Issue 3 Sentinel Devices »

“Oceans of Plastic:” Heterogeneous narrations of an ongoing disaster


“Oceans of Plastic:” Heterogeneous narrations of an ongoing disaster

Have you ever heard of the “garbage patches” that float in the middle of the oceans? Yes, presumably. Marine litter is today is considered one key element of human impact on ecosystems at a global scale (Law et al., 2010). In 2011, an emblematic mark of that recognition came from the United Nation Environmental Program (UNEP) that featured marine plastic debris as one of its major issues of the year (Kershaw et al., 2011).[1] But this issue has not always been a prominent object of international concern.

In 1972, Carpenter and Smith were the first scientists to describe unexpected plastic debris concentration in western Atlantic.[2] However, for more than two decades, this news rarely entered mainstream media. It was only forty years after these first scientific investigations that plastic marine pollution ‘officially’ became a global issue. If the phenomenon has been known for so long, how is it that it only recently became a matter of public concern? What specific set of events allowed plastic debris in oceans to be considered as an “ongoing catastrophe”? How can the emergence of this public awareness be understood?

Neither strictly natural, nor strictly social, plastic accumulations in oceans can be described as a type of “hybrid” (Latour, 1993). Above all, these floating phenomena are a product of time: On the one hand, they became a threat for ecosystems over decades of intensive consumption and disposal of plastic items; on the other hand, more than forty years have been necessary to build them as “matter of concern” (Latour, 2004). The complex process of producing this public issue is the concern of this article.

The “plastic threat” in oceans

Generally, if anthropogenic debris appears as an offence to “nature”, it is first in pure aesthetic, phenomenological terms: Here, perception of abjection expresses above all a conflict between an idealized view of “natural” landscape and a kind of culturally produced desire to protect its apparent status as untouched wilderness. Beyond the unpleasant experience of encountering ‘polluted’ waters—whether in the form of treading on soiled beaches, wandering past wrecked cars in rivers, or spotting floating bottles in the ocean surf, we could all potentially agree that the silent and invisible accumulation of these items over time would contribute to a global threat. But with quasi-imperceptible phenomenon such as garbage patches, some differences have to be examined. The process of accumulation in the oceans could be ignored as long as most of the debris floated far from human life centers. Because of the striking contrast between those tiny little pieces and the immensity of the oceans, the accumulation of plastic debris has been a slow and silent process of gradual invasion covering a large surface area of the oceans. Therefore time is a key actor.

Despite an initial lack of consistent data, scientists now agree on a range of understandings of the harms related to presence of plastics in the marine environment, from this garbage’s impacts on wildlife to its effects on human health (Thompson et al., 2009). Indeed, one key threat now understood related to this pollution in oceans is the slow fragmentation of plastic objects, driven by currents in multiple giant vortexes around the globe. As a result of acthisdispersion, satellites are unable to capture immediately legible images of these concentrations. Micro-debris can only be measured in “at-sea observation”, consisting, in broad outline, in “raking over” oceans’ surface with plankton nets. Despite scientists’ painstaking efforts over 20 years to collect these observations, this type of factual evidence was not successful in raising public awareness of the marine litter issue.

Standing on the edge of human perception, far from everyday public concerns, the quasi-abstracted nature of gradual accumulation is one of the reasons why campaigns in the media were needed to transform plastic accumulation into a prioritized global environmental issue. In the 2000s, a number of poignant pictures spread by mainstream press and websites played a key role in mobilizing of public opinion. From the Albatros’ stomach-full-of-plastic-caps to the turtle-deformed-by-a-plastic-ring, iconic pictures recognized by growing numbers of people around the world today connect improper disposal of plastic litter with a growing threat for wildlife. In a way, these animals acted as early “sentinels”, exemplifying for large audiences an encroaching danger.

But, in our case, words, at least as much as pictures, could have played a central role in the emergence of plastic accumulation concern.

A postmodern Columbus

At the end of the 1990s, Captain Charles Moore, the founder of Algalita Marine Research Foundation, described to Curtis Ebbesmeyer—a famous oceanographer and specialist of ocean currents and floating objects—his encounter with staggering concentrations of plastic litter accumulated in the middle of the Eastern Pacific on a large surface area. The oceanographer nicknamed it “the great Pacific garbage patch”. The narration of this strange confrontation sounded like a pale caricature of the great discovery of the new world: Moore, the Columbus of post-modern times, discovered a new “continent”, a New World built by the unintentional consequences of humans’ action. Media from around the world reported the “discovery”, first carefully then more ardently. That Moore’s claims lacked scientific evidence, including quantified data about the size of these “patches”, seemed to be a sufficient reason to doubt this “story” as the biased spin of a sensationalizing activist. Yet the tangible dimension of the word “patch” helped to spread the powerful mythical image of an archipelago of “garbage islands” scattered in the middle of the ocean. In the wake of Moore’s intervention, DEVICESarchitects in the Netherlands in the early 2000s launched a project named the “recycled island”, which presented the recycling of garbage patches as a kind of “promised land” for climate refugees.[3]

The “patches” metaphor travelled beyond activist circles. Oceanographers and marine biologists soon developed model simulations of the distribution of marine litter in the main oceanic gyres. Interestingly, the production and circulation of these scientific representations markedly increased after Moore’s re-invention of plastic accumulation in oceans (Leichter, 2011). These scientific bricolages (Levi-Strauss, 1962), oscillating between the collection of empirical data and their extrapolation in theoretical models of dispersion, produce pictures that precisely materialized the dispersal of plastics on seas, and participated in the spread of a conception of plastic accumulation as solid “patches”.

