Don’t Trash It!

Art that transforms trash into treasure, with a message.

How do we reach a zero waste future? Can art show the way?

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.

Plastic Apocalypse

Clay Apenouvon’s Plastic Attacks

Artists shine a light on the plastic problem.

The numbers are staggering – 90.5% of the 6,300 million metric tons (6,944 million U.S. tons) of plastics ever made have never been recycled and 8 million metric tons (8.8 million U.S. tons) of plastic waste flow into our oceans each year. Instead of getting overwhelmed, these artists transform waste plastics and marine debris into art that asks us to make a change.

Art Reveals Reality

Plastic littered beach.

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.

Tide Chandelier, Artist: Stuart Haygarth, Photo via @florisflavis. Found plastic objects from Kent coastline in Dungeness, U.K.
Head Sculptures, Artist: WashedAshore.org turns beach clean ups along the Oregon coast into art in their Bandon, OR gallery and for traveling exhibits.

Plastics, often hailed as a marvel material – light, inexpensive, and versatile – have become the bane of beaches worldwide. 18 billion pounds of plastic waste flows into the oceans every year from coastal regions alone, equivalent to “five grocery bags of plastic trash sitting on every foot of coastline around the world”.

Albatross, Artist: Chris Jordan. Jordan’s powerful and stark images remind us lives are at stake.

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?”

Cactus Collection, Artist: Veronika Richterová. This greenery will last about 500 years, no watering required…

Common Single-Use Plastics

  • Plastic water bottles
  • Plastic soda bottles
  • Plastic single-serve food containers (yogurt, juice boxes, squeeze pouches, etc.)
  • Take-away containers
  • Drink cups
  • Plastic shopping bags (varies)
  • Plastic take-away cup lids (coffee, tea, soda) (varies)
  • Plastic straws
  • Plastic sandwich wrap
  • Plastic sandwich bags
  • Produce bags
  • Produce stickers and tags
  • Dental picks & plastic floss tools
  • Bottle lids
  • Plastic toothpicks
  • Plastic utensils (forks, spoons, knives) & plates
  • Bubble wrap
  • 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)
  • Disposable diapers

Inspiring Change

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.

Coca Cola Caps, Artist: Mandy Barker. This photographic work depicts 3,000 Coca Cola caps recovered from oceans, beaches, and the stomachs of birds from around the world that were sent in by the public. 

Ready to aim higher? Ditch single use and pick your pledge of anti-plastic allegiance, such as National Geographic’s Planet or Plastic Pledge or the Plastic Pollution Coalition’s  4 R’s (Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) Pledge (which both have plenty of resources to help you navigate to the plastic-free promised land.