In his 1957 collection of essays Mythologies, Roland Barthes likened plastic to ‘the stuff of alchemy… a miracle…,’ with characteristic vehemence. He was writing at a time when synthetic polymers were celebrated as feats of technological progress, harbingers of a splendid world to come, a bottomless resource for all technical and creative needs. Plastics were as malleable as they were transformative, the right materials for an age of mass production and consumption. Widely affordable, they offered a cheap way to package and ship products, connecting global supply chains and serving both industrial and developing communities. As we now know, plastics are as fragile and temporary as they are relentlessly permanent and almost impossible to dispose of. Sixty years after Barthes’ essay, our positions on plastics are much more nuanced. In short, we largely consider them to be an environmental threat of global and epic proportions. As possible solutions––recycling, upcycling, substituting, reducing, metabolizing––come and go and research into bioplastics booms, is there room for plastics in the future? If so, will they resemble anything we know?
Some questions we strived to answer: can we still wax lyrical on plastics as ‘alchemy’ today, as Roland Barthes did sixty years ago? To what extent are plastics temporary, disposable materials? And permanent materials? How did plastics go from enthusiastic symbols of innovation to dated, harmful threats? Are all plastics toxic? What is their future? Is recycling a viable option for curtailing plastic waste? Are all biodegradable polymers good? Whose responsibility is it to manage plastics? The consumer’s? The manufacturer’s? The retailer’s? The legislator’s? What is the role of the city in overseeing plastic consumption and disposal? How is plastic use a global issue? Can we think about the history of plastics as a systemic class issue? As a development concern? What should we throw away? What do we value, and what don’t we value? What do we preserve for the future? What does it mean to be plastic?
This salon took place on June 10th, 2019.
Christina Agapakis is a biologist, writer, and artist known for her experiments exploring the future of biotechnology. She collaborates with engineers, designers, artists, and social scientists to explore the many unexpected connections between microbiology, technology, art, and popular culture. During her PhD in synthetic biology at Harvard University she explored biological design principles through interdisciplinary work with complex biological systems, from hydrogen producing bacteria to photosynthetic animals to cheese. She is currently creative director at Ginkgo Bioworks, an organism design company that is bringing biology to industrial engineering.
Roger Griffith is an Associate Objects Conservator at The Museum of Modern Art since 1998. He received his MA from the Royal College of Art/ Victoria & Albert Museum in 1997. Prior to MoMA he worked at various institutions including: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and the University of East Anglia: Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich England. Roger has published and lectured internationally on various topics of conservation and his recent research examines the nature of the collaborative process of art professionals in regards to the exhibition installation, preservation, maintenance, and storage of ephemeral contemporary art.
Marina Zurkow is a media artist focused on near-impossible nature and culture intersections, researching “wicked problems” like invasive species, superfund sites, and petroleum interdependence. She has used life science, bio materials, animation, dinners, and software technologies to foster intimate connections between people and non-human agents. Her work spans gallery installations and unconventional public participatory projects. Her collaborative initiatives include Climoji, Dear Climate, More&More Unlimited, and Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies. Currently, she is working on visualizing future oceans, and connecting eaters to food opportunities in changing climates.
Gregg Buchbinder was born and raised in California with a love and concern for the environment. With a dream to protect and preserve our environment, in 1998 Gregg saw the potential in Emeco, a down-at-the-heels military fabricator in Hanover, Pennsylvania. Gregg bought Emeco and transformed it from an industrial Navy producer into a top design furniture brand that uses waste material for input to make the best possible long lasting chairs.
Mark Chambers is an architect and Chief Sustainability Officer for Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City of New York. In this role, he leads the development of policies and programs to create an equitable, sustainable city where every resident can thrive. Mark’s work for NYC focuses on both battling climate change and confronting social inequality, two inextricable parts of the same fight for an inclusive green economy. Most recently, Mark served as the Director of Sustainability and Energy for Mayor Bowser in Washington, DC. He holds a graduate degree in Public Policy & Management and an undergraduate degree in Architecture, both from Carnegie Mellon University.
Perc Pineda is the Chief Economist of Plastics Industry Association, where he serves as the organization’s primary staff expert on economics, statistics and industry research. Perc received his Doctor of Philosophy and Master of Philosophy in Economics from the New School of Social Research in New York. He also holds a Master of Arts in Economics from the American University in Washington, D.C. and a Master in International Management from the University of Maryland. Before joining PLASTICS, Perc was the Senior Economist of the Credit Union National Association, where he tracked macroeconomic trends, conducted economic research, wrote articles for industry publications, and interfaced with the media.
