»The Ocean as Thingspace«


published in: »Perspectives on Waste from the Social Sciences and Humanities: Opening the Bin«,
edited by Richard Ek and Nils Johansson
Cambridge Scholars Publishing , 2020

From an ethnological perspective, oceans have long been influential places when it comes to the relationship between humans and things.[1] On a global common like the ocean,[2] social and power relations, territorial appropriation practices, trade relations, global capitalism, and other types of exchange systems become visible.

John Mack, in his cultural history of the sea, writes about “the seas as globalized transnational spaces,” and about the major contribution a history of the seas can make towards understanding the mechanisms of globalization (2011, 20): “An attention to oceans in a wider context immediately opens up a globalized perspective,[3] for oceans have themselves exercised the major role” in the process of globalization.

However, oceans are not only a global surface for transport and global exchange. Today, capitalistic consumerist societies are producing a flood of things, and this flood of things primarily concerns the oceans.

Lost or discarded, from sea-based or land-based origins, from loopholes in pathways or known sources, oceans are filling up with more and more things. A lot of these things being poured into the oceans are made of plastic.

By thing, I do not mean a specific item or artefact, but a Heideggerian notion of the thing that gathers: “Our language denotes what a gathering is by an ancient word. That word is: thing … The thing things. Thinging gathers” (Heidegger 1971, 171).

These things are literally an ongoing gathering. Microorganisms live on its smallest particles. Invasive species travel on it. Colonization through algae creates artificial biotopes – so called “Plastispheres” (Zettler, Mincer, and Amaral-Zettler 2013). The thing gathers, and it moves. It floats in endless circles on the oceans’ surfaces, following the drift currents and the ocean conveyor belt. It adsorbs chemicals from and releases chemicals into the surrounding water. It is becoming more and more toxic with time. It explores the depths and sinks to the abyssal plains and ocean beds, and only a small portion gets washed up onto beaches.[4]

Oceans now contain in excess of 150 million tons of plastic. By 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish (Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2016, 17). Plastic is everywhere, and it is here to stay. It takes up to five hundred years to degrade, or sputter into a stream of tiny plastic particles. On its journey, the debris gets finer and finer. Zooplankton mistake these small particles for photoplankton and eat them. And it has lot to feed on – in the North Pacific Ocean, the mass of plastic is about six times greater than plankton (Moore et al. 2001).

These vast numbers show how much the oceans have become Thingspaces – specific ones where things are transported, exchanged, discarded, lost, wasted, transformed, and sometimes recurring.

The Ocean as a “Place of no Return”

The connection between oceans and (getting rid of) things is a historical one. Oceans have been surfaces of exchange and, in their depths, a “world to be exploited for its natural resources” (Lindenlauf 2003, 417). But, additionally, oceans have always been places able to contain (or purify) polluted things – away-places and final resting places.

There is a term used in nautical slang referring to the sea as a Thingspace – “Davy Jones’ Locker.” In the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable from 1898, Cobham Brewer provides a definition of this phrase’s etymology and meaning: “He’s gone to Davy Jones’ locker, i.e. he is dead. … He is gone to the place of safe keeping.” It is the space for drowned sailors and shipwrecks, referring to the spirit of the sea, to “the bottom of the sea, the final resting place of sunken ships, of articles lost and thrown overboard, of men buried at sea” (Kemp 1988, 232, cited in Steinberg 2001, 1).

This concept of the sea as a “place of no return” is deployed in many different cultural contexts. As Mack (2011, 92) describes it in The Sea: a Cultural History: “The Kongo, who live … adjacent to the Western Atlantic, regard death as a process of passing over or under water. As the reflective surfaces of water resist seeing into their depths, so the world of the dead is inaccessible to all but those gifted with special powers of sight.”

Astrid Lindenlauf, in a fine analysis of archaeological data and Greek literature sources, tracks the idea of the ocean as an “away-place,” and a “place of no return” in the ancient world. Lindenlauf writes (2003, 421): “One reason why the sea was conceived of as a dangerous place was its potential to bring death, to take things away, and to make things disappear.” This property of the sea made it an appropriate place for things we no longer want to be confronted with: “Objects and substances were stored away in the sea because there was no place for them in the world of humans” (427).

