An unscheduled month of summer art-ing outside & on-the-go.
Between working while juggling my daughter’s swim lessons and summer camp schedule, camping, park outings, and travel, I decided I needed to do things differently for August. So I’ll take my The Art of Sustainability lens with me, and point it toward my eco-art finds wherever I go. But with no schedule for the week’s Instagram posts and a minimal blog.
Join the Eco-Artventure!
Follow along with my summer eco-artventures on Instagram @the_art_of_sustainability and on Facebook @theartofsustainabilityblog. Share your own eco-artventures – tag one of the accounts above. I’ll feature shares along the way as well, with citation of course!
One thing The Art of Sustainability project has done for me is provide a regular process whereby I see amazing environmentally inspired art with a message. The messages range from “protect our oceans” to “prevent more extreme climate change”, from “reduce waste” to “preserve habitat”, and on and on. The creativity is inspiring, the messages, to me, compelling, and they have a common underlying thread: PLEASE ACT and ACT NOW. When I heard about #plasticfreejuly, I decided to see what changes I could make to heed the messages to reduce waste and prevent plastic pollution.
This is a summary of my #PlasticFreeJuly journey. It has by no means been a perfect journey, as my July was not 100% plastic-free. However, there will be more stops ahead, and it has been a fun adventure with much learned. I was ready to go beyond the basics – reusable shopping bags and coffee cups. So to dive deeper, I decided to tackle some of the other plastics I use daily, some single-use, some not. I focused on health and beauty products, and foods in plastic packaging. There was no rigorous weighing of options, I must admit. Rather, I looked at the plastics I saw myself using (or discarding) each day, and looked for available alternatives that suited me, either from a cost or convenience perspective. I was looking for repeatable options preferably, that would survive July.
July’s “Plastic-Free” Destinations:
Beef up the Basics: OK, I went into July with a fairly well-stocked set of what I’d call the Plastic Alternate Basics: reusable coffee mugs, shopping bags, cotton produce bags, reusable food containers, and reusable or compostable straws and utensils. So for July I set some rules: no reusable cup or bag = no purchase. This resulted in having coffee at the coffee shop a few times when I really wanted it to-go instead, or sometimes skipping coffee until I could get my cup. Full confession, I did get one frosty iced-coffee this month in a disposable plastic cup. Sigh, a moment of tired weakness. Oh, there were a couple deli purchases that required new plastic containers. So now I’ve stashed a couple in my shopping bag pile. But otherwise, the tactic of sprinkling cups, mason jars, and bags at the office, in the car, and by the door at home helped immensely in my somewhat-plastic-free July.
Laundry Detergent: After my April blog post “Plastic Apocalypse” which featured Stuart Haygarth’s Tide Chandelier, I’d just had it with plastic laundry soap containers. Haygarth’s glowing orb of plastic containers haunted me. I searched for “plastic free laundry soap” and found Tangie from Waste Free Products. (Yes, there are powder detergents that come in paper-board boxes, but the boxes have a plastic coating as a moisture barrier so are not recyclable.) Tangie products are made in California, so fairly local to Seattle, and offered the most local product I could find at that time. I ordered their laundry soap paste, which is a soap sized bar that comes in a small compostable paper box. I’ll save my current laundry soap jug to refill with the paste and dilute the paste water to make my new liquid laundry detergent. I have not tried it yet but will add a comment below once I have. I like that this approach skips the paper vs glass container conundrum and jumps right to much reduced and compostable packaging. Additionally, since we are not shipping the water which I will add at home instead, it likely has a lower transportation emissions impact on the climate. At $0.08/load, this is less than the detergent I buy now.
Shampoo and Conditioner: When I’m in the shower, besides the bar of soap, I’m surrounded by plastic. Shampoos, conditioners, make-up remover, baby shampoo, and shave lotion. So for my personal July journey, it was time to hack away at some of those bottles. When I’d ordered my laundry paste, I also purchased Tangie shampoo and conditioner bars. With the first order, WasteFreeProducts offered the option to include free loofah discs labeled “shampoo” and “conditioner”, which are very handy and help the bars dry and last longer. (Note as of today, the loofah option appears to have been replaced with wood drying discs that require purchase. Or just cut up your own loofah.) I finished my bottled set earlier this month and started using the bars, and I LOVE them! My hair feels soft and clean. It’s also easy to use just a tiny amount of conditioner, which is great for my hair type. My 7-year old daughter started using them this month, and it’s really good for her curly hair too; her frizzies are much reduced. I keep the set on their labeled loofah bases in a metal wire soap dish that suctions to the back shower wall to keep them out of the shower spray. The cost was about the same as buying a new set of eco-friendly shampoo and conditioner at my local drugstore, and based on usage so far the bars should last as long as a bottle if not longer, so this eco-swap might also be a cost saver for me.
