Art exhibit made from restaurants’ plastic waste focuses on sustainability | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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Art exhibit made from restaurants’ plastic waste focuses on sustainability 

“It is just so easy to visualize how much waste is generated. Almost every time you order a beverage, a disposable plastic straw is plunked into your glass whether you asked for it or not.”

click to enlarge Sculptures made from straws and other waste at the Carnegie Science Center - PHOTO: SHIFT COLLABORATIVE
  • Photo: Shift Collaborative
  • Sculptures made from straws and other waste at the Carnegie Science Center

Last year was a big one for the plastic straw. It became a cause célèbre, subject to environmental campaigns to end its use, due to excessive and preventable pollution caused by the straws. Starbucks, McDonald’s, Hilton, and other companies have announced bans on plastic straws that will gradually be put into place. Looking around coffee shops, there is usually at least one person with a metal straw. Kim Kardashian got into a fight on Instagram over plastic straws. 

Straw Forward, a new installation at the Carnegie Science Center’s RiverView Café, will show off sculptures made from straws and other pieces of plastic waste. The project, created by Sustainable Pittsburgh, collected the waste from over two dozen participating restaurants and businesses. The aim of the project is to draw attention to the damage plastic waste does to the environment, but also to encourage restaurants to move toward more sustainable practices.

Ginette Walker Vinski of Sustainable Pittsburgh believes that straws are a good target because of their ubiquity. “With straws, it is just so easy to visualize how much waste is generated. Almost every time you order a beverage, a disposable plastic straw is plunked into your glass whether you asked for it or not,” says Walker Vinski.

Many of the sculptures in the exhibit are of sea creatures made from various waste materials; straw clownfish in a straw sea anemone, an otter constructed from mouse pads, a turtle out of bubble wrap. The design concepts were led by Anthony Closkey of Shift Collaborative and constructed by Shift Collaborative, Sustainable Pittsburgh, and volunteers.

“The Straw Forward exhibit is a visual way to communicate the impacts of plastic waste on the natural environment and to offer ideas for what we can do as individuals to minimize that impact,” says Walker Vinski. 

click to enlarge An otter sculpture under construction for Straw Forward
  • An otter sculpture under construction for Straw Forward

As discussions around plastic straws have grown more popular, disability rights advocates have been quick to point out that banning all plastic straws is not the answer. The flexibility of plastic straws is essential to many with mobility issues for whom metal and paper straws are insufficient. Walker Vinski notes that Straw Forward will incorporate these topics in the exhibit. “We can’t have a conversation about plastic waste without involving the disability rights community,” she says. 

Straws became a hot topic of discussion last year after a video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nostril went viral. Straws are much harder to recycle than other plastics because their small size and weight make it easy for them to literally fall through the cracks of recycling equipment. Because of this, they are more likely to end up in the ocean, where they break down into microplastics. According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99 percent of seabird species will have ingested plastic by 2050. 

The Straw Forward exhibit will run at the Science Center through Feb. 15, after which Seneca Valley High School plans to use them in a student project by incorporating them into resin furniture.

Walker Vinski notes that some of the participating restaurants have begun to switch over to straws made of other, more compostable materials, but also notes that there are many other ways restaurants can reduce waste including donating excess food, using biodegradable takeout containers (or letting patrons bring containers from home), and cooking in ways that use the entirety of a meat or produce.

Reducing waste can seem like a daunting task. It’s so ingrained in our culture to walk out of a store with a plastic bag or get takeout in a Styrofoam container. Changing everyday materials feels like changing an entire lifestyle. 

“This is something Sustainable Pittsburgh is working on, by participating in regional policy initiatives and working with business and community decision-makers to advance sustainability-oriented ways of thinking,” says Walker Vinski. Sustainable Pittsburgh also runs the website Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant, which lays out the standards required for a restaurant to be sustainable and provides a guide to which local restaurants have specific sustainable practices. 

“We want to make the sustainable option the easy one,” she says.

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