Christopher K. Ober is an American/Canadian materials scientist and engineer. As of 2018, he is Francis Norwood Bard Professor of Materials Engineering at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, Cornell University and Director of the Cornell NanoScale Science and Technology Facility. As an expert in the synthesis of precision functional polymers, his current research focuses on biology-materials interface, including the fabrication of 2D and 3D nanostructures, high resolution lithography, and anti-fouling materials. Amongst his many distinctions, he has been named an American Chemical Society Fellow; Society of Polymer Science Japan, International Prize; American Chemical Society, Polymeric Materials Science, and Engineering Division Fellow.
John McGeehan is a British research scientist and Professor of Structural Biology at the University of Portsmouth. As a Co-Director of the Institute of Biomedical & Biomolecular Sciences he leads a research team on enzyme engineering, with a recent focus on manufacturing an enzyme to break down plastic. He holds a BSc (Hons) degree in Microbiology from the University of Glasgow, a PhD in Virology from the Medical Research Council Virology Unit, Glasgow, and obtained a Postdoctoral Fellowship with the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Grenoble, France in the group of Dr Raimond Ravelli. He has previously held a position in the Structural Biology Laboratories at the University of York.
Arthur Huang is the founder and CEO of Miniwiz, a company dedicated to upcycling and consumer trash and industrial waste reuse innovation. With a background as a structural engineer and an architect, he is an innovator of loop economy building material solutions. Under Arthur’s leadership, Miniwiz has been awarded the Financial Times’ Earth Award (2010), The Wall Street Journal’s Asian Innovation Award (2011), and the Technology Pioneers title by the World Economic Forum (2015). Personally, Arthur has been named Emerging Explorer, National Geographic (2016); Technology Pioneer, World Economic Forum (2015); IDEA GOLD Award, Chicago (2013); Mayor Bloomberg’s New York Venture Fellowship, New York (2012); Wall Street Journal Innovation Award, Hong Kong (2011); 40 under 40 Design Talent Award, Perspective, Asia (2011), amongst others. Arthur holds a B.A., Architecture from Cornell University and an M.A., Architecture from Harvard University, Graduate School of Design.
Michael Preysman is the founder and CEO of Everlane, a direct-to-consumer design brand based in San Francisco, California. Inspired by the lack of affordable options for quality basics, Preysman founded Everlane in 2011 to provide consumers with well-designed, high-quality clothing and accessories at an approachable price point while simultaneously encouraging them to stay informed and educated on product origins. By cutting out the middleman and openly sharing the costs behind each product, Preysman has become a distinguished leader in the transparent retail space, and a disruptor of the luxury clothing industry. Prior to starting Everlane, Preysman was an investor at Elevation Partners for both their New York and Menlo Park offices investing in media and entertainment companies.
PLASTICS: CURIOUS SUBSTANCES
Barthes, Roland, ‘Plastic’ from Mythologies, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1972)
Davis, Heather, Toxic Progeny, philoSOPHIA, 5.1 (2015)
Gabrys, Jennifer; Hawkins, Guy; Michael, Mike, Accumulation: The Material Politics of Plastic, 1st Edition, Routledge (2013)
Lindström, Kristina and Stahl, Asa, Plastic Imaginaries, Continent, 6:1, 67 (2017)
Zurkow, Marina, The Petroleum Manga, Peanut Books (2014)
A HISTORY OF PLASTICS
Atalay, Elizabeth; Parker, Laura; Schultz, Heidi, Plastics Explained, From A to Z, National Geographic (05.16.2018)
Beckman, Eric, A brief history of plastic, design’s favorite material, Fast Company (08.13.188)
Davis, Heather, Life and Death in the Anthropocene: A Short History of Plastic in Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, Open Humanities Press (2015)
Freinkel, Susan, Plastic: Too Good to Throw Away, The New York Times (03.17.2011)
Laskow, Sarah, How the Plastic Bag Became So Popular, The Atlantic (10.10.2014)
Mushegian, Sasha, Appalled by the Illegal Trade in Elephant Ivory, a Biologist Decided to Make His Own, Smithsonian.com (05.10.2017)
Robbett, Mary Kate, Imitation Ivory and the Power of Play, Smithsonian: National Museum of American History (03.26.2018)
The History and Future of Plastics, Science History Institute (2019)
WHAT ARE PLASTICS?
