Two parallel worlds, many thousands of miles apart, and each with its own particular relationship with the material which has rapidly come to define the modern age: plastic.
On one side, the remnants of a Festival depict an almost apocalyptic scene: piles of garbage, dirt fields scattered with crushed plastic bottles, bags, balloons, single use cups, and cheap, disposable furniture. A column of polystyrene fast food containers piled high, emerging triumphantly from a packed litter bin, while the bright lights of the festival’s famous music scene beam away in the background.
On the other, the lush greenery of rural Africa. An elderly lady pours water from a small stream into a number of large plastic carrying containers. A child thrusts a dirty plastic bottle, covered in grit but very much intact, towards the camera. And, in the larger urban centres, enormous landfills surrounded by circling birds show where many single use plastics end up on the continent, entire streets packed to bursting with colourful bags full of plastic waste.
It’s the result of Melinda Watson’s journey into the world of plastic pollution, from the Pyramid stage to the Great Pyramids of Giza. This, the latest project from her sustainable development charity, the Raw Foundation, involved her and a support team driving 17,000km from Cairo to Cape Town, documenting the plastic waste they found en route. At various stops along the way – every 100km – Watson would get out, place a 1m2 transect upon the waste piled at the side of the road, and survey the results found inside. The most prevalent kind of plastic found was polystyrene, at 28 per cent, followed by cigarette butts (20 per cent), plastic bags (19 per cent) and plastic bottles (18 per cent).
Through this method – as well as using the footage and photography captured during the journey by photographic artist Alexander Mourant – the goal was to display how the problem of plastic pollution, along with the environmental issues caused by its disposal into water systems, has spread far from the high income countries where it started and is now infiltrating its way into the lives of people in some of the most remote parts of the world. Paralleled with the shots captured by photographic artist Andy Hughes, it completes a critique of the large-scale, mass consumption, throw-away attitude towards plastic adopted by much of the wealthy world (as opposed to any particular criticism towards festivals – indeed, the Raw Foundation has worked with Glastonbury Festival to encourage them to taper their usage of single-use plastics).
It’s hard to get your head around quite how much of 21st century life revolves around plastic, and the #myplasticpledge at the far end of the exhibition aims to draw attention to how ubiquitous the material is. From plastic bags and coffee cup lids, to microbeads and cling film, to flip flops and wetwipes, Watson asks visitors to refuse these disposable products which, no matter how well we try to recycle them, will simply decline to ever go away entirely. As she states firmly in the exhibition’s accompanying film, ‘Every single piece of plastic ever made... still exists.’ We can continue to throw them on the ground or into the sea, but they will eventually reappear, whether we like it or not.
The only question is: if we say ‘no’ to plastic, what do we say ‘yes’ to instead? The sooner there is an obvious answer, the better.