The international multi-award winning photographer, whose work on marine plastic debris has received worldwide recognition, aims to stimulate an emotional response, skilfully constructing a contradiction between aesthetic value and awareness of social responsibility. The same contradiction referred to by Paola Antonelli, senior curator of the Department of architecture and design at MoMA, New York, and curator of the 12th Milan Triennale, who just a year ago launched an in-depth investigation into the links between our species and the natural environment entitled "Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival".
The exhibition celebrated the ability of design to promote a new vision of the key issues of our age, taking political responsibility for environmental problems. “Design deals with the environment because today it is the most urgent issue we face and design can be responsible, it can try to rebuild relationships with nature, while not denying our desire for creativity”, says Paola Antonelli in an interview that serves as a foreword to the book Plastic addio, written by Elisa Nicoli and Chiara Spadaro, Ed. Altrigianato.
Art and culture can therefore encourage a critical approach, artists can offer an example of good civic behaviour, works can inspire change.
What is plastic? How do you develop an environmental conscience?
We imagined a multi-voiced dialogue involving different skills and sensitivities, in an attempt to find answers.
In his book Mythologies (Ed. Einaudi, 1974) Roland Barthes describes it like this: “More than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation. Less an object than the trace of a movement”.
Plastic is the third most widespread human material on Earth after steel and concrete.
According to the WWF, world plastic production has gone from 15 million in 1964 to over 310 million today: with the #StopPlasticPollution campaign, it calls for a global agreement between the United Nations countries to stop plastic pollution by 2030.
If this continue, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish and 12 tons will constitute waste scattered in all environments [World Economic Forum, Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation and Mc Kinsey Company, 2016, The New Plastic Economy: Rethinking the future of plastic].
Since the 1950s we have produced about 8.3 billion tons of plastic, disposing of about 6.3 billion tons of it in the natural environment. 79% has ended up in landfills and in all natural environments, 12% has been incinerated and only 9% recycled [Geyer R., Jambeck J.R. and Law K.L, 2017, Production, use and fate of all plastic ever made, Science Advances].
Academics who are studying the identification of a new geological period in the history of the Earth are analysing plastic as a “techno fossil” that may be present in geological stratifications. At the same time, rocks called plastiglomerate have been identified in the Hawaiian Islands, because plastic is present in them.
Returning from a regatta in 1997, Charles Moore, captain of an American boat and oceanographer, encountered an island of plastic so large that it took seven days to cross it. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between Japan and Hawaii, is the largest accumulation of all the oceans and has become one of the greatest symbols of the environmental crisis.
A scientific study published in Nature asserts that the plastic island in the Pacific is a constantly growing continent of waste measuring about 1.6 million km² and containing 80,000 tons of waste. The surface of this plastic island is more than three times that of France.
There are at least five other smaller plastic islands located in the Indian Ocean, the North Atlantic, the South Pacific, the South Atlantic and the Mediterranean. In the Mediterranean in particular, the area that is forming between Elba and Corsica is more than double that of the Pacific. In a recent report, Greenpeace also estimated that most of the large plastic waste that ends up in European waterways - from 150,000 to 500,000 tons every year - ends up in the Mediterranean.
Over the last few years, we have witnessed many initiatives, creative campaigns and social innovation projects intended to foster awareness of the urgent need to free a world that losing a beat every day.
Some of these are reported by Polimerica.it, an online magazine that has been dealing with current affairs and news from the world of plastics since 2003, with an in-depth blog section.
Chiara Spadaro, anthropologist, journalist and author of the aforementioned book Plastica addio, traces the history of plastics and places the appearance of the first semi-synthetic plastic material, called parkesine, in 1856. It was invented in Birmingham by English chemist Alexander Parkes, treating nitrocellulose with some solvents.
In 1862, Parkes patented it and presented it at London's Great Exhibition, describing it as “hard as ivory, as flexible as we wish, waterproof and brilliantly coloured”.
On a journey almost 400 pages long, Spadaro teaches us how to recognise different polymers, tells us about the throwaway paradox, explains in detail what microplastics are and how they get into our food, illustrates the harm that plastic does to human health and, in a chapter edited by Massimo Acanfora, a journalist and expert in critical consumption and the fair trade economy, offers an interesting study on the effectiveness of recycling, which seems to be a palliative rather than a solution.
