threats from plastic pollution
Oceans Sustainability

Midway Atoll: The Plastic Plight of the Albatross


A short film follows artist Chris Jordan to investigate the thousands of albatrosses dying from ingestion of plastic from the Pacific Garbage Patch. The artwork and film called Albatross journeys across the sea takes them over the world’s largest dump or gyre: slowly rotating masses of partially-submerged trash between San Francisco and Hawai’i.

threats from plastic pollution
Albatross scour the ocean surface for sustenance, finding all manner of plastic debris, bottle caps, lighters, combs, and minuscule photodegradated (broken down by the sun) pieces of plastic that can be mistaken for food. Hence, the birds swallow the junk, that perforates their stomach or blocks their esophagus or gizzard, leading to inability to eat, often leading to death.

North Pacific Gyre: The Trashing of Midway

Midway Atoll, also known as Pihemanu, is part of the Hawaiian chain of volcanic islands, critical habitat in the Pacific Ocean. Three million seabirds have chosen this circular atoll with three coral islets as their somnolent rookery, and 250 different marine species populate the nearby reefs and lagoons. A forthcoming documentary follows internationally acclaimed artist Chris Jordan to investigate an environmental tragedy in this remote Pacific paradise: tens of thousands of albatrosses lie dead on the ground, bodies filled with plastic from the Pacific Garbage Patch.

The documentary trailer for “Albatross” A film by Chris Jordan. To watch the entire film, click here.

One of the Remotest Islands on the Planet

Midway’s isolation makes it an ideal winter home for most of the world’s remaining populations of the Laysan, Black-footed, and Short-tailed albatrosses, as well as fourteen other species of seabirds. Critically-endangered Hawaiian monk seals raise their pups on the beach, as well as occasional nesting of green sea turtles. A resident pod of 300 spinner dolphins make the inlets and shore waters home.

Midway: Message from the Gyre
Midway’s isolation makes it an ideal winter home for most of the world’s remaining populations of the Laysan, Black-footed, and Short-tailed albatrosses, as well as fourteen other species of seabirds. Photo: Jan Vozenilek

As “Midway” denotes, the atoll lies halfway between North America and Japan, part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, a UNESCO World Heritage designated area. It is grouped with ten islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, internationally recognized for both their cultural and natural values described as follows:

“The area has deep cosmological and traditional significance for living Native Hawaiian culture, as an ancestral environment, as an embodiment of the Hawaiian concept of kinship between people and the natural world, and as the place where it is believed that life originates and to where the spirits return after death. On two of the islands, Nihoa and Makumanamana, there are archaeological remains relating to pre-European settlement and use. Much of the monument is made up of pelagic and deepwater habitats, with notable features such as seamounts and submerged banks, extensive coral reefs and lagoons. It is one of the largest marine protected areas (MPAs) in the world.”

Cinematographer Jan Vozenilek has used his camera to sketch the subtle timelessness of Midway.

An unincorporated territory of the United States, over 1,000 miles from Honolulu and almost three thousand from the closest continent, the atoll has maybe sixty residents, which include biologists, rangers and support contractors. To understand how this remote atoll became the site of such an environmental tragedy requires us to look in the mirror and reconsider our consumption, our waste, and our way of life.

The Plastic Flotsam of Human “Civilization”= Albatross Death Sentence

Of the 500,000 albatross chicks born here each year, about 200,000 die, mostly from dehydration or starvation. A two-year study funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed that chicks that died from those causes had twice as much plastic in their stomachs as those that died for other reasons. Albatross scour the ocean surface for sustenance, finding all manner of plastic debris, bottle caps, lighters, combs, and minuscule photodegradated (broken down by the sun) pieces of plastic that can be mistaken for food. Hence, the birds swallow the junk, that perforates their stomach or blocks their esophagus or gizzard, leading to inability to eat, often leading to death.

Midway: Message from the Gyre
On one of the remotest islands on our planet, tens of thousands of baby albatrosses lie dead on the ground, their bodies filled with plastic from the Pacific Garbage Patch. Photo: Chris Jordan

The pelagic (open ocean) albatross migrates thousands of miles across the North Pacific Ocean before it arrives to breed at Midway. Seabirds that scavenge and feed by dipping are valuable biological and ecological indicators in marine ecosystems, studies of which can illustrate threats to species across the board from climatic and human-related pollution.