Toilet Paper: I know that toilet paper is wrapped in plastic wrap for hygiene and to keep it dry. It’s basically a “bag’s worth” of plastic film that I can drop off at the store-recycling bin at one of the stores I go to about monthly, but still it bugs me. I used to see individual paper-wrapped rolls at our local drug store, but haven’t spied them recently. So after seeing the Who Gives a Crap ad go by on @the_art_of_sustainability Instagram feed numerous times, I decided to try the “feel good toilet paper”. Advertising really does work I guess… I went the full distance and ordered a case of 100% recycled 3-ply, plastic-free TP. So far, it really does feel good. It’s soft enough (not scratchy, but not downy soft either) and does what it’s supposed to do without disintegrating during use. And helping fund toilets in developing countries also feels good. At a dollar per roll, it is more pricey than buying standard TP on sale at the grocery store (my previous practice) but is comparable cost-wise to other recycled toilet papers (that come wrapped in plastic). But, despite being the prettiest TP I’ve ever seen, with the patterned paper wraps (which can be reused for crafts or wrapping gifts), and a sense of potty humor that I appreciate, the fact that it’s made in China gives me pause. Great life cycle review here from The Kritic; I’ll need to confirm that similar lower carbon footprint for WGAC holds true for U.S. buyers before my next TP purchase.
Snack Time: The daily challenge of providing healthy, tasty and packable snacks for my school-aged child has proven to be one of the largest conundrums of parenthood. Now, for July and beyond, these snacks need to be healthy, tasty, packable AND plastic-free. Which means granola bars were out. I grabbed a few reused bulk bags and headed to the bulk aisles at the local grocery and Whole Foods (bonus, WF provides paper bags for bulk purchases). After taste and texture testing with my daughter, we settled on a good blend of healthy and tasty treats: bulk sunflower seeds, dried apricots, yogurt-covered pretzels, and cheddar sesame sticks. I also started baking this Oatmeal Banana Bread. Chunky slices in an snap lock container are hearty and travel well. But, I do have to remember to bake during the weekend.
Food Staples: Last fall my husband took up bread baking, for purely culinary and entertainment reasons. He bakes a loaf of whole wheat bread every week so we have sandwich bread covered, with the bonus of skipping plastic bread bags and the excess sugar common in standard store-bought bread. (He uses just a touch of honey.) So I identified two other high volume staples in our household, milk and yogurt, and decided to try making them plastic-free. Our local market has locally milked milk in returnable glass jugs, so I purchased some to drink and some to use to make yogurt. Thanks to this Instant Pot yogurt recipe from A Mindful Mom which shares tips for tailoring the yogurt to your tanginess tastes, the process was super easy. I’d heard that making yogurt was easy but wow, I had no idea just how easy, and at about half the price of store-bought yogurt!
Farm to Table: Truly community supported agriculture, or CSA’s for short, are a win on many levels. Having a box of vegetables, fruit, or both, delivered to your door or somewhere in the neighborhood direct from the farm provides fresh, local, tasty, healthy, seasonal ingredients. And it comes with little or no plastic. We enjoyed a couple of boxes from Full Circle Farms this month. FCF lets you customize ingredients as well as the schedule, so we’ve been ordering 1-2 times per month so far this season. I also lucked into being vacation coverage for a friend who hosts a pick up site for fruit boxes from Collins Family Orchards. They have consistently delivered the most amazing peaches, nectarines and cherries, and at a slight discount compared to farmer’s market. Next year I will reserve my spot as soon as the announcement comes out; I moved too slow this year and they sold out before I signed up.
