When the Ocean Gives You Plastic, Make Art and Do Research

Meredith Andrews, Bermudian photographer and artist, raises awareness of the perils of ocean plastics through collages made from plastic debris. She collects all of the items in her art from Bermuda beaches. “To have my work hanging at BIOS where people are working on data that could lead to fundamental shifts in our future consumption of plastics makes me incredibly proud,” Andrews said. Photos by Meredith Andrews

The plastic arrives on Bermuda’s beaches as discarded toothbrushes, sun-bleached bottle caps, forgotten toys, and pulverized pieces the size of rice grains. The reason why is disheartening. The island sits within one of the world’s largest oceanic garbage patches, where four major currents in the North Atlantic force marine debris into an accumulation of floating trash.

But Bermudians have noted the pollution. They organize cleanups and even make art from the collected debris, work designed to inspire people to think carefully and creatively about the plastics problem. Data collection is also helping. At BIOS, five new art works made from plastic items found on local beaches now hang in the Bermuda Inshore Waters Investigation laboratory. Here, work for the past two years has focused on quantifying the problem and providing larger-scale, longer-term comprehensive plastic waste data specific to Bermuda.

Although eye-catching and fanciful, the collages of colorful debris and whimsical marine life point to the concerning profusion of plastic in the marine environment, said BIOS director of education and community engagement Kaitlin Noyes, who purchased the art from the Bermuda National Gallery this spring.

This month, students from Oldfields School in Baltimore, Maryland, collected samples of sand to look for microplastics on beaches at Cooper’s Island Nature Reserve. Back in the Bermuda Inshore Waters Investigation laboratory at BIOS, now home to recently-purchased art created from plastic waste by Bermudian artists (hanging behind students), participants sorted the microplastics for data collection focused on quantifying the problem and providing larger-scale, longer-term comprehensive plastic waste data specific to Bermuda. Photo by Ali Hochberg

“I wanted to bring in art that fosters thinking about the problem of plastics and the impact it has on marine life and human health,” Noyes said. “We wanted art to lift the space, add some color and creativity, and create a dynamic environment.”

All five works were created by Bermudian artists and photographers Meredith Andrews and Imogen Peckett, who collected the plastic debris from island beaches.

“Informing the public about the enormous problem of ocean plastic is at the core of what I do, but this education would be nothing without the work of the scientific and environmental communities,” Andrews said. “To have my work hanging at BIOS where people are working on data that could lead to fundamental shifts in our future consumption of plastics makes me incredibly proud.”

Peckett’s art at BIOS includes collages in the shapes of a crab, octopus, and parrotfish. She has been involved with BIOS since 2012, when she first enrolled as a student with Waterstart Ltd. She also participated in four internships at BIOS between 2016 and 2020. She currently studies environmental geography at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom and plans to continue making art.

At Well Bay, within Cooper’s Island Nature Reserve, a colorful confetti of microplastics litters the shoreline. Estimates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that millions of tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year. Plastic pollution can be found from the sea surface to the ocean floor in every marine environment globally. Photo by Kaitlin Noyes

“I think it’s important to have a visual representation of the plastics problem, presented as the creatures in the ocean that it is affecting,” Peckett said. “The pieces are not only beautiful to look at, but they bring the viewer in. At first you may not notice that they are created out of plastics; then this compels you to think of the issue they represent and not only as a colorful depiction of a fish or an octopus.”

At BIOS, researchers and volunteers working with Noyes and colleagues have focused specifically on the problem of microplastics, tiny pieces typically no bigger than cupcake sprinkles. Primary microplastics are those that have been manufactured to be less than five millimeters in size (about the size of a sesame seed), such as those in skin cleansers and other personal care products. Additionally, there are secondary microplastics that are far more prevalent, fragmented in the water over time from larger plastic pieces. 

Noyes and BIOS colleagues organize microplastics collections at local beaches with volunteers, as well as local and visiting students. Workers sift debris from four tidal points at Well Bay and Long Bay beaches, both located on the east end of the island. After shaking sand through sieves, volunteers sweep the accumulated bits of confetti-like green, blue, orange, and white microplastics into a container, then transport the bagged debris to the BIOS lab.

There, it is dried, sorted, and categorized by size. Results are tallied and shared with the Bermuda Marine Debris Taskforce, a collaboration of local environmental and research organizations working to find solutions to plastic pollution issues.

Collecting data consistently allows it to be reproducible and compiled and compared across Bermuda’s beaches. This standardized data stream builds a record of accumulation of microplastics in Bermuda, as well as locations globally, over longer time scales, Noyes said, providing a snapshot of how much microplastic has, and continues to be, deposited on the island’s beaches.

Locals interested in joining the BIOS mailing list to receive updates on opportunities to help with plastic debris collections through the BIOS citizen science initiative may register at oa@bios.edu.