Plastic Century: a taste of the polluted oceans

Would you drink from a cooler of water littered (literally) with old toothbrushes, candy wrappers, film, drinking straws, and other plastic detritus? What if that cooler represents our oceans, circa 2030? Plastic Century is a simple-but-provocative art installation that demands you to consider, in a visceral way, how plastic is impacting our environment. On display this week at the California Academy of Sciences, Plastic Century was created in honor of Jacques Cousteau's 100th birthday by my pal and Institute for the Future colleague Jake Dunagan, futurist Stuart Candy, artist Sarah Kornfeld, and oceanographer Wallace J. Nichols. From Fast Company:
Plastic Century asks onlookers to drink water from four different coolers, each filled with bunches of plastic. But there's a catch--the four coolers are labeled by year, extending from 1910 all the way through 2030. And, unsurprisingly, the amount of plastic in each cooler rises along with the date.

The creators of Plastic Century came together a month and a half ago when CAS commissioned their piece. "We wanted to see what would it look like if we figured out a way to make artifact, an installation, where people could engage with this difficult topic but where they had options that came out of it," Kornfeld explains. "This is something that people can look at and feel on a visceral level." The emotions that come from drinking trash-filled water--disgust, revulsion, sadness--are offset by the knowledge that 2030 hasn't arrived yet. There is still time to fix things.
"Plastic Pollution in the Water? Drink Up!"


  1. I don’t think you’re supposed to drink ocean water anyway.

    If only we could use ocean trash to plug the oil well…

  2. Some part of me doubts that in 2030 the oceans will be 50% plastic crap by volume as depicted in this photo.

    I mean, there are plenty of dead fish in the ocean, but if you put a dead fish in a water cooler, nobody’s going to want to drink out of it, right?

  3. 1. I won’t drink sea water no matter what is or isn’t in it, as long as it’s also got salt in it. Haven’t those guys ever read any “lost at sea” survivals manuals? Good on ya, NeonCat.

    2. Even if it were Evian, a simple healthy octopus would make me hesitate at drinking it… so, I’m in the same boat as SamLL.

  4. Thanks for these comments. David is correct that this plastic is in our oceans at threatening level.

    Though there is a graph which is along side the installation that points out cumulative global plastic production since 1910. These numbers are quite accurate and the tanks help tell this story.

    Please see graph here:

    Thanks for your comments!


  5. Some clarification: The exhibit does not contain or depict ocean water, it’s fresh water–and drinkable! The amounts of plastic in the coolers correlate to the amounts of plastic that existed on Earth from 1910 (a few years after plastic was invented) to 2010, and then forecast to 2030 if trends continue.

    Half the Ocean would not be plastic in 2030, but there will be over twice as much plastic in existence as today, thus twice as much as the 2010 cooler. The numbers used are scientifically valid, the depiction was made to show this in a compelling way.

    Further info (and a graph) can be found at:

  6. It is definitely an exaggeration to suggest that plastic in the water coolers represents the average amount of plastic in the ocean per gallon of ocean water. Plastic waste is not the same amount, or concept, as plastic production (which is what the installation is depicting). Plastic in your drinking water is far different from plastic that is properly disposed/recycled. There’s also the disconnect between showing plastic in the “ocean” and considering whether it’s drink-worthy…

    That being said, exaggeration is necessary to make an issue compelling. There’s a sicken amount of plastic (literally and figuratively) floating in the ocean, but people won’t care about it any longer than the 10 minutes it takes to read the news, simply because the plastic isn’t in their own backyard. The art installation helps drive home what is a very serious matter.

  7. The St. Louis Science Center had a similar pollution display/water fountain for several years. I’m not sure if it’s still there.

  8. /Old/ toothbrushes, etc., is the key to anything compelling here. Organic contamination skeeves me out a lot more than inorganic, rightly or wrongly, and I’d have no problem drinking from one of those coolers if I knew they were all brand new toothbrushes, wrappers, straws, etc.

    The artist isn’t making the point he thinks he’s making.

    1. what if I told you that every item had been licked by several people before going into the tank? Would that make you happy?

  9. I hope any doubters will check out and google “pacific garbage patch.” Tis shit is scary.

    1. I know! It frightens me more than global warming. It’s larger than Texas right now and, as plastic breaks down, it kills smaller and smaller fish until it kills plankton, which can in turn kill whales. We are killing the oceans without even trying. At least the Gulf of Mexico is too small for this to happen, so it should be safe, right?

  10. You guys are totally missing the point! The fact is that the plastic harms the natural wildlife of our oceans.

    There thousands of plastic nurdles (tiny pellets used for production of plastic items) that get washed into our oceans and make up roughly 10% of the plastic waste. These tiny pellets absorb chemicals that also get washed into our drains.

    These nurdles are indistinguishable from from fish eggs or plankton and get consumed by the ocean life… These trace chemicals then build up along the food chain. Think about this next time you eat fish!

