Standing on a beach in Okinawa, Japan, photographer James Whitlow Delano noticed a pile of plastic bottles at the shore–one of which had drifted 1,860 miles from Vietnam.
The bottle was emblematic of the problems that developing countries have dealing with plastic waste: If the U.S. has an abysmally low recycling rate, in other countries, plastic trash often doesn’t even make it to a landfill. Five countries–including Vietnam–are responsible for the majority of plastic trash that ends up in the ocean.
In a new photo series, Delano contrasts plastic waste piled along streets and in canals with pristine plastic-wrapped goods in Japanese stores–what he calls the dream of plastic products versus the nightmare.
“I chose to photograph the ‘Dream of Plastics’ in the developed, postmodern world because there is a tremendous mental disconnect between consumers in the developed world and the residents of developing countries, especially how plastic affects the lives of people living in those very different circumstances,” says Delano.
In countries such as the Philippines (among the countries putting the most plastic trash in the ocean), packaging has quickly shifted to plastic over the last few decades.
“In the rural developing world, 30 to 40 years ago the counterpart to plastic might have been a banana leaf or palm frond, which broke down and returned organic materials to the land, enriching it,” says Delano. “Now, many of those same places are being choked with plastic . . . The developing world simply cannot keep up with one-time-use plastic packaging.”
Delano, who lives in Japan, has been struck by how widespread the problem is in Asia, while the number of plastic items in stores keeps growing.
“I had a wake-up call with recent travel to India and the Philippines, finding mountains of plastic, and then returning to Tokyo and suddenly realizing that, in shop after shop, almost every product was either made with some plastic components or packaged in plastic to give it a slick, appealing appearance,” he says. “I stood there and thought how I was literally standing in a sea of newly minted plastic and wondered where would all this plastic end up in the near future.”