Home » Alaska Artists’ New Movie Shows’ Slow Tsunami ‘of Plastic Marine Wreckage

Alaska Artists’ New Movie Shows’ Slow Tsunami ‘of Plastic Marine Wreckage

by Stewart Cole

Painter and director Max Romey holds up a watercolor painting showing the ocean debris he and other volunteers collected from an Alaskan beach. (Max Romey)

An Alaskan painter and videographer has released a short film about the dangers of ocean plastic.

Called “If You Give a Beach a Bottle”, it’s by Max Romey and incorporates scenes of volunteers clearing Alaska shores of sea debris, combined with images from Romey watercolor sketches.

Romey says the title is a reference to the children’s book, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” because the subject of plastic in the ocean seemed like a similar, circular, endless story.

This is after Romey began traveling the beaches of Alaska removing tons of rubbish.

I listen:

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for the sake of clarity.

Max Romey: Alaska has these islands, which single out and collect all these things. And so it was a completely overwhelming experience. For the past seven years, I’ve been kind of sitting on the back of my head. And this is one of the first times I came back, this time with a sketchbook, and I tried to tell a story of this huge, huge thing. And this is one of the first times I have been able to share the film publicly. This is very simply the first step in what is probably going to be a journey I may not see the end of until you realize I’m 90 or 100.

Casey Grove: You are in the deep now.

MR: I really am now, yes. We will see where this goes.

CG: I understand well, that it started with a sketch and watercolor, right?

MR: Yes, I guess my whole journey with it started with a sketchbook and watercolor. I’m really dyslexic. So I struggle with reading and writing. My writing is almost illegible, but the spelling makes it even worse. And there came the sketchbooks. My grandmother is an amazing painter and my whole family really encouraged me to do art, because you can’t write a painting wrong. People see it, they understand it, it does not matter if they speak English or if they like it, they do not speak it at all, people understand the sketches. And so from the age of six until now I have been sketching all this time, but I have rarely really used it in movies. And all of a sudden, these giant complex issues that the words had no real way of capturing, I find that the sketches could understand these things that these words really could not.

CG: (If You) Give a bottle to a beach, it’s about five minutes, right? And you show your progress in the art you do while cleaning the beach, and some of the negative aspects of it and the animals that are affected by it and everything else, are affected by the sea debris. And then also only these beautiful landscapes. It seems that the things you decided to sketch were somewhat crystallized, bigger ideas that then probably had a bigger impact, just in those moments of the film like this. I mean, having seen it for yourself and spent so much time looking at this problem. How big is it?

MR: Marine debris is like a slow-moving tsunami hitting Alaska. And they are nets, they are lines, but they are also bottles, they are buoys, they are barrels, they are coolers, they are styrofoam. Everything is made of plastic, nowadays, all over the world. Things are thrown away, many of them come from rivers, so they go to a landfill, the landfill is not very good, the landfill ends up in the river, the river ends up in the ocean. Or it’s just thrown straight into the ocean. This also happens. But then the plastic will never break, only it will never break. And so as it ends up in the ocean, the currents of the ocean swirl around, and then Alaska is stuck right in the middle, as if you were putting your hand in a washing machine full of clothes. And he records all that. These winter storms just blow everything up on the shore.

We are like this cheese grater in which all these plastics of the ocean end up, and we just cut them into all these tiny pieces. And then these tiny pieces, once they get small enough, bioaccumulate, pick up a lot of toxins and end up back in the environments made possible by these nutrient cycles. Salmon go up the stream, they die, all the nitrogen from the ocean goes up, the bears eat them, the eagles eat them. Most of the trees have these nutrients of salmon. But basically we are importing plastic in this whole situation. So when these things are broken down into trillions of small pieces, you lose them.

Right now, you could go to the beach, you could go to Cordoba, you could go to Kodiak, to Katmai, and you can find big, big piles of bottles and buoys, and you can pick them up. But the scary part is what you do not find, all those things that have been broken into thousands of pieces. And then this will accumulate in many of these systems. And when it accumulates, when we see it in nature, it is too late. It’s this funny moment that you can do something about it right now, but it’s extremely complicated, it’s really hard to see and it moves slowly. So it’s not like, you know, an oil slick. It is like asbestos. These things will affect Alaska for a long time, and we have the opportunity to do something about it now. But the longer we wait, the harder it will be.

CG: And many people do not see this every day. I mean, it sounds like it changed a bit how you thought about seeing it up close and being out there on the beach like that.

MR: Yes. You see buoys, you see things you do not see every day, but you also see laundry baskets, you see dishwashing bottles, you see lunch containers and you also see pieces of it all. The big pieces are exactly what you can get, it’s not too late. The small pieces, he left. But you see all these things and you realize that it came from someone’s car, it was in someone’s trash, someone ate from that dish and now they’re in Alaska for some reason. Therefore, this is a major global problem, and we could have people picking up these beaches 24 hours a day, all day long for years, and we would not be able to do it all.

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