Wednesday 25 November 2020

Everywhere: Life in a littered world

By Joanne Lee and Rosemary Shirley

Joanne Lee and Rosemary Shirley are the curators of  ‘Everywhere: Life in a littered world’, an online exhibition for The Arts Institute, University of Plymouth, launched alongside Micro2020, an international scientific conference on the fate and impacts of microplastics in the environment. In this blog post, they outline their curatorial intentions and explore some of the themes that have emerged.


In recent years, the creation and disposal of waste has become an urgent area of global concern, amplified through an emotive response to its material excess and polluting effects. Our project recognises that whilst there are of course significant problems to be addressed with regard to reducing or eradicating litter, the complex intersectionality of issues through which waste is caused and distributed demand creative and critical responses that engage rather than alienate.


As curators, we have been thinking on and with different scales, both spatially and in terms of duration: litter is, after all, a matter that requires negotiation between the local and the global, between the throwaway moment of the single-use plastic bottle and the long durée of breakdown, and between the seemingly everyday triviality of the subject and the monumental potentiality of waste. 


For the exhibition, we have considered the matter of litter that is everywhere out of place: often mobile and hard to contain, it blows, disintegrates and leaks from our efforts to dispose or manage. It is unwanted, contaminating and enduring and thus resolutely in every place; from the streets of our major cities to the remote polar regions, from the epic scale of landfill and off-shoring to the minute particles found in so-called ‘plastic rain’ identified in recent research. Waste is ineradicably present in the lives of contemporary species and will last long into an inconceivable future: we have sought to explore how playfully affective contemporary art can engage viewers and operate imaginatively to help us understand its various scales, meanings and materialisations and consider how we might live with what humankind has produced. 

Image credit: Diana Lelonek ‘PET Environment’ from Center for Living Things

It is perhaps unsurprising that plastics of various sorts feature in the work of every artist whose practice we have featured. The casual littering of plastic-bagged dog faeces captured by John Darwell, is set alongside the deliberate trans-border shipping of technological so-called ‘e-waste’ in Kai Loffelbein’s documentary photographic series CtrlX. An intimate encounter between a snail and a plastic bag in the work of Peter Nencini sets off a chain of connections between capitalism and the ‘natural’ world, whilst the beaches of an uninhabited Pacific island are revealed as deposited with the products and packaging of multiple global brands in Mandy Barker’s investigative images. Plants colonise plastic discards in illegal Polish dumps in Diana Lelonek’s Center for Living Things, and future animals are imagined by Pinar Yoldas in her Ecosystem of Excess, as having evolved to thrive as plastivores, living amongst and eating the plastic waste that we have caused to proliferate. 

Image credit: D. Taylor ‘different ways of saying the same thing’

The artists have also considered the new myths necessary for us to live amongst our own leavings: D. Taylor interprets scraps of pavement litter as sigils through which divination might occur and Tejal Shah’s ritualistic performance on a complex landfill site offers a queer and feminist perspective on living in damaged places.


The artists with whom we have worked are brought into a curatorial constellation which we hope resonates to show the scale, interconnectivity and power relations of waste practices. This helps us to sustain an engagement beyond the understandable desire for a quick fix and to reveal the entanglements of human and non-human actors and the overlapping of social, cultural and natural phenomena.



Everywhere: Life in a littered world

22 November 2020–31 January 2021

Online exhibition:


Artists:  Mandy Barker, John Darwell, Diana Lelonek, Kai Loffelbein, Peter Nencini, Tejal Shah, D.Taylor and Pinar Yoldas.


Joanne Lee is an artist and writer based in Sheffield. She is Course Leader for Graphic Design in the Department of Art and Design at Sheffield Hallam University.


Dr. Rosemary Shirley is Associate Professor in the Department of Museum Studies, University of Leicester.


Wednesday 18 November 2020

My plastics at home: part 2.

As we are now in the second coronavirus lockdown, I thought it would be interesting to re-visit the My plastics at home blog series. The MoDiP team are all working from home for some, if not all, of the week (staff involved in tasks that require access to the collections continue to come onto campus), so I decided to ask everyone to contribute. The brief was to send me a picture of a favourite plastics object from home, with a brief description of what the object is and why they chose it. This is what we came up with:

Professor Susan Lambert, MoDiP’s Chief Curator

I have known this little swan all my life. It is a soap dish that floated in my bath when I was a small child in the late 1940s. I re-met it when I was clearing out my mother’s house some fifteen years ago and now it puts a smile on my face every day. It appeals to me because it provides such a succinct lesson in plastics manufacture. It was made in England for Gantoy and is a relatively early example of injection moulding. The gate – the point at which the plastics enter the moulding tool – can be seen clearly on the back of the swan’s head. And, manufactured in three parts with the wings snap-fitted to the body, it demonstrates an early example of a form of fixing unique to the plastics materials group.

