An 18,000-Plastic-Cup-Artwork Reflects Singapore's Undiscussed Waste Situation
A new visual vernacular is now on display at the Sustainable Singapore Gallery in Marina Barrage. The immersive installation, titled 'Plastikophobia,' which debuted a fortnight ago, stands 3.5 meters tall and is made of 18,000 plastic cups.
The installation is glittered with LED fairy lights and resembles a cavernous cosmic grotto imbued with elements of trypophobia — an aversion to clusters of small holes — and claustrophobia. It was created by Canadian viral photographer and artist Benjamin Von Wong, who was invited by the High Commission of Canada, and Singapore-based social impact strategist Laura A. François.
Von Wong said they tried to imagine something with a hint of different phobias. They wanted to coin a new term to describe a fear of plastic. Something that has not yet been created. And that was an opportunity to introduce a new term into the lexicon and, hopefully, raise awareness of plastics.
With the help of the National Environmental Agency, the duo collected 18,000 used plastic cups from just 24 hawker centers in Singapore, a staggering amount collected in just one and a half days. They and 75 volunteers worked together for 10 days to sort, wash, and melt the plastic cups. These cups were then plastered onto multiple upcycled wooden panels with glue and staples with the assistance of Singapore-based Imaginator Studios.
They took away cups that were never taken away; they were all collected in dine-in settings. Then purposefully, the holes were burned in many cups to remind people that Singapore still incinerates most of its waste. In Singapore, the waste strategy has been based on burning rather than reusing.
According to a 2018 report published by the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources, only 6% of all plastic waste was recycled in 2017. According to Von Wong, most non-recyclable waste is "turned to the incinerator."
As authorities blame contamination of plastic disposables from food and liquid waste in blue recycling bins, the debate over whether Singaporeans have a casual attitude toward recycling resurfaces.
With 2019 designated Singapore's Year Toward Zero Waste, the country is reconsidering food, electronic, and packaging waste management to reduce its carbon footprint. As a result, the installation 'Plastikophobia' has never been more relevant.
Walking through the man-made installation is an overwhelming experience for many people. On the one hand, it sheds light — literally — on the egregious consumption of single-use plastics, but on the other, the sense of constriction is undeniably dizzying and uncomfortable.
Von Wong explained that he really wanted people to understand how unnecessary these take-out cups are. That if one person lives for 30,000 days and uses one cup daily, that's 30,000 cups. And that's how much one person can change the world.
On the other hand, Von Wong quickly pointed out that the process of creating the piece was not easy. While attempting to stay true to the larger narrative of instilling a subtle sense of fear and discomfort, Von Wong claims that the installation was "too pretty" at one point.
Environmental conservation and the waste crisis are recurring themes in Von Wong's work. The 32-year-old artist collaborated with Dell in 2018 to transform 4,100 pounds of e-waste into three breathtaking landscapes. He also set a Guinness World Record for the World's Largest Drinking Straw Sculpture earlier this year when he used 168,000 single-use plastic straws to create a 3.3-meter-tall art installation in Vietnam. "It's always exciting to be recognized, and I'm very proud of myself. But, at the end of the day, it's about how many hearts and minds [each installation] touches, and whether or not it influences policy — those are the things we truly care about." Von Wong claimed.
The recent surge in interest in reducing plastic waste has prompted organizations and individuals to embark on conservation projects and pledge to reduce plastic consumption. In 2018, an upmarket supermarket in Amsterdam, in Netherlands opened the world's first plastic-free aisle. At the same time, companies such as Nestlé S.A. and PepsiCo Inc. are experimenting with selling their products in glass or steel containers.
Local entrepreneurs in Singapore, such as Melissa Lam of Bamboo Straws Worldwide and Samantha Thian of Seastainable.co, are among those encouraging Singaporeans to go plastic-free.
As the conversation about plastic waste and conservation continues, the duo has received flak and criticism for their installation. In addition, some people have expressed concern about the installation's future. They are concerned about how the plastic cups will be disposed of when the exhibition, which runs until April 18, 2019, concludes. This is ironic, given that the duo has increased the shelf life of plastic cups from a few days to a few months.
- Benjamin Von Wong, 32, a Canadian artist, is putting the finishing touches on a segment of "PLASTIKOPHOBIA."
- Throughout one and a half days, the team collected over 18,000 used plastic cups from 24 Singapore hawker centres.
- Laura A. François, who has lived in Singapore for four years, works with 75 other volunteers to create the visual spectacle over ten days.
- "PLASTIKOPHOBIA," the brainchild of Benjamin Von Wong and Laura A. François, promotes an open dialogue about single-use plastic in Singapore.
- "PLASTIKOPHOBIA" is a visual delight.