These Activists Are Trying to Get a Giant Trash Patch in the Pacific Recognized as a Country

The Trash Isles have their own currency and passport

It’s no secret that there’s a huge amount of plastic garbage floating around in the North Pacific. But in a desperate attempt to fix the problem, a group of activists are trying a new approach—lobbying the United Nations to recognize one mass of trash as an actual country, so that the world’s real governments will have to help to clean it up.

Titled “Trash Isles,” the campaign is a scathing stunt—and it goes deep.

The brainchild of a London-based creative duo, it kicked off with a letter to the UN formally requesting recognition as a nation state, signed by two partner organizations in the campaign—nonprofit network The Plastic Oceans Foundation and publisher LADBible, which helped bring the campaign to life by signing on big name endorsers like Judi Dench and Mo Farah, and developing content for its popular social channels.

Take these videos, for example.

One features the country’s “first citizen”—naturally, former U.S. vice president and renowned environmentalist Al Gore—proposing some solutions to the world’s broader plastic problems.

A second video spotlights English actor and investigative journalist Ross Kemp discussing the trash patch in more detail—8 million tons of plastic garbage end up in the oceans each year, killing 1 million sea birds—and making the case for its status as a country.

A flag for the nascent state consists of a white sky, blue water and a green plastic bottle. The official currency, “Debris,” comes in denominations of 20, 50 and 100, featuring different images of the wildlife—turtles, seals, whales—brutalized by floating trash.

A petition asks viewers to sign up to be additional citizens of the country, thereby fulfilling one of the four requirements for recognition—having a population. (The other three are a defined territory, a government and the ability to interact with other states.)

Michael Hughes and Dalatando Almeida cooked up the idea for the campaign, which even includes a “Trash Isles” passport—designed, along with the other elements, by Mario Kerkstra.

The stated goal—that other countries will be obligated to clean up the island under the UN’s environmental charter—is, it goes almost without saying, fantastical. In fact, the entire underlying premise of a trash island is perhaps a little less clear-cut than the campaign might suggest—its mention of a France-sized clump of trash appears to refer to a higher-density concentration of large debris at the heart of an even more gargantuan swath of water discovered in 1997 and generally known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”—essentially a soup of ocean water and tiny pieces of plastic (or microplastic particles), the span of which is notoriously hard to accurately measure, and difficult to clean up.

And that’s not even the only such mess. In July of this year, the same captain who stumbled on the first so-called patch 20 years ago discovered another gigantic one in the South Pacific.

Scientific nitpicking aside, the myth of a trash island has arguably proved useful in the past. Coupled with the UN gag, it does provide a framework for attention-grabbing messaging. Plus the fact that the real problem is so unwieldy simply drives home that the situation is, well, very bad. In other words, despite the idea’s inherent absurdity, that might help the campaign hit its real target—getting people to pay more attention to a rapidly growing issue, and think twice about throwing more plastic into the trash, and eventually, the ocean.

@GabrielBeltrone Gabriel Beltrone is a frequent contributor to Adweek.