Monument to Plastic

The Problem

The world is drowning in single-use plastic, and estimates predict the problem will grow significantly by 2050. Scientists can now predict how much plastic will be present on Earth in the future by examining the current production rate of virgin plastic, rate of recycling, and trends in human behaviour. 

Modern humans have been on Earth for over 200,000 years, so it would be logical to assume that the aggregated mass of 7.3 billion humans (the population in 2015), combined with the mass of all our ancestors, would dwarf that of plastic over its short existence. The numbers tell a different story, however. 

Scientists have calculated that the biomass of the entire human population in 2015 was 0.06 billion tonnes. Plastic mass has grown at a much higher rate than human mass, and is now 138 times heavier than all of us combined. There is one key factor that accounts for this: while humans decompose after death, plastic effectively does not; all plastic that has ever been created is still around.

Current estimates put the amount of plastic on Earth in 2050 at 4x the current level unless major changes are made to our habits. A 4x increase in the amount of plastic on Earth is a dramatic figure, but I am optimistic that humans will be able to find solutions that lead to the 2050 estimate decreasing rather than increasing.

Several approaches are needed to tackle this problem, including a change in behaviour through education. While the world is becoming increasingly aware of the looming threat caused by our disposable attitude towards plastic, it can be hard to understand the scale of the problem and what we as individuals can do about it.

Education has become one of the most effective techniques to reduce plastic consumption. Campaigns to reduce the usage of single-use plastic, demonstrate how to effectively sort waste, and document the impact of plastic waste in the ecosystem are examples of effective education.

Scientists have calculated that the biomass of the entire human population in 2015 was 0.06 billion tonnes. Plastic mass has grown at a much higher rate than human mass, and is now 138 times heavier than all of us combined. There is one key factor that accounts for this: while humans decompose after death, plastic effectively does not; all plastic that has ever been created is still around. 

Current estimates put the amount of plastic on Earth in 2050 at 4x the current level unless major changes are made to our habits. A 4x increase in the amount of plastic on Earth is a dramatic figure, but I am optimistic that humans will be able to find solutions that lead to the 2050 estimate decreasing rather than increasing.

Several approaches are needed to tackle this problem, including a change in behaviour through education. While the world is becoming increasingly aware of the looming threat caused by our disposable attitude towards plastic, it can be hard to understand the scale of the problem and what we as individuals can do about it.

Education has become one of the most effective techniques to reduce plastic consumption. Campaigns to reduce the usage of single-use plastic, demonstrate how to effectively sort waste, and document the impact of plastic waste in the ecosystem are examples of effective education.

Data visualization from Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leading pioneer in circular economy

Data visualization from Plastic Ocean Europe

The idea

As I train to be an architect, I feel a personal obligation to do something to address the issue. I have several options at my disposal – such as using sustainable materials or sequestering plastic in buildings. I am also able to use the training I have in spatial understanding of the use of space and how it can convey feelings to send a message to people and help change their minds. These concepts apply equally well to the design of monuments as they do to buildings.

My goal was to create a monument that visualizes the buildup of plastic waste over the course of its 111 year existence and provides a glimpse of the future that awaits us if we do not make dramatic changes to our habits, while giving the viewer insights into what can be done to solve the problem.

The plastic monument’s concept stems from research I conducted earlier this year into the volume of waste on the planet. I was initially focused on examining the impact of construction, as it results in the largest extraction of raw materials as well as the production of the most waste on earth. Over the course of my research, I discovered that while plastic weighs less than most construction materials such as concrete, water, and sand, it results in quite a bit more volumetric waste than these materials; more importantly, it has a greater potential to damage the environment and human health due to its tendency to break up into microscopic particles that are introduced into the food chain. The graph on the next page is a visualization that imagines all the plastic waste on Earth as an additional layer of the Earth’s


Our ever-accumulating waste material if it were to cover the surface of the Earth

My goal with the plastic monument was to use the tools I have learned over the past four years to express the problem of plastic waste visually, using a scale that humans are most familiar with – ourselves. I aim to create a monument that will help viewers visually compare the combined mass of all humanity on Earth with the mass of plastic.

