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Plastic Is Pollution: The Making of an Artist Turned Activist

This is part five of Stiv Wilson's tour to better understand how plastic ends up in the ocean. Read the previous installments here.

“I don’t eat fish anymore, not after what I saw sailing across the Atlantic,” I say as a beautiful plate of seared Halibut passes by me.

“I don’t blame you,” says Dianna Cohen, who is sitting next to me at a dinner party in Santa Monica, California. The party is a farewell dinner hosted by 5 Gyres principles Dr. Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins. We are celebrating Roz Savage, the U.N. Climate Change Hero who rowed across the Atlantic and is currently finishing a similar jaunt across the Pacific. Like all of us at the table, Roz is doing what she can to get the good word out on the marine eco-disaster that the media quaintly refers to as "the Texas-sized garbage patch."

Over dinner, we talk about the human health impact of plastic pollution in the ocean: Plastic in the ocean works like a sponge for what are known as POPs (persistent organic pollutants like PCBs and DDT) and its believed by everyone here that these chemicals transfer to the fish's tissue after ingestion. As fish's main predators now, human are might be taking those POPs in as well.

“Yes, it’s a bummer—like any pseudo-cosmo-bohemian type, I love sushi, but I just can’t bring myself to eat it anymore,” I say. Dianna’s bows her head sadly and her magnificent dirty blonde curls envelop her face. She knows what I know. And she also knows that the vast majority of people in the world don’t know what we do. And that’s precisely why Dianna has dedicated her life to doing what she does.

Cohen is the cofounder of The Plastic Pollution Coalition, a privately funded umbrella organization for scientists, artists, activists, bloggers, and researchers working on marine plastic issues and land-based solutions. The goal of the PPC is to build a coalition and use its marketing acumen to bring big attention to the work of all its coalition members. By nature, Dianna is an intensely passionate woman; fighting the good fight is what she’s built for. A networker by nature, she has infiltrated the ranks of the Los Angeles celebrity elite and enlisted many high-profile agents to her cause. It's her hope that a little stardom might help educate the masses on the horror that a plastic fork may wreak on our environment.

As an artist, Dianna has been making work out of plastic for the better part of 20 years. At the recent TED conference in the Galapagos—part of Sylvia Earle's Mission Blue TED wish—she spoke about using art as a tool for change. “It’s a beautiful way to get people thinking about the material in a different way," she says, "and confront them with its nature: intended obsolescence.”

The next day, I visit her studio in Los Anegles and she shows me some of her work. “The funny thing about the artwork I make is that now people are saying it’s very ‘prescient.’ It’s odd because I’ve been making this forever and all of the sudden it’s in vogue.”

Her work brought her into activism with the initial goal we all like to think is possible: “We’ve got to go out and clean this thing up.” She even went so far as to try to raise money to hire industrual equipment for the project, only to learn along the way that it's basically an impossible thing to do.

Cohen borrows from the analogy that Captain Charles Moore of Algalita Marine Research Foundation often uses: “It’s like a bathtub that’s being filled much faster than it can be drained; by the time you’ve pulled one container ship out of the ocean, hundreds more loads of plastic garbage have entered. The solution to this problem is land based.”

Check out the video below of Dianna describing her journey from artist to eco-warrior.


Stiv Wilson is a freelance writer/photographer and the communications director for the Project. He lives in Portland, Oregon. Next up in the series is an incredibly inspiring view into the next generation of plastic pollution fighters at the Environmental Charter School in south Los Angeles and the wonderful work of the Santa Monica High School activists, Team Marine.

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