Unnoticed, One Object Travels 3,500 Miles

From a classroom in northern France to a prison cell in New York

Robert Butler
3 min readApr 11, 2022


A gray whale. Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

Even if this wasn’t a highly globalised world, a vast number of things would still be constantly moving around the world.

But because this is a highly globalised world, an unimaginably vaster number of things are constantly moving from one place to another.

Much of this is deliberate and planned. At any moment, for instance, the largest ships in the world are carrying 24,000 containers. If you lined up all the containers carried by just one of these ships, that line would stretch for 90 miles.

At the same time, an enormous number of things are inadvertently on the move — getting picked up somewhere and, without anyone much noticing or caring, pitching up somewhere else entirely.

In this way, back in 2018, when the body of sperm whale washed up in Indonesia, two slippers, four bottles, 25 bags and 115 cups were discovered inside the stomach of a sperm whale.

Of course, while things still retain their commercial value, they are closely itemised and quantified and the trajectory that they are on is scrupulously monitored.

It is the unintended consequences — what happens to the cups, bags, bottles and slippers when humans no longer see any value in them — that remain out of sight.

We can see some of the moments in the journey of stuff — when the products are made in the factory, or displayed on the supermarket shelves, or consumed in the restaurant or discarded in the dustbins — but after that it gets very hazy what happens to anything until, one day, someone slices open the stomach of a whale.

When humans are done with getting what they want out of stuff, that is only the end of the first part of the journey. It is the next part that is harder to visualise or articulate. And yet, in many ways, it is the most important.

A few years ago — in order to make an essential plot point — a movie did a nice job (over a couple of minutes in a two-hour film) of following the precise details of journey of an object.



Robert Butler

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