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Getting Over the Nurdle Hurdle

Plastic makes life possible in America. I come to this conclusion after trying to live one day without it. As you can guess, I didn’t make it far. From Barbies and Legos to laptops, food containers and cars, plastic is the modern clay.

Tara Donovan, Untitled (Plastic Cups), 2008 (Photo by: Dennis Cowley/ Courtesy Pace- Wildenstein, New York)

We’re looking forward to a big IMA exhibition this April by contemporary artist Tara Donovan, who works in the medium of plastic. I’ve had plastic on the brain since watching the recent documentary Addicted to Plastic, directed by Ian Connacher:

The ironic fact is that plastic was invented as a substitute for natural materials like rubber and cork, in an attempt to conserve them. But now there is ten times more plastic than plankton in the oceans. One hope, according to scientist Freeman Dyson, is biotechnology — engineering fish or birds that can digest our byproducts.

All things plastic are born in the form of a pre-production pellet called a nurdle, about 5 mm in diameter. There is no death for plastic. That plastic spork or toy may break down into smaller pieces, but it never disintegrates. Meaning that the planet has to absorb it all.

What about the cultural impact of plastic? It had a starring role as the smart guy’s investment in 1967’s The Graduate. Some might say it liberated women, creating convenient food storage and reducing drudgery by making vacuums and irons weigh less. You could say that plastic does the opposite by taking power out of our hands—none of us make our own plastic at home.

So what are we to do, knowing that phthalates (the chemical that turns plastic into squishy, pliable vinyl) disrupt hormones? And that our addiction to petroleum-based plastic fuels our addiction to oil?

We innovate, that’s what. Some entrepreneurs consider landfills (brimming as they are with plastic) the “oil wells” of the future. Plastic can be creatively repurposed. Some companies are experimenting with bioplastics. And NEC makes a biodegradable cell phone.

Bring on the ingenuity. Time to dream up some alternatives to the plastic status quo…

Filed under: Art, Musings

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