“Plastic pollutes. Plastic chokes and entangles sea turtles, whales, birds. Plastic poisons our bodies and harms communities both where it is produced and where it ends up. Made from fossil fuels, plastic contributes to climate change. Rising to the global challenge, thousands of people are creating a world free of toxic plastic pollution. Refuse single-use plastic. Choose and Demand reusable and refillable.”
co-founder of Plastic Pollution Coalition
speaker at TED’s Mission Blue Voyage in the Galapagos, the United Nations and other international conferences
featured in Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, USA Today, NBC Nightly News, and The New York Times
awards include: Surf Industry Manufacturers Association Environmentalist of the Year, Snow Angel Award, Global Green Award, and IGLA Award
Dianna Cohen is a multimedia visual artist, curator, and environmental activist based in Los Angeles who founded Plastic Pollution Coalition. The Coalition is a growing global alliance of more than 1,200 organizations, businesses, and thought leaders in 75 countries working toward a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impact on humans, animals, waterways, the ocean, and the environment.
Dianna Cohen grew up in Los Angeles, where her father was a filmmaker and her mother served as the director of the Los Angeles Free Clinic. She and her sister, Julia, developed an early love of the ocean. They grew up swimming, bodysurfing, and exploring nature at the beach and in the mountains with their family. She remembers when her local grocery stores started to carry plastic bags, instead of just paper ones, and visiting the ocean and seeing more and more plastic bags covering the shores. Beyond the ocean, Cohen loved art and began painting and drawing at a young age, selling her first painting at age nine.
When her mother began undergoing treatment for cancer while continuing her commitment to directing the Los Angeles Free Clinic, Cohen realized the extent of the “importance of public interest work.” She went on to study biology, art, and film at the University of California, Los Angeles where she began incorporating plastics into her projects.
Following her graduation, Cohen began her career as an artist and curator. She worked in collage making sculptural and wall pieces out of plastic bags, which she would cut up and sew back together, exhibiting these artworks in galleries, foundations, and museums. Cohen has used plastic in her artwork for over 27 years, showing her work internationally in the United States, Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and Africa. In 2011, her wallflowers were added to the US Consulate General permanent collection in Tijuana, Mexico. For Cohen, “all of the obvious references to recycling, first-world culture, class, high and low art give way to an almost formal process which reflects the unique flexibility of the medium.”
In 2007, Cohen learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of marine debris, and soon discovered the gyre consisted of a vortex of water clogged with plastic waste. Inspired to solve this problem with immediate action, she decided to organize a mission to travel far out in the Pacific to gather the “Plastic Island” and make art from the waste. She initially approached this problem as a visual artist and intended to bring on more artists but soon began speaking with scientists, environmental bloggers, and activists. Upon meeting and forming alliances with her new advisors, Cohen realized the scope of the problem and the necessity of facing global plastic pollution at its source. She shifted her focus to stopping the flow of plastic into the ocean. Rooted in her experience curating exhibitions, Cohen aimed to cultivate a “diverse array of people who bring different solutions and approaches to the table.”
Cohen founded Plastic Pollution Coalition in 2009 with her sister Julia and many thought-leaders, scientists, and activists. PPC encourages individuals to reduce their employment of single-use plastic, NGOs to demand systemic resolutions, and governments and businesses to enact and enforce legislation. They support a Circular Economy where goods are designed to last and to be reused during their lifetime.
Cohen believes “we all have the power to do something to reduce the amount of plastic we use on a daily basis.” She advocates for consumers to consider their personal use and to “shift our thinking to reusable over disposable.” However, Cohen maintains an enduring solution requires producers to carry the cost of plastic waste. She calls recycling programs, beach cleanups, and anti-pollution campaigns greenwashing, as they divert attention from the cause of the issue. She has led efforts to implore governments to force plastic producers to take the materials back after use.
PPC has allowed Cohen to “create a nexus between the arts, science, and communication and turn it into action.” Marine biologist and explorer Slyvia Earle’s work on oceans and the environment has inspired Cohen. She strongly values learning from scientists and other advisors as well as providing counsel to younger activists, believing that “being a mentor or mentee doesn’t have anything to do with age.”
In 2010, Cohen was a speaker at TED’s Mission Blue Voyage in the Galapagos with fellow artists, conservationists, and scientists where she presented her talk “Tough Truths about Plastic Pollution.” She has also spoken at the United Nations and many other international conferences. She has been featured in Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, USA Today, NBC Nightly News, and The New York Times. In 2019, she was named Surf Industry Manufacturers Association Environmentalist of the Year. She has been awarded the Snow Angel Award, Global Green Award, and IGLA Award, among others. Cohen and her partner, Jackson Browne, were co-executive producers of the 2020 documentary The Story of Plastic.
As Cohen continues to lead her growing organization, she embodies her “hope and vision that we will achieve a world free of plastic pollution, where single-use plastic is a relic of the past.”
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