Dietz, Albert G.H., Plastics for Architects and Builders, MIT Press (1970
Mustalish, Rachel, Modern Materials: Plastics, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (10.2004)
How Plastics Are Made, American Chemistry Council, Inc. (2019)
Plastic, Artsy (2019)
PLASTICS AND DECAY
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Delidow, Margo; Gerson, Scott; Griffith, Roger, Matthew Barney’s *Stadium": a treatment of replacement from Plastics: Looking at the Future, Learning from the Past, edited by Brenda Keneghan and Louise Egan, Archetype Publications, London (2008
Griffith, Roger, Two Pooped-out Pop Chairs: What is the Future for our Plastic Collections?, Victoria and Albert Museum, Conservation Journal, Issue 21 (10.1996)
Lavédrine, Bertrand; Rachel Rivenc, Rachel; Schilling, Michael, POPART: An International Research Project on the Conservation of Plastics, The Getty Conservation Institute (2009)
Lim, XiaoZhi, These Cultural Treasures Are Made of Plastic. Now They’re Falling Apart., The New York Times (08.28.2018)
Stein, Vicky, The Race to Save Historic Plastic Artifacts, National Geographic (05.31.2018)
Whalen, Timothy P. (Ed.), The Conservation of Plastics, Conservation Perspectives: The GCI Newsletter, (2014)
Here for the Long Haul, Harvard Art Museums (11.09.2017)
Preservation of Plastics, The Getty Conservation Institute (06.2017)
PLASTICS AND DECAY––NOT
Freinkel, Susan, Trace chemicals in everyday food packaging cause worry over cumulative threat, The Washington Post (04.17.2012)
Jordan, Chris, Albatross, brokennature.org (02.11.2019)
Lubben, Alex, We’re Buying into a Giant Lie About Plastic, Vice (03.30.2019)
Mohan, Rohini, ‘I am sacrificing my life to trigger concern about plastic in India,’ The Guardian (11.22.2016)
Parker, Laura, We Made Plastic. We Depend on It. Now We’re Drowning in it., National Geographic (06.2018)
Resnick, Brian, More than ever, our clothes are made of plastic. Just washing them can pollute the oceans. Vox (01.11.2019)
Ritchie, Hannah and Roser, Max, Plastic Pollution, Our World in Data, University of Oxford Global Change Data Lab (09.2018)
Schupska, Stephanie, New Science paper calculates magnitude of plastic waste going into the ocean, University of Georgia Today (02.12.2015)
Stack, Liam, Ocean-Clogging Microplastics Also Pollute the Air, Study Finds, The New York Times (04.18.2019)
Traff, Thea, The Streets of China Commodity City, The New Yorker (02.18.2015)
Valentine, Ben, Plastiglomerate, the Anthropocene’s New Stone, Hyperallergic (11.25.2011)
Wallace-Wells, David, The Uninhabitable Earth, New York Magazine (06.10.2017)
STRATEGIES TO CURB PLASTIC USE AND WASTE
Carrington, Damian, Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles, The Guardian (04.06.2018)
Clark Howard, Brian; Gibbens, Sarah; Zachos, Elaina; Parker, Laura, A running list of action on plastic pollution, National Geographic (01.17.2019)
Irfan, Umair, The race to save the planet from plastic, Vox (05.15.2019)
Joyce, Christopher, A New Weapon In The War Against Plastic Waste, NPR (01.15.2019)
Katz, Cheryl, Piling Up: How China’s Ban on Importing Waste Has Stalled Global Recycling, Yale Environment 360 (03.07.2019)
Nunez, Christina, This Machine Transforms Waste Into Walls, National Geographic (06.2018)
Pardes, Arielle, The Future of Fashion in one Word: Plastics, Wired (11.21.2018)
Parvaiz, Athar, Why India Passed One Of The World’s Toughest Anti-Plastic Laws, HuffPost (07.03.2018)
Peters, Adele, This new IBM recycling tech makes brand new plastic from dirty bottles, Fast Company (02.11.19)
Saving the ocean from plastic waste, McKinsey & Company (11.2015)