The Greeks even had a word for discarding unwanted things in the sea: katapontizein. “The act of katapontizein … of throwing unwanted things into the sea, was not restricted to individuals, but was also practiced by polis authorities” (420). It was common to erase leaders’ names from public memory by throwing their statues into the sea, or to charge objects that had killed someone with murder and banish them to the bottom of the sea. An example of this is the bronze statue of the athlete Theagenes from Thasos, “because it had fallen on top of one of his enemies, who would come daily to flog the statue … The ‘lifeless thing’ (ta apsycha) was found guilty of murder, sentenced to banishment and dropped to the bottom of the sea” (420).

Not only polis authorities but all social strata used the sea to cast unwanted objects into. The sea seemed to be “an appropriate locus to dispose of those objects that one never wishes to deal with again” (417), a “place where pollution can take place” (421), and a space which can contain and transform polluted things.

Whether there had been a casting in of special items or just mundane waste dumping, the resurfacing of objects from the sea was a distinct and astonishing event in ancient times. Sometimes, the property of the ocean, i.e. “keeping things under,” was even used in rituals predicting the future. The reappearing of discarded objects would be widely regarded as a “significant event and divine sign” (417), open to interpretation. Lindenlauf writes:

The belief that the resurfacing of objects that had been thrown into watery bodies was a bad sign was quite widespread in ancient Greek society. It is central to the rite, described by Pausanias (3.23.8), of throwing barley meals into a small lake known as the Water of Ino in order to predict the future during the goddess’ festival: if good luck was in store for the thrower, the water would “keep them under.” However, if the water rejected the cakes and sent them up to the surface, this was regarded as a bad sign. (419)

One of the most famous events featuring a resurfacing object happens in the myth of Polycrates. Polycrates was one of the first sea rulers in the Mediterranean in the sixth century BC on the island of Samos. Herodotus describes Polycrates as a very lucky king who succeeds in everything. He has an alliance with the Egyptian King Amasis, who tells him that the gods are not to be challenged by too much luck. Polycrates thus has to separate himself from his greatest treasure, in doing which he sails out to sea and throws his favourite ring overboard. A fish eats the ring, and a fisherman subsequently catches the fish. Because it is such a beautiful fish he brings it to the king’s cook. The fish is then served to the king, who gets his ring back.

There are now different interpretations of this story. For Amasis, it is obvious that he has to end his friendship with Polycrates at this point. To him, this resurfacing from the sea is evidently a premonition of the rage of the gods. But there are also other interpretations of this myth: “Herodotos clearly states that only those people who are always lucky, like Polycrates, are able to get things back from the sea” (Lindenlauf 2003, 419).

Whose Ocean? The Ocean as a Wasteland

It seems this idea of the containing ocean has not shifted much for a long time, since the ancient world. From all the futuristic utopias created in the 1950s of nuclear-powered cars, planes, tanks, and trains, just two have been realized: spacecraft and submarines. The ocean and space seem to be the only spaces able to contain that form of propulsion and pollution. But their power to contain may come to an end.

Oceans and space, jointly with atmosphere and cyberspace, are the four global commons, termed the “‘connective tissue’ of our vibrant global economy” by NATO (2011). Philip Steinberg calls them “first level spaces of flows,” and points out that “among these ‘first level spaces of flows,’ the sea has the longest history as a space of intense use and social construction” (2001, 201).

The global commons influence each other and share some parallels, e.g. their importance to globalization or their degree of pollution. They are shared resources, and thus a challenge to international law and governance structures. The global commons “represent the Achilles heel of globalization,” as the Konrad Adenauer Foundation states (Voje 2013), in terms of mostly being unprotected routes, difficult to manage shared resources, and always at risk of being overused and overexploited.

The question then is – is the (plastic) pollution of the oceans one more example of the tragedy of the commons? (Ostrom 1999). Where, as Hegel frames it in The Reason in History (1955, 81),[5] “We draw back into the vitality of the present, into our aims and interests of the moment; we retreat, in short, into the selfishness that stands on the quiet shore and thence enjoys in safety the distant spectacle of wreckage and confusion.”

