It is becoming more and more obvious that we need to drastically change how we use plastics. While we need improve our recycling infrastructure, we also need to help communities reduce plastic packaging waste and plastic litter.
The public is ready for change. Blue Planet II, in particular, has brought the plastics crisis to public attention. Since it was screened, over 500 articles on plastics have appeared in British national publications alone.
And just as the Blue Planet II crew described how they “collected every piece of plastic they came across while filming”, these plastic waste stories have motivated some people to take action. People have proposed bans on plastic products or gone “plastic free” as a household or community. Social media campaigns and petitions now lobby for change.
A dump stacked with plastics. MAX Vittawat/Shutterstock.com
Yet the media stories with their sad images of death and choked seas can be overwhelming. Where to start? With a problem of this scale, it’s easy to feel as if individual and local actions won’t matter. Experts often tend to tell this kind of “science stories” to – not with – the public and this can compound the problem. The human stories behind the waste raise complex issues of social inequality. People may feel preached at or harangued, as if they are obstacles, rather than partners for change.
Recognising these challenges, we began to research with the public to explore creative ways to change our relationship to plastics.
Our group held workshops in Stoke on Trent, Staffordshire, last November. Participants were recruited by B Arts, a local arts charity. They were already interested in the plastic waste crisis and wanted to learn more. We offered them interactive displays, film clips, and – best of all – a chance to work with artists to make collaborative artworks using different kinds of waste plastic.
In these art sessions, people were puzzled by the tiny numbers on the bottom of bottles. These are the Resin Identification Codes, 1 through 7. The RIC doesn’t mean a product is always accepted for recycling, but it does tell you what material it is made of. By making artworks, people taught themselves about RICs. They found it easiest to model, cut, bend or make stuff with the highest-value, easiest-recycled plastics – RICs 1 and 2.
Resin Identification Codes. Norberthos/Shutterstock.com
People found out that the same material (RIC code) could have different forms or textures. And that a large number of contemporary materials have plastics mixed into them as composites or have hidden layers of plastic inside, or they shed it in small amounts, either as fibres or when they decompose. As people discovered that they could begin to spot both the easily recyclable and the less-recognisable plastics, they began to tell their own stories about plastic in images and words.
People want to develop their own expertise. They feel most knowledgeable – most “plastic literate” – and motivated to act when they make their own art, shoot their own images, and tell their own plastic stories themselves. Here’s how:
• Do your own “making” with waste plastic materials
Nothing beats trying to make waste into something new to help people figure out how plastics differ. Whether it’s making models, junk modelling, making artworks, hands on work helps people learn what the RICs mean for the potential of the material to be reused. People come away with a better understanding of what materials they would want to avoid and why. And they learn which are collected by their local council and which can most easily be recycled into new products.