So, I definitely made some progress on my “plastic-free path”. It feels good to celebrate this month’s successes, while also mapping out a few more things for my ongoing adventure. Much of the above will continue long past July, and now that I’ve noticed the plastic in my home and learned how easy it can be to swap things out in some areas, I’m ready to look for some more plastic-free options. A few things I haven’t gotten to yet include tackling the toothpaste tube dilemma (they’re not recyclable, most tubes don’t even have a recycling logo and plastic number), getting my child to eat fresh peanut butter that we can grind in-store, in our own container (right now she hates it, so we buy Cadia which comes in glass jars), and buying meats and poultry that’s not sitting on foam and shrink wrapped in plastic (even the farmer’s market meats come in plastic). But, there’s one thing I gave up in July that I’m not sure I can live without permanently: tortilla chips. I might give myself a limit, I might still use carrot sticks instead sometimes, but I’m going to need to feed that particular addiction from time to time. My salsa needs its true soul mate.
Whether or not anyone can truly live plastic-free in the western world is also a question to ponder. There are advantages to plastics – they are flexible and durable and plastic packaging weighs less and can reduce shipping costs and emissions – but the loop we’ve created is certainly unsustainable. For now, using plastic alternatives where they are available and affordable, which varies by location and person, and supporting businesses who offer those alternatives are solid steps in the right direction.
My list of plastic-free living is more like “less plastic living” and is by no means comprehensive. If you want more “plastic free” tips, visit Beth Terry’s excellent website and blog My Plastic Free Life.
If you have comments, tips or resources to add, please share below. I’d love to hear from you!
Art that transforms trash into treasure, with a message.
We’ve got a problem with waste. It includes single-use plastics, and so much beyond. We have a global dependency on plastic that has been manufactured into every level of consumer society. Hybrid materials mix multiple ingredients that are difficult to recycle or impossible to compost. Synthetic fabrics leach micro-plastic fibers into the water system every time we wash our clothes. The design of fabrics, materials, and products do not address the waste they create during and after their use. The disposal or recycling of products is not handled by the companies that create them, but by the consumer and the communities in which they live. Thus taxpayers tackle disposal, removing corporate financial incentives to reduce the production of waste-generating goods.
So in July, The Art of Sustainability will feature art that mines the vast abundance of waste and trash and beach litter and plastic bottles and caps and so on, and transforms those discarded items into art treasures. Can art inspire us to reduce and reuse, lowering the demand for the challenge of global recycling? Can art inspire demand for plastic alternatives, for slow fashion, for compostable products, for natural materials, for zero-waste pathways?
Also, The Art of Sustainability will experiement with a new format this month. The Don’t Trash It! blog will be split into 3 sub-posts. First, will be the introductory statement, similar to the exhibit description at a museum. The second post of the month will include a gallery of images that grows throughout the month, in parallel to the @the_art_of_sustainability feed on Instagram. The third post of the month will offer reflections and observations from the month’s art with a review of related actions for those who are interested in making change. I’ll include steps I’ve taken in my own life as well as a record of my own journey.
As I read about the threats to global freshwater resources, to our oceans, to our climate, and the risks we face because of those threats, it can feel overwhelming. For decades environmentalists have sounded the alarm, calling on the world to use less carbon, to reduce, reuse and recycle, to conserve water, reduce pesticides & synthetic fertilizers, and protect and restore habitat. And yet it is 2019 and we are still on an unsustainable course, with ongoing water pollution from largely unabated carbon emissions, chemical-intensive farming practices, industrial dumping, oil leaks, marine dumping, plastic waste, nuclear accidents and sewage overflows.
In the maelstrom of sobering statistics, and political and corporate inertia, art offers me both hope and inspiration. Art also serves as a powerful educational tool to highlight the issues and provocateur to prompt action.
The Power of Creativity
Susan Hoffman Fishman and Elena Kalman, creators of the traveling installation The Wave, have found “that art is a very effective way of addressing difficult subjects like climate change and the future of our water resources… Art allows individuals of all ages and abilities to feel and process emotion, [it] starts conversation and sparks creativity.” They found the combination of education and participation in The Wave prompted a greater interest in the future of water.
However we will need more than interest. We will need that interest to inspire creativity and action. Part of “correcting our course” is envisioning a new future, one largely without oil and gas. This will require creative thinking to redirect business, government and lifestyle practices to green options for transportation, manufacturing, building construction, food production, and energy generation. Creating a positive future will require tough choices, yes, but also innovations in design, methods, technologies, and funding mechanisms. And art is a powerful tool in reminding us of our own power and the power of creativity.
