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Plastic Justice: reflecting on the link between microplastics, climate emergency and decolonisation

Jars filled with small pieces of plastic and other waste materials
  • Written byAnnika Loebig
  • Published date 15 April 2022
Jars filled with small pieces of plastic and other waste materials
'Unburden' by Rūta Irbīte, MA Material Futures, Central Saint Martins, UAL

The issue of microplastics is often overlooked in climate conversations, despite being created by our everyday lives, from road dust and washing our clothes to mismanaging litter. This is why UAL joined other 5 art and design institutions to build Plastic Justice, a pan-European collaboration with students, academics and environmental NGOs to raise awareness of the long-term impact of microplastics on our health.

Funded by the Strategic Partnership programme of the European Union, Plastic Justice connects arts and science to co-create knowledge and educational practices on microplastics to inform policy through 3 intellectual outputs: Plastic Justice Case Files, an ongoing online repository of information about plastic justice and health; Plastic Justice Advocacy, a teacher’s guide on how to embed microplastic issues in design curriculum; and Plastic Justice Verdict, a policy brief based on the project findings.

Dr Peter Hall, Reader in Graphic Design and UAL's project lead for Plastic Justice, shared with us his learnings from this collaboration on how the issues with microplastics lie at the intersection between climate and social justice.

Hi Peter! Now that Plastic Justice is coming to an end this summer, what are some of your reflections on the project's journey so far?

The pandemic's impact on this project has been a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it made us more nimble and allowed us to bring a high calibre of speakers to various online events. A curse because the premise of the project was built around creating a sense of community among students from 6 European art and design institutions.

When we were looking for our students to participate, they were super keen, because they would travel to Spain, Iceland and The Netherlands to work with other students — but we've only managed to experience this in the second half of the project with a Teaching Activity in Vilnius in November 2021 and a Learning Activity for students in Barcelona early this month.

Besides the online repository and the policy brief, I've been mostly working on the teacher's guide, known as Plastic Justice Advocacy. It will be an important document to convene our reflections on what we've learned. For example, during this experience we've realised the beauty of being together in person is building a sense of conviviality; that word has become more resonant and important to me as we've progressed with the project.

Following the work of philosopher Ivan Illich, through this project we've realised education needs to be about forging a sense of community, conviviality and togetherness, so we can work out how to tackle complex issues together.

— Peter Hall

How do you envision the teacher's guide will be used in arts and design disciplines? 

The guide has been developed for teachers across all educational institutions. For me, it's been a useful exercise to reflect on how the general public, but also sometimes art and design students and teachers, use protest as the main way to engage with hot topics like microplastics, pollution or environmental injustice. In our case, we need to learn how to galvanise creative protests, whether that's culture jamming or polemical artworks or performances, or even speculative design.

Art, design and communication disciplines can play a really important role to help convey complex information in a way that engages people, raises awareness and influences policy change, especially when done in collaboration with other experts.

Group of people in an exhibition
Plastic Justice exhibition at the Plastic Health Summit in Amsterdam, Netherlands, 2021 | Photographer: Roel Backaert
One of the key aspects of Plastic Justice Advocacy, the teacher's guide, is about moving us beyond the one-dimensional idea that all art and design students can do is make dazzling, creative protests.

— Peter Hall

Can you talk us through some of the key learnings you've taken from being involved in Plastic Justice?

The first one would be the intrinsic relationship between climate and decolonisation. Ama van Dantzig, a Dutch-Ghanaian social entrepreneur, was one of the speakers at the project's kickoff event. She gave a talk on colonialism and plastic waste, explaining how so many countries ship their waste to formerly colonised countries and dump it on their land — quite a common practice that highlights a huge power imbalance and unmasks the Western mindset when it comes to dealing with plastic pollution.

It has also been fascinating to learn more about the reality of plastic recycling processes. We visited a recycling plant during our trip to Vilnius, and it was eye-opening seeing first-hand how things work. Unlike many other places, this plant accepts single-use plastic bags, and they have a group of women whose job is to sift through all these dirty plastic bags and put them in a giant smelter, which would melt them down to be turned into little pellets and then repurposed into rubbish sacks.

It was an immersive experience that really clarified, in an embodied way, what a dirty business plastic recycling is. When we recycle plastics we just put them all together in the same bin, but we forget there are so many different types of polymers, it's not like recycling copper or aluminium where you can maintain and reuse the raw material. The current system can't really cope with the tonnes and tonnes of plastic we send to be recycled every year, so it feels very much like a losing battle.

Group of people visiting a plastic recycling plant
Field trip to the Plasta recycling facility in Vilnius, Lithuania, November 2021 | Photographer: Gintas Kavoliunas
How can we wean ourselves off this plastic addiction? This major challenge has been at the core of what we've been doing at Plastic Justice, looking at how creative thinking and design can change behaviours.

— Peter Hall

In your opinion, what are the biggest benefits of working with international partners?

I'd say it's very similar to the experience of living overseas. There's such a benefit of being able to leave your home country and see it from the outside — for me, moving to Australia was very illuminating, because you're on the front lines of decolonisation. There's a higher awareness in Australia of climate and eco-fragility, which is particularly poignant now with the floods and the bushfires. Their perceptions around coloniality, environment and race relations are really, really sharp.

Working with international partners across Europe has been very interesting. As part of Plastic Justice, we went to Lithuania to visit Vilnius Academy of Arts and meet with their Graphic Design Programme, and we really got to experience what it means to live in a post-Soviet country. It has also been incredibly refreshing and useful to learn from our colleagues in Spain, Iceland and The Netherlands about their perspectives on environmental issues and how they differ from the ones entrenched in England.

Find out more about Plastic Justice

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