Doctor Louise Dennis, MoDiP’s Curator

My object is an acrylic desk sign given to me by my colleagues. The sign is made up of three sections: a base with a stepped slot cut into it, a wide opaque black back panel, and a smaller clear front panel. The front panel has the words ‘Dr. Louise Dennis, Museum of Design in Plastics’ laser etched into it so that the semi-translucent, almost white letters stand out against the black back drop. The sign means a lot to me because it represents a long journey and a lot of hard work, which all came to a conclusion during lockdown when I have not been able to celebrate my achievement. Being called Dr. makes me giggle every time, it seems so surreal, I must learn to get used to it and this sign will help me do just that.

Pam Langdown, MoDiP’s Documentation Officer

During lockdown, in particular, I seem to have spent quite a lot of time in the kitchen, trying to come up with something interesting for dinner. One of the things I use almost daily is this green colander, made from injection moulded polypropylene by Mepra of Italy. I bought it some years ago and I have the feeling that it will be one of those kitchen tools that will be with me for many years to come. I have three colanders in my kitchen cupboard but this is the one I prefer. I like it for its simple, uncomplicated design. It is the one I pick up in preference to the others. The choice of material means that it doesn’t require ribs for strength, so there are no nooks and crannies created in moulding that hold onto stray soap bubbles and make it difficult to dry after washing, and the drain holes are small enough that strands of spaghetti don’t sneak through. Its’ tripod arrangement of feet means that it is stable and, coincidentally, they are spaced just the right distance apart that it fits into the half sink and stays put without toppling over when I drain vegetables or pasta. It has frequently been used to transport freshly picked tomatoes, raspberries, herbs, and salad leaves etc. from the garden to the kitchen. And, inverted, I think it has even been used for kid’s dressing up as some sort of head gear. I predict that it will be in my kitchen cupboard long after other things have fallen by the wayside, and all for the price of a couple of cups of coffee. What a bargain.

Julia Pulman, MoDiP’s Digital Communications Officer

This Elizabethan collar (the cone of shame) that my dog is seen wearing in this picture is made from low-density polyethylene. It is flexible enough for him to lay his head down and sleep whilst being stiff enough to restrict his range of movement so that he is unable to worry his bandaged foot. It has air holes to help with ventilation, is transparent to aid vision and navigation and wipe-clean for hygiene purposes (especially useful after meals!). Despite the fact that my dog looks a little unhappy wearing this plastics object, it really did help with his recovery and he has now returned to his normal self.

And, as for me…

Katherine Pell, MoDiP’s Collections Officer

As Bakelite was once marketed as the material of a thousand uses, I feel this object should be promoted as one that will save a thousand arguments. Certainly in my house anyway. I bought this Tangle Teezer hairbrush for my daughter about ten years ago and it is still going strong, albeit a little battered. The soft polyester ‘teeth’ are arranged in alternate rows of longer and shorter lengths, which bend and flex to detangle the hair without pulling or tugging (or screaming!). The injection moulded, polypropylene body is ergonomically shaped to fit comfortably in the palm of the hand. It was designed by a British hairdresser, is made in the UK and has won numerous awards since its launch in 2007. I have calculated that ours has so far been used over 7000 times!

Katherine Pell, Collections Officer, MoDiP.

Wednesday 11 November 2020

Bois Durci

These days we are encouraged to buy products made from plastics materials by assurances of the sustainable resources from which they are made. Consumers are increasingly made aware that plastics derived from oil are not always the most environmentally friendly and that there are other options. Bio plastics made using sustainable resources such as bamboo fibres, algae, coffee grounds, pine fibre and polylactic acid (PLA) from corn starch and sugar cane, for example, are very much in vogue, but the concept is nothing new.  

It has been done before, and it feels sometimes that the production of mouldable plastics materials has come full circle.  Materials such as cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate (cellulose being the main constituent of plant cell walls and of vegetable fibres such as cotton) were amongst the earliest semi-synthetic plastics, but in 1856 Francis Charles Lepage patented ‘A new composition of materials that may be employed as a substitute for wood, leather, bone, metal and other hard or plastic substances’.  This material was Bois Durci. 

It was made by mixing fine, sieved sawdust of selected tree species with 15 or 20%, by weight of liquid blood, probably acquired from the slaughterhouses of Paris where Lepage lived. A colouring was sometimes added to achieve the desired appearance.   The concoction was mixed and heated and the resulting paste was dried and reduced to a powder. The powder was then poured into metal moulds and subjected to pressure and heat until it bound together and took on a density which could be forced into the fine detail of the mould. After half an hour of heat and pressure, the mould was removed and the resulting object plunged into cold water. It was a particularly dense material and could be worked on a lathe or sawn, like hard wood, and could be polished.  Its strength and resilience relied on the albumen in the blood combining with the sawdust.  

