Planet or Plastic
Planet or Plastic – that is the question here. The title may be an allegory of “To be or not to be” from the Danish Prince Hamlet, loosely based on Shakespeare’s tragedy. The consideration of whether and how much plastic we want to produce and use in the future seems to me to be a question of existence. This is at least implied by the exhibition of the same name, currently on display at the Natural History Museum in Braunschweig. “Planet or Plastic?” is a touring exhibition by the National Geographic Society and is presented in collaboration with the State Natural History Museum in Braunschweig and Expona.
As you walk through the exhibition and view the photographs and graphics, it quickly becomes clear that there can be neither a simple nor a definitive answer to the exhibition’s question. This is because plastic, the more elegant term for “plastik,” is a substantial material, as evidenced by its use in medicine or aviation. So, we are not talking about giving up plastic straws for a cocktail, a Princess Lillifee backpack, or a plastic duck for the bathtub. Certainly, the elimination of these disposable items is a first step in the right direction. The photographs of surfers riding perfect plastic-infested waves on one hand and a seahorse holding onto a cotton swab on the other seem to make the decision for or against plastic easy, at least while you are in the museum.
However, I wonder what we should do with images from Asian shops showing spaces filled to the ceiling with plastic wreaths, inflatable toys, or other useless trinkets. Do we really want to lecture these countries with a moral high ground, after we ourselves have used and continue to benefit from the advantages of this invention for decades? Unfortunately, I am not a scientist, so I cannot say which substance could replace organic polymers and whether this material would be less harmful to humans and the environment. Surely, research is already underway for alternative solutions, and there will undoubtedly be economic interests opposing such changes, along with political concessions driven by the desire for political power retention.
Acknowledging indisputable truths is not easy but necessary. The fact is that neither the number of plastic items produced, nor their handling, nor their (improper) disposal can continue as they have been. A “business as usual” approach is not an option here either unless the world wants to blindly rush into disaster. I have noticed, at least since the beginning of waste separation, that the majority of my waste is made of plastic. I have not used plastic bags for decades. And if it cannot be avoided, I use them until they are so torn that further use is no longer possible.
For me, not only do the images in the exhibition “Planet or Plastic” show how significant our waste problem is, but also during nature walks, I am constantly annoyed by people who simply throw their (plastic) trash on the street, into the bushes, or in gardens. Is it thoughtlessness, arbitrariness, or a “after me, the flood” mentality? Why not introduce drastic fines, such as in Singapore? Most people, as we know, respond when it affects their wallets. I fear that a simple exhibition, no matter how ambitious it may be, will not be enough to change minds.