Yet, the problem is that we are unable to just “draw back” in this case. We are not removed from the spectacle. We are forced to deal with this biochemical-social system, which we are also a part of, which we created through poisoned “gifts” of waste and abandoned objects. Our “gifts” are coming back to us. The oceans have become a “place of return.” The construction of the ocean is changing.

The “Friendly Floatees”

There is a recent and well-known event of objects returning from the ocean that initially shared some parallels with the hermeneutic openness of the myth of Polycrates – the “Friendly Floatees.” The changing narratives that have formed around this also illustrate the changing relations with the ocean itself.

On January 29, 1992, twelve containers went overboard from the container ship Ever Laurel. In one of the containers were 28,800 yellow ducks, red beavers, green frogs, and blue turtles made of plastic. The containers opened and the contents started to float around in the Pacific Ocean.[6]

At this time, oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer was working on a model of ocean currents at the University of Washington by tracking buoys and markers dropped at sea, a technique used about 2,300 years before by Theophrast, a student of Aristotle, who sent out sealed jugs from Piraeus to research the influence of the Atlantic on the Mediterranean.[7]

Ebbesmeyer normally threw in five hundred markers with an average recovery rate of two percent of all these objects from the mid-Pacific Ocean. But after the items escaped there were not five hundred but tens of thousands of markers. He formed a network of beachcombers who reported the washed-up toys and then fed this data into a computer simulator, developed by his colleague Jim Ingraham (Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham 1994). The goal was to create an improved model of ocean currents in order to better predict the motion of objects in the oceans, e.g. lost vessels or oil spills (Heidorn 1999).

The event and Ebbesmeyer’s research into it were widely covered in the media. This created hype around finding the toys, which soon became collectors’ items. The toys were named “Friendly Floatees” and continued their seventeen thousand-mile journey in the ocean.

In an interview with The Independent entitled “Lost at Sea: On the Trail of Moby-Duck” from February 27, 2011, Ebbesmeyer states: “We always knew that this gyre existed. But until the ducks came along, we didn’t know how long it took to complete a circuit … It was like knowing that a planet is in the solar system but not being able to say how long it takes to orbit. Well, now we know exactly how long it takes: about three years.” So the ducks helped us to understand the ocean gyres “that will help climatologists to predict the effects of climate change on the marine environment.” Ironically, these are exactly the gyres that later became the “Great Ocean Garbage Patches” – symbols of the pollution of the oceans and the longevity of plastic.

In line with this spirit of discovery, a report from 1999 states: “Ebbesmeyer and other oceanographers eagerly await the next oceanic escape of rubber ducks or shoes or … If you live on the coast … have a beachcomber’s eye for any large deposits of commercial items. They may become part of the next great ocean experiment” (Heidorn 1999). Indeed, the Friendly Floatees became part of the next great ocean experiment, but in different ways than those previously expected by oceanographers.

In the long history of oceans as “places of (no) return,” in 1999 the return of the Friendly Floatees was still considered an “astonishing” and rare event, one that changed our relationship with the ocean through a network of scientists and computer models, toys, and polymers, lost containers and cargo ships, currents and gyres, promenaders and beachcombers. One of the last media reports on the event, from January 2017 in the Sunday Post, is entitled “How a Lost Cargo of Rubber Ducks Helped Solve Some Mysteries of the Sea,” and claims that: “It’s 25 years since an astonishing event that changed the high seas forever.”

Philip E. Steinberg uses in his “The Social Construction of the Ocean” a quite similar incident of eighty thousand lost Nike shoes (that were also used as markers by Ebbesmayer and Ingraham in 1990) as a starting point to describe the social construction of the ocean. For Steinberg, “this story provides a fitting beginning for a narrative about the various ways the world-ocean has been perceived, constructed, and managed under modernity” (2001, 1) This perspective of a new narrative will be important in the following chapter.

Changing Narratives

The Friendly Floatees inspired two children’s books: Ducky (1997) and 10 Little Rubber Ducks (2005), as well as a Disney movie Lucky Duck (2014). From a discourse analytical approach, it is quite remarkable how their story is told over time.


