Plastic Debris and Great Garbage Patches: Ca’ Foscari University Raises Awareness of Ocean Pollution
By Roberta Attanasio
When we think of the Great Garbage Patches — of which 5 exist — we usually think of ocean pollution. Now, when thinking of garbage patches and ways to raise awareness of them, we may think of Venice and Ca’ Foscari University.
Venice, the Italian city that seems to float on water, bears no resemblance to the vast concentrations of floating marine debris that makes up the garbage patches. However, you can find an artistic representation of the garbage patches right in the heart of the city and, more precisely, right in the courtyard of the world’s oldest existing building granted LEED certification.
Let’s go one step at a time. What is LEED certification? LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a program that provides third-party verification of green buildings. The world’s oldest existing building to obtain LEED certification is the more than 500-years old Palazzo Foscari, the location of Ca’ Foscari University administrative headquarters.
The courtyard of the green and sustainable Palazzo Foscari is an appropriate home for the Garbage Patch State art installation, which has been set up by artist Maria Cristina Finucci in collaboration, of course, with Ca’ Foscari University. The goal of the installation is to draw attention to the global problem of ocean pollution.
Ca’ Foscari’s focus on sustainability-based initiatives is the result of the environmentally-forward mastermind of Carlo Carraro. Carraro is President of Ca’ Foscari University, Professor of Econometrics and Director of the International Center for Climate Governance.
Why a Garbage Patch State installation? The world’s oceans are heavily polluted by marine debris, mostly consisting of small bits of floating plastics. These bits are called microplastics and derive from the degradation of larger plastic debris. Indeed, most commonly used plastics do not fully degrade in the ocean — rather, they break down in smaller and smaller pieces. Marine debris becomes trapped by the circular ocean currents of the five gyres, where it builds up to form giant garbage patches.
The Ca’ Foscari installation is called “The Garbage Patch State Venice” in honor of the Garbage Patch State — a State that includes the five garbage patches corresponding to the five gyres. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) granted the “Garbage Patch State” symbolic statehood in April thanks to the effort and commitment of Maria Cristina Finucci.
The microplastics that make up the majority of garbage patches are almost invisible to the naked eye. Similarly, the giant patches of garbage are not captured by satellite imagery or aerial photographs. In addition, not all the trash floats on the surface. Denser debris is located under the surface.
According to National Geographic Education “The existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was predicted by many oceanographers and climatologists. However, the actual discovery of the patch was made by a racing boat captain, Charles Moore. Moore was sailing from Hawaii to California after competing in a yachting race. Crossing the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, Moore and his crew noticed millions of pieces of plastic surrounding his ship.”
The Ca’ Foscari installation consists of two room-sized cubes covered in a reflective coating, which represents the “invisible” aspect of the garbage patches. A red net shaped in the form of a giant snake and full of colorful plastic bottle caps emerges from the space located between the two cubes, coursing over a nearby wall in the direction of Venice’s Grand Canal.
In one of the cubes, thousands of plastic bottle caps are projected at 360 degrees onto the walls, slowly moving around in all directions to mimic the plastic debris floating on the water surface, the so-called plastic soup.
Cleaning up the garbage patches is not an easy task — prevention is a more feasible option. Maria Cristina Finucci says: “Behind every tiny piece that makes up the Garbage Patch, there is someone who threw that piece away”. The Ca’ Foscari Garbage Patch State installation is meant to remind everyone to be conservative in the use of plastics and to dispose of it in ways that do not harm the environment — think about recycling, for example. The goal is to reduce the plastic footprint.
I’ve visited Ca’Foscari University in Venice. It has been both exhilarating and enlightening! The moment you lay your eyes on the city you are overwhelmed by the beauty of its architecture, art, and most notably the Venetian Lagoon; the canals and bridges are like something out of a painting. I enjoyed attending lectures and presentations from Ca’Foscari University professors and students on the matter of Environmental Health and Diseases. In my visit, there were discussions about health risk assessment, green chemistry, clean up strategies such as bioremediation, all exciting and inspiring ideas but still a difficult task. However, it seems that Ca’Foscari University has achieved a creative, yet practical method to further prevent pollution by raising awareness about the harmful effects of human contamination. Although ambitious, it would be cool if the Garbage Patch State art was included on the itinerary of all tourists and specifically those of study abroad students. In order to solve environmental challenges, which will indirectly solve the health problems, the government, industry, environmental groups and academic communities must work together to arrive at a feasible resolution. The Garbage Patch State art installation is a great start.
It would be interesting to understand the impact of the installation on public awareness. The location suggests that a large component of people that sees it consists of students. Is anyone running a poll or doing interviews to see how students react to the initiative’s message?
Venice is a unique and beautiful city. As a popular tourist place, it is quite clean, but still, I could see some empty plastic bottles floating in the Grand Canal every time I took the water bus. Although most of them would be cleaned up, some of them could drift far away. The picture of the plastic soup is very impressive. It is quite easy to imagine the influence of the garbage patches on the marine creatures. Hundreds of sea turtles and other marine animals ingest plastics and other garbage by mistake, and eventually die from it. There are such sad stories we hear in the news, but what do we do? It’s time for us to protect the environment and our planet. Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!