Maya Weeks is a writer and artist working on a project about the gendered violence of marine debris as a byproduct of global capitalism. This summer she collected samples for Adventure Scientists’ Global Microplastics Initiative while on board the tall ship Antigua for The Arctic Circle residency in Svalbard, Norway.
By Maya Weeks
Now we are sailing and, having helped hoist a jib and the mainsheet, I’m so happy.
Every day on this trip I think THIS IS THE HAPPIEST I’VE EVER BEEN. Especially when I’m climbing out of the water having just jumped in the 2-degree (Celsius) Arctic Ocean. It’s not that you go numb but rather you forget your name, your age, everything except being alive, and then you run stumbling out of the water over the rocks onto the beach or, on a lucky day, up the ladder onto the deck of the ship. It doesn’t so much feel cold as shocking.
Today we cleaned up the beach at Sørvika in Murchisonfjorden in Nordaustlandet. A tide line covered in trash, much of the beach covered with too many microplastics to totally collect, and me so happy and sad and angry at the same time. The feeling of wanting to punch and cry at the same time while also knowing the extreme luxury of being in this place–this place where humans don’t live, this place that is a nature reserve, this place at the end of the Gulf Stream where so much trash from around the world accumulates.
During this one foggy morning we collected 41 kilos of marine debris in an hour. Then Ryo, Birgit, and I sorted all the trash and weighed it on deck: ropes from fishing and shipping, plastic packaging, shotgun shell cartridges, a toothbrush head, bottle caps, a toy dog’s foot, two pieces of AstroTurf, shoes, paper goods, hygienic items, even plastic nurdles (plastic in its pre-production form).
Bagged trash we sorted and weighed on deck. Photo: Maya Weeks
A small white flat from the shipping industry. Hard plastics of various shapes and colours. Ryo found a plastic raven’s head.
Since a lot of the debris was microplastics, sorting the six bags of trash meant that we were picking through piles of feathers and seaweed to remove the plastics, and then throwing the feathers and seaweed back into the sea.
Knowing that so much marine debris accumulates in Svalbard, in one of the places on the planet most rapidly experiencing climate change, is what drew me to undertake research in this archipelago situated halfway between Norway and the North Pole. But no amount of studies I’d read could prepare me for landing on a beach with no other humans in sight and cleaning up kilo after kilo of waste, so much of it miniscule.
Even on beaches with less trash than this one, marine debris is a common sight. On every landing, I carted at least one bag full back to our ship, which is participating in a Svalbard-wide survey of marine debris for the duration of the summer.
I stumbled upon this big bottle at Tinarebreen. And when we finally saw a (starving) polar bear, he was walking on beaches covered in trash, like this one with three plastic buoys in a row.
Of course cleanups aren’t nearly as useful as preventing plastic pollution at the source. No matter how many cleanups we do, if plastics continue to be used once and thrown away, soon we won’t even be able to clean up our beaches.
“This is not an excuse for further damage.”
-Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
Sculpture I made from collected microplastics and marine trash. Photo: Maya Weeks
Infuriating as the cleanup work was, it was also infused with love: love of the ocean, love of being on the planet. And it was fun, too, to work alongside friends, to work with shared purpose, to drag a ghost net to back to our ship and know that no reindeer would have to get stuck in it. And it was fun to make sculptures like this one with a doll’s hand found by a friend, and to envision biodegradable forms of packaging which are now very close to reality, and to trim the sails and work with the wind and lie down on the wooden deck under the midnight sun.