Weight of all plastic on earth vs weight of all humans on earth from 1950-2050

Humans are better at visualizing data spatially than any other method. By visualizing the scale of the plastic waste problem in 3D, I hoped to provide education on the scale of the problem, demonstrate potential solutions, and ultimately help accelerate the action towards a more circular economy in the world. By creating a physical monument that would occupy a public environment, my goal was to make this an issue that could not be avoided. The plastic monument would take the role of other monuments in the past, serving as a way to educate those who come in contact with it.

The plastic monument would be made up of 142 pillars that visualize the mass of plastic from its invention in 1908 through to 2050. Each pillar would be comprised of layers of material that represent human mass, plastic mass, and – for future years – predicted plastic mass. Human mass would be represented by a transparent resin illuminated by a light source at the base of each pillar. Plastic mass would be represented by extruded layers of single-use plastic that have been collected from various sources. The predicted mass of plastic would be visualized with a transparent mesh which would be filled with un-processed single-use plastic.

I found inspiration in geological sediments – the essence of how material accumulates over time on this planet. Each layer is like a time capsule that builds over millions of years. The plastic monument would be made in a similar process to the way these geological layers are formed. My hope was the familiar aesthetic of the plastic monument would make it more relatable to people, providing a similar experience to finding a large stone wall in nature.

Layers or strata of volcanic rocks
North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park

I also found inspiration in Fordite and Detroit agate, an artificial gemstone comprised of layers of paint accumulated over time on the floor of car factories. This process is very similar to the way material accumulates and is deposited on natural sediment rocks. Both examples tell a visual story representing time and the accumulation of material, layer by layer.

Rough pieces of Detroit agate or Fordite
Detail of the layers of paint of a piece of Fordite

The monument was designed to be a “living” sculpture that would be updated annually. As the years progress, pillars would be updated and projected plastic mass values would be replaced with recorded values. Disparities between projected and recorded values will be highlighted to visualize if the problem is worsening or is being addressed.

The monument was designed to be able to travel the world, educating viewers in multiple cities and empowering them to take action. These goals affected both the physical design of the structure as well as the plan for its lifespan. Every component of the monument was designed to be easily disassembled and shipped, which would also simplify the process of updating it through the years.

The purpose of the monument was not only to be an honest demonstration of the problem at hand, but to also provide hope for the future. Infographics would be placed below the pillars, documenting the policies that are being negotiated by government agencies as well as new technologies that are being developed to help solve the problem.

Programmatically, my project was inspired by a competition held by the Young Architect Competition in April 2019. The Plastic Monument competition offers architects the opportunity to play a key role in raising awareness and create an object to show the world the consequences of disposable culture. 

The programmatic constraints of my plastic monument followed this competition’s brief quoted below:

  1. “Installation site: architects can choose any scenario to present it. They can prefigure possible scenarios of an object that will have to reach different contexts and cultures;
  2. Cost-effectiveness; the lack of a fixed budget aims at enhancing architects’ creativity. However, the installation will have to be sustainable both from a technological and an eco- nomic point of view. Therefore, architects will have to take construction costs into account;
  3. Resistance; the installation will be situated in different kinds of spaces. Hence, the design of the installation will have to enable its setting up both indoor and outdoor;
  4. Transportability; according to its function, the in¬stallation will have to be easily trans- portable and mountable;
  5. Durability; the installation will have to be made of durable materials or materials that can be easily replaced;
  6. Components; architects can choose any material. Nevertheless, the installation will also have to include the plastic waste that will be collected throughout the exhibition. This way, there will be a symbolic connection between the activity of the exhibition and the educa- tional aim of the architectural installation;
  7. Structural elements; the installation will have to be self-supporting since it will have to adapt to different contexts.”

The plastic monument was designed to adjust to different environmental conditions, ranging from challenging weather to uneven ground. 

The site for the plastic monument needs to meet two criteria: first, due to its large scale, the site would need to be large enough. Second, the site would need to be easily accessible, as the goal is to be experienced by as many people possible.

The monument was designed to function indoors and outdoors, with a preference towards the outdoors as this is where most public spaces are located. The monument would be powered by solar panels and would be completely self-sufficient, in part to reflect the need for alternative energy as well as to simplify the process of installation in different environments and locations.

