A new exhibition in Hamburg seeks to alert people to the dangers of the plastic in our daily lives, painting a stark picture of how it accumulates in the world's oceans. It reveals how plastic particles can enter into the food chain and return to us through our dinner plates.
The unsightly mess is a must see for anyone who wants to have a bad conscience for the right reason during the orgy of consumerism that is Christmas. A meter-high (3.2 feet) mountain of plastic scrap collected from the sea is piled up in the middle of the exhibition space. A red plastic boat surfs on top of the heap. Underneath, car tires, chairs, bleached flip-flops and rubber ducks with holes are clumped together -- the kinds of things that an increasing number of people are throwing away at an ever-quicker pace. It's a cemetery of mass consumption.
The heap of floating debris comes from the beaches of the Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe, Germany's Baltic Sea island of Fehmarn and the North Sea island of Sylt. The trash mountain is on display as part of an exhibition called "Out to Sea? The Plastic Garbage Project" at Hamburg's Museum for Arts and Crafts (MKG) and it vividly illustrates one of the worst perils of plastic production. Every 10 to 15 seconds, an amount equal to that accumulated in the garbage heap at the museum finds its way out to the sea -- usually because it has been thrown away irresponsibly. And with 64-million tons of trash reaching the oceans each year, it is slowly turning into one big batch of plastic soup.
Already today there isn't a single cubic meter of sea water that is free of plastic particles. Entire gyres have taken shape in our oceans in which a plethora of plastic debris is constantly being washed around in a pattern, trapped by the currents. The biggest water-based plastic trash heap, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is estimated to be about the size of Central Europe. There, whirlpools 30 meters deep (nearly 100 feet) churn with massive multitudes of plastic sludge originating from the Pacific Rim countries.
Of course, plastic does hold many advantages as a material. It is inexpensive, light, pliable and variable. However, most plastic also has one decisive disadvantage: It doesn't decompose into biodegradable material. Instead it shrinks down through friction and light into ever smaller pieces. These pellets of plastic particle water pollution, euphemistically called "mermaid tears," arrive in some parts of the ocean in masses sometimes even greater than plankton. Some creatures mistake the particles for food, putting them directly into the food chain and possibly back on our plates. Mussels, for example, can store polyethylene particles in their tissues.
The exhibition first originated at the Zurich Design Museum (ZHDK) in Switzerland. Inspired by an article about the Pacific Trash Vortex in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper, curators there sought to raise awareness of the topic and transform it into a learning experience. And it certainly makes sense for a museum focused on form to consider products not only through the lens of good design, but also the way in which they are disposed of or how they affect the environment. After a stop in Hamburg, it will continue on to museums in Finland, Denmark and France.
Ecologic Small Talk