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The Seventh Continent — Musings on The Plastic Garbage Project – Exhibition Review for Domus.

This article was written for Domus Design Magazine.

Looking at the infographics on display at the Gestaltung Museum Zurich‘s Plastic Garbage Project exhibition, we could come to the conclusion that we are seeing the birth of a new continent, the plastic continent. At least, I presume this would be the conclusion reached by a geologist in 3012 AD. The seventh continent is a float, bobbing around and practising an accelerated form of plate tectonics. An artificial island, several hundred kilometres wide, dozens of metres thick and principally made up of different types of plastic, is forming right in the middle of the ocean. Garbage ends up in the sea, one way or another, and is amassed by the oceanic currents. At the end of its use cycle, this plastic starts to be a continent, no longer containing what we produce but instead containing us.

Having understood this and analysed all the potential consequences for mankind and the environment, towards the end of the final section of the exhibition I began to be filled with a vague sense of guilt. I don’t think this stemmed from the huge mass of debris installed in the centre of the museum, in front of a mirrored wall to magnify its spectacular impact. Nor do I think it is the result of the moral blackmail typical of many environmental exhibitions, including this one. I am against the over-dramatisation of dead seabirds that have mistaken plastic caps for molluscs, or the showing of x-rays and video material of documentary-makers fishing pieces of plastic out of a carcass’s stomach with tweezers. All the more so, given that this particular exhibition is free and open to the “mass public”, with workshops teaching children how to make things with plastic bottles.

No, there is something else behind this vague sense of guilt. The seventh continent is also an Italian colony. The first flag was officially planted in it when Giulio Natta was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1963. Irrationally, I associate the portent of Natta’s discoveries with the environmental disasters of Porto Marghera, with the 157 work-related fatalities caused by CVM and PVC production, and with that despicable Article 15 par. 3 of the Venice Master Plan, governing the implementation of industrial sites that was in force from 1962 to 1990. It blatantly states: “Industrial sites mainly feature plants that spread and emanate smoke, dust and emissions that are harmful to humans and that discharge poisonous substances into the water and produce vibrations and noise.” At this point, I looked at the objects made by children from a variety of bottles and containers in the exhibition workshop and form a mental inventory of all the plastic objects that surround me every day. Well aware that our world could not be imagined without the widespread use of plastic, I thought of all the people who have been poisoned by producing “modernity” since the 1950s. The world’s population has doubled from 3,5 to 7 billion in the last 30 years alone. When I multiply the numbers of inhabitants of the countries with developing economies, by the quantity of plastic refuse that each one of us produces on average, it’s easy to get a clear impression that the worst is yet to come, also in terms of plastic production.

I approached the second part of the exhibition seeking to learn the characteristics of all the different polymers, their pros and cons in terms of our health and that of the environment. I am a designer and yet unable to save even one of them. I have been told that waste is the problem and that we must produce less of it, and been shown everyday tricks that I always try to adopt, as far as I am able, in my own small way and modestly but with inner pride: travelling with a refillable bottle; always carrying a folding shopping bag and other environmental-hygiene measures that, I believe, all and anyone with the slightest civic awareness adheres to now.

Having undertaken this journey through all the contradictions and paradoxes that revolve around the plastic in our everyday lives, I found myself with more doubts than certainties. I presume its aim is to inform and educate but I wonder whether this is the best way to do that. Above all, I asked myself: is it really possible that no one is working on a material that can replace plastic as we know it today? I admit that I would like to have seen an exhibition of solutions, even hypothetical ones but, instead, I emerge with a poetic sense of defeat. I must produce less waste —this rule has always applied —, but how can I live and work, which in my case means designing, without plastic? We have run out of time. I would have liked to find answers but, yet again, I have to make do and project all my hopes into the internet, with the intimate expectation of finding some response, maybe Made in Italy.

Antonio Scarponi (@scarponio)

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  3. Design for Eternal Youth. An Article Published in Domus 959 / June 2012.
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  10. Form Follows Rule. Campo Libero at the Architekturzentrum Wien: 23.11.17 – 04.04.18

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alberto Masetti-Zannini 03/10/2012 at 19:09

Hey Antonio

Just spotted two interesting developments on this front: the first one is the discovery of a fungus that eats plastic http://www.fastcoexist.com/1679201/fungi-discovered-in-the-amazon-will-eat-your-plastic and the beginning of an Italian (in fact Bolognese) – led research consortium which is trying to identify micro-organisms able to eat up plastic also in marine environments http://www.greenme.it/informarsi/rifiuti-e-riciclaggio/8690-bioclean-unibo-plastica

Hopefully no seventh continents rising out of the sea in the future… although maybe a giant fungus that has eaten too much plastic and has turned into Godzilla!! ;-)

A.

2 Antonio Scarponi 05/10/2012 at 23:43

Very interesting. Thank you Alberto!

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