New Film From Alaskan Artists Captures ‘Slow Motion Tsunami’ Of Plastic Marine Debris


Painter and filmmaker Max Romey holds up a watercolor he made showing ocean debris he and other volunteers recovered from an Alaskan beach. (Max Romey)

An Alaskan painter and videographer has released a short film about the dangers of ocean plastic.

It’s titled “If You Give a Beach a Bottle,” it’s by Max Romey, and it incorporates scenes of volunteers cleaning up Alaskan shorelines littered with marine debris, coupled with images from the sketchbooks at the watercolor by Romey.

Romey says the title refers to the children’s book ‘If You Give a Mouse a Cookie’ because the plastic problem in the ocean felt like a similar, circular, never-ending story.

This is after Romey started hitting Alaskan beaches to remove tons of washed up debris.


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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Max Romey: Alaska has these islands, which stand out and pick it all up. And so it was this completely overwhelming experience. For the past seven years, it’s kind of just sat in the back of my head. And it’s one of the first times I went out, this time with a sketchbook, and I just tried to tell a story of this huge, huge thing. And it’s one of the first times I’ve been able to share the film publicly. This is really just the first leg of what is probably going to be a journey that I may not see the end of until you know, I’m 90 or 100 years old.

Casey’s Grove: You are in depth now.

SIR: I am indeed now, yes. We’ll see where that leads.

CG: Do I understand correctly, that it started with a sketchbook and a watercolour, right?

SIR: Yeah, well I guess my whole journey with it started with a sketchbook and a watercolor. I’m really dyslexic. So I have trouble with reading and writing. My handwriting is nearly illegible, but the spelling makes it even worse. And that’s where sketchbooks came in. My grandmother is an amazing painter, and my whole family really encouraged me to get into art, because you can’t really go wrong. spell a painting. People see it, they understand it, it doesn’t matter if they speak English, or love it, don’t speak anything at all, people understand the skits. And so, from the age of six until now, I’ve been sketching all this time, but I’ve rarely used them in movies. And all of a sudden, these gigantic, complex issues that words had no real way of capturing, I find that sketches could understand these things that words really couldn’t.

CG: (If you) give a bottle to a beach, it’s about five minutes, right? And you show your progress in the art that you do while cleaning the beach, and some of the negative aspects of that and the animals that are affected and so on, affected by the marine debris. And then also just these beautiful landscapes. It seems like the things that you decided to draw were sort of crystallized, bigger ideas that then had maybe more impact, just in those moments in the movie like that. I mean, seeing it for yourself and spending so much time looking at this issue. What is his size?

SIR: Marine debris is like a slow motion tsunami hitting Alaska. And it’s nets, it’s lines, but it’s also bottles, it’s buoys, it’s barrels, it’s coolers, it’s polystyrene. Everything is made of plastic these days, all over the world. Things get thrown away, a lot of it comes from the rivers, so it goes to a landfill, the landfill isn’t very good, the landfill ends up in the river, the river ends up in the ocean. Or it is simply dumped directly into the ocean. It happens too. But then the plastic will never decompose, it will never decompose. And as it ends up in the ocean, the ocean currents kind of turn, and then Alaska is just stuck in the middle, like you’re putting your hand in a washing machine full of clothes. And it just captures all of that. These winter storms blow up everything on the shore.

We’re like a cheese grater that all of these ocean plastics end up on, and we’re shredding them into all these little bits. And then those tiny bits are, once they get small enough, they bioaccumulate, they pick up a lot of toxins, and they end up in the environments that those nutrient cycles make possible. The salmon go upstream, they die, all that nitrogen in the ocean goes up, the bears eat them, the eagles eat them. Most trees contain these salmon nutrients. But we basically inject plastic into this whole situation. So once those things are broken down into billions of little pieces, you lose them.

Right now you can go to the beach, you can go to Cordova, you can go to Kodiak, Katmai, and you can find big, big piles of bottles and buoys, and you can pick them up. But the scary part is what you can’t find, all those things that have been shattered into thousands of pieces. And then it will accumulate in a lot of these systems. And by the time it accumulates, when we actually see it in nature, it’s too late. It’s this funny little moment where you can actually do something now, but it’s super complex, it’s really hard to see, and it’s slow. So it’s not like, you know, an oil spill. It’s like asbestos. This stuff is going to affect Alaska for a very long time, and we have a chance to do something about it now. But the longer we wait, the harder it will be.

CG: And a lot of people don’t see that every day. I mean, it seems like it kind of changed the way you thought about it to see it up close and personal and be out there on the beach like that.

SIR: Yeah. You see buoys, you see things you don’t see everyday, but you also see laundry baskets, you see bottles of dishwashing detergent, you see lunch boxes, and you also see bits of everything that. Big chunks are just what you might pick up, it’s not too late. The little pieces, let’s go. But you see all of this and you realize it came from someone’s car, it was in someone’s trash, someone ate off that plate and now it’s in Alaska for some reason. So it’s this major global problem, and we could have people coming for these beaches 24/7, every day for years, and we wouldn’t get everything.

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