Over the course of ten short years, we witnessed a semantic shift in the appellation of these accumulations. In part because the word “patches” came to be criticized by scientists—and by Moore himself—as a misleading metaphor, some soon suggested an alternate name: “plastic soups”. From a solid to a liquid metaphor, this new denomination was supposed to better reflect to the inconsistent, quasi-immaterial, and hardly perceptible nature of plastic accumulation. But, the “plastic soup” moniker also drew attention to a new danger absent from the earlier metaphor, namely the problem of plastic toxics components’ bioaccumulation in the food chain.

Moreover, this new expression points to a movement of ongoing anthropization of a hypothetic immaculate nature. If some parts of oceans can be compared to a plastic soup, their fluctuating frontiers are interpretable as a way to foreshadow a blurring of the limits between nature and culture. In other words, this new view presents oceans as a human product in progress, a “toxic soup.”


Ironically, while they became a public concern, concentrations of marine litter have been perceived as something at once threatening as desirable: The accumulation was a threat because the process immediately appeared as a potential risk for ecosystems; however, it was at the same time desirable as it posed a new challenge for scientists and publics to mobilize around.

What has to be underlined here is the equivoque position of scientific discourses around the metaphors that make it appear as a public concern: If these buzz words can on occasion mislead the actual comprehension of a given phenomenon, they also fully participate in its emergence as a global issue. Thus, plastic marine debris has become a global concern through the weaving of perceptible and threatening evidences, lead by a kind of unwitting cooperation between eco-activists, the media, politicians and scientists. But, the hermetic ethical barriers between these poles of the debate are just apparent: With figures like Moore, who presents himself as both an activist and a scientist, the porosity between these different levels of engagement becomes visible. Indeed, activist-scientists are (politically and economically) interested in seeing their area of specialization grow into a global concern. As central components of alert devices, the formulation and dissemination of denomination processes play a crucial role.

In competing attempts to represent the multiple aspects of the marine litter problem, the tropes of “soup” and “patches” both literally and figuratively emerged as parts of a complex issue. The UNEP reports that at least 70 percent of marine litter actually sinks (Kershaw et al., 2011). Thus, any attempt to “clean” the surface of oceans would be primarily ephemeral and cosmetic. But despite the lack of comparable worldwide measures of plastic concentration, and despite the absence of scientific proof of human contamination by plastics’ toxics (Thompson et al., 2009), “garbage patches” happen, and the recognition of their existence seems, day after day, to call for new solutions. As recent campaigns organized by NGOs demonstrate,[4] the metaphors have created impetus for new responses to a re-conceptualized problem: from cleaning beaches to sorting garbage, from avoiding plastics to banning them altogether. But, facing a problem that has been monitored by scientists for 40 years, are these emerging “everyday practices” adequate responses to the “disaster”?

To become “matters of concern”, oceans of plastic had to be concretized through metaphors of consistency. In this way, it is as if sentinel devices needed to build a kind of thickness of matter to be able to launch alerts. In our case, that thickness stays profoundly ambivalent: Resulting from the combination of heterogeneous narrations, it seems to be a product of a kind of contemporary bricolage, closer to the myths of the “savage mind” than to the certitudes of engineers.


About the author

Baptiste Monsaingeon is a postdoctoral researcher at the Alexandre Koyré Center, whose research focuses on synthetic polymers as disposable materials, especially around the protocol of reduction of plastic bags on a European scale. More »


[1] UNEP 2011 year book is accessible online here.
[2] E. J. Carpenter, K. L. Smith, Plastics on the Sargasso Sea surface. Science 175, 1240-1241 (1972). Their work was focused on Atlantic Ocean, and specifically on Sargasso Sea. But, in 1973, an other research team described same phenomenon in Pacific: Venrick, E. L and al. (1973): Man-made objects on the surface of the central North Pacific Ocean. Nature, 241, 271.
[3] Cf. Available at link.
[4] Cf. for instance, Surfrider Europe marine litter campaign.


Carpenter, Edward. J., and Smith K.L. 1972. “Plastics on the Sargasso Sea Surface,” Science 175(4027):1240-1241.

Kershaw, Peter, Saido Katsuhiko, Sangjin Lee et al. 2011. “Plastic debris in the ocean,” UNEP 2011 yearbook, pp.20-33. Available at link.

Latour, Bruno. 1991. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. “Why has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry, 30(2):225-248.

Leichter, James. J. 2011. “Investigating the Accumulation of Plastic Debris in the North Pacific Gyre”, Interdisciplinary Studies on Environmental Chemistry, 5 (Marine Environmental Modeling & Analysis): 251–259.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1962. La pensée sauvage, Paris: Plon.

Thompson, Richard C., Charles J. Moore, Frederick S. vom Saal et al. 2009. “Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in Biological Sciences. 364(1526):2153-2166.