On her plane ride from New York to Kenya, Asher Jay imagined the untamed safari awaiting her—lions with snarled manes and wrinkled rhinos covered in a coat of dust.
Instead, she saw miles of plastic bags tangled in trees. And she heard news of a lion cub killed by a vehicle driven by tourists* who were eager to see wildlife—eager enough to venture, illegally, off-road. Whatever leisurely vacation she had planned evaporated on the hot Kenyan plains. Jay, a 28-year-old environmental activist, had work to do.
For the next three months, while she traveled Kenya and Tanzania with her mother, Jay reported littering, speeding, smoking or off-roading tourists to park rangers, who could fine or ask the offenders to vacate the park.
“The problem isn’t that the rangers and wardens are ineffective, it’s just that so few tourists and locals take responsibility and see such complaints through,” Jay says. “The people who should be ensuring such things don’t happen, like guides and expedition drivers, are easily bribed by tourists, who want a guaranteed sighting.”
But Jay’s crowning achievement—her tour de force—involved manual labor and a mountain of three-gallon plastic bags.
She filled the bags with litter: diapers, discarded L’Oreal products, plastic silverware and cigarettes and handed them to the rangers. Jay flew to Kenya and Tanzania to learn how industrialization and urban sprawl had impacted wildlife parks and migratory routes. Once there, her plans changed. Confronted with piles of trash, she did what she could to remove it. “I figured better me than someone else, better now than never,” she says.
Once, at Kenya’s Lake Nakuru, she stared in dismay at tourists who carelessly littered food wrappers. She started a frenzied cleanup. “I would say, ‘I’m collecting your garbage, would you mind moving your bloody foot?’” Jay says. Per usual, some people laughed, but others joined her, helping to restore a vestige of Eden in the park.
Before she left, Jay held a meeting with wildlife wardens on the airport tarmac. They had asked her for recommendations, and she handed them a 10-page handwritten report with suggestions such as educating visitors about cleanup efforts and increasing garbage bins. “This is your land and only you can take care of it,” Jay told the wardens. “I am a visitor and I have done all that I can.”
It’s hard to change people’s habits, Jay has discovered. The litterer does not think twice. People don’t recycle. Shoppers forget to bring reusable bags. Standing at 5’10” with styled, short brown hair, Jay is making people more environmentally aware, and she is doing it with art.
Asher Jay’s art
Jay grew up in Europe, India and New York, but she calls herself a citizen of Garbagea, the country of trash she founded. Others know it as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Garbagea is made of millions of plastic debris, many pieces smaller than five millimeters. Circular ocean currents, called gyres, sweep garbage into enormous patches in the oceans. In 1999, researchers sampled 11 random sites near the North Pacific patch—a mass twice the size of Texas—and calculated it had about 334,271 plastic pieces per square kilometer.
Other studies are downright depressing: about 100,000 marine mammals die every year after ingesting or entangling themselves in garbage floating in the North Pacific. A 2002 review reported that plastics disrupt animal’s hormones and block digestion, float on the ocean’s surface and block oxygen from entering the sea, and encourage a crusty growth of bacteria, algae and barnacles atop the waves.
Captain Charles Moore discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997. He met Jay after his talk at The Explorers Club, an organization promoting field research of wild places. Jay told him she had dubbed the patch Garbagea. “I really love Asher Jay’s work,” Moore says. Garbagea is “amazing and it’s the last unexplored continent on Earth.”
Jay encourages people to take photos of garbage and upload it to Garbagea.com with its coordinates to highlight the alarming universality of litter. And everywhere she goes, whether volunteering in the Gulf after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill or traveling to Agatti, an island off the southwest coast of India, Jay continues to collect litter like she did in East Africa and transform it into art.
After she left Kenya and Tanzania, Jay returned with a suitcase of trash and incorporated it into images of cheetahs, leopards and zebras for a gallery show. “The giraffes’ patches were replaced with labels of trash,” she says. “I did some pieces where I show the entire animal lying on a halo of litter.”
Jay’s artwork compels people emotionally, and “portrays how our throwaway culture is devastating our sea life,” says Dieynaba Thioub, captain of the Sea Shepherd Gallery in Washington state. Like many activists, Jay has to continually blare her message to catch the public’s attention, a mission she embraces, often thinking of campaign ideas in the moments before she falls asleep.
In September, she visited the Dominican Republic Film Fest, which displayed her Message in a Bottle installation of 100 recycled plastic bottles, painted meticulously with marine creatures threatened by pollution. Next, she’s re-releasing an animated video about plastic bag pollution with The 5 Gyres Institute, a Los Angeles nonprofit involved in research and education about the ocean’s garbage patches. Coupling facts about pollution with Jay’s pieces, “empowers the artwork,” says Stiv Wilson, spokesman and policy director for the institute.
In addition to crafting art, managing Garbagea and lending her creative prowess to the Shark Research Institute and Thinking Animals, Jay constantly encourages people to consider the environment before buying or throwing away plastics.
“Consumers have a huge say,” she says. “If we say no, we will get it and we will have change.”
*This sentence was corrected due to a factual error, 12:50 pm Sept. 24, 2012.