In her search to find out why her installations and wall-mounted collages had fallen to bits, Dianna Cohen became aware of plastic’s ability to pollute and cause so much harm to the natural world.
Dianna’s realisation sparked a dramatic change — she shunned plastic in her day-to-day life, instead carrying metal flasks for her morning cups of tea, and bamboo knives and forks in her handbag. In 2009, she co-founded the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a global alliance working on ending the pollution and toxic impacts of single use plastic — drink bottles, food containers, lids, cups, straws, and of course, shopping bags — which we use often for just minutes, but then leave lying around for thousands of years.
The Plastic Pollution Coalition takes the position that “recycling is not a sustainable solution.” Please could you tell us why? The reason plastic recycling is not a sustainable solution is because we’re producing such massive quantities of it and most places in the world have no infrastructure to recollect the plastic. Most countries do not have extended producer responsibility, which would demand that businesses are responsible in a Cradle to Cradle model for the packaging they use for their products. Therefore, what we find unfortunately, is that the onus to deal with this stuff is left to the public.
If you travel to various parts of the world, even in many highly developed parts of the world, there are entire regions that have absolutely no recycling infrastructure set up. So recycling is a really nice idea, and it’s not something we should stop doing, but it’s something we should recognise for what it really is — as something that only works if you have a system and infrastructure in place. If you don’t, the majority of things that we all use around the world end up in landfill, or the ocean, or being incinerated. And when you incinerate waste, that also causes a particulate pollution. There are communities, particularly island communities where the people whose job it is to incinerate the waste on the island are having sex changes — basically, their sexuality is being changed by standing over burning plastic because plastic in general is made using chemicals that are known to be endocrine disruptors — it’s feminising them.
When someone notices I ordered a drink without a straw and they want to know why, I’m like ‘have you heard about the great Pacific garbage patch?’
That’s very disturbing. We’re used to talking about recycling, but you also have issues with downcycling. What is that? The problem with downcycling comes about from when you use plastic to package food or beverages — if the plastic is tainted at all by touching or interacting with the substance inside, say a sugary beverage or a juice, you can’t then take it and use it for the same thing again. Now Germany is an exception to this; they have the highest recollection rates in the world. Germany takes these thicker density plastic bottles back, then washes them, sterilises them and refills them with Coke, Fanta or whatever, and they’ll put a notch on the bottom of the bottle. And you can count these notches and see how many times they’ve been recycled, and the bottle will start looking shadier and shadier on the exterior with these scratch marks from going through the machine which sterilises it. I personally don’t recommend drinking out of those. Because, from the studies I’ve seen by Dr Frederick vom Saal, every time you wash a plastic bottle or a plastic item, incrementally larger amounts of the EDCs [endocrine disrupting compounds] leach from the plastic. I’m not a scientist, but this information is enough for me.
As an artist using plastic bags in your work, were you first interested in them for their associations with consumerism rather than any specific environmental focus? Was the revelation of their environmental impact something that came later? Yes. I started working with plastic when I was in Belgium a little over 20 years ago. In the homeopathic pharmacies there, the bags they give have certain botanical flowers and plants printed on them with their Latin names. I thought these were really beautiful, but that there was also a deep irony, printing images of the natural world onto plastic bags which are made primarily from petroleum byproducts. I just had one of these bingo moments of ‘Plastic, wow! What a loaded material.’ It represents the future, technology, and man’s harnessing of technology. By taking a total byproduct and refining it to something that one can shape, colour, and if you add bisphenols to it, make transparent or translucent.
I think plastic is the most remarkable material of the past century. We can use it for so many things. It was able to replace so many more finite materials like wood, glass or metals which were being used in aircraft, cars and war machinery. Suddenly lots of them or parts of them could be replaced by plastic that could be formed and shaped and coloured to make it look like it was metallic, wood or ivory. It’s pretty fascinating.
At this point, I have a love-hate relationship with it. After about the first eight years of using it in my artwork, some of the bags began to fissure and break into smaller pieces. I thought this meant the plastic bags are ephemeral like us, and I decided to look into that a little more. And what I learned was that plastic will photodegrade through light or heat degrade — which means they’ll break into smaller bits — but they won’t go away. It’s not organic, so these bits of plastic are not going back go the earth; they’re not really breaking down. That was a kind of horrific realisation for me. And at that point, I began to make some personal changes in my life. I began to not take plastic bags any more and to bring my own reusable canvas bags everywhere with me. I even have these tiny ones that fold up into teeny tiny pouches which I tuck into the corner of my purse or my bag.
I think plastic is the most remarkable material of the past century… I have a love hate relationship with it.
Plastic is something I associate with the nuclear age, with post-war innovations and 1950s modernity. Ever Manifesto is really interested in the innovations that are coming about today: we see Nike making basketball courts in deprived communities from old plastic bottles and Pharrell Williams’ Bionic Yarn making versatile textiles and so on. What is the Plastic Pollution Coalition’s approach to these new developments — can they not come soon enough? I would say we’re working on a multi-prong approach. We created the coalition first and foremost to bring together a lot of different disparate entities, NGOs, businesses and individuals who are all looking at different components around the issue of disposable single-use plastics. Because plastic pollution is a crisis that is so spread out all around you, and so ubiquitous, no one sees it — or rather, we’re just beginning to recognise it. On the most basic level, the concept is to raise awareness, to empower and encourage the everyday citizen to reduce their plastic footprint on a personal level — because you really have to do this first on a personal level before you can bring it out into the world. The first thing to do is to start at home.
The thing about plastic pollution, is that you can do things. You can make small changes in your own life, extend them to your school, or your place of work and beyond.
From your personal experience, what gives you hope for the future? When it comes to this issue of plastic pollution, people are getting bad news all the time, but often people’s reaction to someone who’s explaining global climate change to you is to ask: ‘But what can I do?’ That’s our human reaction to bad news — ‘What can I do?’ And the thing about plastic pollution, is that you can do things. You can make small changes in your own life, extend them to your school or your child’s school, your place of work and your business, and if you want to take it on more than that, you can try pressuring companies to become engaged in a Cradle to Cradle model for the packaging used for their products. We list a number of ways people can do so on our website. If you want to take it higher than that, you can push for government legislation. That allows for things like Rwanda banning plastic bags or Ireland adding a tax to the sale of plastic bags which had great results [it reduced their use by 90 percent and raised millions of euros in revenue]. I woke up on January 1st in L.A., and there are no more plastic bags in the big supermarkets! It’s wonderful because it’s the tip of the iceberg. In fashion, Anya Hindmarch’s ‘I’m Not A Plastic Bag’ had tremendous attention, generated a lot of excitement and allowed people to talk about an issue. It was also free advertising.
Successful businesses listen to their customers. Are you trying to bring about a critical mass through educating the general public that they are in a position to vote for the world they would like to see with every purchase? I think that’s the most important thing. Frankly, women have a lot of power through where they decide to put their dollar. They really do. And I would say one of the most disenfranchised groups may be teenagers. Young people feel disenfranchised from the political process, but they are voting every time they make a decision to buy something. It’s about taking all the information you have about what’s going on in the world — chemicals, the safety of our food or whatever you are able to educate yourself about in regards to environmental toxins — and putting it into action. And the way we can put it into action is not to get depressed from the bad news, but to actually feel empowered to make decisions based on this knowledge. I’m not saying that everyone needs to be as intense as I am about it, but it’s kind of fun trying to communicate to people, you know, when someone notices I ordered a drink without a straw and they want to know why. And I’m like, ‘Have you heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?’