Most of us are aware that the world is drowning in plastic, but it can be hard to make sense of just how much is on the planet. We were invited by the Museum of Vancouver to produce a model visualizing just how much plastic is out there.

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The easiest way to visualize plastic is to compare it with something that we will have an easier time picturing, such as the combined mass of humanity. We settled on a design made up of 100 pillars, each one representing a year from the dawn of plastic in 1950 through to a prediction of the year 2050. Human mass is represented by a clear layer of resin, and plastic mass is represented with melted and recycled plastic. Future years are visualized with transparent mesh to show that we still have the ability to change our patterns.

We need to sort out the model’s dimensions and start hunting moulds, plastic, and resin. But first, we need to pick up an oven and some cutting tools so we can start building our pillars.

The Hunt for an Oven Begins

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We start scouring Craigslist for an oven that will meet our needs. It needs to be big, powerful, able to run for long periods of time, and able to direct exhaust gasses into our fume hood. We stumble on our dream oven, an old electric baking oven that is built like a tank. It can do 280 muffins an hour, although its days cooking food are numbered. We affectionately name it ‘Nona’.

We get it back to the lab, where we discover commercial ovens are a little different from the ones we have back home. They need professional installation by an electrician, so we bring one in only to discover we need a three phase power source. Your building really needs to be wired in the correct way to run a big oven.

It’s a rough start. We hit the road again and pick up an old home oven, only to get a second crash course in high voltage electricity. It turns out there’s a good half dozen different plugs and receptacles for 220V power, and for good reason: when you’re dealing with this much voltage, it’s really important to make sure the correct fuses are in place.

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We are now sitting in a small graveyard of useless ovens, with no way of melting plastic. Time for Plan B. We hit up craigslist and raid the city for every used toaster oven we can find. We install them in a pile under our fume hood, and voila – the oven setup is complete.

The monument takes shape

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We break out the plastic shavings and start working on melting them into bricks.

We start running low on plastic shavings, so we break out a shredder and get to work making more.

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The first batch of resin moulds come out, and they look great.

The bricks come out equally well, and the marbeling is quite lovely. After the rough start, it feels so good to see progress.

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Cutting things down

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We’ve got our plastic, now we just need to cut it up and assemble it into pillars.

We pick up an old band saw; it’s a beautiful thing, very heavy, and well maintained. Unfortunately, the blades are about as old as it is and our initial cuts don’t go very well. We start hunting around for a replacement blade and quickly realize they don’t really make them anymore. We’re running out of time, so we buy a new table saw and get to work cutting the plastic down to shape.

Putting it all together

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We put the table saw to good use, and before we know it we have loads of plastic and acrylic cubes.

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The deadline is coming up fast, so we gather a few additional friends and put our heads down assembling the monument. I stop taking photos during the crunch, but I wish I could have highlighted the amazing work everyone did. We are incredibly grateful for the amazing support and response from everyone who came out to help; this really wouldn’t have been possible without the final collective push.

We finish up work on the interactive part of the installation.

Showtime

We make it – barely – in time for the show.

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Showtime! Seeing the reactions from visitors was really inspiring, and made it all worth the effort. It was rewarding to see people understand the scope of the issue and to have conversations about ways we can address the problem ahead of us.

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The marbelling turned out so well!

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We brough a few other odds an ends with us, including a skateboard made out of cigarette butts.

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We are so thankful for everyone who came and helped make this monument a reality. I was only able to take photos of a few people, but this was truly a team effort.

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