One of the most stimulating aspects of this multi-handed literary project is that it has drawn up clear and simple instructions to lead a life without plastic, from shopping to packaging, through travel, home and personal hygiene, by Elisa Nicoli, documentary director, writer and self-production expert.
“The approach that excited and conquered me is the American one, but also the German one or the French zero déchet one: i.e., aiming for the beauty and durability of everyday objects. My home and my life, as I get rid of plastic, have begun to fill with a new energy, cleaner, more solid, more alive”, writes Elisa.
And she adds: “The important thing is not to be perfect, but to do something every day, even a small thing, to avoid the use of plastic. The earth needs millions of people to do their small part”.
Franco Borgogno, journalist, writer and environmental science educator and President of Ocean Literacy Italia, is another of the literary voices that have made a valuable contribution to the subject.
Author for Repubblica of the research report on plastics at the North Pole and of the book A sea of plastic - The shocking results of a scientific mission through the North West passage, Ed. Nutrimenti, Borgogno has travelled, observed nature, the environment, human communities, narrating them and thus offering their contribution to the conservation of the Earth. His is an extremely fascinating travel story.
Another journey that lasted thirty days in thirty post-it notes was made by Filippo Solibello, radio host of Caterpillar on Rai Radio 2 and creator of the M’illumino di meno campaign on climate change and energy saving.
Solibello has written a book entitled SPAM: Stop plastica a mare, Ed. Mondadori, which summarises 30 small action we can take to save the world from plastic.
The inspiration comes from the telephone call that the author imagines receiving from a seahorse that has tripped over a cotton swab and challenges him to clean up the sea in a month.
Will McCallum, head of ocean protection at Greenpeace UK, also seems to agree with these views. In his book Living Without Plastic, published by HarperCollins, he says that plastic has become so ubiquitous that, if we are to have any chance of success, eliminating it from our lives must be a path that brings people together, regardless of their situations and conditions.
McCallum writes his book for those who want to act now but don't know where to start: “from our kitchens to the conference rooms of multinationals, the problem of plastic pollution affects everyone, so we are responsible for it as individuals but above all as a community”.
What can we do then?
In 2016, a boy from New York called Rob Greenfield, now a well-known environmental activist and entrepreneur, decided to wear every single piece of waste he would produce in a month: containers, bags, glasses and plastic bottles. He roamed the streets like an expanding garbage monster.
If we look at the figures, the only way seems to be to produce less plastic, or better still not to produce it at all. Therefore, individual habits must necessarily be accompanied by political will and coherent industrial production.
FERRERO, a world leader, has recently signed an agreement with Ineos Styrolution for the development of packaging produced with plastic materials obtained from the chemical recycling of plastic waste that cannot otherwise be recovered, with the aim of making all their packaging 100% reusable or compostable by 2025.
Coca-Cola, despite being among the largest plastic producers in the world, has announced that by 2030 it will commit to collecting and recycling one bottle or can for every bottle or can sold.
Meanwhile, the National Association of Virtuous Municipalities has set up a network of Local Bodies that have been working in Italy since 2005 to achieve the sustainable management of their local areas, spreading new awareness and lifestyles to citizens in the name of sustainability.
Internationally, Break Free From Plastic has brought together about 1,400 Associations from around the world, including Greenpeace, with the aim of “bringing systemic change through a holistic approach which addresses plastic pollution along the entire supply chain, focusing on prevention rather than cure, and providing effective solutions”. We should buy a drinks bottle to refill several times when empty, bring a bag from home when we shop, talk to friends, local businesses, write letters to the newspapers. We should fight to start taxing single-use plastic producers. And ask the shopkeepers why they sell unnecessary plastic. We should cultivate a continuous dialogue.
During a Greenpeace expedition, wildlife photographer Will Rose spent three days camping on the remote Shiant Islands to study a colony of puffins, robust and beautiful sea parrots with large beaks that can fly non-stop for months over the wildest seas on the planet.
Even on these enchanting islands off Scotland's west coast, Rose took a terrifyingly alarming photo: a specimen, proudly perched on a rock that has been the home of its ancestors for thousands of years, with a thin green strip of plastic in its beak.
Let's get to work: it's late, but the opportunity is unique, not to be missed.