Readers young enough to have grown up with some degree of eco-consciousness may find this scarcely credible, but in the 1950s and early 1960s there was nothing more glamorous than the idea of a “throwaway” society where you used something once, then tossed it on the junk pile.
Plastics made this possible.
Take, for instance, plastic plates, knives, forks and spoons. Easily and cheaply manufactured, they shone with a utopian promise: You’ll never have to wash the dishes again!
“Plastics Unwrapped,” a new show at the Burke Museum organized by Burke exhibit developer Ruth Pelz, does its subject justice by showing, in archival film clips, what an allure the Age of Plastic had for folks of the mid-20th century. They’d grown up with belongings — clothes, kitchenware and furnishings — that had to be carefully maintained. The notion of a shirt or skirt that didn’t wrinkle, rip or stain, or a bowl that didn’t break when it fell off the counter, was flat-out wonderful.
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The exhibit, of course, focuses on the downside of these wonders, summed up in the phrase “Here today, still here tomorrow.” It takes a paper towel two to four weeks to break down to its constituent ingredients; it takes a plastic beverage bottle 450 years.
“Plastics Unwrapped” illustrates how fast we’re churning out and consuming these unbiodegradable goods with some eye-catching “statistical sculptures.”
One is a wall display of the 3,000 plastic bags used every quarter of a second in the U.S. Another constructs a small monument from the 170 lbs. of e-waste — computer monitors, motherboards, old cellphones, TVs, etc. — discarded in the U.S. every 30 seconds. Looking at it, you can only marvel at how much of the Burke might be filled by an hour’s worth of e-waste.
The ambiguous gift of plastics comes especially alive in a showcase filled with the amount of medical waste created in a typical surgery. It’s enough to load up four large backpacks. Yet this “waste,” mostly composed of plastic that is “sterile, cheap and endlessly adaptable,” is lifesaving.
Several sorts of symmetry shape the exhibit.
The introductory section includes examples of the “raw material” (resin pellets, nylon pellets, etc.) furnished to plastics manufacturers. It’s balanced with images and information on ocean-borne plastic goods breaking back down into pellet-sized particles entering the food chain.
Another symmetry: The introductory video montage on the early promise of plastics is offset by a vivid video collage showing e-waste being dismantled, picked over and burned. (The latter badly needs identification of the locales where it was shot and an explanation of the e-waste disposal process.)
A final symmetry: The exhibit opens with a showcase of goods that predate the Age of Plastic, including a basket woven from leaf fiber. At the other end of the gallery, a display on plastic-recycling possibilities contains a colorful little basket, hand-woven in Africa, using discarded telephone wire: a surprisingly close cousin to its leaf-fiber counterpart.
It leaves you with an unexpected — and tentatively optimistic — sense of coming full circle.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org