Garbage Island Diary

Viceland’s alternative model for environmental reporting

Fledgling online video Web site VBS.tv scored an environmental journalism coup this month with “Garbage Island” - a quirky, travelogue-documentary about man-made debris floating in the North Pacific Gyre. Currents in that part of the ocean naturally swirl around like a giant whirlpool, drawing in decades of pollution. Since the flotsam and jetsam first popped up on the press’s radar in 2006, numerous outlets have reported on the diffuse, Texas-sized patch and its higher than average concentration of trash (predominantly plastics), but few have sailed through it. VBS.tv, an offshoot of the notoriously successful Vice magazine, chartered a fifty-foot boat and traveled seven days into the center of the gyre, where they discovered neither the “pit,” “dump,” nor “heap” that many news outlets have described. Instead, the crew learns how the diffuse, hard-to-spot plastics in seawater can be even more of threat than an actual “Garbage Island.” The series has clocked over 100,000 views since it began less than three weeks ago, a major success for the site, and concludes Friday, April 25 with Part-12. The Observatory’s David Downs chatted with producer Meredith Danluck and director of photography Jake Burghart about the reactions to their work and the philosophy behind their brand on non-traditional journalism.


CJR: “Garbage Island” is dotted with profanity, other mature content, and entire episodes where boredom is the subject. What’s the logic behind decisions like that?


Jake Burghart: We wanted it to be more than just a science piece. We tried to make it not just about the issues, but about our trip into the issue and our discovery right along with the viewers of what the problem is. We’re trying to keep it on the level that everyone can understand and put it in front of a whole new audience.


CJR: How is it a counterpoint to the status quo?


JB: I think other environmental journalism just gets real boring even if it’s a topic that you’re interested in. You get beat over the head with facts and science and this and that, which is good. I don’t think we should be the only type of media covering stuff like this. There should be the super-fact-heavy, legitimate environmental documentaries and then there’s us.


CJR: How does your work add to the traditional coverage?


JB: What we’re doing is a great addition because it puts it in front of a whole new viewer. It makes it interesting to them. There’s a hole in the market. It’s the next generation coming up who maybe isn’t into environmentalism yet, and maybe it gets them into environmental journalism.


You know, you’re just on this little fifty-foot piece of boat and after a while it gets monotonous and it gets a little boring. I guess in shooting we try to shoot everything-it’s boring, we need to show that it’s boring, like if we thought it was a pile of garbage floating the size of Texas and it wasn’t, we need to show that and shoot it. You have to go out there and find out what the story is and tell it as the story unfolds, you don’t want to hide things and change things to what you want them to be.


Our audience doesn’t respond as well to authoritative, conventional approaches and can see it as false. They see truth in authenticity and the authenticity comes through in the series’ rawness. We’re coming to these conclusions, and they’re coming to them with us


Meredith Danluck: You can arrange facts and numbers and all that stuff, but it can be massaged. It’s hard to argue something that you see with your own eyes - it’s hard to argue with a family in West Virginia whose tap water runs black; it’s hard to argue that’s not a problem. It’s hard to argue being in the remotest part of the ocean and coming up with Tonka tires. Stuff like that is the strength of the “Toxic” series [which has included “Garbage Island” and a series on Canadian oil sands].


CJR: Do you think the title “Garbage Island” is inaccurate given what you found?


MD: I knew that [the garbage] was going to be more diffuse from the descriptions. I expected more substantial objects in the water. It’s very unclear from some article and papers, but I also think that kind of misunderstanding is helpful to a cause. The name is almost an homage to the topic because that’s what it’s become in the collective consciousness and that’s what kind of drew me to it in the first place.


Because of the mythology that was created around this particular issue from the media, because nobody has been out there because it’s too far away and too expensive, hearsay has gotten exponentially crazier. It just developed this legendary status and people had very little direct understanding of what it was.


[In our series] you see our shift in understanding, our impatience with what we expected to see based on other people’s definitions and not understanding it. It’s almost like: we realized it was worse. It’s so abstract and hard to communicate. The Captain says something like, “How do you get people to understand something that’s not an object-something you can’t see?” You take a Coke bottle on the surface and it looks terrible, but when it breaks into thousands of small pieces, it’s not a problem if you can’t see it.


JB: Along the journey you come with us and find it’s not this island of garbage. We’re not going to get off and walk around the super-gigantic island of garbage. And we go through a period where we’re a little bummed we paid all this money and came all the way out there and ‘Where is our garbage island?” The thing is it’s tiny, tiny pieces of plastic that can’t be removed. A lot of people keep asking how we can clean up and it’s not really about that, it’s about what we can stop doing that causes that.


CJR: What’s your edge over your competitors or peers?


MD: I think we’re better storytellers, because I think you have to develop a relationship with the people that you are watching in order to really empathize with them.


I love 60 Minutes, but I think they failed horribly at their coverage of the oil sands of Alberta because I didn’t care about anybody. How are you going to talk about environmental devastation if it’s just numbers? The environment is the most humanitarian issue in the world - it’s the air we breathe, the clothes we wear. The problem with a lot of environmental documentaries is that they shy away from the humanitarian angle and the issue becomes something separate, not part of nature. We are a part of nature.


CJR: What has the reaction to Garbage Island been?


JB: There’ve been a lot of teachers on the Web site watching and saying, “I’d really love to show this to my class, but there’s no way, because of the language and the content.” There’s not really a need for teachers to show it in their class.


CJR: And adults?


JB: I think the reaction’s been what we expected. I think it’s the best thing we’ve done and I’m really proud to be part of it. It seems like we got a new viewership for VBS. At first, people were a little shocked by the style of journalism. Longtime viewers are saying, “You really upped the bar.” Others have said, “I can’t believe you are ruining this topic with this language.” Well, we don’t cut anything out. However it comes out is how it comes out.


What’s been cool is it has gotten a really steady viewership, which you really push for. Part-1 of a series on VBS will come out and then the viewership just falls off. People just forget about it. With “Garbage Island” people have been coming back and getting angry when new parts aren’t up as promised.


CJR: Upcoming environmental projects?


MD: We had a team go to China to do the most polluted city in the world, Linfen. We’re really interested in agriculture and in toxin levels in the human body; we’re editing apiece on BPA, bisphenol-a, right now.

David Downs is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. A former editor for Village Voice Media, he has contributed to Wired magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Believer, and The Onion in addition to other publications.