While plastic is a cheap resource material with many benefits, the failure of waste management has led to the accumulation of plastic on land and eventually in oceans that are the last sink of the Earth. Global estimates suggest that marine sources contribute about 20 to 30 per cent to ocean plastics while the land-based sources are responsible for 70 to 80 per cent of plastic pollution in oceans. This accumulation of plastics in oceans was markedly observed in what is now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where plastic waste products collected on the surface of a region in the Pacific Ocean.

Annually, an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the global marine environment, and pose a deleterious threat to wildlife. Marine animals including turtles, seabirds and seals are the commonly known victims of plastic pollution, usually threatened via entanglements, ingestion or interactions with plastic waste. Around the world, one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, while up to 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once — and then thrown away. Recent studies have found a large percentage of marine animals to have microplastics in their stomachs, ingested directly or indirectly. There is therefore an urgent need to take action in raising awareness about the detrimental consequences of plastic pollution and in the reduction and recycling of plastic.     

Artists around the world have been looking at inspirational and creative ways to reuse plastic that is dumped on beaches around the globe. Nowadays, artists, particularly known as eco-artists are transforming old, recycled and used objects into remarkable pieces of contemporary art. They use plastic bags, containers, straws, PET bottles etcetera, to express their emotions, concern for the environment and include a message of awareness through their artwork. This kind of artwork is typically known as Installation Art, in which artists use scraps of waste materials to produce attractive art pieces, literally turning trash into treasure.

These 3-dimensional installations are not only symbolic of the grave environmental concern present due to excessive plastic pollution, but are also a noteworthy method to reuse unwanted plastic materials that are either free of cost or very cheaply available, whilst also encouraging the world to do the same and reduce its plastic footprint. An example of such an art installation is Sydney’s Customs House known as Wasteland, which comprises of 2,255 orange spheres hanging from the ceiling, made from 120 kgs of ocean debris gathered from the Great Barrier Reef. The debris is composed of a mixture of plastic bottle lids, plastic bottle necks, a broken kettle, and microplastics. The art piece was intended to raise awareness about plastic in water bodies and to suggest recycling as an effective solution.

Another example is of Von Wong, an eco-artist whose work focuses on used plastic straws. Wong created an exceptional artwork using 168,000 straws which he collected over a period of six months to create a gigantic installation titled Strawpocalypse. The structure was created so people realize that each straw they use remains in the environment for hundreds of years, hence, killing sea animals and disrupting the balance of nature. It also emphasized the fact that even small actions have large consequences. This was particularly important to highlight, since straws are unrecyclable because of their lightweight and are still used copiously by millions of people across the globe.  Hence, he not only achieved his goal of encouraging people to minimize their consumption of single use plastics; he also managed to reuse plastic straws, which would have otherwise remained in the environment even after we left the world.

Art galleries in Pakistan have also started playing an active role in using plastics to create installations to symbolize plastic pollution and its detrimental effects. These installations were also placed at one of WWF-Pakistan’s events, ReFest in Karachi.

There is a huge gap in the market in the life cycle of plastics, and until it is resolved, art is one of the exceptional ways in which this gap can be fulfilled, being economically feasible and environmentally friendly whilst also being a source of income for many artists, as such works are displayed in galleries around the world whether traditional or contemporary. Artworks such as these, made out of discarded plastics, entice the masses to re-evaluate their lifestyles as well as their heavy reliance on single-use plastics. It encourages them to change their way of living to protect other living beings from the harmful effects of plastic pollution.

In conclusion these recycled plastic art installations send out a positive message and play a huge role in sensitizing people about the adverse impacts of excessive plastic pollution. It makes them aware of the significance of reducing and reusing plastics and their responsibility as individuals towards the protection and conservation of the environment.

Maryam Arshad is Research Officer, Green Office, WWF-Pakistan.