  11. Does anyone else find it ironic that the man shown in the fastcompany article photo drinking out of the “2030” water cooler–who I believe is one of the project heads, scientist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols–is filling up what appears to be a plastic cup?

    Please tell me it wasn’t a plastic cup.

    1. Cassandra

      irony was the point of the photo, methinks, esp since Nichols often carries a collapsable metal cup holstered to his belt alongside his bamboo spork and chopsticks

  12. Cassandra, the cup in question was corn plastic. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to have glass on the floor of the Academy for the Nightlife event, so we let people use whatever they had with them, in this case “J” used the corn plastic cups provided by the Academy bar.

    1. Thanks for the clarification, syzygy and anon @ 20. :) I thought it odd that someone who went to all that work to try and bring public attention to plastics in the ocean would be using a plain old fresh-from-the-factory plastic cup, and I am glad to know that my fears were wrong!

  13. I dunno why we aren’t mining the ocean for waste plastics. Can’t we make new plastic out of old plastic? Why let such a valuable resource float away in the ocean?

  14. This is a real problem, and a primary long-term focus of the environmental solutions company I work for. I just wish the artists had put some more constructive thought into their display. What point were you trying to make?

    By 2030 we’ll be hard-pressed to find fresh drinking water that isn’t contaminated by plastic waste? Umbriel called it – freshly unwrapped and unused plastic isn’t shocking in any way, and most of the trash in these coolers looks shiny and new. If you really wanted to cause a gut reaction in your audience, you should have used plastic waste you actually found in natural fresh water, complete with organic growth and grime.

    Or did you intend to draw attention to the gyres, as Zabbi assumed? In that case, plastic would be filtered out along with saline and other elements unfit for human consumption long before the water hit the cooler. Try aquariums with plastic pellets floating around alongside real fish. That image might stick in someone’s head.

    The artists seem to think they’re going for shock value, “Ooh, let’s scare people into fixing the planet by making pretty backlit art!” But the picture on the main page says it all – those people aren’t shocked or concerned. They’re simply having a great time looking at your lovely artwork. Congratulations, I guess.

    1. i think the point was/is “plastic never leaves” our biosphere

      few people have considered that, at all

      and the century of plastic accumulation has consequences that we’ll be sorting through for a long time

      but others may have different interpretations…which is cool

  15. Hi jumo, thanks for your question.

    The main purpose of the installation is twofold; (a) to draw attention to the fact that plastic production has been increasing on an exponential curve for just over a century, and (b) to prompt reflection on the idea that plastic never leaves — it accumulates in the biosphere, in the food chain and in our bodies. (You can also find this explained at the project website.) The project’s focus is not confined to the gyres, or even to the oceans, although these are crucial parts of the wider conversation we have in view.

    Putting plastic in drinking water dramatises the above points. It does not literally show, or purport to show, levels of plastic in seawater or drinking water. The plastic selected for the coolers this time was chosen for a variety of reasons and may well change in future iterations; thanks for your input on that. The piece is in four parts (1910, 1960, 2010, and a forecast for 2030) to help the exponential function hit home in a way that, on the page alone, for most of us, it does not. Again: the amounts are indexed and in proportion to the cumulative increases in global plastic production, not to the amounts of water in the coolers. If this seems an unjustified “exaggeration”, perhaps revisit the part where this is described as a hybrid of science and art! Of course any such hybrid is susceptible to criticism that it’s either not scientific enough, or not artistic enough. No work will please everyone, but it can raise a topic for attention and discussion, and in this Plastic Century seems to be succeeding. Anyone in search of facts motivating concern around this subject could begin with the plastic production figures, and consider further reading at these other links.

    No single blog post or photograph can fully capture the experiences that thousands of people have in different encounters in person. So your contention that any one picture “says it all” is mistaken. This other photograph, also on our site, captures a very different response, perhaps more in keeping with the “shock value” that you assume we are seeking. Actually, all responses are fine with us, including yours — but some are more informed than others.

    For those who would like to check out the piece before delivering a verdict, it’s in place again at Cal Academy of Sciences this Thursday 10 June from 6pm.

    -Stuart Candy

  16. The point I immediatly got from the installation is actually a solid fact: the total amount of water on Earth (the sum of marine, atmosferic, river, drinkable, polluted, etc.) does not change. That which is capable of sustaining life is what human beings are reducing.

  17. Have you ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? It is huge! Plastic and other garbage that washes out of the streams and into the ocean follow a current and get caught in this current in the Pacific Gyre. Scientists call it plastic soup, because when the plastic breaks down, it is only breaking down into smaller pieces. All the caps that float look like a potential meal for birds, like the Albatross, who fill up and then die, because there is no nutrition in plastic. See and follow the link to “Dare to Dump” if you want truly shocking (and fully documented) information and footage.

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