Unsuccessful in his attempts to manufacture items to a good standard, Lepage sold his patent in 1859 to entrepreneur Alfred Latry.  Latry established the Societé du Bois Durci and after initial difficulties, Latry began to make and sell a wide range of small decorative objects, such as ink well stands, desk sets, combs, pipe stems and portrait plaques. He exhibited his goods at the World Exhibition in London in 1862 and at the Paris Exposition in 1867. 

By the end of the 19th century Latry’s Societé du Bois Durci had been taken over by MIOM – La Manufacture d’Isolants et Objects Moulés. They continued to make Bois Durci until about 1920, with a somewhat altered recipe, but by that time the material had been superseded by materials such as bakelite, the first entirely synthetic plastic.


MoDiP has recently acquired a small portrait plaque (see above image) made from Bois Durci and has one other object, an ink well stand, in its collection:

We will undoubtedly be on the look out for other objects made from this unconventional early plastic. 

Pam Langdown, Documentation Officer.

Wednesday 4 November 2020

Innovations in recycling

One of the great things to come out of the Covid-19 lockdown is the opportunity to access online conversations which might have been inaccessible to us previously.  This could be down to the fact that we are not a member of the group having the conversation, or we might not be able to justify a whole day out of the office to attend a seminar, or the costs of travel might be prohibiting.  One such opportunity came up this month where I joined a live webinar put on by Recoup.  


MoDiP has lots of objects made with recycled material. AIBDC: 005940

Recoup is a charity that aims to lead and inform the continued development of plastics recycling and resource management; be the UK's plastic value chain co-ordinators and the independent voice of reason; and educate the public and businesses on the recycling of plastics to protect the environment.

The webinar I attended was looking at Innovation and the Future of Plastics Recycling and was part of a series of conversations relating to plastics recycling and resources all of which can be watched again on the Recoup website and I look forward to watching the others as this was such an informative webinar.

Innovation and the Future of Plastics Recycling was chaired by Jim Harvey, Innovation Lead Industrial Carbonisation, Innovate UK/UKRI and brought together 3 pairs of speakers – 2 who were talking about the identification of plastics materials for recycling, and the third talking about the chemical recycling of plastics and their subsequent use in technical clothing.

The first pairing, Gian De Belder, Technical Director, R&D Packaging Sustainability, P&G and An Vossen, Executive Manager, Plarabel, spoke about a really interesting project, HolyGrail 2.0, which explores the use of adding digital watermarks to plastics either in mould or through imperceptible printed coding across the whole item so that it is easy to read by sorting machines.  This technology would also help recycling sorters to see black and transparent plastics which the current systems find difficult. The resultant ‘intelligent’ packaging could be sorted further including separating food grade from non-food grade material adding value to the end recyclate.  The project is continuing to create a standardised digital watermark database, encourage consumer engagement and work on the commercialisation of the process.  More can be seen in this news report

The second pair of speakers, Marina Leed, Senior Sustainability Manager and Amy Sandhu, Head of Sustainability and Government Relations, both of BASF Canada were speaking about their project ReciChain.  The aim of this project is to keep the value of plastics materials in the circular economy.  The plan is for the material to have an embedded digital tracer, the material can then be traced as it makes its way around the circular loop from the manufacturer or packaging through to the consumer and on to the recycler.  The tracer could then be linked to credits which would gain value with each additional time the material goes around the loop.

The last pairing was Rob Webbon, CEO, Presca and Dr Martin Atkins, CEO, Poseidon Plastics who were talking about the sustainable issues presented by the fashion industry.  The fashion industry is the 3rd most polluting sector (behind fuel and agriculture), it is a traditionally take-make-waste industry, and creates 10% global emissions.  Presca make sports clothing and their project with Poseidon aims to create good quality cycling and triathlon clothing out of recycled polyester (including PET bottles).  To make good quality recycled yarn for clothing Poseidon chemically recycle all kinds of polyester including fabrics by depolymerising the material back to its monomer state.  I found it really interesting to hear that there is a lot of titanium in white textiles and this resource can be recaptured and made use of.  Following this talk I have acquired one of Presca’s Forever T-shirts for the MoDiP collection due to its sustainable credentials which includes the tightknit fabric, made from 100% recycled bottles.  This type of fabric construction has an increased resilience and reduces the shedding of microfibres during washing.

All of these projects with focus on sustainability were fascinating, I will definitely go back to some of the other webinars that are part of the series.

Louise Dennis, Curator of MoDiP