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The Long-lasting History of Disposability: Recapping ‘Plastics Unwrapped’

"Plastics Unwrapped"

“Plastics Unwrapped”

Early in our tour of “Plastics Unwrapped,” the latest exhibit at the Burke Museum, my date and I turned a corner and found ourselves face-to-face with a wall adorned with 1,500 clear water bottles. The empty bottles took up every square inch of the surface, save for where a small sign explained their significance: The massive display represented the number of water bottles used every second in the United States.

That was just one of the many unbelievable visuals we encountered as part of the latest event in the Arts Dawg series. The Arts Dawg event may be over, but “Plastics Unwrapped” presents stunning statistics and memorable visuals through May 27 at the Burke Museum.

I met Jenna, my date for the evening, about the time the museum opened its doors to Arts Dawg patrons; we got to know each other while exploring the Burke’s numerous exhibits. The conversation came easily – so much so, we missed the first few minutes of the tour offered by “Plastics Unwrapped” exhibit developer Ruth Pelz – an Arts Dawg exclusive opportunity.

Early on, the half-hour tour shed light on the history of plastic and the unlikely genesis of the exhibit; Pelz said she and other exhibit planners were inspired by a Burke Museum exhibit on coffee. That discussion led the group to think about other seemingly ordinary items that deserved a brighter spotlight. Elsewhere in the tour, Pelz discussed the chemistry behind various forms of plastic, examined the material’s rise in modern culture, and talked about its use in all walks of life today.

Pelz didn’t hold back in describing the negative impacts plastic have on our society. We learned that it can take up to 400 years for plastics to decompose, and we stood next to a 170-pound tower of electronics waste – representing the volume of electronics discarded every second in the United States.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Pelz talked about how plastic has revolutionized modern medicine and showed off a pair of prosthetic legs made possible by plastic. And tips on reducing plastic use were sprinkled throughout the exhibit.

Pelz stuck around after the tour to answer any lingering questions as most of us scattered to explore the exhibit on our own. Jenna and I marveled at a 12-year-old iPod on display, scoped out a collection of environmentally-friendly alternatives to plastics (including a set of bamboo eating utensils), marveled at a rain coat made from sea mammal innards, and gleefully played with some of the plastic toys on display. With the unusual items and eye-popping statistics, we lost ourselves in learning about a material that had seemed so unremarkable just two hours earlier. Before we knew it, the Arts Dawg staff started cleaning the museum and folding up the tables, ending our exploration. Jenna’s only complaint of the evening? She hadn’t known about the exhibit earlier.

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