The Albatross journey across the sea takes them over the world’s largest dump: slowly rotating masses of suspended particles in the upper water column. This is known as the Eastern Garbage Patch, part of a system of currents with light winds called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, between San Francisco and Hawai’i. Found in varying locations, scientists have documented these accumulations of submerged debris can outweigh plankton six to one in sampled seawater. In addition to plastic, large abandoned fishing (ghost) nets are also a problem, that beyond seabirds can injure coral reefs and bottom dwelling species and entangle or drown ocean wildlife.

The most numerous albatross species on Midway are the Laysans, who have a five foot wingspan and remain on the atoll for nine months out of the year. They can live up to 40 years. John Klavitter, a wildlife biologist, estimates that albatross feed through regurgitation to their chicks about 5 tons of plastic a year at Midway.


Chris Jordan, best known for his large-scale art works depicting mass consumption and waste, decided to make the film, MIDWAY: Message from the Gyre, after his photos of the plastic-filled albatross corpses raised an international cry for answers. Jordan is quoted as saying:

The birds on Midway are like messengers, the canary in the coal mine. When the canary dies, the miners don’t run over and try to save the canary— they receive the message that bird just gave its life delivering, and then act quickly to save themselves. That approach resonates with me because it doesn’t view the birds as helpless victims that we passively observe; it places a duty on us to receive their message, and be changed by it (or not).

Beyond the albatross, studies have shown up to 1 million seabirds choke or get tangled in plastic nets or debris every year. About 100,000 seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins, other marine mammals and sea turtles suffer the same fate. And what about the humans ingesting seafood nourished by the plastisphere?

Hence, the impact of plastic on the albatross has a distinct message to us consumers: our penchant for plastic bottles, wrappers, containers, toys, fishing floats, do not magically disappear when discarded. They become deadly.

The Possible Dream: Clean Oceans, Sustainable Humanity

We begin with the encouraging words of MIDWAY’s Director of Photography Jan Vozenilek, “We made this mess, we can clean it up.”

North Pacific Garbage Patch - from the article by Susan Casey

No one solution will be the answer, but a mix between product stewardship, plastic reduction legislation, and personal responsibility will make significant difference.

With regards to cleaning up the gyres, only non-governmental organizations such as 5 Gyres and Algalita Marine Research Institute with their intrepid founder Captain Charles Moore have studied micro-plastic pollution and its effect on marine ecosystems. It seems open ocean waters are a difficult place to justify any one government spending on research and clean up. As well, trash retrieval from the gyres poses problems because of the disparate nature of the accumulations and the miles-deep swirling plastic soup.

Consider the following as potential solutions to the problem:

Waste Reduction (or prevention) is preferred because that which never gets created doesn’t have waste management costs. Zero Waste is an ethical, efficient, economical, and visionary goal guiding lifestyle changes and practices emulating sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate the majority of discharges (90% reuse-recycle-diversion without incineration) to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) could make a difference on the production end, placing the legal, financial, and environmental responsibility for materials entering the waste stream with the manufacturer, not on the consumer or the local government at the end of the product’s or packaging’s life cycle. The end result is a fundamental shift in responsibility and financing so that manufacturers redesign products to reduce material consumption and facilitate reuse, recycling and recovery. For more information on Cradle to Cradle Producer Responsibility, see California Product Stewardship Council.

Avoid single-use products such as water bottles, utensils, and plastic bags. Reconsider the use of plastic products. Reusable alternatives could serve the same purpose, designed for durability. Recycle all materials properly. According to the US EPA, 31 million tons of plastic waste were generated in 2010, and only 8 percent of that were recycled. Remember one must also purchase recycled content products to complete the cycle.

