Plastic litter art sends a message

2019-07-16 06:00
Plastic bottles and other plastic debris that were picked up on the beach.

Plastic bottles and other plastic debris that were picked up on the beach.

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From her home in Bakoven, where she’s lived for the last six years, Dutch artist Thirza Schaap from Amsterdam in Holland can walk to the ocean in seven minutes.

The waters are wild and cold there, too rough for leisure swimming. Drawn to them nonetheless, Schaap began walking the beaches with her black-and-white poodle, Iso, and was struck by the perpetual mass of plastic debris washing up on the shore, often caught up in watery strands of seaweed. It always looks, she says warmly, “like there has been a party.”

She was a co-judge at the Wintermark competition in Bellville where entrants had to use waste plastic to make sculptures. The competition was won by Holly Hugo with her plastic cactus garden.

In 2016, Schaap started photographing plastic sculptures and shared her pictures on social media.

She then started a daily habit, foraging for plastic while out on morning rambles, then going home and making fanciful, pastel-hued arrangements on a table in her garden, and finally photographing her impromptu sculptures.

Her lighthearted constructions contain familiar, everyday objects: bottles and lids, balloons, shoes, forks and spoons, toothbrushes, straws, and, of course, the ubiquitous plastic bag. Through Schaap’s collaboration with a writer friend, the resulting photographs take on evocative titles: Sunday stroll, Long stocking, Beehive.

Despite their sweet allure, Schaap’s images are also deeply troubling. There has, after all, been a global party, and these pictures are glimpses of its ugly aftermath; shards of the unsustainable volume of refuse from our collective voraciousness. As sites of celebration so often appear the morning after, Schaap’s compositions are full of spent enjoyment, of things now devoid of use, faded, deflated, or broken. These things have been thrown away, but they persist, unable to decompose, resisting deletion.

“Globally, we produce about 340 million tons of plastic each year, and a huge proportion of it ends up in our oceans. There are multiple ‘great garbage patches’ floating languidly around earth’s vast waters, the largest of which, off the coast of Hawaii, holds about 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic and weighs close to 80 000 metric tons. Like a large planetary orb, it continually pulls new objects into its sphere, perpetually accumulating remnants of our modern consumer culture,” she said.

Schaap’s project Plastic Ocean (2017–ongoing) is a whimsical attempt to rescue a few stray fragments from this fate. A habit and a discipline, it has also become a meditative ritual tied to Schaap’s deep commitment to living a plastic-free life.

Schaap, though, is not keen on pointing fingers or instilling guilt.

There’s a groundswell now of antiplastic backlash, and Schaap finds inspiration in the community of people working to make things better. As reminders of the detrimental consequences of the entrenched habits of convenience, her images encourage the possibility, however inconvenient, of changing the way people live for the betterment of the planet and future generations.

“We do almost all our veggie shopping at a market and where we can buy plastic-free packaged products. If you make the decision not buying anything in plastic then it is easy, because you see at one point the plastic packaged products are not an option to buy.

“We reuse and repair all that we can. What sums up that you actually spending quite some time every now and then to fix and repair stuff and clothing.

“I have some plastic bags which I reuse and rinse when I do the dishes and let them dry outside. We also go to the NudeFood Shop where we bring our own glass jars and refill them. Also don’t use any products in the bathroom, except for bars of soap. You can avoid so much plastic doing it,” Schaap said.

“If we continue to use plastic on a scale that we are currently doing, what will be the outcome?”

“We will drown in plastic. If we don’t see the ocean is the blood of the earth like the forests are the lungs of the earth we don’t have a life for our children in a world we know today,” she said.

According to her, it is important that you don’t use single-use of plastic and realise that all you throw in recycle bins, it goes away or will get really recycled. Only 10% of the plastic can be recycled.

Bring your own water bottle, make your lunch at home and bring it in your food container. Buy as little as possible that is packaged in plastic. “You don’t need a plastic waste bag in your bin for organic waste. Just throw it in the black bin.”

There are suggestions for bamboo or glass straws for example but the big win is using less and less single-use plastic.


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