THE EDITOR’S VISIT
In December 2017 Britain joined the other 193 UN countries and signed up to a resolution to help eliminate marine litter and microplastics in the sea yet we still see large quantities of waste affecting marine life every day. Even now it is estimated that the UK produces enough single-use plastic, which ultimately ends up in landfill, to fill 1,000 Royal Albert Halls. With environmental collapse seeming to be just around the corner, plastic debris is fast becoming a signature of the Anthropocene; the footprint of humans on the Earth.
Maria Arceo has worked with the Departments of Geography and Chemistry at King’s College London to raise awareness of the devastation that plastic debris can cause in the Thames. She is also working on other creative outlets that highlight the long-lasting properties of plastic polymers.
What made you choose to focus on plastic waste?
I am a beachcomber. To start with I was picking up ceramics, metal, glass but then one day I began finding leather items, like shoes. I thought how brilliant it was because these were literal footprints of people who used to live on the river.
What happens is that the leather gets buried under the mud and, because there is no oxygen, it doesn’t decay at all. As the currents change, the underwater items are brought up to the surface.
The Thames is a tidal river, so the leather is soaked in brine and then dries out, so it is like a curing process. When I was doing this research, I would inevitably find other items such as plastic as I was moving over the river beds.
I was clearing up the plastic to put it into local bins but wasn’t collecting it to keep it. One of the residents complained and said that if everyone who came to the beach picked up the plastic and put it all in the bins then there wouldn’t be enough space for the local’s rubbish. So, I began taking the plastichome to put it in my own bin. However, when I got home, and I emptied everything out and realised how much I was picking up.
I decided that I needed to actually do something with it. Due to seeing how leather could be around for thousands of years; something that I would have originally considered as biodegradable, I began to wonder how long it would take every day rubbish to be broken down. This was 2008 – I began doing research about the problems of plastic in water.