Two people stand underneath a net filled with trash

The Midden – 4 years worth of Christine and Margaret Wertheim’s domestic plastic trash. At the Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery at University of California Santa Cruz.

Photo courtesy Institute of Arts and Sciences, UCSC.

This Art is Rubbish

When the Wertheim sisters began crocheting plastic they decided to keep all their domestic plastic trash as an exercise in consumer self-awareness. After a week they were disgusted. After a month, appalled. So they kept on going for four years – from January 2007 to April 2011 – keeping every plastic bag, bottle, wrapping, and container they brought into their home. This conglomeration of two individuals’ domestic plastic rubbish is exhibited now as an artwork called The Midden – 440 pounds of personalized trash that represents far less than the average North American’s consumption. Each US citizen now generates on average 230 pounds of plastic waste per year. At that rate, the Wertheims’  Midden would be four times larger than it is. Though the US is 4% of the worlds population, its people generate 17% of global plastic trash. [See table below.]

The monumental yet still graspable scale of The Midden often elicits a reaction from audiences of “that’s not so much.” However there’s nothing like having to keep and wash all your trash to make you think twice about what you bring home from the supermarket, and the sisters radically altered their lifestyle in an effort to cut down. Any plastic item contaminated by food or organic matter quickly goes off, so washing and rewashing becomes a continual, increasingly tedious part of the process, providing daily incentive to accumulate less.

We encourage everyone to try this exercise for themselves. For a month. Or even a week. You’ll be astounded how quickly it builds up. 

Sculpture made from trash inside gallery.

The Midden, at the Museum of Arts and Design (NYC).

Photo @ Institute For Figuring.

For a current perspective on the scale of worldwide plastic waste, this article from the Guardian offers sobering reading.

“Plastic waste has polluted the whole planet, from the deepest oceans to Arctic snow and Alpine soils, and is known to harm wildlife. Concern is also growing about the quantity of microplastics people consume with food and water, and by breathing them in.”

A study in September 2020 found that even if all currently feasible measures were used to cut plastic pollution it would fall by only 40%, putting 700m tonnes into the environment by 2040.

“To avoid a massive buildup of plastic in the environment, coordinated global action is urgently needed to reduce plastic consumption, increase reuse, waste collection and recycling.”

We all must play a part in reducing this tsunami of synthetics coursing through our lives. What can you do? What can I do, to minimize? Each day. Every day. For the rest of our lives.

plastic trash art installation

Visitors explore The Midden with flashlights as if observing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch from under the sea – seen here at the Sesnon Gallery, U.C. Santa Cruz.

Photo courtesy Institute for the Arts and Sciences, UC Santa Cruz

In early 2021 scientists discovered a new method for recycling plastic called “flash joule hearting” which turns it into the miracle substance graphene – a naturally occurring biodegradable material now being studied as the potential basis for a revolution in microchips. Collectively, in the US we generate around 35 million tons of plastic a year, including a billion plastic bags – each of which is used on average for less than an hour. So any way of getting it out of the waste-stream is good news.

Detail of pile of plastic trash on the gallery floor.

Some of the Wertheim’s plastic trash from The Midden.

Photo by Cameron Allan for the Institute For Figuring