Riding the Wave of Change

by Peter Viele
March 2020

Plastic Ocean Project's Bonnie Monteleone

There are currently at least five large gyres of trash circling the world's oceans, mostly composed of discarded single-use plastics. The refuse circulates into masses that swirl all the way down to the ocean floor. Microplastics, the most alarming of the debris, are consumed by fish, whales and even plankton. There is little doubt that people who consume fish as a regular part of their diet are also ingesting these very same microplastics.

This is not solvable in the short-term, and not one nonprofit nor one government agency can remedy the issue. It's a global challenge that can seem overwhelming. But Bonnie Monteleone isn't letting the immensity of the issue keep her from acting. The Wilmington woman has taken up the fight, and she's doing more than just her share.

Monteleone has traveled some 10,000 nautical miles researching the problem and sampling the amount of plastic trash in the sea.

"After you witness what I witnessed, I would be doing a disservice to mankind if I just said, 'well that was terrible,' and moved on," Monteleone says.

"To be gone 20 days at sea and you haven't seen another vessel, but yet the remnants of man is right below the bow of the ship. To see all these plastic particulates, to see animals swimming in and out of a plastic tub, to see actual animals trapped inside plastics, which we have. Then you figure out, God, what have we done? You can either lay down or you can step up. You're going to get a whole lot more out of life if you step up."

In 2012, Monteleone stepped up by cofounding the Plastic Ocean Project, a Wilmington-based nonprofit with the mission of cleaning up the world's oceans.

"The more we research this problem, the more we're finding harmful effects," she says. "I call it the apex predator of the sea because it's capable of the demise of everything. That's why there has to be a sense of urgency."

A rhetorical question posed by her mother when she was just a child about where a plastic cover for ground meat would end up planted a seed of curiosity in her young mind. It is a question that continues to drive her.

"I was in a creative writing course and they were workshopping my piece about plastic in the ocean," she says. "I had made some comments like how our disposable society has led to disposable children and disposable marriages. That struck a chord with this guy, right? He was like, 'Bonnie, why do you care so much?' My brain went back to standing in my mother's kitchen. That's when that connection was made. It was like, my gosh, is that why I care so much? Did I indeed answer the question that my mother posed to me when I was 12 years old?"

The impetus for the nonprofit came when Monteleone was defending her thesis while pursuing a master's in Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. At 48, she was a nontraditional student.

"I was working in the chemistry department and going back to school," she says. "Really my goal was to be a scientific writer. My background is in communications with a minor in studio art. I'm not a scientist at all; the farthest thing from it. But I had the curiosity of wanting to learn about this issue."

Her thesis was titled Plastic Ocean Project, and included plastic trash she personally had collected from the oceans.

"Someone asked me in the audience after defending my thesis, 'What are you going to do with all that trash?' I said, 'I don't know, maybe turn it into art,'" she says.

Her stunning re-imagination of the woodblock print "The Great Wave" by Japanese artist Hokusai, formed out of collected oceanic plastics, was a huge hit. The iconic wave ensconced in trash was a stark statement piece and made a massive impact around the world. It was featured on music album covers and in magazines, composer programs and textbooks.

"Art speaks volumes," she says. "One piece is worth a thousand words, right?"

The piece is on the cover of a French magazine, framed and hanging on her office wall.

"This is a really popular magazine in France," she says. "It says, 'Art can save the planet.'"

Creating awareness of the issue is not enough. At the intersection of research science and repurposed art, her mission is to educate youth.

"In 2012, I put in an application for nonprofit status," she says. "I wanted to pay it forward to young people and give them the opportunity to study this issue. They're the ones with the greatest opportunity to create the change we need."

Further business ideas with great economic prospects abound for Plastic Ocean Project and the repurposing of plastic trash. Most particularly, using the refuse as a fuel source instead of continuing the endless lifecycle of recycling and never fully getting rid of it.

"We had two business students come up with the idea of turning the plastic into paraffin and taking it to 17 candle companies that are operating right here in North Carolina," she says. "Another idea was to take smaller reactors to the island nations who have nowhere to put the plastic trash and give them the ability to turn it into economically viable products. That's what we are researching now."

When she started in 2012, the notion of banning plastic straws and grocery bags was a fringe idea, but now she's at the forefront of a movement and doing much more than getting restaurants to stop using plastic straws and to-go containers.

From puppet shows for children age 3 to third grade in conjunction with UNCW students, to traveling the rounds in the art and educational world, Monteleone is forging ahead, dovetailing arts and science into new territories. Her organization is even paying fishermen in North Carolina to fish for plastic and for the digestive tracts of the larger species they catch.

"I caught the wave as it was forming, and I've been riding it ever since," Monteleone says. "We started with nothing. This community took this tiny entity -- this tiny pulse coming from UNCW -- and took it to where it is."

Hurricane Florence was another current that shaped the direction of Plastic Ocean Project and Monteleone's trajectory. The NC State Extension and the Alliance for Cape Fear Trees got involved with her in a new initiative to fight against sea trash by planting more trees.

"When storms recede, they take the trash and debris with them," she says. "Trees slow down storm damage. But we lost a lot of old-growth trees in 2018. It's really important to keep them in the ground. We came up with a way to take on both issues at the same time. For every 25 pounds of trash removed, we'll plant one tree. The N.C. Wildlife Federation is now helping us take this program statewide."

Plastic Ocean Project's motto for 2020 is "20/20 Vision," alluding to its intention to continue searching for solutions to the world's plastic problem. The organization will continue to build up its research facility, in addition to selling natural, organic, locally made products with refill stations for consumer necessities like soap, and continuing efforts to reach youth through art and research.

"We're bringing students into the fold of research because they can figure it out," Monteleone says. "It's important to have young minds addressing the issues. We need to educate everyone that we are all contributing to this problem. Free from government intervention -- we can figure this out."


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