Q&A with Dianna Cohen of Plastic Pollution Coalition

Q&A with Dianna Cohen of Plastic Pollution Coalition
March 19, 2016 pwip

Photos Left to Right, Top to Bottom
1. PPC urges us to use reusables.
2. Dianna Cohen often works with schoolchildren in spontaneous, creative ways to help instill in them a sense of stewardship for the planet.
3. Kelly Slater, multi-world champion surfer, is a PPC Notable Member.
4. A poster from a Post Landfill Action Network student conference at Arizona State University last year.
5. “Plastic Free Papal Visit” The Incident Command Center for the Pope during his visit to Philadelphia last fall. His security staff used PPC reusable cups at their post (pictured).

Artist and ocean advocate Dianna Cohen began working with plastic bags as her source material over twenty-five years ago. Delighted at first to discover that just like the human body plastic was ephemeral, Cohen soon learned that this wasn’t so good after all: rather than reintegrating into the earth, plastic always remains plastic just in increasingly smaller pieces much of which is ending up in our oceans, poisoning marine life. Angry and driven, Cohen co-founded the Plastic Pollution Coalition whose goal is to help break our cycle of plastic use, in particular single-use and disposable plastics.

When did you first realize plastic was taking a tremendous toll on our environment?
I’ve been an ocean lover my whole life having grown up in southern California and spent hours on end at the beach and in the water. For years now, every time I swim in the ocean I find pieces of plastic pollution, and I tie them to my bikini to carry them out. I have done this while swimming in the Pacific, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. Then I learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch! Plastic is a hazardous material, killing sea life and polluting the entire food web.

What drew you to the disposable plastic bag as a source material for your art work?
I’ve been working with plastic bags for more than 25 years. They come in such a rainbow of colors, often with artful typography and images printed on them. Plastic in general, made from a byproduct of petroleum, is such a loaded material. To me, it represents the future of mankind and our ability to mold, bend, and shape things to our will. Initially, I felt that using this material was a celebration; a way of conjuring the future.

What sort of success is the Plastic Pollution Coalition having? Can you provide an example of a program or initiative PPC has set in place and the ensuing results?
Plastic Pollution Coalition is having enormous success on a multitude of fronts. Our Refuse campaign is educating and empowering people around the world to make daily decisions to refuse disposable plastic whenever possible, thereby reducing the amount of immediate waste we create. We see people increasingly choosing alternative products.

We’ve built a matrix of curriculums and resources for our Plastic Free Schools program and continue to expand it. We helped create the Campus Plastic Reduction Guide with PLAN (Post Landfill Action Network), and are sharing it with a growing network of colleges and universities across the country.

We started Refill Revolution with Steelys Drinkware at the Bonnaroo music festival three years ago, and it’s continuing to scale, and is the foundation of our emergent Plastic Free Touring project.

Plastic Free Islands is another project that continues to evolve. There’s a short film, “Plastic Free Island—Kefalonia,” we produced with Drifters Project that was recently shown at Blue Monaco Film Festival and Berlin Film Festival. We participate in and support art exhibitions around the world, and films, both feature-length and short, to communicate the urgency of the problem and issue calls to action.

Current ongoing Art Exhibitions include “Plastic Fantastic?” at the Honolulu Museum of Art; “Message from the Sea” at Goulandris Museum of Natural History in Athens, Greece; “Vida Toxica” with sculptor Alvaro Soler Arpa in Barcelona, Spain; and “GYRE: The Plastic Ocean,” which is traveling and is currently at San Jose State Gallery.

Current Film Projects include the PPC PSA “Open Your Eyes” narrated by Jeff Bridges; “The Discarded: A Tale of Two Rios,” and “A Plastic Ocean.”

What do you most want people to know about plastic pollution?
People need to understand that we have a global crisis on our hands. Single-use and disposable plastics are seriously impacting our oceans, our environment, animals and us––but everyone can make a difference with their daily choices.

What are three changes people can make in their lives to bring about the level of change that is needed to clean up our oceans?
Three changes we can make right now are:
1) Bring your own reusable cup, bottle, utensils, straws, lunch boxes, bags and baskets everywhere you can;
2) Stop buying things that are packaged in extraneous plastic packaging;
3) Rethink plastic in general. It is a durable material and it’s made from dinosaurs, so let’s stop using it in irresponsible ways. It is not a “cheap” material, when you factor in the true costs to our own health and the health of animals, the ocean and the environment. There are wars fought over its raw materials. From extraction, through production, through distribution, usage, disposal and waste management, plastic is too expensive to be disposable.

What can governments, businesses and NGOs do? And how likely do you think they are to act at this point?
Three letters: EPR— Extended Producer Responsibility. Governments, businesses and NGOs can implement regulations, bans and legislation around plastic pollution with a focus on source reduction and in consideration of the full life cycle of their products. We are working to influence policy at the highest levels and are hopeful that the producers understand that through raising aware people will increasingly demand they do better.

Does your work ever bring you down? Or do you feel optimistic that we can change our relationship with plastic?
We have a daunting job ahead of us, but if we want to sustain life on this planet, we must divest from dependence on fossil fuels at all levels including plastics—in particular, single-use disposable plastics. The old model of intended obsolescence must become obsolete. That’s pretty simple and I believe we are finally realizing it is critical.

Any other thoughts or comments?
The plastic pollution crisis was created by humans in just the last half-century. Humans can and must correct it. And they need truth, energy, hope and the will to pull it off. Join us!