Conservation

What One Bottle’s Extreme Journey Proves About Pollution

An artist tossed message-filled bottles into the sea to find out how litter from New York hurts seabirds across the world.

Three years ago, standing on a beach in Staten Island, a man littered intentionally. Deliberately, in fact. The man was New York artist George Boorujy, and the object he tossed seaward was a bottle containing a sketch of a Double-crested Cormorant, which he drew himself. The bottle was just one of many bird-filled canisters Boorujy had tossed into the sea that year, in hopes of raising awareness of ocean pollution. But this bottle would turn out to be special.

This bottle sailed all the way to the western coast of France, where it was found by Brigitte Barthelemy in January of 2016.

“Marvellous! I found a bottle yesterday on my beach in France, new ROYAN,” Barthelemy wrote to Boorujy in February when she found his email address tucked alongside the sketch. “Thanks for the drawing, the cormorant is ‘magnifique.’”

That his bottle travelled at least 3,400 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to France astounded Boorujy—and proved the point of his message-in-a-bottle project.

The Invisible Ocean Trash Heap

Boorujy, a Brooklyn-based artist, conceived of the project soon after he learned of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—where the world’s litter, swept into the sea, congregates in a series of current-driven whirlpools covering some 7 million square miles in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Sunlight breaks this plastic trash—bottles, bags, fishing nets, lighters, plastic cutlery, Legos, you name it—into small pieces, which fish and seabirds mistake for food. (To see the devastation up close, look at photographer Chris Jordan’s series on the grisly outcome that results from this plastic: albatross chicks who stuff themselves with plastic instead of actual food, and then starve to death.)

The problem is that the patch itself, while massive beyond imagination, is barely visible to the human eye. The plastic pieces are small and far away. Its victims are seabirds, who live hundreds of miles from human civilization. Every person who has ever thrown out a plastic bag or bottle is complicit, but because the patch is distant, it’s easy to pretend it’s someone else’s problem. (Around 80 percent of the trash comes from North America and Asia; no nation has taken responsibility for cleaning it up.)

So Boorujy set out to make an invisible problem visible. Between 2011 and 2013, he tossed 19 bottles into New York City’s waterways (plus a couple spots in Miami, where he studied art as an undergraduate). Each glass bottle—etched with NY Pelagic, the name of the project—held a drawing of a different seabird and his contact information.

And then he waited for people to find them. He launched a blog, which serves as the public-facing installation of his private ritual. His elegant and playful writing covers where bottles were tossed (and found) alongside his reflections on wildlife and discovering nature in New York City.

   
     
 
           
 

 

Another Man’s Treasure

He didn’t expect his bottles to travel far, and he was mostly right. Of the eight bottles known to have made it back to shore, five landed within a few miles of launch.

Boorujy’s first bottle, tossed in May 2011 from Brooklyn, was found on the shore of Sandy Hook, New Jersey by a pair of marine scientists, who were thrilled by the discovery, he says. As was he: “Get a load of this,” he wrote on his blog at the time. “It was found by scientists who have written a paper about using art to teach science. It seems like a set up, it’s so perfect.”

Another bottle made it to Sheffield Island, Connecticut after spending a year in the Long Island Sound. That’s all Boorujy knows about its fate; whoever found that bottle wanted to remain a mystery. 

And the Double-crested Cormorant managed to endure at sea for three years, traveling at least 3,400 miles—half of the six years it takes for trash from the North American coast to reach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, according to National Geographic.

“It drove home the point that our crap really does get over there,” Boorujy says.

Despite the miraculous trip, he still questions his artistic effort. While talking over the phone for an hour, he repeatedly referred to it as his “littering project” and wondered whether his bottles, beautiful as they are, only contribute to the garbage patch. He also knows that people root for the bottle because it’s “the ultimate underdog,” regardless of the message held within.

But the bottles, and Boorujy, do have a message—about how our small choices matter even if the outcome is invisible to us.

“Your choices, as small and infinitesimal as they seem, add up to big garbage patches,” Boorujy says. “It’s easy to feel powerless about what’s going on in the environment. But you aren’t 100 percent powerless. All these little things don’t matter, but they do.”

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