“Our Sea of Plastic”

Craig Santos Perez
February 1, 2013
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Tongan writer Epeli Hauʻofa once wrote: “the sea is our pathway to each other and to everyone else, the sea is our endless saga, the sea is our most powerful metaphor, the ocean is in us” (“The Ocean in Us” 1997).

 

In the North Pacific Ocean, currents gather marine debris from the Western coast of North America to the eastern coast of Asia. Wind and surface currents trap the floating waste towards the center of the gyre. Turning. And turning as it widens.

 

One estimate maps the size of this “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” (or “Pacific Trash Vortex”) as twice the area of the continental US. An apt comparison considering that much of this trash comes from what we call out here in the islands, the “mainland(fill)”.

 

As plastic floats, the sun breaks it down. Down into smaller and smaller pieces, which will take centuries to fully decompose. These particulates remain suspended on the surface, or right below the surface, of the ocean. Oceania is vast, Oceania is plastic soup.

 

The Mōlī, or laysan albatross, live most their lives flying over the sea, and only nest on land when it is time breed and raise their young. The Mōlī nest on the northwestern Hawaiian island of Pihemanu, or “Midway Atoll”. They are such expert navigators of the air above the ocean, that they can sleep while flying. Some people call them the “true nomad of the ocean”.

 

When they hunt, sometimes a piece of plastic is tangled in their food, and sometimes they mistake the plastic for food. Adult birds feed their chicks the plastic. The birds swallow and feel full. Their food and water intake reduce, causing dehydration and starvation. Sometimes, the plastic tears their digestive tracts.

 

Pihemanu, an “unincorporated territory” of the United States, has been shaped by the imperial forces of global capitalism, militarism, and colonialism. The US annexed the circular atoll in the 19th century, and turned it into a military base in the 20th century. Pihemanu means “loud din of birds”, and it is managed by the state of Hawaiʻi, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and NOAA. It is a part of the Papahānaumoku Marine National Monument.

 

If you take a picture of this post-island paradise, as others have, you will capture birds strewn across the landscape: dead. Their bodies decomposing. Their bodies filled with plastic. Plastic will outlast bird bones.

Chris-Jordan-The-Plastic-Tragedy-at-Midway

Since the “Battle of Midway”, more than a billion tons of plastic have been produced, consumed, and discarded. A third of all Mōlī born on Pihemanu each year die.

 

When I see those pictures, I think about how our families have fed us breakfast lunch and dinner of imported canned meats with white rice, or imported canned meats with white bread. We were grateful for this food, saying our prayers. I remember Sundays, when my dad would fry Spam in the early morning because he knew it would be the one thing that would get us kids out of bed to go to church (I confess: those breakfasts made me fart into the pew).

 

Our families thought they were feeding us food. We didn’t know. It made us feel full and it was what we could afford and it was easy to cook. And it was American. We never knew it was tearing apart our insides. We never knew our Pacific bodies would be strewn across our islands: dead. From heart disease and diabetes and cancer.

 

Some call the albatross, “fool birds”. Everything, and everybody, is plastic.

 

“Plastic” comes from the latin “plasticus”, capable of shaping, and from the  greek “plastikos”, able to be shaped. From oil derivatives. We drink from plastic water bottles, so we know / that the ocean is really in our blood.

 

The plasticity of colonialism can be felt in how its toxic presence crashes against the shore of these fragments and floats on (and below) the surface of the poem. The plastic ocean is in us. It molds our bodies and stories.

 

The plasticity of the poem can be read in how the poem lays the bird bare. How it shows you your own decomposed body, exposing the traces of trauma, the evidence of crime. The poem proves that if you are reading its currents of words, then you have survived, and it is not too late to re-shape our future.

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