Search This Blog

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Plastic GYRE Symposium: Artists, Scientists and Activists Respond

On March 26 & 27 nationally renowned scientists, filmmakers, artists and activists converged on Atlanta for The Plastic GYRE Symposium: Artists, Scientists and Activists RespondHosted jointly by the Welch Foundation at Georgia State University (GSU), David J. Sencer Museum of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC), the Symposium was an effort to raise awareness and discourse on the global crisis of plastic pollution.

Pamela Longobardi at podium
Distinguished GSU Professor & Drifters Project founder Pamela Longobardi was the empowering force behind the Symposium. In June 2013, Pamela was Lead Artist in the Alaska Gyre Expedition, a project launched by the Alaska Sealife Center and the Anchorage Museum to assess the impact of debris washing onto Alaskan shores from the Pacific Ocean gyres.

National Geographic (NG) adventure filmmaker, producer and director J.J. Kelly joined the gyre team to document the four-year in-the-making expedition. On August 21, 2013 the NG twenty-minute film GYRE: Creating Art from a Plastic Ocean was released on the monumental expedition.

Subsequent to the expedition, Pamela worked collaboratively with Howard Ferren, the GYRE Project originator and Julie Decker, curator of the GYRE exhibition, to form the team of artists aboard the ship, who created art from the foraged plastic debris collected on the expedition. The subsequent exhibition, GYRE: The Plastic Ocean, which then expanded to scores of esteemed global artists working with plastic pollution, is on exhibit at the CDC Museum January 26 - June 19.

When the CDC exhibit scheduled, Pamela spearheaded an amazing team to create The Plastic GYRE Symposium to coincide with the art exhibit. PPC co-founder, Dianna Cohen provided tremendous support on multiple levels for the empowering Symposium. In addition, Dianna's artwork is included in the GYRE: The Plastic Ocean exhibit.

What is a gyre? Per Pam, "The Gyre is the scientific term for the ocean currents which now propel plastic pollution around the world." Wikipedia gives a more scientific gyre description:

gyre in oceanography is any large system of rotating ocean currentsparticularly those involved with large wind movements. Gyres are caused by the Coriolis effect; planetary vorticity along with horizontal and vertical friction, which determine the circulation patterns from the wind curl (torque). The term gyre can be used to refer to any type of vortex in the air or the sea, even one that is man-made, but it is most commonly used in oceanography to refer to the major ocean systems. There are five most notable gyres:
Scott Seydel at the podium
The two-day Symposium included a stellar program that ran the gamut of educating on the horrific facts of the plastic pollution scenario to providing a good news blitz of positive action in-place to explaining the social justice (or injustice) surrounding the gyre & other plastic pollution impacts. Prominent industry experts traveled from across the nation to share their experience, research and call-to-action.

Elemental Impact (Ei) Chair Scott Seydel presented on the Beyond Greenwash: Extended Producer Responsibility panel with a powerful, at times humorous, presentation that emphasized plastic's value in the global economy. Scott focused on the current recycling rates, end uses for the various plastics and how states with bottle bills enjoy significantly higher recycling rates.

In his presentation on the Greenwash panel, John Lanier - the Ray C. Anderson Foundation director - encouraged the audience to move beyond sustainability and aspire to be restorative. Using examples from Interface's exemplary history to more recent endeavors, including a pilot where nets from a small Philippines fishing village were cleaned, processed and woven into new carpet tiles, John substantiated his impactful point. Note John's grandfather Ray Anderson founded Interface, the world's largest designer and maker of carpet tile, and was a leading pioneer in sustainable | restorative business practices.

Laura Turner Seydel, Scott Seydel
& Dianna Cohen between sessions
Executive Director of Data & Strategy for the Algiers Charter School Association in New Orleans, LA Jane Patton gave an excellent presentation on the implications of plastics in school systems, especially in foodservice programs.  

As the largest chartered school district in the state, Algiers serves meals to 4500 children twice per day, five days per week, 36 weeks per year and uses 1.6 million polystyrene trays and plastic forks per year. Jane emphasized her stats are from only one school district in the nation - the total polystyrene | plastic usage in schools is astronomical. 

In her session, Jane spoke of the narrow perception related to "cost."  Administrators tend to focus on product cost without considering hard cost-savings of waste hauling reduction and soft costs associated with the health impact from plastic molecules infiltrating food served to students.

The first-day formal program finished with a screening of the NG film referred to above.

Liz York announcing the
CDC water-savings
On the second day, the Symposium began with a Sustainability Call to Action by Pam and Dianna, followed by a press junket and a GYRE: The Plastic Ocean exhibition viewing. CDC Museum curator Louise Shaw did a superb job orchestrating the exhibit logistics and installation.

CDC Associate Director for Quality and Sustainability Liz York welcomed attendees to the CDC as the start to the afternoon formal program. In her remarks, Liz announced the CDC reduced water consumption by 300% of the prior current average monthly usage - impressive!

