Trash Menagerie, a show in the Art and Nature Center at the Peabody Essex Museum, uses recycled materials to tell the story of our view of objects and our choices about what is disposable. If we saw these objects differently, what would happen?

The artists bring this question to life in many different media. On walking into the exhibit, I was confronted by a green-eyed dragon made of bundt cake pans and bicycle brakes. Each section of a pan was part of its body; each brake had become a leg. I can imagine how much welding it took to get that right.

Behind the dragon, visitors meet a pair of mechanical insects – built from drafting tools and sewing machine parts – and their sister sculpture, a squid made of small electronics.

Mechanical stinger insect from the Peabody Essex Museum

Ironic uses of plastic are a central theme of the exhibit. A shimmering trout turns out to be a composite of layered plastic. An ethereal crowd of hovering jellyfish and other sea creatures reveal their past lives as plastic soda bottles.

A statement by Nnenna Okore, the artist who rolled magazines into a roving band of large spiders, says that seeing poverty in Africa gave her a different perspective on what reused materials are worth.

Seeing ways to reuse everyday items we throw away – magazine covers, plastic bottles, newspapers – is a creative act. When we reframe what a plastic bottle means to us, that’s when the sea creatures start emerging. Literally.

Edited 4/25/2011: Here’s an update on the plastic that is floating in the Pacific Ocean.

So there is a lot of plastic in the ocean, but the Pacific garbage patch is NOT nearly the size of Texas:


Plastic is everywhere – in packaging and in all kinds of products.

The amount of plastic industrialized societies use is amazing. For one illustration of this, check out Chris Jordan’s art (below):

An image of the worlds plastic consumption. For more details, click the image and visit Chris Jordans most recent exhibit.
An image of the 2.4 million pieces of plastic that enter the world's oceans every hour. To see close-ups, click the image and view Chris Jordan's most recent exhibit.

Once we, ah, contribute this plastic to the oceans, it stays there, unless we harvest it for other uses. There is currently a patch of plastic debris the size of Texas circulating in the Pacific Ocean. I find this disturbing. So does Pete Friedrich, a close relative of mine, who created a comic book about the adventures of these pieces of plastic.

Because plastic is everywhere, it becomes invisible to people. Hence the title of this post.

Plastic became more visible to me the day I realized how much of our household garbage – and recyclables – consisted of food packaging. Take-out containers were the most obvious problem, but there were plenty of other packages – styrofoam mushroom containers, for example – that are not very useful and are often non-recyclable.

When I realized this, I went through the kitchen and thought about ways to stop using extra plastic containers – as well as cans and bottles. The main problems were:

  1. Buying salad dressing, sauces and dips rather than making them at home. Sauces and dressings are easy to make at home and aren’t usually available in bulk, even at health food stores. Making sauces at home also means that one can choose the ingredients. It’s a win-win situation. Making sauces can also save money – up to $5 or more for the expensive kinds of peanut sauce.
  2. Using canned food. The process of making metal cans – and plastic-lined cans – probably contributes significantly to global warming, especially if the metal is manufactured overseas and shipped to North America. In contrast, buying fruit and vegetables fresh or frozen eliminates a lot of the packaging.
  3. Buying bottled shampoo, soap, detergent and household cleaners. Some of these can be made at home using vinegar and other ingredients one can buy in bulk. Many health food stores also give customers discounts for reusing shampoo and soap bottles.
  4. Buying any item in a box that one can buy in bulk (or make at home and store). These items can include granola, honey, soy sauce, nut butters, rice, baking mixes, pasta, nuts, beans, couscous, dried fruit, and even chocolate chips.

While I feel good about making these changes, I can’t take a big chunk out of that picture of Mt. Fuji on my own.  So I hope some of you will give this a try and think about ways you can cut back on your own use of plastic.