Creating a positive future will require tough choices, yes, but also innovations in design, methods, technologies, and funding mechanisms. And art is a powerful tool in reminding us of our own power and the power of creativity.
A Connected World
Art also reminds us we are not alone on our planet Earth. We co-inhabit this world with a diversity of cultures as well as the flora and fauna that provide food, medicine, shade, clean air, absorb rain run-off, and other benefits that humans need.
Help Chart the Course
There is a lot of overlap in protecting our water resources and fighting climate change. Water flows around the globe, and rises and falls through the atmosphere – it’s all connected. All the water we will ever have is here on the planet right now. Protecting our water is a global effort that requires local actions and policy.
The single most impactful thing we can all do to protect our water is to VOTE for leaders who will enact policies that support (and fund) clean energy and eliminate water pollutants.
Walk the talk (reduce waste, buy less plastic, reuse what you buy, volunteer or support non-profits that protect and conserve freshwater and marine water bodies.)
These strategies are necessary to make it clear to politicians and corporations that money flows to those who support pro-planet policies and create environment-friendly products, from reducing waste and eliminating single-use plastics to shifting us to a clean energy economy to implementing organic farming methods, and on and on.
It’s a tall order isn’t it? Cut emissions across all sectors of the economy, in order to limit warming to 1.5° degrees Celsius. We need political leadership on this issue; but we can’t wait for it (particularly in the U.S.); it’s time to act. As society changes, politics will follow.
“You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”
Greta Thunberg, climate activist
Trends show us slowly making progress in the right direction, but how do we speed the rate of carbon cutting? Bloomberg’s energy outlook suggests we could hit 50% of electricity from renewables by 2050 – but we will need to push hard to achieve that, and that figure doesn’t address transportation and industry emissions. We’ll have to push even harder to reach the target of reducing total emissions by 50% by 2030-2040. It is possible; we have the technology and the tools (cheaper batteries, lowering solar production prices, improving efficiency in equipment, etc.); but we will need to shift to low carbon lifestyles, business practices, policies and public infrastructure.
Art & Climate Change
So if we know we need to change, what motivates people to actually change? Two key motivators for people to make changes are personal experience with a particular issue or problem, and the belief that what we do can make a difference. Many of the artists working with the climate change topic seek to address one or both of these psychological elements.
“Can visual art affect viewer perceptions of climate change?” The answer is yes.
Prof. Christian A. Klöckner, Climart
“The Floods”, Nathalie Miebach
Nathalie Miebach uses weather data to generate 3-D sculptures. She transforms the numbers documenting changing weather patterns into colorful woven swirls of reeds, grasses, wood, paper, yarn & rope. “The Burden of Every Drop” is a visual tale of Hurricane Maria – about the fierceness of the wind and rain, about the data silence as all electrical systems broke down, about the vastly underestimates death toll, about rebuilding and about people leaving the Puerto Rico. The piece combines weather and other numerical data with anecdotal information from the news in the aftermath of the storm, with the right side representing wind data coming into a crescendo to the left as it hits Puerto Rico, represented by an unraveling quilt.
When asked about the impetus behind her weather weavings, Nathalie shared that “one of the things I have learned is that it is very difficult to get people to speak about Climate Change. It’s such a political topic that most people feel uncomfortable talking about that. I think that’s dangerous for the future of this planet and our own survival. If we don’t know how to talk about it, we won’t change and continue living as if Climate Change is a topic that only concerns scientists and politicians.” However, she found that people will share their weather stories; it’s a more personal link to climate change, often involving devastation and destruction. We experience weather every time we walk outside, and the patterns of that weather is already changing. This week alone saw a multitude of super storms across the central U.S. Is that the weather you grew up with? Extreme weather is on the rise; think what 10 or 20 more years along this trajectory might bring.
“Pollution Pods”, Michael Pinsky
Visual artist Michael Pinsky teamed up with Climart, an international climate & art research project, to create the “Pollution Pods”. The pods are an installation of geodesic domes that contain carefully mixed recipes emulating the relative presence of ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide which pollute London, New Delhi, San Paolo and Beijing. The pods were envisioned as a way to provide visitors with a personal experience of climate change, and to help answer a critical question, “Can visual art affect viewer perceptions of climate change?” Per Climart’s coordinator, Prof. Christian A. Klöckner, the answer is yes. The project’s findings show that the pods “trigger strong emotional responses in the visitors through the visceral experience they provide. These emotions then seem to be an entry point into thinking about air pollution and climate change and ones role in this issue… Some people feel motivated to act.” Pinsky’s TedxFreiburg talk “Cars: It’s a Question of Culture” explores in more depth what he sees as a critical cause of the climate crisis – the combustion engine, “get rid of [those types of] cars, get rid of the pollution.” Simple in word, not in deed. Policy, urban design, transportation planning, and efficient mobility technology all need to shift to a lower carbon mode – but only if demanded by the citizens of the world.