GreenLaw executive director Stephanie Benfield was slated to moderate the Social Justice panel. With perfect timing Stephanie was at the Capitol lobbying against the "ban the ban" Georgia House Bill up for the vote - the bill was defeated during the panel! Thanks to up-to-the-second updates, Dianna announced the bill defeat within a minute of the vote. The audience was elated and gave a standing ovation.

Environmental Working Group executive director Heather White stepped forward as the Social Justice panel moderator and infiltrated her presentation within the commentary. Heather brought the plastic pollution scenario close to home. Research of toxins in newborn babies was released as Heather embraced her first child - the stark reality propelled Heather into action, eventually leading to her current prestigious position.

Passionate, PPC co-founder Lisa Boyle presented on the results of living in a throw-away society; cheap products are designed for one-time use and expensive products are designed for replacement. Lisa produced the Tulane Environmental Law Journal, Plastic Pollution and wrote the introduction. Several of the Symposium presenters contributed to the impressive documentation on plastic pollution from an environmental law perspective.

Rashid Nuri at the podium
Former Clinton Advisor on Agriculture Rashid Nuri of Truly Living Well gave a passionate, empowering talk on the role urban agriculture plays in social justice and was the final panelist. In his talk Rashid dispelled the term "food desert" as the residents are no farther from stores with healthy food than affluent neighborhoods; these individuals lack the means to travel to the stores. In addition to its direct health benefits, Rashid linked food grown within an urban environment to significantly reduced plastic packaging.

The Symposium's formal program closed with an eye-opening keynote presentation by Captain Charles Moore, Algalita Marine Research founder and discoverer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Charles' presentation was grounded in a video documenting his research over the years; the graphic visuals depicted the magnitude of the plastic pollution within the oceans along with its implications.

According to Charles, the tremendous plastic pollution volumes are beyond current capabilities for a massive clean-up. Charles recommends a focus on source reduction to prevent further build-up of the already out-of-control scenario. Per the Algalita website, the plastic reality is:

  • 280 million tons of plastic is produced around the world annually. An estimated 5.25 trillion plastic pieces weighing 268,940 tons pollute the global ocean.
  • That's at least 700 pieces for every living human being on the planet, or the equivalent to the weight of 24 billion empty single-use water bottles.
  • To date, reports show that at least 136 marine species have been impacted by plastic entanglement, and 177 marine species have ingested plastic.

Beyond the overwhelming plastic pollution impact visuals, a serious threat to food safety is the micro-plastics in the flesh of sea life harvested for human consumption. Larger plastics often kill sea life through blockages in the digestive tract, entanglement and starvation. Micro-plastics consumed may fare through the digestive process into the species' flesh & other edible areas.

The audience gives Charles Moore
a standing ovation
A seasoned, effective speaker Charles ended his somber, reality-based presentation on a high note with a lighthearted video of children respecting the earth and sharing the source-reduction message with a cheerful voice. The crowd responded with a standing ovation for Charles' powerful keynote presentation. The Symposium closed with a lovely reception and exhibition viewing.

For a Symposium pictorial recap from Ei's perspective, visit the Ei FB album, The Plastic GYRE Symposium.

The plastic pollution cannot be ignored and its impact extends beyond the oceans to our interior waterways and soils. Though solutions are not yet evident, immediate efforts to stop the tremendous annual added accumulation are a must for human and other species survival. 

Collaborative effort among individuals, governments, research institutes, non-profits and private enterprise with a common goal of first reducing, later eliminating, plastic pollution is necessary. Enlightened solutions will emerge for what seems an insurmountable scenario. It is time to bring the possible out of the impossible! 


The below lists links for the Symposium's first-day sessions at GSU:


  1. This was a great and badly needed event. Plastic pollution truly affects everyone on this planet and it is time we all get involved to find the solution.

    We believe that educating the next generation of leaders is the best way to get a grip on our plastic output which is why we created our curriculum:

    1. Thanks Jim! It was an eye-opening event, even for seasoned sustainability professionals. What impressed me the most was the scientific data substantiating the stark reality of the plastic pollution scenario. I appreciate your comment and ask for your assistance driving traffic to the article documenting the important event. Thanks! Holly

  2. Thank you, I am listening to each of these one at a time. I was unable to attend as I learned about it late in the game. I am interested however, in a summer or long term activity of actively mitigating the impacts we have placed on our planet.

    1. You are most welcome. Sorry you were not able to attend the empowering symposium - even for a seasoned sustainability professional it was eye-opening. Humanity is in the midst of a crisis - the plastic gyres are a huge component yet are intertwined with other equally imp matters impacting the earth at an elemental level - water, air, soil. Thank you for caring.

  3. Thanks for sharing the information. You have discussed the response of the artists, scientists and activists after conducting the plastic GYRE symposium which is the term for the ocean currents that propel around the world. This is a useful blog. Apart from this article, I learned about hammerhead shark which is the largest of all hammerhead species.