Plastic: The art medium of the modern era

Sometimes words aren’t enough. When it comes to plastic pollution, the facts are well known. More than 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enter our oceans every year. One million plastic bottles are bought every minute. One hundred thousand marine animals are killed by plastic annually.

Too often these numbers roll over people like a wave. The outsized problem, so difficult to grasp in scale, can sometimes engender only a feeling of helplessness.

Art has been helping society overcome this gap between problem and action almost since the first human scratched an animal figure onto a cave wall. It is no different today. Where facts and figures lose influence, artwork can still leave an impact. That would explain why there has been a proliferation of plastic waste art in recent years.

Examples abound. From the massive “Happy Happy”, created from 1.7 million plastic items in Seoul to the small “Plasticide” made from tiny microplastics in London, the medium of the modern era is plastics.

To celebrate World Environment Day this year, UN Environment organized 12 art installations around Asia and the Pacific under the theme of #BeatPlasticPollution. Like with other artwork, the goal was to ask questions of passersby in the hope they may contribute to a solution.

Exhibits ranged from the abstract to the whimsical to the cultural.

In Auckland, New Zealand, local artist Brydee Rood created a windsock from plastic bags half the length of a football field called “May the Winds Not Carry Us Out to Sea”.

AucklandAn art installation in Auckland (UN Environment)

Bali saw the unveiling of “Baruna Murthi”. Drawing on Balinese culture and mythology, the sculpture is a depiction of Baruna, the Balinese God of the Sea, who is furious because of the huge amounts of plastic waste in the sea. Due to his wrath, Baruna has transformed (Murthi) his face into a giant Lionfish.

Bali"Baruna Murthi" in Bali (UN Environment).

A Hong Kong architect cleverly demonstrated our dismissive attitude toward plastic waste by creating a 400-kilogram sphere of plastic and painting it in extremely dense high-tech black paint that reflects almost no light. The black hole-like sphere is roughly the same volume as the plastic waste that Hong Kongers generate every minute.

Hong KongA plastic sphere in Hong Kong (UN Environment)

Bangkok saw a series of gates constructed from plastic bags. The number of bags collected for the installation – some 50,000 – represents the approximate number Bangkok will dispose of in one minute.

BangkokAn installation made of plastic in a Bangkok mall. (UN Environment)

Reusing waste plastic in Beijing, artists constructed giant scrolls onto which traditional Chinese sayings about nature were projected.

BeijingPlastic scrolls in Beijing (UN Environment)

Singapore’s 120-metre caterpillar sculpture, meanwhile, will grow over the course of a month as more and more plastic bottles are added.

SingaporeA portion of Singapore's caterpillar sculpture (UN Environment)

And in Yangon, a plastic wave of bottles threatened to drown a plastic whale swimming through Junction City mall.

YangonA plastic installation in Yangon's Junction City Mall (UN Environment)

Other pieces were installed in Davao, Manila, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo.

Changing minds and habits isn’t easy. But where words fail, art thrives.

Find out more about World Environment Day 2018