The first children’s book is Ducky, written by Eve Bunting and David Wisniewski and published in 1997. Ducky, a little yellow plastic duck, is washed from his box on a ship, where it “was snuggled safe with hundreds of other bathtub toys” into the ocean. In a rather apocalyptic illustration, we see the toys swimming in a pink, tumultuous ocean. “My bathtub friends float all around me. Our ship has disappeared. The sea is big, big, big. Oh, I’m scared!” The next thing Ducky encounters is the marine environment:

Fish with watery eyes come to stare. A sea snake wiggles itself among us. SHARK! I go from scared to terrified … The shark’s mouth opens and it gulps in a frog, two beavers, three turtles, and me. Things and bit of things are stuck in its giant teeth. PFUH! It shakes its head and spits us out. I expect we are not too tasty, though we are guaranteed non-toxic. (Bunting and Wisniewski 1997, 10–12)

“Though we are guaranteed non-toxic” seems to be an uncommon remark in a children’s book, evaluating the toxicity of a plastic toy and its hazards for the marine environment in that way.[8] Poor Ducky floats ahead “in the big, empty ocean,” “lonelier than ever,” asking himself: “Will I float in this ocean forever and ever?” (20). Finally, Ducky returns and lands on the beach, where a boy finds him: “I need to report that I found him … Mrs. James is keeping a record for science.” And Ducky asks itself: “For Science? Me?” (24).

Through the Friendly Floatees the ocean is described as a hostile, mysterious, and scary environment outside of society, and as a vast space which can handle pollution and that stoically encounters things entering it. The ocean in Ducky is a space that can be traversed and researched by humans. Resurfacing is possible and a good sign, both for object and finder. Things belong to the world of humans. The last two pictures show the duck on a bike with “his” boy, riding through a town full of people, happily interacting with the plastic toys they found at the beach. Finally, a lucky Ducky is pictured in a bathtub with the boy: “I am a bathtub duck, fulfilling my destiny. How wondrous it is, to be able to float!” (30).

10 Little Rubber Ducks

Eight years later, in 2005, the second book on the Friendly Floatees was published: 10 Little Rubber Ducks by Eric Carle, who is the creator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The back cover says: “Get swept away on a high-seas voyage of discovery with 10 little rubber ducks as they float to every part of the world.” This is a story with an increasing level of oceanic entanglement.

In Eric Carle’s story the ducks are produced in an overseas factory, put in boxes, and loaded onto a cargo ship. Following this, “the captain and his cargo ship take the little rubber ducks across the wide sea to faraway countries.” In this depiction, the ocean is constructed as a capitalistic surface of global consumption: “Only water and sky.” Humans traverse the ocean in house-like ships, and avoid direct contact. The ocean, as in Ducky, is constructed as a space of uncertainty caused by natural events such as the wind and waves[9]: “A big wave lifts up one of the boxes and throws it into the water … ‘10 rubber ducks overboard!’” While one duck after another drifts away, nature encounters the objects: “A dolphin jumps over it. A seal barks at it. A turtle glides past it. A seagull screeches at it. A whale sings to it …” The story ends with a nature-culture entanglement:

The next morning the 10th little rubber duck meets a mother duck and her ducklings. “Quack!” says the mother duck. “Quack! Quack! Quack!” say the ducklings. At the end of the day the sun sets again. It is getting dark. The mother duck and her ducklings swim towards their nest. The little rubber duck floats along with them. “Good Night!” says the moon. “Quack!” says the mother duck. “Quack! Quack! Quack!” say the ducklings. “Squeak!” says the little rubber duck.[10]

The object of this story doesn’t return to the human world. It takes its mimetic evocation seriously. It entangles itself with nature (and nature with it) and stays in the ocean. The overspill of capitalism encounters nature, floats with it, and finally becomes nature, then taming and changing it (hence the ocean in the very last picture looking more like a lake, with reeds and the water’s edge in sight).

Lucky Duck

In the Disney Channel movie about the incident, Lucky Duck (2014), the story differs slightly from Ducky and 10 Little Rubber Ducks. The toys become news. The anchor says: “During this historic storm no ships or human lives were lost at sea. But a crate of tub toys, that was swept overboard in the middle of the ocean [was lost].” The owner of the “terrific toy company” who lost the toys is offering a “substantial” reward, “calling on anyone with a boat to help find us our poor, lost tub toys.” The young Disney hero, together with his captain father, is able to find the lost toys and pull them all out of the ocean again, receiving the reward.

