
So I actually developed a proposal
01:18
to go out with a cargo ship
01:20
and two decommissioned fishing trawlers,
01:22
a crane, a chipping machine
01:24
and a cold-molding machine.
01:27
And my intention was to go out to the gyre,
01:29
raise awareness about this issue
01:31
and begin to pick up the plastic,
01:33
chip it into little bits and cold mold it into bricks
01:35
that could potentially be used as building materials
01:38
in underdeveloped communities.
01:41
I began talking with people
01:45
who actually had been out to the gyre
01:47
and were studying the plastic problem in the marine environment
01:49
and upon doing so,
01:52
I realized actually that cleaning it up
01:55
would be a very small drop in the bucket
01:57
relative to how much is being generated
02:00
every day around the world,
02:02
and that actually I needed to back up and look at the bigger picture.
02:05
And the bigger picture is:
02:07
we need to find a way to turn off the faucet.
02:09
We need to cut the spigot
02:12
of single-use and disposable plastics,
02:14
which are entering the marine environment every day
02:16
on a global scale.
02:19
So in looking at that, I also realized that I was really angry.
02:21
I wasn't just concerned about plastic
02:24
that you're trying to imagine out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean --
02:27
of which I have learned there are now
02:29
11 gyres, potentially, of plastic
02:31
in five major oceans in the world.
02:33
It's not just that gyre of plastic that I'm concerned about --
02:36
it's the gyre of plastic in the supermarket.
02:39
I'd go to the supermarket and all of my food is packaged in plastic.
02:41
All of my beverages are packaged in plastic,
02:44
even at the health food market.
02:46
I'm also concerned about the plastic in the refrigerator,
02:49
and I'm concerned about the plastic and the toxins that leach from plastic
02:52
into us and into our bodies.
02:55
So I came together with a group of other people
02:58
who were all looking at this issue,
03:00
and we created the Plastic Pollution Coalition.
03:02
We have many initiatives that we're working on,
03:05
but some of them are very basic.
03:07
One is: if 80 to 90 percent
03:09
of what we're finding in the ocean --
03:12
of the marine debris that we're finding in the ocean -- is plastic,
03:14
then why don't we call it what it is.
03:16
It's plastic pollution.
03:19
Recycling -- everybody kind of ends their books
03:21
about being sustainable and greening with the idea of recycling.
03:24
You put something in a bin and you don't have to think about it again.
03:27
What is the reality of that?
03:30
In the United States, less than seven percent of our plastics are recycled.
03:32
And if you really look into it,
03:35
particularly when it comes to plastic bottles,
03:37
most of it is only down-cycled,
03:39
or incinerated, or shipped to China.
03:41
It is down-cycled and turned into lesser things,
03:44
while a glass bottle can be a glass bottle again
03:47
or can be used again --
03:50
a plastic bottle can never be a plastic bottle again.
03:52
So this is a big issue for us.
03:55
Another thing that we're looking at and asking people to think about
03:57
is we've added a fourth R
04:00
onto the front
04:03
of the "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle," three R's,
04:05
and that is refuse.
04:07
Whenever possible, refuse single-use and disposable plastics.
04:09
Alternatives exist;
04:12
some of them are very old-school.
04:14
I myself am now collecting these cool Pyrex containers
04:16
and using those instead of Glad and Tupperware containers
04:19
to store food in.
04:21
And I know that I am doing a service
04:23
to myself and my family.
04:25
It's very easy to pick up a stainless-steel bottle
04:27
or a glass bottle,
04:29
if you're traveling and you've forgotten to bring your stainless-steel bottle
04:31
and fill that up with water or filtered water,
04:33
versus purchasing plastic bottled water.
04:36
I guess what I want to say to everybody here --
04:39
and I know that you guys know a lot about this issue --
04:41
is that this is a huge problem in the oceans,
04:44
but this is a problem that we've created as consumers
04:46
and we can solve.
04:49
We can solve this by raising awareness of the issue
04:51
and teaching people to choose alternatives.
04:54
So whenever possible, to choose alternatives
04:57
to single-use plastics.
04:59
We can cut the stem -- tide the stem of this
05:01
into our oceans
05:03
and in doing so,
05:05
save our oceans, save our planet, save ourselves.
05:07
Thank you. (Applause)
05:10

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Dianna Cohen - Artist and activist
Dianna Cohen co-founded the Plastic Pollution Coalition, which is working to help end our cycle of plastics use.

Why you should listen

Dianna Cohen is the co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a group that addresses the pervasive problem of plastic pollution. She was inspired to co-found the group by her work as an artist -- because her chosen material is the ubiquitous plastic bag. She writes: "Having worked with the plastic bag as my primary material for the past fifteen years, all of the obvious references to recycling, first-world culture, class, high and low art give way to an almost formal process which reflects the unique flexibility of the medium."

With the Plastic Pollution Coalition, she helps to raise awareness of ocean waste -- the majority of which is nondegradable plastic -- and everyday strategies to cut down the amount of plastic we use and throw away.

The original video is available on TED.com
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