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Artist Steve McPherson's workspace. Photo: Steve McPherson

For our Deep Dive on plastics, Axios commissioned artist Steve McPherson to create a custom piece using plastics washed onto the coastline of England. McPherson transforms these discarded, forgotten plastic objects into vibrant, beautiful pieces — forcing the viewer to confront where these objects actually originated.

Why it matters: Plastic makes up more than 60% of ocean litter — millions of metric tons — and that amount is only increasing. Artists like McPherson are using their platform to address the complexity of the plastics problem and to urge people to examine their consumer habits.

Since he started picking up ocean plastic as a child, McPherson has amassed a shocking collection of objects: fragments of dentures, false finger nails, Lego heads, assorted doll limbs, plastic fruit swords, Scrabble pieces, computer keys, pencil sharpeners and ice cream spoons.

  • “The natural colors of the beach were confettied with these synthetic colors,” McPherson tells Axios.
  • Part of what drives McPherson’s art is how pervasive plastic is — from the paint in our houses to our clothing. “I don’t think people understand the depth of the problem and the depth of their own use of plastic,” he says. “We are literally saturated with this material.”

By 2050, there could be more plastic than fish by weight in the ocean, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation projects. Meanwhile, marine creatures like seabirds are ingesting the debris.

  • Part of the hazard — and the appeal — of plastics is most of them can’t decompose completely, which is why they’ve been found in growing concentrations across the oceans. McPherson uses his art to confront this idea of plastic objects as a record for how humans live in the world right now.
  • “These little objects are conduits ... to the Earth’s memory,” he says.

Where it stands: Manufacturers, suppliers and governments all have a responsibility to address the plastic pollution problem, McPherson suggests. But he hopes his art encourages people to reconsider their consumerism.

  • He says some people who have viewed his art tell him years later that they’ve since changed their habits, buying fewer plastic goods or thinking twice before purchasing certain products. “We’re supposed to have power as consumers, aren’t we?”

Go deeper

Scoop: U.S. begins denying Afghan immigrants

Afghan refugees on a bus bound for temporary housing after arriving in Greece. Photo: Byron Smith/Getty Images

The Biden administration has begun issuing denials to Afghans seeking to emigrate to the United States through the humanitarian parole process, after a system that typically processes 2,000 applications annually has been flooded with more than 30,000.

Why it matters: Afghans face steeper odds and longer processes for escaping to the U.S., despite the earlier sweeping efforts by the Biden administration to assist its allies. Immigration lawyers and advocacy groups say the government has set untenable barriers to a safe haven in the U.S.

3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Dems invoke Robert Byrd to sell Manchin on Senate rules changes

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Diana Walker, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A small group of Senate Democrats is privately invoking the legacy of late West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd in an effort to sway Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to support their plans to change the chamber's rules, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Manchin — who holds Byrd's Senate seat — has often referenced his predecessor's strong moral conviction and insistence on preserving the Senate as an institution, as justification for some of his tough positions.

House votes to ban imports from Xinjiang over forced labor concerns

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The House voted 428-1 on Wednesday to pass a bill that would ban all imports from the Chinese region of Xinjiang unless the U.S. government determines that the products were not made with forced labor.

Why it matters: Both the Trump and Biden administrations, as well as several foreign parliaments, have recognized China's repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang as genocide.