Our action takes the form of a visual diary describing our increasing reliance on plastic, and how science has been interwoven in this over the past century. Each post reflects a major over the past 100 years. Through documents, text and photographs, we highlight the initial excitement surrounding the creation of the first plastics (eg. Bakelite) which ushered in an era of innovation, science, and discovery. Within a matter of decades, plastics had become inexpensive and ubiquitous in our daily lives, transforming society into one that focused on ‘throwaway living’ and increased convenience. Scientists quickly returned to this as they began to document plastic items in our oceans and wildlife. Though evidence of the detrimental impacts of plastic on our environment — and even human health — has increased substantially, plastic production accelerates, outpacing positive behavioural and policy change. Facing the realities and legacy of this pollutant is an important part of what Adrift Lab does, and this action, DISPOSABLE PROGRESS, is a valuable tool for all of us to reflect on.
This project is part of our plastics research program supported by Detached Cultural Organization, University of Tasmania, The Natural History Museum London, Lord Howe Island Museum (especially I. Hutton), the islands and communities in which we work, Pure Oceans Fund, L. Mortensen, L. Brice and the generosity of countless others.
Adrift Lab is an interdisciplinary group of Australian and international scientists who investigate the ecological impacts of plastic pollution on our environment. We are passionate about science communication, and engage with diverse and talented partners who help us translate our science and stories of birds, plastic and remote islands into beautiful pieces that engage the global community in this critical issue that affects us all. Recent exhibitions include GYRO at the 2016 London Design Biennale and SUBLETHAL at the 2020 Biennale of Sydney.
A man who revolutionized the world. Leo Baekeland (1863 – 1944).
The invention of plastic and billiards. Not a normal pairing one might argue. By the mid 1800s, billiards had become a symbol of status to the wealthy. This is because billiard balls were made from the most exquisite ivory, a resource becoming increasingly scarce with the unsustainable hunting of elephants. Because of the demand for fine ivory, elephant populations were decimated, and a new material was needed.
This was an age of wonder, of possibility, of science fiction. The invention of the world's first fully synthetic plastic material was the work of Leo Baekeland in 1909. This material became known as Bakelite. It was lightweight, cheap to produce and moldable to almost any shape, which opened up a plethora of opportunities.
Bakelite became synonymous with possibility. "The material with a thousand uses" became a familiar saying and the Bakelite logo even encompassed an infinity symbol.
A wave was building, a wave like no other.
Presented by Lillian Stewart, PhD Candidate at Adrift Lab, based at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania.
Wisdom is the oldest known Laysan Albatross. At around 71 years old (as of 2021), she was born into an ocean free of plastic in the early 1950s.
Within a matter of decades, plastics have become cheap and ubiquitous in our daily lives, transforming society into one that’s focused on ‘throwaway living’ and increasing convenience. In the 1945 book ‘Plastics’, Yarsley and Cousins describe a carefree, plastic-filled life: “This [imaginary] plastic man will come into a world of colour and bright shining surfaces where childish hands find nothing to break, no sharp edges, or crevices to harbour germs... The walls of his nursery, all his toys, the teething ring he bites, the unbreakable bottle he feeds from [are all plastic]. As he grows he cleans his teeth with plastic brushes, clothes himself in plastic clothes, and writes his first lesson with a plastic pen. The windows of his school, curtained with plastic cloth, [are] entirely grease- and dirt-proof ... and the frames, like those of his house, are of moulded plastic, light and easy to open, never requiring any paint.” Our addiction to plastic has begun.
Presented by Dr Jennifer Lavers, Marine Biologist at Adrift Lab, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, based at the University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania.
Pearl and Hermes Reef: a tiny atoll located in the North Pacific Ocean.
1966: a mere 57 years after plastics were first invented.
How little time it took for a wild animal to mistakenly ingest plastic.
100 Laysan Albatross carcasses examined; 74 carcasses with plastics; 241 pieces found in total. Astonishing figures considering it was the first ever research paper, published in The Auk in 1969, to describe the ingestion of plastics by wildlife.
In 1944 a plastic sachet containing a coffee ration was found washed up on a beach in New Guinea. It was celebrated for its longevity.
Years later in 1974, a ship steamed through the North Pacific and towed a net to record floating tar. They found plastics as well. Sixty-two pieces to be exact, which equated to 34,000 pieces per square kilometre. It is no wonder that the albatrosses were found with ingested plastics.
In 2015 a research voyage to Henderson Island in the South Pacific Ocean took place. The researchers found a purple hermit crab using an Avon hand cream container as its home. We dated the container; circa 1961.
That Avon container will outlive the hermit crab. It will go on to live another day and possibly become another hermit crab’s home.
In 1971 the James Bond film ‘Diamonds are forever’ was released. Maybe it should have been called ‘Plastics are forever’ instead. Would have been more fitting, don’t you think?
Presented by Megan Grant, PhD Candidate at Adrift Lab, based at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Launceston, Tasmania.
The first wave of environmental movements began with a photo of Earth from the moon. The second wave is here, driven by social media and heart-breaking videos and photos of the damage we are doing to the planet and wildlife. Can we make the most of the #SecondWave?
Presented by Dr Jack Auty, Researcher and Lecturer in Biomedicine at Adrift Lab based at the University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania.
So what does the future have in store? If we return to the natural places that we enjoyed as children, or that our parents or grandparents explored, what will greet us? On remote, uninhabited Henderson Island, in the #PitcairnIslands, the answer is stark: a largely pristine beach has transformed into one littered with 18 tonnes of rubbish in only 25 years (1991-2015).
Even with all the mitigation measures in place today, plastic production is still increasing exponentially and leaks from waste management streams continue spewing rubbish into our oceans, rivers, and waterways. It can seem overwhelming and unstoppable. But by pressuring companies and politicians to work together to stem the tide of plastic pollution, we can hopefully, one day, return to our pristine beaches.
Presented by Dr Alex Bond, Ecologist and Conservation Biologist at Adrift Lab, based at the Natural History Museum, Tring, UK.