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Arts Dawg Preview: Unwrapping ‘Plastics’

(Photo courtesy of the Burke Museum)

(Photo courtesy of the Burke Museum)

Plastic is an inescapable part of everyday life. It’s in the phone, tablet or computer you’re reading this on. The water bottle you lug to the gym is probably plastic. Even the toothbrush you used this morning is made from the ubiquitous material.

It’s a wonderful invention that made many of our modern marvels possible, but it comes at a cost: Plastic is difficult to recycle, doesn’t biodegrade, and contains chemicals that can poison marine life when not properly disposed.

Both sides of that discussion are represented at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture’s latest exhibit, Plastics Unwrapped. The exhibit, which examines the past, present, and future of plastics, runs through May 27; Arts Dawg patrons will get an up-close look at the exhibit, along with remarks from exhibit developer Ruth Pelz, on May 16.

The exhibit starts with the history of plastics and brings to life a piece of pre-World War II Americana by showcasing objects made before plastics took hold in manufacturing. Some of the more puzzling objects on display include a jar coated with pitch to hold water, a hat made from cedar bark, and a rain coat made from sea mammal innards. (Yes, really. “It’s beautiful,” Pelz said.)

From there, “Plastics Unwrapped” uses video, sculpture, text, and more to examine how plastics have taken hold over the past 70 years, how various types of plastics are made, and what happens after we throw them away.

The uglier side of plastics is certainly given its due: One sculpture made from water bottles shows how many are used every second at the University of Washington, and another sculpture shows how many plastic bags are used every quarter-second in the United States. It also explores the challenge of recycling plastics. “You can’t just dump all these plastics together and come out with a water bottle,” Pelz said.

It’s easy to demonize the seedier aspects of plastic; after all, Seattle banned grocery stores from offering plastic bags in July 2012. But the exhibit looks at how plastics helped our culture, especially modern medicine. “You just can’t imagine a glass tube IV,” Pelz said.

The exhibit ends on a hopeful note, offering examples of how companies are altering their practices to use less plastic and sharing with visitors the various ways they can reduce their plastic use. “I hope people will understand that we do have choices to make about how we use plastic, and that they’ll be inspired to use them more responsibly,” Pelz said. “We have to rethink our relationship with plastics.”

If You Go

What: Arts Dawg event in conjunction with “Plastics Unwrapped.” The event includes remarks from exhibit developer Ruth Pelz, a tour of the exhibit, wine, and light appetizers.

Where: Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, 17th Ave NE and NE 45th St., Seattle

When: Thursday, May 16, 2013, 6-8 p.m.

Cost: $8.

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