Plastic: A Material for Eternity?

How we can reshape our future

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In 2012, the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich initiated the traveling exhibition Out to Sea? The Plastic Garbage Project. This exhibition with its strong emphasis on education illustrates the dimensions of this ecological catastrophe.

The center of the exhibition and symbol of its message is an installation consisting of plastic flotsam. From the pieces shown visitors can trace the origins, life cycle, sense and senselessness of plastic products. Alongside puzzling objects from the fishing industry, you can find remnants of familiar everyday objects that show clear signs of having drifted around in salt water, as well as traces of encounters with sea creatures.

A large section of the exhibition shows the background of the problem and the fatal impact on the seas, animals and human beings. In another section, the most commonly used plastics are presented, and questions such as usage, health hazards, microplastics and bioplastics are examined more closely. Ideas about solutions to the crisis, namely recovery, reduction, redesign, reuse, and recycling, are presented in another section. The exhibition was on display in 32 venues in 21 countries in Latin America, Asia, Europe and Africa.

Plastic garbage in an exhibition at Roca Barcelona Gallery.
Exhibition, Roca Barcelona Gallery, 2020. Photo © Quim Roser

The vast problem of marine litter and plastic garbage is incredibly complex, stemming from various sources and at multiple levels. So naturally the ideas proposed to solve this problem are just as diverse. During the last eight years, I had the privilege to exchange ideas with many experts from all over the world. I learned that if a strategy to tackle the problem may work in one country, it might not be viable in another context.

Different contexts, different solutions

If plastic is indeed used in the manufacture of products, the best course of action is to keep that plastic in the production cycle, which means having a functioning infrastructure for recycling. In Germany or Scandinavia, there are good systems to collect and sort garbage, a very good starting point to develop today’s single-use plastics into a circular use of this material. On the other hand, there are places in the world with virtually no municipal waste service systems. In Indonesia, Garbage Clinical Insurance is a program which uses recyclable waste as a financial resource. With this program, the community is able to pay for clinical services by using garbage as payment to an insurance scheme. The initiative is an alternative way to collect the garbage and reuse the material before it lands into the sea.

Don’t get me wrong, the Western countries can learn a lot from the emerging countries. In Egypt, the Zabbaleen (“garbage people”) are a group of people who serve as Cairo’s informal garbage collectors. They collect trash door-to-door from the residents of Cairo for nearly no charge. The Zabbaleen recycle up to 80% of the waste, whereas the rich “developed” countries recycle about 30% of the garbage. Why can’t we achieve this in the Western world?

Many typical products like plastic bottles and bags can be easily replaced with products made from other materials. For example, steel or glass bottles provide a reusable alternative to single-use plastic bottles, as do cloth bags to plastic bags. Often the main difficulty lies in thinking ahead and making sure you bring your own bag for shopping. In the “takeaway” culture of fast consumption, it is often a question of training yourself to resist the easy solution of plastic packaging and making a sustainable choice. Just think about it: a plastic food container might be used for a total of five minutes but may last up to 450 years in the sea if not disposed properly.

Roca Barcelona Gallery held an exhibition about plastic garbage.
Exhibition, Roca Barcelona Gallery, 2020. Photo © Quim Roser

Another way of rethinking the use of plastic is to design products that are easy to recycle. Among the ten most common kinds of flotsam are plastic bottles, plastic bags, food packaging, beakers, plates and cutlery. Instead of using plastic cups and cutlery at your next party, why not choose single-use paperware that are biodegradable? The Japanese company WASARA offers tableware made out of sugarcane waste and bamboo. The dinnerware is compostable, and simply beautiful.

How public awareness is shifting

I am often asked whether the awareness of the problem has changed since the exhibition was launched. In 2012 there was very little coverage of the topic. Since then, the media has published articles on a regular basis and many people have become aware of the problem.

Politicians and authorities have also become active. In several countries, single-use plastic bags have been banned and numerous research and prevention campaigns have been launched. Some of these activities were initiated directly by visitors of the exhibition.

My experience also shows that many companies are aware of the problem and are working hard to change their products and processes, but we still have a way to go to reconcile economic and environmental considerations.

It is difficult to generalize whether consumers of plastic have changed their behavior in the last eight years. My subjective impression: today, the problem is well-known, but it still needs a lot of persuasion to change the behavior of the consumers. But I am very confident that quite soon, we all will take responsibility for the environment.

The exhibition entitled “Out to Sea” an updated version of the original exhibition organized by the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, will be on view at the Roca Barcelona Gallery until October 31, 2020.

Main image: Exhibition “Out to Sea? The Plastic Garbage Project,” Zurich, 2012. Photo © Betty Fleck, ZHdK

More information about the exhibition

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