Political Plasticity
Categories: art, sustainability

Plastic Politics: Letting Out What’s In the Bag

Children Trash Pickers in Cambodia.

And Man created the plastic bag and the tin and aluminum can and the cellophane wrapper and the paper plate, and this was good because Man could then take his automobile and buy all his food in one place and He could save that which was good to eat in the refrigerator and throw away that which had no further use.  And soon the earth was covered with plastic bags and aluminum cans and paper plates and disposable bottles and there was nowhere to sit down or walk, and Man shook his head and cried:  “Look at this Godawful mess.”  ~Art Buchwald, 1970

By: Michelina Docimo

This morning I walked into my bank and the manager came up to me and said, “I have a gift for you,” extending a drawstring re-usable bag with the bank’s logo.  ”Thanks so much!  I’ll definitely use this,” I promised.  And I meant it this time.  I’ve been offered “free gifts” before and I’ve had to refuse to accept them – kindly of course.  But in my mind, I’m thinking, “why would I want this trash?”  I don’t want a junk drawer filled with plastic pizza cutters that don’t cut, styrofoam stress balls that smell like skunk when you squeeze them, or some other useless knickknack that collects dust and makes me itch.  The reusable bag, though, that’s usable.

I’ll call it coincidence, but this evening I attended a Green Drinks event at the Darien Nature Center and what was in the middle of the room when I walked in?  A trash can of course – but not an ordinary garbage receptacle – it was kinetic sculpture.  A fan located at the bottom of the bin ventilated a colorful vortex of plastic bags and other packaging debris, rotating, spewing, and spiraling out of control – but silently like a pink elephant.  Hanging on the walls were artfully designed cloth and canvas reusable bags.  Yeah – ok I got the message – use reusable bags instead of plastic.  But going deeper, there was a bigger message, a quiet one.

Curated by Liz Milwe and Peter Wormser, the show is simple – a display of “the bag” rather than what is inside.  Inspired by the Town of Westport’s success at banning the plastic bag at check-outs, the show is a celebration of grass root efforts by community members to spur change.  Westport became one of the first towns east of California to ban the plastic bag for which they were honored with a 2009 EPA Environmental Merit Award.  Communities across the world are moving in this direction because of the environmental and social benefits associated with going plastic-bag free.

The exhibit offers facts and figures on the trillions of plastic bags the world uses in one year and the toxins that are released in the soil, air, and water as they photo-degrade.  But it also offers a humbling view into the politics of the plastic bag, how the poorest of the poor (many of them women and children)  in countries like Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Indonesia have developed cooperatives to divert non-recyclable materials before reaching waterways and landfills.  Their professional title, trashpickers; their product, social art; their service, environmentally and economically immeasurable.  Why economically?  Because these cooperatives are providing jobs, some of which pay up to six times more than what a a non-cooperative trashpicker would earn.  What they find is washed, shredded and then woven into intricately beautiful re-usable bags, mats, baskets, and other fair trade products.  Proceeds go back into the communities for food and other resources to break poverty cycles.  Supporting these cooperatives helps transform trashpickers’ songs of weep and woe (who remind me of modern-day, post-industrialized chimney sweepers) into a powerful thank-you.

Some cooperatives:

XS Project, Jakarta, Indonesia –

Lakshya, Faridabad, India –

Motif Cooperative, Dhaka, Bangladesh –

Alya Kapwa, Manila, Philipines –

Gecko Traders, Cambodia –

Photo Source:

in the bag, March 13 – April 23, 2011

Darien Nature Center,

120 Brookside Road, Darien, CT


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