“Our garbage has a life of its own” – I’m Not a Plastic Bag, Back Cover.
|Creator(s)||Rachel Hope Allison, with paratextual materials created by the Jeff Corwin Connect Foundation|
|Environmental Issues||Plastic Pollution, Marine Pollution, Animal Deaths, Educational Nature Facts, Ocean Conservation, Anthropomorphism, Sustainably Produced Text|
|Protagonist’s Identity||Nonhuman (Monster)|
|Protagonist’s Level of Environmental Agency||Level 2: Low Environmental Agency|
|Target Audience||All Ages|
Rachel Hope Allison’s mostly-wordless graphic novel I’m Not a Plastic Bag portrays the toxic Great Pacific Garbage Patch as an adorable, anthropomorphic monster: a mass of trash with eyes formed from a tire and an umbrella. As the story progresses, the garbage monster’s size increases exponentially as more waste accumulates in it, and so does its apparent loneliness as it fails to befriend passing marine animals. Finally, in a rather strange ending, the garbage monster flies away with a flock of albatrosses and dissolves into a smiling, smoke-like figure in the sky. While the monster device and the odd conclusion somewhat obscure the comic’s environmental messages, several aspects of this fantastical plot challenge young readers to conceive of marine pollution as a wide-ranging catastrophe that exists outside of human temporalities and human understanding.
Most obviously, the lonely garbage monster’s misguided attempts to befriend marine wildlife teach young readers about the long-lasting harm that plastics wreak on environments. Persisting for decades or even centuries after they have served their intended purpose for humans, these easily discarded materials inflict what Rob Nixon has dubbed “slow violence”: the kind of violence that “is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales” (2). Allison’s comic demonstrates this long-term harm by tracing the path of a single plastic grocery bag printed with a bright red heart. The comic’s opening scenes depict the plastic bag snared in the bare branches of a tree before a gust of wind blows it into the ocean. Later, this plastic bag reappears as an agent of unintentional monstrosity when the garbage monster interacts with an albatross. As the bird flies around and perches on the floating creature, the smiling garbage monster uses its trash body to spell out the words “Nice day” and “Thank You.” The pair even engage in a game of chase, though it remains unclear if the albatross recognizes the garbage monster’s attempts to communicate with it, or even its sentience. These scenes invite young readers to identify with the smiling, anthropomorphized garbage monster as it cavorts with the solitary albatross. However, the narrative’s playful tone quickly evaporates when the garbage monster gifts the heart-printed plastic bag to the albatross as a token of its affection. In a visual allusion to Chris Jordan’s photographs of plastic-filled albatross corpses on Midway Atoll, a later panel provides a close-up image of the bird’s decaying body lying on the far edges of the monster’s body with its chest entangled in the still-intact bag. This horrifying scene reminds readers of the often out-of-sight, out-of-mind harm caused by plastics long after they have exited human networks.
Additionally, Allison uses anthropomorphization and the comics medium to teach children about the incomprehensible vastness of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which currently occupies an enormous expanse of ocean waters between California and Hawaii and consists of an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. In the graphic novel’s opening chapters, she depicts the garbage monster as an enclosed, coherent—and thus understandable—entity. While the comic does not provide the reader with any landmarks to easily measure the garbage monster’s size against, the creature has definitive edges and fits neatly within the boundaries of the panels. However, the fifth chapter uses the visual grammar of comics to provide readers with a fleeting glimpse of the true scale of the Garbage Patch. Immediately following a sequence of panels showing yet more trash entering the ocean, a two-page spread renders the garbage monster as a vast blob whose uneven edges spill, or bleed, into the white gutter surrounding the panel. By drawing the creature overflowing the boundaries of its container, Allison suggests that the seemingly finite garbage monster actually extends far beyond the spatial and temporal confines of the panel, just as the actual Garbage Patch exists beyond easy human comprehension.
However, the comic’s fantastical ending does somewhat complicate Allison’s environmental message. On the one hand, by portraying the garbage monster flying away with a flock of birds and dissolving into a cloud-like figure, the comic seems to emphasize the enormous, and ultimately uncontainable, temporal and spatial scope of marine debris. Read more literally, however, the magical intervention of the albatrosses implies that nature will clean up the Garbage Patch itself by simply evicting the trash from the ocean. Allison’s symbolic representation of the purifying animals as albatrosses further reinforces this interpretation by implying that marine wildlife must atone for the environmental sins of humans. Read through this nature-centric lens, the garbage monster’s abrupt evaporation negates the need for human intervention, and even human concern, altogether by indicating that the Garbage Patch crisis can simply resolve without any human effort. Though the audience will likely recognize this solution as an impossible fantasy, the seemingly utopic ending forecloses human agency by neatly resolving the issue of marine pollution through animal intervention.
The graphic novel includes several paratexts that reinforce the primary narrative’s environmental themes.
Copyright Page: Small print on the copyright page promises that “Archaia Entertainment & Global Printing, Sourcing and Development (Global PSD), in association with American Forests ® and the Global ReLeaf® programs, will plant two trees for each tree used in the manufacturing of this book. College or Unit Name Global ReLeaf® is an international campaign by American Forests®, the nation’s oldest nonprofit conservation organization and a world leader in planting trees for environmental restoration.” (Allison).
Foreword: A one-page foreword by Jeff Corwin.
Backmatter: The comic includes a ten-page paratextual section titled “I’m Not an Ocean Polluter.” Created by the Jeff Corwin Connects Foundation, these supplemental materials include factual information about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; a list of the top ten items found in ocean debris; photographs and information about threatened marine wildlife like the Hawaiian Monk Seal and Laysan Albatrosses; and a list of 14 ways that readers can “[j]oin the fight to reduce our footprint on the world’s oceans!”
Anderson, Brianna. “Reimagining Plastic Pollution and Climate Activism: Contradictions of Eco-Education in Rachel Hope Allison’s I’m Not a Plastic Bag.” Children’s Literature and Climate Change, special issue of The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 45, no. 2, April 2021.
“Interview: Rachel Hope Allison Discusses I’M NOT A PLASTIC BAG.” Comicosity, 15 May 2012, http://www.comicosity.com/interview-rachel-hope-allison-discusses-im-not-a-plastic-bag/.
Jordan, Chris. Midway: Message from the Gyre (2009-Current). Chris Jordan Photographic Arts, http://www.chrisjordan.com/gallery/midway/#CF000313%2018×24.
“The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” The Ocean Cleanup, https://theoceancleanup.com/great-pacific-garbage-patch/.
Yang, Lichung. “Are Stories of Trash Merely Didactic Proselytizing? Challenging Representations of Garbage in Children’s Books.” Tamkang Review, vol. 48, no. 1, December 2017, pp. 71-87.