1997: The discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

While travelling on his sailing boat Alguita in 1997 Captain Charles Moore encountered a horrifying phenomenon whose suspected existence had been the subject of vague conjectures by many scientists. Moore, a chemistry graduate, was taking a short cut through the horse latitudes between Hawaii and Los Angeles when, in the middle of the ocean, he came across an enormous collection of floating plastic garbage. As it turned out later, the bottles, lids, bags and detergent canisters were merely the tip of the iceberg.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 2009. Photo: © Lindsey Hoshaw
Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 2009. Photo: © Lindsey Hoshaw

More about the plastic garbage gyre

2009: The idea for the exhibition

We all believe that we live in a globalized world. Thanks to satellites and internet, information and current events spread around the entire globe within seconds. But things are very different as regards one of the biggest current ecological problems: the littering of our seas with plastic. Silently and unnoticed, huge vortexes of garbage have formed over a period of decades. It was only in 1997 that the first of them was described by Captain Charles Moore. In summer 2009 an impressive article «Eine Ahnung von Apokalypse» («An Intimation of the Apocalypse») appeared in the monthly supplement NZZ Folio. After reading it I could not sleep. I decided to devote a major exhibition to this catastrophe. About the end of design and what we will leave our children. An exhibition on the archaeology of the future.
Christian Brändle, Director of the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich

Picture: C. Brändle, © ZHdK

Peter Haffner, «An Intimation of the Apocalypse», NZZ Folio 07/2009

2010: Archaeology of the future

In 2010, when the first two crates filled with plastic flotsam for the planned plastic garbage exhibition arrived in Zurich (collected by Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawai’i), we initially feared that our test exhibits might have been attacked by mold. But there was no need to worry: the salt water had proved to be an excellent means of preservation.
Picturing how our everyday garbage swirls around the seas for years to be finally washed up on a remote beach in Hawaii is horrifying and, at the same time, fascinating. Students from the specialization course in Scientific Visualization studied these bizarre witnesses of our civilization as if they were archaeological finds. The traces of decay left by wind, water and sunlight become legible signs of the worldwide journey made by a design object at the postponed end of its life cycle.

Scientific Visualization
Photo: Betty Fleck, © ZHdK
Photo: Betty Fleck, © ZHdK

Gallery «Archaeology of the future»
Specialization course in Scientific Visualization: vsv.zhdk.ch

September 2011: We want your garbage!

The question soon arose about the best way for us in Switzerland to collect the amount of plastic flotsam required for the planned installation. The answer was cooperation with the project AWARE. This international scuba diver organization campaigns worldwide for the protection of sharks and against the pollution of the seas. On the scuba diver platform MyOcean what are known as «Dives Against Debris» are regularly set up. When their major action month came around in September 2011 we asked the divers to send us the pieces of plastic they collected.
The Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission on Hawaii decided to send us the results of a collection carried out by 30 volunteers over a period of four days. On account of its position amidst the North Pacific currents Hawaii is particularly exposed to plastic flotsam. As Kaho’olawe is an uninhabited island, the amount of plastic debris collected – 4.6 tons! – demonstrates the problem all the more clearly.

Kaho’olawe Island Reserve, Hawaii. Photo: © Nicole Mucnjak
Photo: © Nicole Mucnjak

More about Project AWARE
More about the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission
Watch a video about the Kaho'olawe Cleanup
Maui Weekly on the Kaho'olawe Cleanup

October 2011: Collecting plastic around the world

But it is not just beaches in Hawaii that are gradually being plasticized. The accumulation of debris in the seas and on beaches is a global problem. Today there are numerous committed persons and associations who, under different names, regularly clean up beaches or gather debris from the sea.
A number of them sent us the plastic they had collected: NABU from the Baltic, a Balinese surf club from the Indian Ocean, and the nature conservation community Sylt with the Surf Club Sylt from the North Sea.

Drift line monitoring, Fehmarn, 2011. Photo: A. Sachs, © ZHdK

Galleries of the clean-ups in Fehmarn, Sylt and Bali
More about NABU

November 2011: The museum collects, too

In everyday life, too, a considerable amount of largely unnecessary plastic can accumulate. Even someone who dutifully brings all their PET and HDPE bottles to be recycled and takes a cotton shopping bag with them rather than buying a plastic one cannot avoid it. Figures provided by the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment show that every Swiss person uses 125 kg of plastic each year – which apparently is around the European average. We collected our personal plastic waste over a number of months – the amount that accumulated is impressive. The result of this collection can also be seen in the exhibition.