Bearing in mind the utopia of the possible purification of polluted oceans, as well as the discourse on the politics of waste, this is an interesting narrative. Researchers like Myra Hird or Sarah Lochlann Jain, who both work on the politics of waste, make visible how the responsibility is shifted away from the global industry players towards the individual and “good” environmental citizen, from the producers of commodities to the consumers. Lochlann Jain describes the unaccountability of companies as “commodity violence.” Within the terms of the unaccountability of companies, the reward offered in this Disney story is a kind of happy ending – at least, the company assumes some (monetary) responsibility for its lost goods. But the action is still on the consumer’s side, in the hunt for the objects to reappear before they become entangled with the ocean and the ocean with them. Whereas the ocean in Ducky repels most of the toys by itself, and entangles itself with the toys in 10 Little Rubber Ducks, the third narrative tells of an Ahab for “Moby Duck” being needed.

The toys lost overboard in the Disney movie are torn between the first and second narratives. Lucky, the little plastic duck hero in the movie, wants to stay in the world of humans, just like Ducky:

Who knows where the waves are gonna take you? … Don’t you wanna find a kid, who will take you home and play with you? We got to find a kid! … I know there is a kid out there for me. If we follow the ship’s trail, we might just catch up with it. It will take us to dry land, where we can all find a home.

Meanwhile, the little plastic shark wants to float, “Because, that is what tub toys do … Finally free. Free to float away on the ocean wave … Maybe there will be a tropical island with coconuts and palm trees … Why settle for a kid’s bathtub, when you can have a whole ocean?”

Exactly. But what is a floating plastic duck doing in the ocean, from an ontological point of view, outside a Disney movie?

The Friendly Floatees tell us about social and scientific constructions of the ocean as Thingspace, about ocean currents, about capitalistic spatial relations, about the possibility of resurfacing from the ocean, an immense increase of things in very recent decades, animistic longings, about the changing narratives of the relationship between humans, oceans, and things. Accordingly, with their ongoing journey, they also tell us about ontological questions regarding the afterlife of a (plastic) object in the ocean. Or, to frame it differently, they ask – what is “waste”?

Waste Death at Sea? The Plastification of the World

The floating toys were not perceived as waste or dirt at the beginning of their journey (even if they were ‘matter out of place’, the famous definition of dirt by Mary Douglas), but as scientific markers, and as cute and friendly – so cute that they inspired three children’s stories, something which is partly due to their mimetic evocation of nature and the timely perception of plastic. But the narrative is transforming, and the Friendly Floatees are changing too. The yellow ducks turn white (like many things in the ocean over time) – they crack and crumble, and they start to look ghostly. They turn from “Friendly Floatees” to “Ugly Ducklings” (Vanden Eynde 2012). They are decaying, returning as revenants. Ironically, they have a stamp on their bottoms bearing the name of the company that produced them: First Years Inc. Perhaps it would be better not to ask “what is waste?” but “when is waste?”

The Friendly Floatees illustrate the definition of waste as an object plus time, which can be found in the preface of Brian Thill’s book Waste (Object Lessons) (2015):

Though we try to imagine otherwise, waste is every object, plus time. Whatever else an object is, it’s also waste – or was, or will be. All that is needed is time or a change of sentiment or circumstance. Waste is not merely the field of discarded objects, but the name we give to our troubled relationship with the decaying world outside ourselves.

The changing narratives of the Friendly Floatees open up a relational and process-oriented perspective on plastic objects reappearing from the ocean. The Friendly Floatees are, to quote Blumenberg, “at one and the same time, both, novelty and fossil” (1979, 46). And they have always been so. The material plastic itself is a novelty made out of a fossil. In a similar vein, Stacy Alaimo writes, “While plastics escape the ravages of time, a study on plastic pollution published in 1973 seems ancient as it concludes that plastic’s harm is ‘chiefly aesthetic,’ since the ‘inert nature of plastic means that it is unlikely to enter the food chain and threaten human welfare’” (2016, 131). This resonates well with Ducky’s comment in the first story: “I expect we are not too tasty, though we are guaranteed non-toxic.”

