By Max Liboiron.

In 1990, a sudden storm knocked twenty-one containers from a cargo vessel into the sea. Five contained 78,932 Nike shoes. The event was kept quiet by both the shipping company and Nike, but when hundreds of shoes began washing up on the shores of Vancouver Island in Canada, eight months later, beachcombers, the media, and scientists took notice. Two such scientists were Curtis Ebbesmeyer and James Ingraham. Ingraham had developed a computer model of ocean currents for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to track salmon migration. Yet the software, called the Ocean Surface Current Simulator (OSCURS), had only been tested with an intermittent satellite buoy. By obtaining the longitude and latitude of the Nike cargo dump from shipping crews and interviewing beachcombers, many of whom recorded the time and location of their shoe finds, Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham had enough data to test OSCURS with thousands of data points (shoes). It predicted the circulation patterns of the shoes so well that Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham published the results in EOS, the peer reviewed journal of the American Geophysical Union. Both scientists proudly sported a pair of their data points on their feet for years to come.

Ebbesmeyer collecting “scientific” debris on the beach.

Two years later, another shipping container containing plastic bath toys fell into the ocean and the fortuitous experiment was repeated. This time, the extreme longetivity of the plastic toys— they were still turning up on beaches sixteen years later— produced more data and revealed patterns in the world’s gyres that had never been discovered by modern science before (Ebbesmeyer 2009: 53). To support their research, and particularly to locate thousands of plastic toy ducks, turtles and frogs, Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham bribed shipping captains, called multinational corporations, used funds and software from the military, spoke to journalists, interviewed beachcombers, befriended fishermen and bought their plastic catches and even founded Alert, an international beachcombers’ newsletter still in circulation today.

In Ebbesmeyer’s scientific autobiography outlining his career in oceanography, Flotsametrics and the Floating World, the shoes and bath toys are never called pollutants, despite the last third of the book’s focus on plastic marine pollution. In the first part of the book, ocean plastics are fortuitous scientific instruments able to reveal hitherto unknown circulation patterns, and in the last part, all plastic is a “catastrophic” form of pollution (205). For beachcombers, the plastic toys are sometimes litter, sometimes toys that get airlifted by the military to the Salvation Army (78) and sometimes collectibles they are “loath to part with” (81).  When a fisherman pulled four hockey gloves from his nets and brought them to shore, a NOAA fisheries inspector knew they were probably from a container spill and thus represented valuable data to oceanographers—he confiscated them and brought them to Jim Ingram (91). Ebbesmeyer writes about this multiplicity when he presents in middle schools:

We adults tend to fetishize flotsam curiosities, to make icons or mascots or collectibles out of them and forget the processes that produced them. But kids, who are supposed to be charmed by things like cute little duckies, see right through this. Time and again they tell me, “Gee, Dr. Duck, aren’t they just trash?” (228)

Nike sneakers, bath toys and hockey gloves lost at sea are best described as boundary objects. Boundary objects, a term coined by Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer, allow both diversity and cooperation in a milieu of social worlds. Boundary objects:

are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual-site use. They may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is key in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting social worlds. (1989: 393)

Thus, as a boundary object, a plastic duck on the beach can be both a pollutant and not a pollutant so long as it remains a plastic duck legible to beachcombers, scientists, multinational corporations, journalists and environmentalists.

Furthermore, boundary objects can be more than one thing to the same person according to which social world he is occupying at the time. Curtis Ebbesmeyer oscillates between heart-felt descriptions of plastic drifters as wondrous scientific objects and as horrific toxic pollutants. Sometimes the two meanings collide: “sometimes I feel like an albatross myself, choking on so much grim but exquisite data gleaned from the waves” (2009: 212). Sometimes he is overwhelmed:

Even as it confirmed our predictions, however, Junk Beach overwhelmed me. Despite all our prior computer modeling, I gasped at the sheer concentration of plastic detritus; for a flotsamologist, it was like trying to drink out of a fire hose. Dazed and appalled, I forgot to gather samples of the plastic confetti as I’d planned. (2009: 206)

Junk Beach on southern Hawaii. Credits: Algalita Marine Research Foundation

Ebbesmeyer’s existence in multiple social worlds as a scientist, beachcomber, and environmentalist run together. Throughout his autobiography the status of the plastic “floaters” shift from one kind of object to another depending on the chapter they appear in.

The pollutant/toy duck/boundary object might be different for each social group in the network, but they are not so different that the phenomenon of pollution is completely divorced from its object. The network of actors in the duck saga build up a complex notion of pollution even as some its is participants do not see the bath toys and Nike sneakers as pollutants— the “work “done in a this network of actors mirrors the conglomerate form of pollution even when the object of study is not considered a pollutant by any given part of the network forum (multinationals may see it as evidence of an embarrassing spill, beachcombers may see it as a collectable, etc).

Through this work, the pollutant becomes multivalent, well rounded, and multidimensional. When an object is “properly” framed or represented as a pollutant—that is, when it includes all the steps of pollution, from creation to mitigation, then it is never one “thing”, never a “natural” object in the sense of a self-evident matter-of-fact free of interpretation (Shapin 1985). As such, the relationship between pollutant and pollution is also multivalent and multidimensional, not unidirectional and given. This is not to say that pollution is relevant and without a toxic, harmful material basis— remember that boundary objects retain their coherence even as they might mean or be different things— but that pollution and pollutants, especially in the modern, mechanistic, atomized definition of polution, cannot be accounted for by one person or social group, and as such will always already be a conglomerate at any given time.In short, pollutants are, by their nature, boundary objects.

Max Liboiron is a PhD candidate in New York University’s Media, Culture, and Communication Department. Her dissertation is on plastic pollution.