Drowning In Plastic

I graduated from Staffordshire University, with a Ba Hons in Photography. For my final project I did a series of seascape from around the UK. Within them I hid statistics of our current Plastic Pollution rates. The series was called 'Drowning In Plastic' and looks into this environmental issue and societies views and actions towards it.

‘Over 5 trillion pieces of plastic currently litter the ocean’

This is an environmental project, which primarily uses a traditional seascape style to express my concern about our planets plastic pollution issue. This project explores how society sees this environmental issue, and the relationship we have towards plastic specifically one use throw away items, such as, plastic bottles, cups, straws, etc. At first glance these images looks to be simplistic seascape, representing the beauty of nature and capturing the naturalist view we have when visiting the beach; a beautiful place to be, clear sky, calm sea, sun shinning. However, under the surface lies the hidden meaning, the contamination.

‘Our planet is drowning in disposable plastic, its everywhere, we us it once, and throw it away, but the earth can never absorb plastic, it lasts forever, nearly every bit of plastic ever made is still on the planet, and it’s killing millions of marine animals every year.’

I wanted to use this project for conservation purposes and to educate my viewers into changing their lives to be more environmentally friendly and help save the planet from this unnecessary pollution. Using imagery to further conservation issues helps enormously as it allows the viewer to relate to the subject and sympathise with it, leading to a deeper connection and in turn the viewer being more willing to help and overcome this issue.

Plastic is a synthetic material made from a wide range of polymers such as polyethylene, PVC and nylon, that can be made into shape while soft, then set into a rigid or slightly elastic form. The raw materials for the production of plastics are cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and primarily crude oil. Everywhere you look you will find plastic, we use plastic products to make our lives easier and more convenient. You will find plastics in the clothes we wear, the houses we live in and the cars we travel in. The toys we play with, the televisions we watch, the computers we use and the CDs we listen to all contain plastics. Even the toothbrush you use every day contains plastics. Plastics are today and tomorrow’s materials of choice because they are convenient and keep up with the ever-increasing demand of society.

However, plastic is not all good, this moment of convenience material survives for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years and is damaging our planet. Exactly how much plastic is out there is a mystery. Most plastic ends up in the ocean, where they become hazardous to and endanger marine life. An estimated 1 million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles dies each year when they become trapped in plastic or eat it, perhaps mistaking it for food, which can suffocate the animal or give them an artificial sense of being full leading eventually to starvation.

This body of work represents how we see the sea; an endless stretch of pure untouched water. We see the sea as a beautiful place to be, however we only see the surface, not the hidden contamination that lies underneath, the harmful effect that we as a throwaway society have on it.

I intend to bring to light our societies apathetic nature and how we see environmental issues, in doing so I hope to open peoples eye to this issue that surrounds us, and help enlighten people into being more aware of their actions and help to avoid causing more damage to the planet.

This is more than just an artist’s statement; it’s a political one.

I have captured my images in a conventional landscape style; horizontal layout of a beautiful scene; having multiple horizontal layers; sky, sea and land. By shooting a naturalistic scene, I’m allowing my viewer to trust me, as I am not lying to them or creating a false pretence, only recording what they see and relating it back to them by putting it on display. Allowing the viewer to feel more compassionate to my images as they can relate to them on a personal level as they have seen and experience these scenes themselves.

However, once the viewer is engaged then is revealed their true purpose, their environmental meaning. Hidden within the images is translucent text, barely visible to the eye. Here I have displayed shocking plastic pollution rates, each phrase is hidden under the sea, and just like the plastic we dispose of, invisible to the eye.

For example


However, just because you cannot see the pollution does not mean it doesn’t exist. Just because we don’t see huge plastic pile-ups on our shores or the damage it causes to marine life, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist? We should care more for the world around us, and not be blinkered by our own selfish path. I am referring to society as a whole, some people care more than others, and I’m not attacking any one individual, just representing how I feel society is acting towards this issue.

These translucent texts reflect this blinkered view of society and our apathetic view on plastic, cheap and convenient in the moment, but harmful for a lifetime, and how we have caused this issue due to our carelessness.