Fig. 11.1. The Ugly Ducking

Source: Maarten Vanden Eynde (2012)

With the emerging discourse of the plastic pollution of the oceans during recent years, it is highly unlikely that there will be more children’s books with ocean-travelling plastic ducks as their heroes. Alaimo writes: “Everyday, ostensibly benign human stuff becomes nightmarish as it floats forever in the sea … One bottle cap – such a negligible bit of stuff to humans – may persist in killing birds and fish for hundreds of years” (130). Plastic – the tissue of toys, the material of calculated chemical-physical-synthesis processes and rational design choices, an easily shapeable post-war promise of abundance and democratic aesthetics, the compound of desired consumer goods, the fibre of the clothes on our skin – stays in the ocean for hundreds of years. And across that enormous timespan it slowly becomes an amorphous, enigmatic matter. Plastic becomes the ocean and part of its myths.[11] It works as a contrast medium for the ocean as Thingspace, one where the “things thing” and “thinging gathers.”

In current times, things reappear differently from the ocean: global, vibrant (Bennett 2010), molecular – challenging the categories of “nature” and “culture,” “body” and “environment,” “life” and “afterlife,” categories that start to blur just like things in the ocean. In their afterlives, these things may even have the most impressive relationship with “life.” They entangle with microorganisms, get colonized by algae, and get eaten by zooplankton. Plastic migrates up the food chain. Microplastic particles can be found in mussels and fish tissue. Initial studies have shown its reproductive impact and other health effects, and it appears in human networks and bodies.

Plastic is intermingling with every element: water, air, fire, and earth. This is followed by new questions regarding conceptualizations of human-environment interfaces and relations. As Michelle Murphy puts it, “We are in a new chemical regime of living in which … the atmosphere, water, soil, nourishment, commodities and our very bodies are apprehendable as caught in possibly toxic molecular relations” (2008, 697).

Oceanic Matter calls for the “critical responsiveness” that Gay Hawkins describes: “It involves work on the self in the interest of recognizing the plurivocity of being and matter. Critical responsiveness decenters the human as the sovereign source of agency and change; in recognizing multiple sites of agency at play in the world, it invites an expanded politics attentive to how the force of matter might participate in new associations and ethics” (2010, 137).

The plastification of the world not only concerns oceans and beaches,[12] but also raises new questions about the subject, political responsibilities, and bodies, and about a molecular lowest common denominator. It raises questions about local exposure, “embedded bodies” (Niewöhner 2011), globality, and risks. Ocean bodies and human bodies (and animal bodies in general) are in a state of “metabolic intimacy” (Law and Mol 2009, 8). Human bodies are embedded in this human-ocean system. Approximately fifty percent of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean. Ocean bodies are embedded in this human-thing-ocean system. “History no longer stops at the water’s edge … Just recently, we have begun to explore the history of ocean currents, tides, and even waves, phenomena once thought to be timeless” (Gillis 2013; see also Helmreich 2014).

This is followed by new questions regarding conceptualizations of human-environment interfaces and human-thing relations. As Alaimo reflects, this “entails a sense of the human self as permeable, part of the flux and flow of the Anthropocene, part of the stuff of the world” (2016, 182), and is “dissolving the outline of the subject” (112).


In The Toilers of the Sea, Victor Hugo remarks: “The solitudes of the ocean are melancholy: tumult and silence combined. What happens there no longer concerns the human race” (2002, 186). Well, he would seem to be wrong.

The sea, once presented as a surface to be traversed, a place “outside society and history,” a deep world that can be exploited and polluted, with the endless capacity to retain things, to clean polluted things or to make things disappear from the world of humans, has changed. This transformation process can be told using the narrative of objects resurfacing from it; from times when the resurfacing of things represented a single and astonishing event, to bigger spills like the Friendly Floatees, and to oceans as Thingspaces today.

The Friendly Floatees swim along this line of discourse of ocean transformation. As scientific markers, which show us the planetarity of the ocean system and its currents for the first time/as collectors’ items of a globalized consumer society, which gain their special status from their travel activity and rare recurring, and as the “mimetic evocation” of nature, blurring categories and haunting the ocean. The changing narratives around the Friendly Floatees can be used to describe the shift in human-ocean relations within the growing oceanic plastic pollution and the shift in the ontology of the ocean itself.