The role of the monument was to educate viewers to how we arrived at this problem and what we can do to address it, so at the base of each year I would showcase key events that shaped our current relationship with plastic; for example, the discovery of the Pacific Garbage Patch in 1988 or the “Throwaway Culture” referenced in popular magazines such as Life in 1955. Each pillar of the monument would have space for two sets of informational plaques – one on either side – with one version written in English and the other in the most spoken language for the region it is being displayed in.

There is a risk that a monument to our plastic consumption would be a depressing experience, but my hope was to inspire viewers to the possibilities for our future. As the monument’s timeline moves from the past to the future, the plaques would highlight promises that governments have made to address the plastic problem as well as potential future inventions that are being pioneered by companies and non-profit agencies; this may also serve a secondary purpose of making these entities accountable for their promises.

The creation of the large scale, “living” structure I have envisioned will be a costly and large-scale affair, and will only be possible if there is demand for such a monument. My plan was therefore to prepare a mockup model that could be used for research and promotional purposes. While creating these models, I aimed to gain a better understanding of the work that would be required to scale the project up to a complete 148-strong version, as well as to provide a reference when submitting the monument for considering into a number of relevant festivals such as Vancouver Design Week and the Venice Biennale.

Building and Presenting the Prototype

We were invited by the Museum of Vancouver to produce a scaled down version of our proposed monument, shrunk from the size of a public square to that of a table. 

While the model’s size was a fraction of the proposed amount, the materials and manufacturing techniques would be as similar as possible to the final model. Human mass was to be represented by a clear layer of resin, and plastic mass was represented with melted and recycled plastic. Future years are visualized with transparent mesh to show that we still have the ability to change our patterns.

There was a lot of work required before we could start melting the plastic for the monument: we needed to finalize the model’s dimensions and start hunting moulds, plastic, and resin. But first, we needed to pick up a larger oven and some cutting tools so we could start building our pillars.

We started scouring Craigslist for an oven that would meet our needs. It needed to be big, powerful, able to run for long periods of time, and able to direct exhaust gasses into our fume hood. We finally stumbled on our dream oven, an old electric baking oven that was built like a tank. It could bake 280 muffins an hour, although its days cooking food were numbered. We affectionately named it ‘Nona’.

We got the oven back to the lab, where we discover commercial ovens are a little different from the ones we have back home. They need professional installation by an electrician, so we bring one in only to discover we need a three phase power source. Your building really needs to be wired in the correct way to run a big oven.

With time running out, we decided to double down on the traditional MELT plastic melting device – the toaster oven. We raided the city for every used toaster oven we could find, installed them in a pile under our fume hood, and voila – our oven setup was complete

We broke out the plastic shavings and started melting them into bricks.

 The bricks come out well, with lovely and varied marbling.

Meanwhile, we started preparing our resin moulds. These were substantially easier to produce, and diffused the light from the pillar’s LEDs beautifully.

The precision and quantity of cuts we would need to make on our melted plastic meant that our collection of hand tools was out of the question. After another false start with a cheap Craigslist bandsaw, we rewarded ourselves with a  new table saw and got to work cutting the plastic down to shape.

We put the table saw to good use, and before we know it we have loads of plastic and acrylic cubes.

The deadline for the show was coming up fast, so we assembled the full team and put our heads down assembling the monument. We made it – barely – in time for the show.

Showtime! Seeing the reactions from visitors was really inspiring, and made it all worth the effort. It was rewarding to see people understand the scope of the issue and to have conversations about ways we can address the problem ahead of us.

The marbling turned out so well!

We bought a number of other MELT projects along to the show, including the cigarette skateboard.

The next chapter 

Our first prototype was a scaled down version of the larger version that we were hoping to build. During the creation of our first prototype, however, we came across several problems.

To start, the manufacturing techniques had a number of flaws. The way we were melting our plastic reduced its value and made it quite hard to reuse. The layering technique – although it was very pretty and looked like – fordite or natural materials – had the effect of blending different types and colors of plastics together. Shredding and re-melting the pillars would  result in plastic that would have an uneven color and consistency, and therefore be hard to reuse. This had the ironic effect of reducing the usefulness of the plastic that made up the monument.

We may be able to address this problem by replacing the stacked layers of plastic with multiple long plastic tubes that are made of a single type and color of plastic. We would then mount these tubes vertically, forming pillars that would give the illusion of a bamboo forest.