Legislation: (Plastic) Bottle Bill to Reduce Throw-AwaysAs an example, California’s Bottle Bill has increased recycling rates, yet some argue “loopholes” in the beverage container recycling law exempt more than 250 million recyclable plastic bottles from the program. Benefits and costs to this approach are debatable, but more than 350,000 tons of plastic containers continue to be littered and landfilled at the same time that plastic processors struggle to get a sufficient supply of recycled plastic to meet manufacturer demand. Increasing the use of recycled plastic in manufacturing means both jobs and reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

Legislation: Single-Use Plastic Bag and Polystyrene Ordinances: Plastic pollution like expanded polystyrene (eps) and single-use bags are among the most commonly found items during beach and coastal cleanups. These programs should be expanded worldwide.

Legislation: Safe Chemicals Act: The proposed Safe Chemicals Act, first introduced by Sen. Lautenberg in 2005, would replace the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 to essentially reverse the burden of proof on chemical safety, and remove endocrine disrupting chemicals from plastics.

The Rise Above Plastics campaign by Surfrider lists ten easy things you can do to reduce your “plastic footprint” and help keep plastics out of the marine environment.

While all of these can help reduce plastic pollution, there are many more solutions out there. Feel free to comment on further ways to reduce your plastic footprint!

Production of the feature film “MIDWAY” continues through 2012.

Chris Jordan  – Director/Producer, Stephanie Levy – Producer, Terry Tempest Williams – Writer, Jan Vozenilek – Director of photography, Rob Mathes – Composer, Jim Hurst – Location sound, Joseph Schweers – Camera Manuel Maqueda – Advisor.

For more information:

Updated 31 October 2019

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  1. The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote of maggots in a sack of flour as a metaphor for the human presence on this planet, whose population increases until the toxins they excrete poison the flour, and they all die.

    We are told as consumers not to litter, to sort our discards for recycling, to make ‘green choices’, to catalyze change in the world via our buying habits as if each purchase is a vote. Like masturbation perhaps, this provides some spurious relief; when pursued to excess, it moves into the realm of pathological disconnection from reality.

    Earth’s population is projected to increase to 10 billion people within the next fifty years. Only fifty years ago, we were at 3 billion.

    Hope in our planet’s miraculous capacity for regeneration and healing, for me, sometimes requires panning out to a far larger time perspective than the mere 10,000 years since the dawn of culture and agriculture in the Middle East’s fertile crescent, far past the 100 or so years since the Industrial Revolution. In millions of years, the atomic radiation we have created will diminish by its several 100,000 year half-lives until it is finally rendered benign. In billions of years, our herbicides, pesticides and polymers will finally break down into nutrients for organisms and ecosystems that will evolve to use them as food.

    Hope sometimes comes only via an amorphous view across the massive timespans of geology and evolution, by finding salvation in the remarkable tenacity of bacteria, of cockroaches, of dandelions to colonize, reproduce, evolve and reclaim the web of life, which is being shredded before our eyes.

    For the short term of my remaining life, in which it is likely polar bears will go extinct in the wild (as but one visible and visceral example), and beyond through the lifetimes of my nieces and nephews, I see a world of heartbreak, and it rips my heart out.

    … and then tomorrow I’ll be right there with you, modifying my personal consumption habits as best I can, cheering movements for zero waste and extended producer responsibility, for legislation against toxics, factory farms, bio-engineered ‘suicide seeds’, against wars for oil, human trafficking and governments thoroughly corrupted to their core. I’ll champion a world powered by solar and wind, with public transit, social equity and… I’ll stop there. Even if we’re only rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic before she sinks, at least it feels better than the alternative.

  2. Derek Rudack

    Any person who is environmental aware, knows there is a major problem with the plastic disposal issues in earths water ways. Also there are hundreds of people who try and bring this problem to the masses! But all talk does nothin to solve the issue, we as inhabitants of this great planet need to act! This problem needs more than words to be solved. “A squeaky wheel gets oiled when its becomes loud enough”

  3. Humberto Gomez

    Reducing our plastic footprint in an overindulging, wasteful, instant gratification culture pampered by manufactures who cater and enable consumers to one time use articles and consumerism which is all about excess. We all have to consume to subsist and nobody is against business or making a profit unless it tampers with our existence. The line has to be drawn somewhere and it needs to begin with us as individuals committing to make subtle changes in our choices to make a difference in society. As humans we really turned out to be the mega predator of all species including ours. We already have seen the devastating consequences from the Eastern Garbage Patch. Do we need a Western Garbage Patch? If we could begin refraining from buying disposable plastic items, manufactures will cut the supply of these products. Reduce, recycle, reuse is great but we ALL have to walk the walk and do it. The harsh reality is that we are just as vulnerable and fragile as albatrosses and Laysans; the lesson they have given us is loud and clear.