The ocean was regarded as “the master of disappearance” (Lindenlauf 2003) in the time of Polycrates (and long after), with the property of “keeping things under” and an imagined infinite capacity to contain. However, now the ocean can be understood in a new ocean cosmology that emerges as the ocean turns into a Thingspace. This Thingspace relates people and things on the global, biochemical, ecological, political, and social levels. This entanglement also leads to a new understanding of the ocean – one that is deeply entangled with us.


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[1] I would like to thank Sarah Schönbauer, Michael Zinnäcker, and the editors for their thoughtful critique of the draft and their valuable remarks.

[2] I’m aware of the conceptual problem of the terms “ocean” and “sea.” For different reasons, I use “ocean(s)” in reference to the globality of ocean pollution, the mapping of the great gyres, etc. While in the literature both terms are sometimes used interchangeably (as in John Mack’s The Sea: a Cultural History), at other times the literature clearly refers to the Mediterranean using the term “sea” (as Astrid Lindenlauf does).

[3] “Some global historians actually chafe at oceanic and continental divisions, arguing that our globe is dominated by one great seamless body of water, covering seven-tenths of the planet’s surface and affecting weather, climate, and life both on land and at sea (Gillis 2013).

[4] In 2015, the German Federal Environment Office (UBA) reported that approximately seventy percent of trash sinks to the ground, fifteen percent floats on the surface, and another fifteen percent is washed up onto beaches.

[5] The quote continues: “But in contemplating history as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of states, and the virtue of individuals have been sacrificed, a question necessarily arises: to what principle, to what final purpose, have these monstrous sacrifices been offered?”

[6] They did so because they had no holes in them, a rare property for a bath toy.

[7] These might have been the first messages in a bottle (or rather messages in an amphore), with which the ocean as a place of (no) return has been tested ever since. Messages in bottles have been used by Christopher Columbus and Benjamin Franklin. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, messages in bottles have been systematically used to research ocean currents, e.g. by the American Marine Department in Washington or Deutsche Seewarte in Hamburg. Navigators should note the place and time of the jettison on the card inside the bottle and throw them back overboard. Finders should note the time and place of their finding and send the form back (See Handwörterbuch des Postwesens 1927, 236.). Ebbesmayer estimates “the total number of MIBs released since the mid-1900s at 6 million – five hundred thousand of them from oceanographers” (2010, 67).

[8] Quite a lot of incoherence, especially when, at the same time, the lies about the danger of sharks are being reproduced (thanks to Hervé Corvellec for this remark on the shark episode).

[9] See also Steinberg’s description of the sea’s function and physical properties, and “how the ocean is perceived and used by various social actors” with the case of the eighty thousand floating Nikes (Steinberg 2001, 3): “The sea, for Nike, was a space of distance, a space across which shoes had to travel so that their sale could generate a profit for corporate shareholders. For Leonhardt & Blumberg, the Hamburg-based shipping firm that operated the Hansa Courier, the sea was also a surface to be crossed, and its distance similarly presented profit-making opportunities. For residents of the West Coast, including beachcombers like McLeod and his customers, the sea was a provider. It was the means by which goods arrived … The oceanographers viewed the ocean as a set of discrete locations: places of ocean currents, storm centers, coastlines, islands, past message-in-bottle releases, and so on. These places, each with its own distinct nature, related to one another to make the ocean one grand physical system” (Steinberg 2001, 2).

[10] This book has no page numbers.

[11] We are no longer at a beach, surprised by one single recurring object, distant from us, carrying a divine transcendent message (well, maybe it carries a transcendent message?).

[12] “Nurdles”, the little round pre-production microplastic pellets about the size of a pea, are to be found on almost every beach in the world, breaking down in smaller and smaller pieces and gradually replacing the sand, turning beaches into plastic beaches.

published in:
»Perspectives on Waste from the Social Sciences and Humanities: Opening the Bin«,
edited by Richard Ek and Nils Johansson
Cambridge Scholars Publishing , 2020


ISBN: 1-5275-4674-8
ISBN13: 978-1-5275-4674-5
Release Date: 2nd April 2020
Pages: 288
Price: £61.99