The switch from a single block of plastic to bundles of tubes would simplify the monument significantly. These bamboo tubes could be easier to transport, assemble, and disassemble. We could use the different tubes to visualize different types of plastic to viewers. And they would be very easy to reuse for future projects, effectively acting as a plastic ‘bank’ that we could cultivate specific types and colors of plastic from for future projects.

Our other big discovery after demonstrating the monument at the Museum of Vancouver was the way we chose to display the information. Our original approach had an acrylic layer representing the mass of humans and a plastic layer representing the mass of plastic for each year. By looking at the total combined mass of humans and the combined mass of plastic, it was very hard for viewers to make sense of the data; viewers still found it very hard to understand the plastic problem in relation to them. 

In a future version, we would love to make some modifications to how we present the data. We would instead visualize the amount of plastic that an individual produces in a year, starting from the year 1950 to what we expect will occur in the year 2050. This would allow one to see a visual representation of just how much they are producing in a year, and how that amount is growing as we rely more and more on single-use plastic. 

Focusing on an individual’s impact also allows us to tailor the monument to different countries. We could more accurately show how much plastic is being produced by an individual, as this amount varies substantially from country to country. We could also demonstrate how much plastic a particular country is producing, even allowing us to compare a country to how much the world is producing. 

These are examples of improvements we noticed when building our initial prototype. By building an early model, we were able to discover and solve problems at an early stage. 

Over the course of the prototype, we have also discovered another way of explaining the story, in the form of a virtual monument.

The Virtual Monument

As we approached the date of the Museum of Vancouver event, we realized we didn’t have a good way of showing the information for each year of the pillar on the smaller scaled model. This led to us creating the first version of the virtual monument, which originally took the form of a TV screen projecting additional information behind the physical model.

The first version of the virtual monument was quite limited, just showing the numbers and interesting fact for each year. However, we found that this virtual version of the monument drew quite a bit of attention. We realized this virtual monument could be taken online and could be an effective way of getting the message out to a global population.

The online version of the virtual monument, accessible at https://plastic.exposed

This eventually led to us creating a virtual 3D monument that could be viewed online, and to explorations into using virtual reality to show the scale of the monument virtually. We would love to continue developing the plastic monument into an augmented reality piece, where everyone with a modern phone could see the monument projected in their living room. We see this as the future of the plastic monument, rather than a physical piece.

In addition to the virtual plastic monument, we also created two separate virtual ‘exhibits’ that explored a particular area of the monument in more depth.

A simulated view of the virtual reality plastic monument

The first exhibit is a timeline that tells the story of the creation of plastic, showing key events that have happened from the invention of plastic to the modern day. This timeline is overlaid on top of a stream of plastic bottles. The rate of the stream is based on the amount of plastic that was produced in the particular year the viewer is reading about.

The first exhibit is a timeline that tells the story of the creation of plastic, showing key events that have happened from the invention of plastic to the modern day. This timeline is overlaid on top of a stream of plastic bottles. The rate of the stream is based on the amount of plastic that was produced in the particular year the viewer is reading about.

The early history of plastic, when very little plastic was still being produced

The history of plastic in its later stages; the flood of plastic bottles behind has grown significantly

As the viewer progresses through the timeline, the rate of plastic increases to the point where it can be a little bit hard to read the writing on the page.

The second exhibit explores the future of plastic. We do so by highlighting key dates in the future when potential technologies or policies may be introduced to help reduce our plastic production.

The “future of plastic” virtual exhibit

As the viewer scrolls through the list of possible solutions, we overlay a chart that shows the estimated growth in plastic from the year 2020 to the year 2050. Each scenario can be turned on and off, so the viewer can see what the predicted effect of each policy will have on the future growth of plastic.

The worst-case scenario – a growth of 3.53x the amount of plastic on earth by 2050

In this way, the viewer can visualize a future where the amount of plastic we produce in the year 2050 is anywhere from 4X to 2X the current amount, depending on the policies they’ve toggled.

The three virtual exhibits can be accessed from the MELT website

We believe this style of presenting information could have a bigger impact than what a physical monument alone can provide. Although we would love to continue working on a physical monument in the future, we are now exploring additional ways that MELT collective can use technology to accomplish its goals. 

As with other MELT projects, the work we did on this project has led us into a number of new directions. In this case, this has led to us exploring the role that technology can have in providing individuals access to tools to use the production techniques that MELT is exploring.