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Plastic Trash

The IFF "Midden" at Track 16 Gallery, 2009. Surrounded here by a flock of plastic trash "Midden Monsters" crocheted by Christine Wertheim and Evelyn Hardin. Adorning the heap are large anemone-forms finger crocheted from Shrink Wrap by Pate Conaway.

At the IFF we have taken up the challenge of cutting down our personal plastic quotient. Since the start of 2007 we (Christine and Margaret) have been keeping all our domestic plastic trash. After the first two days we were appalled. After a week we were horrified. After a month we were devastated and began to think hard about how we consumed. Where does all this trash come from? How does it build up? How could we do better?

In early 2009, two year's worth of our plastic garbage was exhibited at Track 16 Gallery as part of the IFF's Crochet Reef exhibition. The trash (which we had been storing in our garage) was loaded into clear plastic trash bags (what else) and piled into a corner to form a large decorative heap we have named The Midden. Surrounding the heap was a flock of "Midden Monsters," crocheted out of used plastic shopping bags by Christine and Evelyn Hardin, our two most dedicated plastic Reefers. Bejewelling the installation was a group of giant anemone forms finger crocheted from shrink wrap by Chicago Reefer Pate Conaway; and on the walls a grouping of exquisitely fragile seascapes painted onto used plastic takeout containers and bags by San Franciscan artist Alicia Escott.

The Midden was curated at Track 16 by Australian artist Jemima Wyman. Photos by Francine McDougall.

Closeup of the IFF "Midden" at Track 16 Gallery, 2009.

We began collecting our trash after we learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in late 2006. We thought we should become aware how much plastic we personally used. This collection includes, among others:

  • All plastic takeout containers we used at home, at work, or while traveling. (Hauling it home on airplanes is a real pain in the neck.)
  • Cleaning product containers (detergents, disinfectants, toilet cleaners)
  • Hair product containers (shampoos, conditioners, dyes. Fortunately Margaret has super-short hair and uses no hair-care products. This has become a major reason not to go back to long hair).
  • Old shower curtains, bath scrubs, toothbrushes, soap bottles (now we only use bar soap.)
  • Plastic drink bottles (We Really try not to use these any more, but its impossible not to accumulate some.)
  • Plastic bags and plastic wrapping used for packaging cookies, crackers, pasta, rice, frozen vegetables, meat, deli goods and other food products. (Everything comes in plastic these days! But some things come in less plastic. We try hard now to choose the Least-plastic options whenever we go shopping).
  • Plastic knives and forks from meals away from home (we now try to travel with our own cutlery)
  • Plastic pill bottles and vitamin sachet packets (we are both fans of Emergen-C which does not seem to come in any bulk form.)
  • Plastic toys and geep-gaws (somehow these things come into our lives as gifts or stupid purchases - we try not to do this anymore)

Full Disclosure:
The Midden does Not include our old computers or printer cartridges and other e-waste. We have been keeping these separately. E-waste represents the fastest growing category of waste world-wide and almost always includes plastic parts. Nor does our trash heap include plastic parts from our cars or plastic garden refuse such as planting pots and compost bags. Both the office and the garden are significant sources of urban plastic waste.

We encourage you all to try your own experiment. Keep your plastic for a week. Or a month if you can. It's staggering how hard it is to avoid the stuff, and a sobering revelation to see how much you use.

There is nothing like living with a heap of your own plastic crap to make you think twice about what you bring home from the supermarket. And when you have to keep it you have to wash it, so it doesn't smell. Washing our plastic every week is a truly tedious chore. There is no better incentive not to use a piece of plastic than the thought that it will have to be washed.

By highlighting plastic waste and recycling it into an "art work" we hope that with The Midden we can help focus attention on the tsunami of plastic that is engulfing our oceans and strangling marine life. What we hope to create here is not just an aesthetic experience but a transformation in behavior. Beginning with our own.

Here are some suggestions for cutting down your own plastic waste:

  • Reject the hype of bottled water! US city water is the safest water in the world. Lobby your office building, your employer, your city to bring back drinking fountains.
  • Take notice of plastic packaging and try to select products with minimal packaging. 30% of landfills is made up of packaging.
  • Do you really need to buy fruit in plastic boxes? How about buying loose fruit and vegetables you load directly into your eco-bag.
  • Buy juices in those small concentrated cardboard tubes. It not only saves on packaging, but on shipping (and hence gas) as well.
  • Bar soap is a marvelously compact product - it lasts far longer and has so much less packaging than those silly plastic bottles of liquid hand-soap.
  • Choose laundry detergents in boxes; the larger the box the better.
  • Take a hard look under the kitchen sink. Do you really need all the products you find there? By not buying so many cleaning products, you will not only cut down on your plastic waste, you will do doing something positive for your health. Studies show that one of the most toxic environments many Americans encounter is their own homes - we have become addicted to non-essential cleaning products.
  • Try using baking soda as a cleaning agent: its cheap, it comes in cardboard boxes and it works wonders.

Plastic bag seascape, drawn with sharpies by Alicia Escott. Photographed at Track 16 Gallery, Los Angeles (2009).

Adorning The Midden is a collection of seascapes drawn with Sharpies onto discarded plastic bags and boxes by Alicia Escott. Alicia's drawings are at once exquisite and haunting, lovingly rendered on pieces of junk that are already marked for decay. Despite the transient nature of the substrate Escott invests her images with immense care, creating fleeting masters whose half-life reminds us of the fragility of all things.