“Greta Thunberg”, Brooke Fischer
Botanical artist Brooke Fischer combined her blooms with the a call to action from youth eco-activist Greta Thunberg, in her painting of the same name. The work embraces and celebrates the blunt but hopeful challenge in Greta’s words. Fischer states that, “We both believe that humans are in for a rude awakening if we do not take action now. We can all help the planet now.” From changes in our daily lives, to voting for politicians that support reducing emissions, to “voting with our wallets”, we do have the ability to effect change. It is our youth that will pay the highest price, which may be one reason why concern about climate change is highest among Americans aged 18-34.
“Trojan Horse: Exploring Issues Around Climate Change”, Margot Cormier Splane
Margot Cormier Splane sees art as a means to share her views with an audience. Her Trojan Horse series focuses on her concern for the environment. “Trojan Horse Follows the Money” can be summed up as profit over planet, which translates also to profit over people. Many companies, particularly large corporations, focus on stock holders and the bottom line, at the expense of all else. In fact, U.S. law requires them to do so, unless a company’s mission statement makes reference to environmental, social justice, or other philanthropic goals. Time, population growth, consumerism, habit, and inertia compound the impacts of putting profit above all else, but Cormier Splane believes we can make a difference. We know it won’t be easy, but it is vital that we take action, “because the ball is rolling, and the faster Climate Change occurs, the harder it is going to be to stop it in the future.”
Artists across the globe have embraced the climate conundrum and call on the collective “us” to make change. Our individual actions can and do make a difference. I’ll refer to Canadian academic, speaker and environmental activist extraordinaire, David Suzuki, “In a world of more than seven billion people, each of us is a drop in the bucket. But with enough drops, we can fill any bucket.” Are you ready to fill the bucket and help cut carbon? See the Top 10 Things You Can Do About Climate Change, or my own shorter version here:
Use less energy – walk, bike, bus or train to work, weatherize your home, buy efficient appliances when it’s time to replace them.
Support renewables – from asking your university or workplace to divest from carbon industries, to purchasing, supporting, invest in, and voting for renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal, etc.) – to grow the pro-planet industries of the future.
Images and art can illustrate the impacts of our “single use plastics” era in a way no science report can. From photographic evidence of plastics debris ashore on beaches and floating in the sea to transforming plastic bottles, bits or bags into art works, reality is revealed. We do not have control of our waste, it has control of us.
The mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” is in reality a myth. The 3 R’s only work if all three R’s are truly an option. With many purchases coming encased in plastic with no recycling stamp and low demand for products made with recycled plastics, the U.S. only recycles 9% of its annual plastic waste. Further, many cities confront a backlog of plastic waste as China now declines to take U.S. export plastic waste, the 3 R stool is broken. So the new mantra is “Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle”, and the new question is “can I do without the item that either is made of or wrapped in, single-use plastic?”
Common Single-Use Plastics
Plastic water bottles
Plastic soda bottles
Plastic single-serve food containers (yogurt, juice boxes, squeeze pouches, etc.)
Plastic shopping bags (varies)
Plastic take-away cup lids (coffee, tea, soda) (varies)
Plastic sandwich wrap
Plastic sandwich bags
Produce stickers and tags
Dental picks & plastic floss tools
Plastic utensils (forks, spoons, knives) & plates
Plastic film packaging (from toilet paper wrap to shipping filler)
Deli wrap and trays
Hard plastic packaging shells
Plastic packaging tape
Dirty plastic tarp
Coated disposable hot beverage cups (coffee, tea)
While artists may turn waste cleanup into art materials, they aren’t just making art. They are often calling us to action. Consider some of the things used on a daily basis all around the world that either can’t be recycled, or just aren’t recycled due to demand for recycled plastic products. Are there some you can do without? A relatively easy way to start – get and use reusable grocery bags, water bottles or coffee cups. Check your local thrift store for used options too.