Plastics: wasted not waste
Gribaudi Plytas are part of the first cohort of researchers for Climate and Cities. Since the beginning of 2020, they have been exploring plastics
We have chosen to focus on plastic for our Climate and Cities investigation project because of the quantities of plastic we see in our landscape. Tiny pieces of it, fragments caught on the branch of a tree, peaking out of the ground or floating down the canal, pecked by a duck. Forgotten and ignored products of the enormous amounts of material we dump every day in the recycling bin or simply the bin, once it has fulfilled its duty. We could no longer ignore the link between the plastification of our daily landscape and the relentless progression of consumerism and its packaging. Supermarket-bought grapes come in a plastic carton. Delivered plates are bubble wrapped. Flower stems are surrounded by film. The list goes on, almost everything that is sold, if not itself made out of plastic, is wrapped in plastic. Plastic facilitates consumption or, and this is also the problem, as Robert Smithson describes it, “waste and enjoyment are in a sense coupled.” (R. Smithson 1996, p.303)
“Waste and enjoyment”; it sounds like a paradox… And yet incredible amounts of plastic are manufactured daily to satisfy the craving for consumption and in turn billions of tons of plastic end up dispersed, burnt or sitting in landfills polluting our environment. Our own shops, weekly fill our ten-liter recycling bin.
We are therefore not only trying to reduce the plastic we buy, but also attempting to deal with that we cannot yet avoid. It isn’t only about the environmental impact of our enjoyment it also makes no sense financially to throw out so much matter when we need material for the making of our sculptures. And goodness knows humans love to notice problems when things don’t click financially, as noted in the press release to Anne Imhof’s 2017 Venice Biennale installation, “In a society that conceives guilt not in religious terms but as a matter of individual responsibility, that considers ill health not as divine punishment but as a personal failure, the body becomes capital and money the measure of all things.”
We decided to try to integrate the plastic we keep into our practice. This is an on-going research, in which we are learning to work with the properties of a material, which we have always known, but which we did not perceive as valuable or beautiful enough to be a making material until now. It is too early to tell where this plastic research will lead. However, it has been the crucial first step of our Climate and Cities project. Indeed it changed our perception of plastic: we no longer regard discarded plastic as waste, but as wasted.
Therein lies the difference. We consider plastic in landfills producing leachate, in the ocean becoming microplastic, burning and releasing toxic chemicals or on the side of the road, as damaging and wasted. In our view, it is fundamental to re-establish our definition of waste, if we are to ever recycle more than 9% of all plastic ever created (UNEP 2018, p.6).
Whereas waste in the capitalist sense is by definition not valuable — something we can do without and get rid of — within nature there is no single-use, all waste is part of a cycle. “What may be garbage to one is dinner or building material for another” (emphasis own) Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan write of “Natural pollution recycling bacteria” in their book What is Life? (1995 p.106). Animals die from making plastic their “dinner”, we must work at finding an effective system for our wasted plastic that does not have such devastating consequences.
The first step in doing so seems not to have been taken. By viewing plastic sitting in landfills, bins or in the environment as waste in the capitalist sense, we are accepting the falsehood that it has finished its cycle, that its value is only determined by its first use (as biscuit container, doll wrapper, hairbrush, bag…). Not only is it seen as no longer useful, but the way in which it is discarded makes it polluting. It is our society which created plastic and allowed it to become polluting. The post-brexit British government, for example, will continue to subsidies the sending of UK plastic to other countries to a greater extent than local recycling (Martin 2018, 23:00), (Franklin-Wallis 2019), (McVeigh, K, 2020). Even though research has proven successful in the breaking down of plastic by certain enzymes (Carrington, D, 2020) and effective recycling methods and initiatives, such as Precious Plastic, do already exist, the research is not being matched by the policies. So as to function, all of a system’s components must be — and regarded as such — valuable. Plastic exists now and regarding it as non-valuable only leads us further down the path of pollution. We must change the way we view plastic, so as to re-absorb it and stop the damage it is causing to our environment.
Our project aims to prompt people to perceive plastic differently and to reconsider its nature and status in our living environment. We make it visible by creating outside agglomerations from discarded plastic found on site. Wherever we go, we re-encounter plastic. Encounter is not enough. We have been encountering wasted plastic for years, our whole lives, passing it by, ignoring it or simply tutting at its presence. Yet never had we stopped, bent down, picked it up, looked at it, felt it, smelt it, piled it together so that it could not be overlooked. In Vibrant Matter Jane Bennett outlines the capitalist attitude to matter, “my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies.” (Bennett 2010, p.ix)
The agglomerations condense the plastic into a focal point, acknowledging its presence and its agency in the working of our surroundings. The discarded plastic becomes a mini landfill on the side of a road, in the middle of a park, beside the canal. It isn’t as easy to ignore an agglomeration as it is a far away landfill or a lonely plastic bag. The latter returns to being a material, a form that is wasted, not waste.
Switching from waste to wasted changed our relationship to plastic. Audre Lorde put it this way: “The quality of light by which we scrutinise our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes we hope to bring about through our lives.” (Lorde 1984, P.25) If we viewed plastic as valuable would we let it rot on the ground? Might we not store it with greater care, away from soil, therefore stopping leachate? Might we not stop burning it? Might we refrain from dumping it into the ocean? Would we not give greater attention to the reintroduction of this material into the circle of development of our world? Plastic is our legacy and this legacy cannot be one of constant production of a material we do not integrate into a working system.
Bennett, J, 2010, Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things, Duke University Press, USA
Carrington, D, 2020, New super-enzyme eats plastic bottles six times faster, The Guardian
Franklin-Wallis, O, 2019, Plastic recycling myth: what really happens your rubbish?, The Guardian
Günzel, A, 2017, Anne Imhof. Faust Press Release, German Pavilion, Venice Biennale
Lorde, A, 1984, 2007, Sister Outsider, Penguin Classics, Milton Keys
McVeigh, K, 2020, ‘Loophole’ will let UK continue to ship plastic waste to poorer countries, The Guardian
Oxford Learners Dictionaries, 2021, Oxford University Press, oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com
Margulis, L, Sagan, D, 1995, What is Life?, University of California press, Berkeley and Los Angeles
Martin, N, 2018, Dirty Business: what really happens to your recycling, Sky News
Smithson, R, 1996, The Collected Writings, University of California press, Berkeley and Los Angeles
UNEP, 2018, Single-use plastics: a roadmap for sustainability, United Nations Environment Programme