OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign up, Login or Learn more

How a garbage strike drove an architect to reimagine plastic and provoke change through art and design

Reflections on our relationship with plastics and willingness to change: based on plastics-diverting artwork of Toronto's Eric Charron

Photo of Sarah Van Exan
4 4

Written by

Plastic Bottles Re-Imagined 

In 2009, Toronto had a major garbage strike. While trash and recycling bins were overflowing, Eric Charron (http://upcycledxd.com/work/) was getting started as an architect, living in a rental building with a crumbling stucco ceiling and with a roommate who preferred his water out of four-litre disposal bottles that had nowhere to go. While the rest of us griped, Eric saw possibility in the material - as a builder, designer and as someone who had been thinking about characteristics of materials since he was a kid. He built a wall storage unit and then a light fixture to hide that crumbling ceiling out of his roommate's stock piled bottles. He has since been filling his evenings - sometimes every waking hour - building thought provoking and beautiful pieces from diverted plastic bottles of all types, ranging from large scale chandeliers, to hanging solar lights to side and coffee tables. His work has diverted over 1500 bottles and inspired changes in behaviour by his bottle "suppliers" and perspective by its viewers, who reimagine plastic packaging as a material with functionality beyond the brief life that was originally planned for it. 

Following the discussion with Eric, we reflected on insights from his story. Here are a couple worth sharing:

Social Norms are a BIG Barrier

Plastics irk many of us. We feel guilty for our consumption and we judge others for theirs.  Yet, over-packaging and disposable products aren’t on the decline, and examples like Eric’s creations are hard to come by. 

One of the contributing factors that hit home when reflecting on this challenge was the role of social norms. We try to politely avoid plastic, but do not overtly confront the problem. Whether you are at a friend’s for a BBQ surrounded by disposable plates or a cafe that serves beverages in plastic or styrene cups - we often prefer to say ‘thank you’ rather than speak our mind or suggest alternatives. 

Are we too polite? Are we scared to tell each other that we think of each other's behaviour or to deviate from the pack? Could our habits change to become more comfortable with confrontation? How?

Make it Personal 

An issue that affects you personally, can spark a response, and the response that draws on your personal interest can likely be sustained over time. 

Until something becomes personal - like a garbage strike - people don't think about the problem. Eric’s work can be traced to a pivotal event in his personal life that sparked his creative outlook and inspired him to take action. 

Eric’s response was creative. It reflects an interest that dates back to his childhood when he began creating forms with stray materials and is central to his profession. This helps to explain how he can sustain this project with upwards of 20 hours of unpaid time in a week. Imagine if we all got engaged in solving global challenges in a small way by tapping into what we care about most? 

 


 





How does this research relate to our Use Cases?

Society needs help embracing its discomfort with disposable plastic. We need provocation by change agents like Eric to rethink our relationship, and we need to push public discomfort with plastic so the new social norm is to reject unnecessary plastics and the new economic norm is cirrcular design.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Some who have seen these works have asked if they could be produced out of glass, suggesting discomfort with bringing plastic in their homes as art. People's relationship with plastics is dominated by its disposability - it is cheap and plentiful. Do we want people to value it more and prolong its lifecycle or keep devaluing it to make it easier for us to kiss it goodbye forever?

Tell us about yourself

We are three former colleagues who worked together on waste policy focused on producer responsibility and a circular economy. Each on separate career paths, we remain friends and engaged in thinking about the circular economy.

4 comments

Join the conversation:

Comment
Photo of OpenIDEO

Hi Sarah!
There are 3 days left in the ideas phase of the circular design challenge! It would be great to see your ideas there, submit your idea via - https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/circular-design/ideas/contribute

View all comments