  4. It is truly amazing that so much flotsam even exists, let alone makes it to the islands that far out from any “mainland” sources.
    After watching the videos, anyone with any amount of concern for the future of the planet cannot help but be incited to action on some level.
    I sincerely hope that your film attains a broad distribution, and that people in responsible positions within the plastics industry become disgusted enough to muster the courage to stand up to the profiteers in the industry to make honest change.
    Best of luck to you and your team!

  5. This article really affected me. Knowing these chicks are dying from plastics shows the true impact of “single use” plastics. I enjoyed reading about the potential solutions to the problem, especially about Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR. ) I hope beverage manufacturers (particularly water bottlers) can at least take financial responsibility for cleaning up this environmental disaster!

  6. While discussing the Midway Atoll someone questioned the intelligence of animals that would eats plastic bits regardless of the fact that they look like food. Shocked and frustrated, I continue to question the intelligence of people who continue to use and discard plastic materials the way they do.

    Sadly, there are six pieces of plastic to every one plankton in our oceans. In some areas plastic is in the double digits compared to plankton. The United States uses 89 billion plastic bags a year. That’s 2000 bags per person a year. Out of that only 12% are recycled. Cigarette butts and plastic bags are two of the leading contaminates on our beaches. The information is out there and the evidence is clear. This isn’t working!

    As it was stated in the article- “No one solution will be the answer, but a mix between product stewardship, plastic reduction legislation, and personal responsibility will make significant difference.”

    Please take responsibility!


  7. It’s one thing seeing the pictures of dead birds with plastic filled up in its belly and another thing watching baby chicks suffer from malnourishment and starvation because of all the plastic it can’t digest slowly causing it a painful demise. Its also another thing having this knowledge and not doing anything about it.

    If more people knew about what this amazing team of researchers and documentarians are striving to achieve here and getting the knowledge out there I believe that more people will at least be stewards of their own waste. If every person at least in North America were to recycle one plastic or reuse a plastic product or not ask for a straw in their beverage I can only imagine how much good it would do to this one ecosystem. Imagine all the other systems that would be indirectly affected.

    It may not be strong now but I can see a movement coming and the paradigm shifting. I Thank you all for your work and what you do for the world.

  8. If these animals can’t tell the truth, then maybe the carcasses will. This one of many cases those result from repercussions of the Anthroposcene. We have all participated one way or another by shifting and altering the ways of ecosystems, the North Pacific Gyre. The place of origin can be seen in our consumption habits that result in linear systems from plastic products. There’s demand for responsibility from our governments, waste/resource management, the processors, manufactures and distribution, and down to us, the consumer. It’s suddenly striking to see that an attempt of recycling was not enough. If it was enough, why have these products arrived at a dead end, in the bodies of birds? The eye can only see what it has been shown; if this is what it looks like in the body of an Albotross I’m reluctant to see what the rest of the bottom of the ocean looks like or the rest of the world. It comes to show that we have a long way to heal mother earth; she’s in need of restoration.

  9. Dominique K

    Thank you Jack Eidt for increasing awareness about the plight of these birds, other marine life, and of how we are disrupting earth’s ecosystems in our consumption and wasting of plastic. ( And great reference to the work of 5 Gyres and the Algalita Marine Research Institute – they rock!) We ought to cease making the problem worse – immediately and full stop. But, I am saddened by the daunting task of mitigating the havoc we’ve wreaked thus far. Nevertheless, with a little problem-focused coping (That’s a plug for Doug McKenzie-Mohr)I think we can prevent despondency. Thanks again for a great piece that ends with a solutions road map!

