I am passionate about the changes that are taking place to our environment, especially with respect to our oceans, and throughout my travels in the past few years I have become very aware of the impact this accumulation of plastic is having on our ecosystem. As the problem becomes more noticeable, there has been increasing concern around the world and a desire by individuals, communities, and businesses to start addressing the issue.
Scientists can now predict how much plastic will be present on Earth in the year 2050 by examin- ing the current production rate of virgin plastic, rate of recycling, and trends in human behaviour. Current estimates put the amount of plastic on Earth in 2050 at 4x the current level unless major changes are made to our habits5. A 4x increase in the amount of plastic on Earth is a dramatic figure, but I am optimistic that humans will be able to find solutions that lead to the 2050 esti- mate decreasing rather than increasing.
Education has become one of the most effective techniques to reduce plastic consumption. Cam- paigns to reduce the usage of single-use plastic, demonstrate how to effectively sort waste, and document the impact of plastic waste in the ecosystem are examples of effective education.
The world is increasingly aware of the plastic waste crisis we are currently facing, but it can be hard to understand the scale of the issue. Thanks to news and social media, most of us are now aware that we have a big problem on our hands, but it can be very hard to understand what the 8.3 billion tons of plastic on Earth1 looks like. How can we make sense of this number?
Our species has been on Earth for over 60,000 years2, so it would be logical to assume that the aggregated mass of 7.6 billion living inhabitants3, combined with the mass of all our ancestors, would dwarf that of plastic over its short 111 year existence. However, studies have shown that plastic mass has grown at a much higher rate than human mass, and now takes up far more space on Earth. There is one key factor that accounts for this: while humans decompose after death, plastic effectively does not; all single-use plastic that has ever been created is still around.
As I train to be an architect, I feel a personal obligation to do something to address the issue. I have several options at my disposal – such as using sustainable materials or sequestering plastic in buildings. I am also able to use the training I have in spatial understanding to send a message to people and help change their minds.
Throughout the course of my education at UBC, I have focused on designing buildings. During this time, I have gained a better understanding of the use of space and become aware of its ability to send messages and convey different feelings to an audience. These concepts apply equally well to the design of monuments as they do to buildings.
My goal is to use the tools I have learned over the past three years to express the problem of plastic waste visually, using a scale that humans are most familiar with – ourselves. I aim to create a monument that will help viewers visually compare the combined mass of all humanity on Earth with the mass of plastic. Humans are better at visualizing data spatially than any other method6. By visualizing the scale of the plastic waste problem in 3D, I hope to provide educa- tion on the importance of eliminating single-use plastic, demonstrate potential solutions to the problem, and ultimately help accelerate the move off single-use plastic.
The monument will be comprised of a series of 142 pillars, one for each year dating from the invention of plastic in 1908 to the year 2050. Each pillar will be comprised of layers of material that represent human mass, plastic mass, and – for future years – predicted plastic mass. Human mass will be represented by a transparent resin illuminated by a light source at the base of each pillar. Plastic mass will be represented by extruded layers of single-use plastic that have been collected from various sources. The predicted mass of plastic will be visualized with a transparent mesh which will be filled with un-processed single-use plastic.
I aim to make the plastic monument a living sculpture that is updated annually as our rates of plastic production and recycling techniques change. Every year, I will update the monument with data that has been collected from the previous year; as one year ends, I will replace the estimated figure for the year with the actual recorded figure. This will allow viewers to get an exact up-to- date understanding of where we stand at the moment, as well as a way to compare estimated figures with real recorded values for each year to help determine if the world is on track with our goals.
The monument is intended to be informative, so at the base of each year I will showcase key events that shaped our current relationship with plastic; for example, the discovery of the Pacific Garbage Patch in 1988 or the “Throwaway Culture” referenced in popular magazines such as Life in 1955.
There is a risk that a monument to our plastic consumption will be a depressing experience, but I hope I can inspire viewers to the possibilities for our future. As the monument’s timeline moves from the past to the future, I will highlight promises that governments have made to address the plastic problem as well as potential future inventions that are being pioneered by companies and non-profit agencies; this may also serve a secondary purpose of making these entities account- able for their promises.
My goal to make a ‘living’ monument will affect both the physical design of the structure as well as the plan for its lifespan. I want this monument to reach as many people as possible, with the goal of being a travelling installation rather than a fixed piece that stays in one place forever. Every component of the monument will be designed to be easily disassembled and shipped; this should also simplify the process of updating it through the years. The monument will designed to function indoors and outdoors, with a preference towards outdoors as this is where most public spaces are located. The monument will be powered by solar panels and will be completely self-sufficient, in part to reflect the need for alternative energy as well as to simplify the process of installation in different environments and locations. Each pillar of the monument will have space for two sets of informational plaques – one on either side – with one version written in English and the other in the most spoken language for the region it is being displayed in.
My inspiration for this pavilion stems from research I conducted earlier this year into the volume of waste on the planet. I was initially focused on examining the impact of construction, as it results in the largest extraction of raw materials as well as the production of the most waste on earth. Over the course of my research, I discovered that while plastic weighs less than most construction materials such as concrete, water, and sand, it results in quite a bit more volumetric waste than these materials; more importantly, it has a greater potential to damage the environment and human health due to its tendency to break up into microscopic particles that are introduced into the food chain. The graph above is a visualization that imagines all the plastic waste on Earth as an additional layer of the Earth’s crust