Daniel Webb's project is a profound reminder that "there is no away" when it comes to plastic trash.
Starting on 1 January 2017, Daniel Webb stashed every piece of plastic he bought or received in his spare room. After 365 days, the room was full and Webb's experiment was complete; he now had a tangible record of what an average British guy's plastic consumption for one year looks like.
Why would one want to do such a thing? Well, for starters, Webb seems like the kind of guy who tackles ambitious projects; the Guardian recounts that he once ran six half-marathons in six days. But mainly, the project happened because Webb felt deeply afflicted by the amount of plastic pollution in his coastal town of Margate, England. He describes walking along the beach:
"Old toys, probably 20 years old, bottles that must have been from overseas because they had all kinds of different languages on them, bread tags, which I don’t think had been used for years. It was very nostalgic, almost archaeological. And it made me think, as a mid-30s guy, is any of my plastic out there? Had I once dropped a toy in a stream near Wolverhampton, where I’m from, and now it was out in the sea?"
So, Webb decided to do a plastic collection experiment. Without changing his shopping habits at all (though he'd already given up plastic water bottles), he kept every piece of plastic in order to document a year's worth of consumption. The total number came to 4,490. Sixty percent of that was food packaging and 93 percent was single-use plastic. Only eight items, mostly coffee cups, were made from biodegradable plastics.
The project was carefully photographed by Ollie Harrop and named "Everyday Plastic." The pictures reveal personal lifestyle habits; Webb clearly likes his chips and candy, but also went through plenty of cellophane bags for salad greens, broad beans, and netted bags of citrus. Then there are the familiar plastics that we all encounter on a daily basis, such as coffee cup lids, blister packs, toothpaste tubes, and milk jugs.
"Everyday Plastic" has now been transformed into an impressive mural, hanging at Margate's Dreamland amusement park until May 21st:
"Having laid out all of the plastic to the exact size of the billboard, the piece was photographed by Ollie Harrop using a 5m high by 6m wide rig and the items were captured at actual size. The final piece measures 12.5m wide by 4m tall, and such was the volume of plastic, it required 20 individual photos to be taken and then stitched together in post-production by Ian Hall."
Webb, who no doubt will be very glad to get his spare room back, learned some important lessons from the project. He realized the power of marketing to encourage people to buy things. He told the Guardian:
"That black plastic of meat packaging is to hide the colour of the blood, or the brown plastic of mushroom packaging makes the mushrooms look earthy.” He laughs. “I work in marketing, and I never thought I’d say this, but we really are being sold stuff we do not need. There is an epidemic of overproduction and overconsumption.”
He also realized the pointlessness of recycling, which is something we've been reiterating on TreeHugger for years. Out of his entire collection, a mere 56 items were made from recycled plastic, proving that improving recycling rates is not the best goal. What we need is to "find ways of using less."
While I do think we've reached the end of needing such year-long personal experiments to prove that consumption habits need to change, there is something powerful about seeing Webb's waste and realizing that he represents all of us. If his disturbing mural can trigger a behavioral shift, then it's a good thing.