Humanizing Pollution: Plastic Bags of New York

Photographer Nicole Espina fights activism fatigue by documenting plastic pollution one Instagram at a time. We asked her why.


In a city where pizza-pilfering rodents are among the less shocking of subway creatures, how do you train your eye to identify and really see something that doesn’t belong?

When the sidewalks are dotted with discarded wads of chewing gum and cigarette butts, and every tree on the block wears a tattered crown of lost balloons and plastic bags, there’s a certain normalization of the pollution problem, which in turn only perpetuates it.

Walk into any deli, pharmacy or up to a street vendor in Manhattan, and it is almost guaranteed you will be met with a plastic bag, if not multiple plastic bags, a plastic straw, and a gratuitous plastic-wrapped set of disposable cutlery. Avoiding excess waste demands preparation and a firm and fast delivery of a “no bag, please” — preferably with eye contact and some form of hand gesturing (or reusable bag waving) for emphasis.

In most cases, the waste transaction occurs at the checkout counter. But it doesn’t originate there. 

Long-term solutions demand more action at the source, and more accountability from business owners, policy makers, manufacturers, product designers, etc. These things take time. Until then, the burden of responsibility falls mostly to the individual.

You need to shift mindsets to change habits, and you'll never get there by casting blame. How do you get people to confront the ugly truth behind plastic addiction without shaming them into action?

About a year ago, I stumbled upon the work of Nicole Espina via the Instagram account Plastic Bags of New York (PBONY), where she pairs familiar litter scenes with quotes borrowed from Brandon Stanton's popular Humans of New York. The effect anthropomorphizes pollution in a way that gets you to pause your scrolling thumbs, think twice, laugh, feel something. It's a subtly sardonic union of tragedy and comedy. It's also a must-follow Instagram account. 

PBONY is a reminder that our pollution problems stem from a simple truth: we’re all only human. And isn’t that our greatest strength?

"It's absurd to anthropomorphize trash. But by laughing at a picture of a plastic bag next to an 18-wheeler with the caption 'I drive the truck,' it might get you to ponder more deeply what you are viewing, to tie it to yourself as a human and a consumer." Nicole Espina

"I drive the truck."

"I drive the truck."


What can humor achieve that beautiful imagery alone cannot?

Beautiful imagery is moving but humor is disarming. Global climate change, oceanic pollution, urban litter: these are colossal issues. Approaching them with humor gets people to think of them in a different way. It's absurd to anthropomorphize trash. But by laughing at a picture of a plastic bag next to an 18-wheeler with the caption "I drive the truck," it might get you to ponder more deeply what you are viewing, to tie it to yourself as a human and a consumer. Beautiful images can certainly do that on their own but I think it can be subtly powerful when it comes from an unexpected place.


Do you think people tend to tune out more conventional or conservative environmental messaging? Why is that?

Absolutely. Even for people who are attuned to environmental issues, just keeping up with everything can become overwhelming. Like that ASPCA commercial with the sad song, you hear it and flip the channel immediately because it’s too heavy. It's uncomfortable to be confronted with difficult truths especially when they require changes in our behavior, consumer choices, and lifestyles. It’s easy to say to yourself, “This is such a big problem, glad someone is raising awareness,” or to sign a petition from your desk. It's much harder to do the work of self-examination: “Is my lifestyle making the planet worse? How can I do better?" Activism fatigue, particularly in our heightened political atmosphere, can certainly be a problem.


Image: Chris Jordan from his film Midway: Message from the Gyre

Image: Chris Jordan from his film Midway: Message from the Gyre


When and how did you become aware of the plastic pollution problem and its scale?

Being born and raised in California – where water conservation was always a priority and we were taught “reduce, recycle, reuse” in elementary school – I've always been somewhat of an environmentalist. But I didn't consider the broader impact of my consumption habits until I attended a lecture with Chris Jordan (watch his Parley Talk here) at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. He showed work from his Running the Numbers series. Photography collage on that scale is incredibly powerful because it makes concrete what is abstractly large: 139,000 cigarette butts smoked and thrown away every 15 seconds or 400,000 bottle caps from the average number of plastic bottles consumed every minute. The image of plastic cup usage on commercial flights (one million cups every six hours) was particularly disturbing and humbling to me. This is a staggering amount of waste. He then showed the trailer for his film on the Midway Atoll and it really jelled for me what an epidemic plastic trash has become.


Do you think people have become desensitized to pollution? Especially in the city?

With trash in the city as ubiquitous as it is, it is difficult not to be desensitized. A cigarette butt on a beach looks out of place but people don't think twice about throwing out a cigarette on Broadway. It becomes another patch of the city that is almost expected, which is disappointing.


"What's your favorite thing about your dad?" "He lets me beat him up and doesn't cry."

"What's your favorite thing about your dad?" "He lets me beat him up and doesn't cry."


What inspired you to pair photography with HONY captions?

After moving to New York in September 2015, I was struck by the amount of trash on the street. I knew I wanted do a photography series about litter but simply documenting trash wasn't compelling enough. Walking in my neighborhood one day a particular bag struck me: one of the "Have A Nice Day" bags with a yellow smiley face. It was full of trash, tied at the top, and crushed so that the smile was distorted. I thought it was ironic. Walking to the bus the next day I had the idea that it would be cheeky to pair the bags with Humans of New York quotes. HONY has become the quintessential New York story project and there are several projects with their own spin on the photo + quote formula but none, to my knowledge, with inanimate objects. Once I started pairing the images with the quotes, I couldn't stop. I'd spend hours combing through the HONY Facebook page, pulling quotes I thought could work, and organizing them into a spreadsheet. Walking the city became like a fun hunt to find unique trash. When I come upon a bag and a quote immediately comes to mind, I know it'll be a good post.


"I'm taking a break from setting goals."

"I'm taking a break from setting goals."


Approximately how many plastic bags do you see in the streets every day?

Way too many. There are bags in trees, in puddles, getting lifted over subway vents, left on trains, bags stuck to chain-link and barbed wire, overflowing from trashcans – they are everywhere. I used to shoot each bag I came across until it became unmanageable. I'm more discerning about what I document now and luckily/unfortunately there is no shortage of content in the city.


Do you find it hard to avoid plastic bags, or single-use plastic items in general? What's your alternative/strategy?

I try to carry a reusable bag with me at all times. I have this great one that folds into a small pouch so it’s convenient to keep in my purse. I've made it a habit to say “I don’t need a bag, thanks”, even if it would be easier to have one. It's a bit more difficult with other things. I have a reusable coffee mug but don't always have it on me when I want coffee. Have you tried drinking a smoothie without a straw? It's tough. To be sustainable requires not just a shift in thinking but a change in lifestyle as well. It’s much easier to stay the path of least resistance. But if we keep at this, the earth continues to suffer, and so do we in the end. Small changes, done by many people, can have a dramatic effect.


Today in microfashion...

Today in microfashion...


What are your thoughts re: the fate of the NYC plastic bag fee? Did its killing at the state level set us back, or open the window for a more effective approach?

I was disappointed that the plastic bag fee was struck down by Governor Cuomo, although I will admit the proposed law was far from perfect. We should absolutely decrease plastic bag usage, but this law would only have addressed the symptom, it was nowhere near a cure. In addition to legislation to help ease us off of single-use products, we need a societal shift away from petroleum and plastic. At least the proposed law enabled a discussion around this issue. I think the more it's in the zeitgeist, the better the chances are for a big change in the direction of sustainability.




Follow PBONY on Instagram

View more of Nicole's work here


Interview by Mary Grygiel || @parleyxxx








1 Comment