WELL-INTENTIONED, MISGUIDED EFFORTS
Corkery, Michael, As Costs Skyrocket, More U.S. Cities Stop Recycling, The New York Times (03.16.2019)
Fairs, Marcus, Bioplastics could be “just as bad if not worse” for the planet than fossil-fuel plastics, Dezeen (04.15.2019)
Gunia, Amy, Malaysia to Send Plastic Waste Back to Where It Came From, Time (05.22.2019)
Parker, Laura, Beach cleanups are missing millions of pieces of plastic, National Geographic (05.16.2019)
Rosalsky, Greg, Are Plastic Bag Bans Garbage?, NPR (04.09.2019)
Simon, Matt, Ocean Cleanup’s Plastic Catcher is Busted. So what Now?, Wired (01.19.19)
Yee, Amy, In Sweden, Trash Heats Homes, Powers Buses and Fuels Taxi Fleets, The New York Times (09.21.2018)
CORPORATIONS AND PLASTICS: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
Barron, James, 320,000 High Schoolers to Get Free Water Bottles. The Goal? 54 Million Fewer Single-Use Drinks, The New York Times (09.23.2018)
Borunda, Alejandra, The beauty industry generates a lot of plastic waste. Can it change?, National Geographic (04.18.2019)
Geller, Martinne, Coke, Pepsi, Nestle top makers of plastic waste - Greenpeace, Reuters (10.09.2018)
Lanigan, Roisin, burberry, stella mccartney, and h&m sign pledge to eliminate plastic pollution, i-D (10.30.2018)
Lim, XiaoZhi, Big Business Wants You To Think It’s Fixing The Plastic Crisis. Don’t Buy It., HuffPost (12.21.2018)
Morris, Ali, Barber & Osgerby and Emeco go green with a recycled, and infinitely recyclable, plastic chair, Wallpaper* (04.06.2019)
Moye, Jay, Coca-Cola CEO at Davos: Collection and Recycling Key to Driving Circular Plastics Economy, Coca-Cola Journey (01.25.2019)
Peters, Adele, The world’s big plastic makers want more recycling so they can keep pumping out plastic, Fast Company (01.25.2019)
Root, Tik, Inside the Long War to Protect Plastic, The Center for Public Integrity (05.16.2019)
Shiver Jr., Jube, Supermarket Dilemma : Battle of the Bags: Paper or Plastic?, Los Angeles Times (06.13.1986)
Formafantasma, Botanica (2011)
Frearson, Amy, London Marathon offers edible seaweed drinks capsules as alternative to plastic bottles, Dezeen (04.29.2019)
Gherasim, Bogdan, First Sustainable LEGO® Bricks Will be Launched in 2018, Lego (03.01.2018)
Hitti, Natashah, Margarita Talep develops algae-based alternative to single-use plastic packaging, Dezeen (01.18.2019)
McCarthy, Joe and Sanchez, Erica, 5 Plastic Alternatives Doing More Harm Than Good — and What to Use Instead, Global Citizen (04.09.2019)
Pownall, Augusta, 10 bioplastic projects made from algae, corn starch and other natural materials, Dezeen (10.09.2018)
Pownall, Augusta, Barber & Osgerby create chair for Emeco that can be endlessly recycled, Dezeen (04.05.2019)
Royte, Elizabeth, Eat Your Food, and the Package Too, National Geographic (09.14.2018)
Williams, Gisela, From Industrial Waste to Objects of Beauty, The New York Times (02.05.2019)
Recycling, Design Boom (2019)
Bayer, Eben and Mcyntire, Gavin, Ecovative Design and How You Can “Grow” Your Packaging…., Plasticity Forum (06.16.2013)
Carlin, George, Saving the Planet (2007)
Jordan, Chris, Albatross (2018)
Moore, Charles, Seas of plastic, Ted (02.2009)
Nichols, Mike, ‘Plastics’ clip from The Graduate (1967)
Zurkow, Marina, Hydrocarbons (2013)
Plastic: The Scourge of Cities Becomes a Resource, The Wall Street Journal (05.17.2019)
Plastics 101, National Geographic (05.18.2018)
Plastics Make It Possible | Television Commercial | 1997, American Plastics Council (1997)
Trashpresso, Miniwiz (2019)
VolCat, IBM Research (02.21.2019)
OH NO, AGAIN ?!?!?
One Word: Plastics (1967)