- Sustainable Japan Magazine
How to see the world in a grain of microplastic
September 27, 2021
Recently the problem of plastic waste in the ocean is receiving attention all over the world. According to the Annual Report on the Environment, the Sound Material-Cycle Society and Biodiversity in Japan released by the Ministry of the Environment in 2019, about 8 million tons of plastic waste are discharged into the ocean every year. And it is estimated that in 2050 the weight of all plastic waste in the ocean will exceed that of sea life. Once in the ocean, plastic waste remains there semipermanently, breaking down only into microplastics, with a diameter of 5 millimeters or less, that stay there, raising concerns about their long-term impact on the marine ecosystem. The fact is that little is known about the kinds and volume of microplastics already in the sea, and the long-term effects they will have.
These kinds of environmental issues can seem remote from our everyday lives, but there are visual artists trying to raise awareness through art. Makiko Takashima, who studied “information experience design” at the Royal College of Art in London, is currently working on a project involving plastic waste collected from the sea.
“Since I started diving, I have become more aware of environmental issues,” she said. “When you dive, you realize how much plastic trash is scattered near the bottom of the sea. Even in the most beautiful of seas, there are serious problems.”
While looking for a way in which she could address the problem as an artist, Takashima met Rie Tai, an environmental conservation consultant, and associate professor Yutaka Kameda of the Chiba Institute of Technology, who conducts research on microplastics. In this way she could get advice and support in producing her works. She learned that Kameda’s research laboratory is collaborating with the shipping company NYK Line to conduct a large-scale oceanographic survey of microplastic distribution around the world. Currently, NYK is collecting microplastic samples using its network of about 750 vessels. Kameda’s research laboratory will investigate the size and concentration of microplastics after collection, and plans to create a map of global marine plastic garbage. With Kameda’s cooperation, Takashima is now creating paintings that highlight “the existence of plastic fragments that are otherwise difficult for people to visualize” by attaching plastic fragments to her canvases and then painting over them.
“We’re told that even from our daily laundry, microplastics that can’t be caught by filters are actually leaching into the sea. It is not yet clear what kind of impact they will have, but by the time we notice a problem it will be too late, so being able to make people be aware of it now, at this early stage, is part of the power of art,” she said. “But I’m still trying to work out the best method of expressing this, so am still experimenting. If in future we can create a distribution map of plastic waste, then I will update the work based on that. Personally, I like to focus on creating works that will appeal directly to the five senses, such as sight and hearing. Even where straight numerical data might not seem real to people, the work will enable the viewer to intuitively and physically grasp the nature of the problem.”