Daniel Lanzilotta started collecting plastic on the beaches of southern France, where he lived for several years. While his son played, the Bronx native collected the often tiny fragments of plastic he found in the sand, and soon began pocketing these items and making them into sculptures. Over the course of several years, as fresh debris washed up on the shore every day, he realized what a huge problem plastic pollution is for the environment.
“It’s really impacted the environment in ways that people don’t understand,” Lanzilotta told TreeHugger. “It goes into the environment in many ways: by litter, carelessness, winds, illegal dumping. Municipalities are bringing it out and dumping it in the oceans, and it’s coming back to haunt us.”
Lanzilotta sculpts the collected plastic debris into colorful and whimsical forms, and sometimes wearable objects like jewelry and hats. He sees his artistic practice as a means of raising awareness about plastic pollution. He aims to transform trash which might otherwise be ignored into something beautiful.
“Every plastic has it’s own little personality,” he said of the processes he uses to manipulate the objects he finds. He melts, bends, perforates and punches the plastic into new forms. Often unexpected transformations occur. Lanzilotta takes advantage of the colors that manufactures use to capture buyers' attention, subverting the original intention of the packaging or product design and redirecting the viewer’s awareness of the material.
The works may have a performative aspect as well. One work features “a little red dot”—a round piece of plastic about a millimeter in diameter. First, he drops the dot on the ground and asks viewers if they care about it. “Everyone looked at it and said, ‘no.’ Then I handed them the same little red dot in a little plastic bag,” explained Lanzilotta. He tells the viewer/participant that the artist is giving this work as a gift, but it has a 100 dollar value. Lanzilotta describes this work as “giving significance to the insignificant.”
The little red dot is indeed a significant choice, because one of the most insidious types of plastic pollution is caused by tiny bits. Microplastics—which are either intentionally manufactured as exfoliants or are the result of larger items breaking down—have proven massively difficult to remove from water. These bits wash through municipal water treatment facilities, and eventually make their way into the environment.
Other small scale works include a flock of tiny "birds," like the one shown below.
Now back in the U.S., Lanzilotta not only collects materials at the beach, but also from highways and the dump. “Every street is an art supply store for me,” he said. This summer, he participated in a Bronx river cleanup, and found that debris along the river’s shores had begun to break down so much they were giving off toxic-smelling fumes.
Lanzilotta said he doesn’t advocate for the end of all plastic, but rather the end of disposable, single-use plastic—and he adds that recycling in its current form isn’t working. He is interested in the potential of an object: items that can be reused, repaired and transformed.
“It’s a very large problem, and I like to take that problem and beautify it,” said Lanzilotta. “Because people respond to it. When they look at the work and say, ‘that’s from the ocean?’ or ‘that’s from a piece of garbage?’ I try to explain to them, yes, those are the possibilities.”