Photo: © K. Linder, ZHdK
Photo: © K. Linder, ZHdK

More about plastics
More about plastic waste
More about recycling

December 2011: Drosos Foundation becomes a partner in the project

In December 2011 the plastic garbage project acquired a committed project partner in the form of the Drosos Foundation. This foundation promotes skills and creates circumstances that help people to accept responsibility for themselves, for others and for the environment. The planned educational program supports this fundamental idea. In addition the partnership made it possible to expand the Zurich exhibition into an international traveling show. This means that the plastic garbage project can be shown throughout Europe. A major gain for the project – and hopefully also for our seas! 

More about the Drosos Foundation
More about the international tour

January 2012: The scenography of the exhibition

An exhibition with a huge installation made up of plastic garbage that is later intended to tour the whole of Europe represents a considerable challenge for the exhibition architecture. And the task becomes even more difficult when, in accordance with the focus of the project, the aim is to make the whole thing as ecological as possible.
Zurich scenographer Alain Rappaport designed a modular exhibition architecture that is based on light folding pallet frames. For transport the exhibition objects can be stored in these pallet frames. The visual language refers to the field of tension between the raft and the supermarket.

Meeting with the scenographer. Photo: C. Brändle, © ZHdK

A first sight of the exhibition

February 2012: A container of garbage from Hawaii

From Kahului through the Panama Canal across the Atlantic, up the Rhine and finally to Zurich: in February 2012, following a sea voyage of several months, the precious cargo from Hawaii reached us. After dealing with considerable logistical complexity, predictable import difficulties, and a number of reservations about the condition of the garbage the containers could finally be opened. What the volunteers had been able to collect on the beach of an uninhabited Hawaiian island was truly incredible. In special white bags there were plastic objects that showed the marks of shark attacks.
The 4.6 tons of plastic waste were laboriously transferred by hand to the container in which the exhibition will later tour Europe.

Plastic Garbage from Hawaii. Photo: Johannes Dietschi, © ZHdK

Gallery «Garbage from Hawaii»

June 2012: setting up the exhibition

The exhibition was set up from mid-June onwards. First of all some of the walls were erected, then the plastic garbage was brought into the hall and, once the dust had settled somewhat, the exhibits were put in position.
Clearly, the absolute highlight was the unpacking and distribution of the flotsam from Hawaii. People wearing gloves and face masks dumped roughly three metric tons of plastic debris in the central aisle of the exhibition hall. In the course of doing this all kinds of bizarre plastic objects were found, some of which were extracted and specially displayed.

Photo: C. Brändle, © ZHdK
Photo: C. Brändle, © ZHdK

Look at time-lapse footage of plastic flotsam installation being set-up
To the image gallery of the «exhibition set-up»

3 July 2012: The opening night

Then, on Tuesday, 3 July 2012 the day had finally arrived: the exhibition was opened. After welcoming addresses by Zurich State Councilor Regine Aepli and Stefan Kraft from the Drosos Stiftung, Christian Brändle, Director and Curator, and Angeli Sachs, Curator Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, led people into the exhibition.
The intention to reach people through the impact of the sheer amount of plastic garbage was successful. The message of the central installation is crystal-clear.

Photo: B. Fleck, © ZHdK
Photo: B. Fleck, © ZHdK

To the picture gallery of the opening

July 2012: Labeling the container

With the planned international tour in mind the exhibition was designed to be light and modular so that everything could be transported in a single container. From February 2012 the transport container, which was acquired especially for the exhibition, stood in the park in front of the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich. After the opening of the exhibition the container’s rusty appearance was freshened up somewhat. With the help of a stencil the web address was sprayed on both of the long sides – and so the container was officially labeled.

The labeling of the container. Photo: © ZHdK
The labeling of the container. Photo: © ZHdK

Look at time lapse footage of the container being labeled

October 2012: closing event and dismantling the exhibition in Zurich

It very soon became clear that the exhibition in Zurich was a big success. On this account the originally planned duration of twelve weeks was extended by a further five weeks. When the show definitively closed on 28 October, a total of 35'779 visits had been recorded.
In the following weeks the exhibition was dismantled and preparations were made for the international tour. All the exhibits were packed into crates that had earlier served as the exhibition architecture. Packing the huge installation of plastic garbage presented a special challenge.

Finissage. Photo: C. Brändle, © ZHdK
Repacking the plastic garbage installation. Photo: C. Brändle, © ZHdK