1000 Plastic Bags or so

Members: Zack Wilson

We met Zack Wilson, a student in the visual art printmaking studio, through our work with Hannah on the ALTER sketchbook. Zack came to MELT with a plan to make a classical archway out of plastic bags. The transformation from flimsy film to solid columns and keystones lies in stark contrast, temporally, to the fast industrial process which produced the bags. It is slow, patient, and messy. 

Plastic bags have a very low value in the recycling supply chain because they are very difficult to recycle. They are often very contaminated because of their use as wrappers of various items, from dog food to dog poop. They are unaffordable to clean because of their large surface to material ratio, which collects a lot of contaminants. These properties also make it easy for plastic bags to tangle shredding machines. Waste pickers often ignore plastic bags because no depot wants to buy them, so bags mostly end up in landfills and leak into nature. They can be very dangerous to marine life once they enter the water, as they float like jellyfish and are often mistaken for food. For the same reason they tangle shredders, they can also tangle marine life. With their thin and large surface area, plastic bags break down quicker into microplastics and release dangerous chemical compounds in the process. 

Over the course of his project, Zack collected and melted over 1000 plastic bags and sequestered them into these architectural members. This art installation is a way for us to explore using plastic bags as a structural member; when melted into a single mass similar to bricks and stones, they provide an alternative low-tech and accessible architectural material that can be produced from tools we can find at home. 

While Hannah and June were able to solve our lack of a shredder while making the ALTER sketchbook by using a kitchen blender, Zack was able to adapt to our limitations and transform this hard to recycle material (the shredder destroyer) into plastic bricks in a different way.

A plastic brick
Melting plastic on a stove

Plastic bags are very thin and fluffy, making them easy to burn. There is not a lot of material compared to their large volume and they trap a lot of air bubbles when melted in our tiny toaster. Knowing the amount of time we spent refilling the keychain moulds, we need to find another way to make a full size brick. So we headed back to the kitchen, this time to grab a portable stove and a big pot. Instead of blending and baking, we made a plastic stew, slowly cooking on low heat to avoid burning and stirring occasionally to get rid of air bubbles, but not too much in order to preserve the beautiful marbling effect.

Filling the mould with melted plastic

When everything was melted, we poured this stew into a brick mould made out of wood lined with greased parchment paper.

Clamping the mould

We compressed the mould to make sure the thick ‘stew’ filled every part of corner of the cast by using another piece of wood and a few big clamps.

A finished plastic brick

The result was a series of unique plastic bricks.

Zack Wilson and his Archway, titled “1000 Plastic Bags or So”, exhibiting at the UBC Visual Art graduating show.