Tackling Ocean Trash

Turning plastic pollution into art for awareness

Five minutes into a conversation with Bonnie Monteleone, and you will never think of plastics in the same way again.

Working as lab coordinator of the marine debris lab in University of North Carolina Wilmington’s chemistry and biochemistry department, as well as administrative assistant in the office, she deals with paper and plastic. But her passion lies with the effects of plastic on the environment. She has collected plastic garbage from the gyres of four oceans covering nearly 10,000 nautical miles.

“Water has to keep moving,” Monteleone says. “In the center of the gyre there isn’t much motion, so it stays there.”

Gyres are the areas where rotating water and wind currents swirl, and plastic accumulates there.

These collections inhibited the recent search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 when garbage looked like airplane parts, Monteleone says. They interfere with nautical traffic, putting boats in danger of capsizing when they come upon a garbage patch and the particulates land on beaches, polluting those environments. Most of all they put animals at risk of illness and death, including humans. Sea creatures eat the plastic, and it breaks down in their stomach juices. We eat the fish, so what chemicals are we getting?

Monteleone’s students are trying to find out.

In her work as lab coordinator, Monteleone focuses with a team on plastic debris collected in the North Atlantic subtropical gyre. She supervises a group of ten students in a directed independent study researching plastics in samples taken from Wrightsville Beach. Those students also have individual research projects.

Monteleone came to Wilmington in 2007 from New York in search of warmer weather and to be near her college-bound children. She had an undergraduate degree in communications, with a concentration in journalism and a minor in studio art from the State University of New York College at Cortland. She decided to continue her education and received her master’s in liberal studies from UNCW in 2011.

Knowing about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, her question was, “If the North Pacific gyre is inundated with plastics, are other gyres?” Her thesis titled “The Plastic Ocean Project” was the result of extensive research around the globe.

In 2009, Monteleone completed studies in the North Atlantic Gyre in collaboration with Bermuda Institute of Ocean Science and with Algalita Marine Research Foundation’s ten-year resampling of the North Pacific Gyre to document the rate of marine debris growth to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

In recent years she also traveled to the South Atlantic Gyre and South Pacific Gyre. Last year, she took samples from the North Atlantic again.

Outside of UNCW, Monteleone teams with Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation;  Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummings, co-founders of 5 Gyres Institute; William J. Cooper, University of California, Irvine; and Maureen Conte of Bermuda Institute of Ocean Science.
At the heart of it, one animal brought Monteleone to this crossroads of science and art.

“I couldn’t get her out of my mind,” Monteleone says about Mae West, a snapping turtle who had her body caught in a milk jug ring. As the turtle grew, the shell and the animal’s organs displaced and formed around the plastic ring, giving her an hourglass figure. “I got up in the night and drew an image of her. That’s when I knew I had to do this work.”

Monteleone called on her artistic side to draw attention to the issue.

She took the plastics she had gathered in each ocean and modeled them on the well-known woodblock print, “The Great Wave” by Japanese artist Hokusai done around 1830. She wanted to demonstrate how altered the oceans are now, compared with less than 200 years ago. Completed in 2011, the exhibit was selected for display in the Boseman Gallery at UNCW that year.

“Someone said, ‘What will you do with all this plastic that you have collected?’” Monteleone recalls. “I couldn’t just throw it away; it has too much of a story. It became a storyboard.”

Rather than lecturing, the visual provides a way to start the conversation.

Monteleone’s project titled “What Goes Around Comes Around” consists of twenty-five feet of ocean waves on canvas.

Five large windowpanes with narratives educate viewers while revealing the science behind the art. Five bins of ocean trash depict plastic pieces in the art, and a four-by-six foot sculpture portrays the ocean of the future if humans ignore the plastic plague.

Monteleone wants the art exhibit to go from coast to coast, much like the AIDS Memorial Quilt that went around the country. Her exhibit has traveled more than 2,700 miles to this point and is now at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey.

The next local stop happens May 3 at the grand opening of the North Carolina Coastal Federation’s Coastal Education Center at Wrightsville Beach. The exhibit’s future schedule also includes Rio De Janeiro, California, and Colorado.

Funding through the Plastic Ocean Project Inc.’s Outreach Through Art program and Project Aware support the traveling art mission. She was the only American to be considered for a grant by Project Aware. And singer Jack Johnson’s All At Once program will match donations up to $2,500 made through September 1. His goal is to link nonprofits with local people to get them more active in their local and world community, Monteleone says.

“I’m really this everyday person that landed on all these fantastic opportunities,” she says, “and I’m sharing them with students, the community, and globally.”