However it is not just us that are to blame, production companies sometimes do not give us a choice in plastic or non-plastic items.

I have focused my project on the UK as British people have a heavy plastic pollution rate, and also an apathetic view towards the disposal of their plastic. My viewers shall mostly be UK based as well, so I will get the best response as it will be aimed at them, brought close to home, allowing them to relate to the issue, as it’s the beaches they visit, in which I have photographed my images. This hopefully will hit home and get my viewers to be more willing to help as it involves them. I have shot all over the UK, from Devon to Norfolk and Brighton to The Lake District, allowing a more diverse range of images and representation of the UK as a whole. I hope also that if the UK makes a stand, other countries will follow.

I was inspired greatly by Hiroshi Sugimoto, a Japanese photographer who created distinct seascape image around the world. His 1980’s series ‘seascapes’ consists of bold black and white images of the sea and sky being bifurcated exactly in half by the horizon line. This is similar to my work pictorially as I have also bifurcated my images by a horizon line, however I have created colour images, this was to allow my images to be more naturalist and allow the viewer to connect more to them as the are exact replicas of what the audience sees when visiting the beach.

Also photojournalist Sandra Hoyn who concentrates on environmental issues capturing the injustice of the world to raise awareness of the issue inspired me to further my images from just picturesque landscapes into environmental pieces used to incite change in my viewers.

Barbara Kruger and American conceptual artist and collagist stamps bold white text on a red strip over black and white images she finds in newspapers and magazine. Her work is political and addresses cultural constructs, creating new meaning to the original images and bringing to the viewers attention new ideas. I took inspiration from her by adding text to my images to change their original dynamics and make a political stand, however I have discretely hidden my text, compared to her over bearing bold style.

There are many ways in which we can help tackle and overcome this issue;


Firstly, the UK government is becoming more aware of this issue and has started to make a change. On the 5th of October 2015 England introduced a 5p charge for plastic bags, this dropped England’s plastic bags usage by 80%. The number of single-use bags handed out dropped to 500 million in the first six months since the charge was imposed compared with 7 billion the previous year (Smithers 2016). Also the UK government has announced plans to ban microbeads used in cosmetic products by 2017 (BBC News 2016). Although this is a step in the right direction there is still a long way to go. Firstly, the ban on microbeads only includes cosmetic products however there are microbeads in so many other household products specifically detergents. Also we need to get the government to make a stand against the plastic production companies, for example Coca-Cola produce 100 billion plastic bottles a year, that’s a shocking 3,400 throwaway plastic bottles every second. With the governments influence we can get big companies to revert back to old more sustainable ways such as glass, or find a new sustainable material.

The Ocean Cleanup Project

‘The Ocean Clean Up Project’ is developing a passive system using the ocean's currents as its driving force to catch and concentrate the plastic. By creating an artificial coastline out in the gyres of the ocean (Fig. 8) the current pushes the plastic into these V shaped screens and accumulate ready to be extracted and shipped to land. Once the plastic is collected it is recycled and used to create new high quality products, by selling this waste plastic the project hopes to eventually become self-sustainable. Ocean currents concentrate plastic in five areas of the world; the subtropical gyres, also known as the world’s ‘ocean garbage patches (Fig. 9). Biggest of the 5 is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is roughly the size of Texas. These five areas are the main focus of The Ocean Cleanup Project, they predict once their system is fully deployed it will lead to a 50% reduction of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 5 years’ time. Compared to using nets and vessels which would take tens of thousands of years and cost billions of dollars to complete.


As an individual, just changing a few things in you daily life can make a huge difference, it is nearly impossible to go completely plastic free nowadays, but by cutting down on plastic items, specifically one-use throw-away items can help reduce your impact a lot. Carry your own reusable preferably non-plastic shopping bag and water bottle. Say no to one-use items like cups, cutlery and straw; carry your own non-plastic biodegradable version. Store food in glass or ceramic container, say no to plastic produce bags. Stop using cosmetic and detergent containing microbeads – micro plastics. Switch to a biodegradable bamboo toothbrush. And also give up chewing gum!

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copyright of elle atkins 2020

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