  10. Glen Sasaguchi

    Watching the first video titled “Midway” I turned the sound off so that I could receive the full visual effects of the plight of the young Albotross. It was devasting to see the victims of our wasteful society. We often distance ourselves from the products of our greed and desire for convenience. When I interviewed consumers about why they chose plastic bottles over tap water, they repeatedly site convenience. Is convenience worth such pain and suffering? When you aren’t directly connected to the death of the bird, you can dismiss or ignore the indirect connections, whether it’s ignoring a bottle cap on the beach or tossing a water bottle in the trash instead of recycling it. Plastic will be here long after we perish unless someone, everyone, cares to make a change. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” is not a cliche. It’s a lifestyle.

  11. glenn grassi

    I’m part of the problem. I know it. As much as I am also part of the solution I still contribute to the cause of the death of these birds and I hate myself… correction… hated myself for it. I have been ignorant thinking that my small bits and pieces of plastic get recycled but too much of it doesn’t. I have started to take responsibility for my actions. I am buying less and needing less. I am bagging my filmy plastics for direct recycling at the grocery store and I am bagging my small, hard plastic bits and will make the strongest effort to make sure that they get recycled if they get into my hands.

    Mostly, I am reducing my intake and reusing what I have.

    How do you apologize to a culture of Eskimos on the outskirts of civilization for introducing toxins through their food supply into their breast milk causing birth defects? How do you look at a baby of any species and say you are sorry for causing its last breath? How do you say goodbye to an entire species so you can enjoy bottled tap water on the go?

    I am sorry though, and I promise to do better.

    Jack, Your article struck a nerve. To know of the Pacific Garbage Patch was one thing. To know the details of the albatrosses and other wildlife on the Midway Islands startled me and affected me greatly. It was a wake-up call for me to change even more. I’m helping you spread the word.

  12. It’s gut-wrenching seeing chicks die from starvation or dehydration because their stomachs are full of plastic that humans created and have been using nonstop since World War II. I’m worried about the health of our planet when plastic outnumbers plankton, one of the most important organisms that Earth has because they’re the one of the main producers of oxygen that we need in order to survive and the food source of baleen whales. It is quite a conundrum to motivate the U.S. government, or any government for that matter, to take responsibility over the Midway Atoll. The fact of the matter is that we are all responsible for this, because we buy plastic and we don’t demand for the manufacturers to take responsibility for their product. The most practical way to deal with this would be through product stewardship or extended producer responsibility because companies know their product the best and would be able to innovate reusable, non-obsolete products that no longer have plastic wrapping. We, as consumers, need to reduce our consumption of plastic, whether it’s be one-time used beverage bottles, plastic bags/film, etc. But the most sensible thing would for everybody to work together, from the manufacturer to the retailer to the consumer along with the government, so we can save our planet for future generations.

  13. As stated by William P. Meyers,”Human Weeds”, “Modern humans are weeds. Let a breeding couple get to a previously unexploited land,
    whether a tiny island or a continent, and soon enough it will be overrun by people at the expense of most other species.” Nothing I have seen demonstrates this more clearly than the Midway Atoll. The horror of this, is that we create this from thousands of miles away, we have evolved into a world where we can remotely destroy not only countries but the nature’s most delicate balance. Never seeing, never owning up to our responsibility. The devastation that we have created on these remote islands are an offense beyond any written laws. The number of species that human beings effect there are incomprehensible assaults against living entities, that mankind has chosen to ignore. Watching the exposure of the contents of a dead baby albatross’s stomach would have to cause a life changing epiphany to anyone except for the most vile members of the mankind. Our hope is in the voices and actions of those who call for waste reduction now and the ability of human kind to change.

  14. Pingback: Midway Atoll: The Plastic Plight of the Albatross | Pacific Voyagers

  15. People are selfish and only think of themselves. They dont care about wildlife. This us sad to see so many birds die from human neglect. God bless their little soles and hope the documentary gets enough coverage that teams of volunteers can get there to help clean up the island.

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  23. What a shame.Plastic is one of the worst enemies of our beloved wildlife.

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