Towards a Plastic-Free Future

How my art and love for the ocean inspired me to work on plastic pollution

I have always loved the ocean, especially the Pacific Ocean. I have wonderful memories of growing up in Southern California and spending time at the beach with my family.

My family was middle class, well educated, and valued time spent together and in nature, from the beach to the mountains. Every few years we would travel across Europe for the entire summer, camping, visiting family friends, and going to museums. Along the way, and particularly when my parents were hanging out with friends in cafes in Paris, Amsterdam, or Rome, I would entertain myself by drawing and painting. I sold my first painting at the age of nine.

When I was 13, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. My mother, Helene K. Cohen, was a remarkably intelligent, articulate fighter for social justice. She produced my father’s documentary films with him, worked as a social worker, and served as executive director of both the Los Angeles Free Clinic and the Hollywood Human Services Project. She continued to work throughout her cancer treatments, including radiation, chemotherapy, and experimental surgeries, which in retrospect were barbaric and further weakened her immune system. One of my takeaways from witnessing my mother’s struggle with her illness and her dedication to her work was the importance of public interest work.

photo of a woman

My mother died the summer I was 17 of the cancer that had started in her lymph nodes and was “estrogen-receptive,” meaning it could have been caused by environmental factors. When I graduated high school and went on to ucla, I initially studied biology with the intention of taking up preventative cancer research. Based on my experience, I understood that the key to my mother’s cancer was prevention. But my lifelong calling attracted me to the arts as well. Although I tried to pursue a dual major, I ended up graduating with a degree in fine arts.

After graduating, I pursued a career as an artist, painter, and curator. Later, I began making sculptural and wall pieces out of plastic bags, which I would cut up and sew back together, and exhibiting these artworks in galleries, foundations, and museums.

In 2007 and 2008, I started hearing about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and spent a year developing a proposal to go out to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to harvest the “plastic island” and make art out of it in order to raise awareness about the plastic pollution crisis occurring in our oceans. The project felt like the perfect chance to meld my love for the ocean with the primary medium of my artwork — plastic — and to help raise awareness and inspire change. As I learned more, and came to the realization that we could not “clean it up,” I stepped back from the art proposal. I saw that we need to turn “off the tap” and stop the flow of plastics into our oceans.

As a natural extension of this idea, in 2009, my sister Julia Cohen and I, along with other thought-leaders and activists, founded Plastic Pollution Coalition, a global alliance of individuals, businesses, and organizations working together to stop plastic pollution and its toxic impacts on people, animals, the ocean and waterways, and the environment. Today, the coalition has grown to 750-plus members.

At Plastic Pollution Coalition, we provide tools and share best practices to empower people to reduce their own plastic footprint, and to help their families, friends, towns, states, and countries do the same. We are deeply concerned about the toxic chemicals that leach into the food and beverages that are packaged in plastics and end up in our bodies and the environment. These chemicals, including phthalates and bisphenols, have been identified as endocrine disruptors and linked to breast, brain, and prostate cancer; to diabetes and obesity; and to lower sexual function, sterility, and infertility.

As Plastic Pollution Coalition celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, I take stock of the tremendous work that we’ve been able to achieve. I’m thankful that I followed my inner compass all those years ago when I decided to pursue my art, and again when I decided to work on plastic pollution. Together we have moved the needle, raised awareness, and pushed for change. As Ryunosuke Satoro said: “Individually, we are a drop, together an ocean.

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