Planet or Plastic

Sea turtles are among the many ocean creatures harmed by man’s profligacy with plastic, the focus of National Geographic’s “Planet or Plastic?” photography exhibition that was recently installed at the Center for the Arts.

Kathryn Keane’s 21-year-old son has a hard time believing littering used to be a thing.

When she was younger, people would throw garbage out of their car windows all the time. It was a commonplace thing. But thanks to a campaign that attacked the issue head on, Keane said “it’s become so socially unacceptable to litter.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem any more.

Keane is the National Geographic Society’s vice president of public experiences and the executive director of the National Geographic Museum. She’s had a hand in getting the society’s traveling “Planet or Plastic?” photography exhibit off the ground and said everyday solutions exist to quell the tide of plastic that is making its way into ecosystems around the globe.

One of those is to stop littering.

“It’s still an issue around the world, even though we’ve conquered the littering issue in the United States — or we’re trying to,” Keane said.

Thanks to a partnership with the Center of Wonder, the “Planet or Plastic?” exhibit made landfall at the Center for the Arts in the past month, where it was set up in what Center staff call the “ramp gallery."

But the National Geographic exhibition is not just a gallery show. It’s a call to action and just one part of a multiyear outreach initiative. That program kicked off with a cover story in the June 2018 National Geographic magazine that boasted a now-ubiquitous photo of a plastic bag floating in the ocean.

You might recognize that photo. At first glance, it looks like an iceberg.

That subtle subversion gave rise to the initiative, which, among other things, landed an exhibition at the United Nations General Assembly in the spring of 2019. The former president of the assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa, had just finished converting the U.N.’s corporate headquarters to a plastic-free workplace and wanted to celebrate. The National Geographic Society stepped in and the “Planet or Plastic?” exhibition was born.

Months later, the exhibition installed on the “ramp gallery” is a version of that United Nations display: the first “Planet or Plastic?” stop in the United States outside of the assembly.

But for Taylor Maddalene, the director of the National Geographic Society’s Source to Sea plastics initiative, “Planet or Plastic?” isn’t all about landing photography shows in high places. It’s about getting the word out and inspiring people to reduce the amount of plastic waste they generate.

Two million tons of plastic were produced in 1950, Maddalene said, and nearly 400 million tons were produced in 2015. Virtually half of all plastic was produced in the last 15 years, with over 9 billion tons created since the ’50s. That’s an amount nearly 45 million times the weight of a 200-ton blue whale, the largest animal on the planet.

“The production is staggering, but less than 10% of that has actually been recycled,” Maddalene said.

The rest has either ended up in a landfill or in the environment.

Cue the images of sea turtles wrapped in six-pack containers. Or plastic bottles coating the surface of the ocean. Or sea horses catching a ride on a Q-tip beneath the sea.

Images of all are included in the “Planet or Plastic?” exhibit, but the center’s installation isn’t all doom and gloom. It also lays out clear ways for normal people to address the issue because, as Maddalene said, the issue doesn’t start in the ocean. It starts upstream in places like Jackson, where plastic finds its way into the watershed, and, over time, the sea.

“There are different solutions for all walks of life,” Maddalene said. “People have to do what makes sense for them. One of the messages that we try to push is that we don’t want it to feel like a hopeless situation and you don’t have to go completely cold turkey immediately.”

National Geographic’s focus, Maddalene said, is on single-use macroplastics: things like the packaging you might find as a sushi container. People can cut back by using reusable bags, buying produce at local farmer’s markets, not using plastic toothbrushes and bringing containers to a restaurant to use as doggie bags.

Maddalene described the actions people can take as a “spectrum of solutions.”

“And with that spectrum of solutions, there’s also a kind of a spectrum of time in which it takes for all of those things to take effect,” she said, noting that it has taken years to see the results of work National Geographic’s focused on protecting wildlife and wildlands. Still, she said she’s starting to see habitats and ecosystems recover, as well as early climate action take shape.

The fight against plastic is “getting so much traction across producers, across decision makers, across the public,” Maddalene said. It’s “a good time to start making some of those changes so that we can start seeing some of those successes in the near future.” 

This article was updated to reflect at the Center of Wonder sponsored the exhibit's installation in Jackson. — Ed.

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