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Plastic: Remaking Our World at the National Museum of Singapore unpacks our plastic planet

2 mins read

An average person handles plastics every hour of the day, from toothbrushes and phone chargers to credit cards and bank notes. Most household objects contain traces of plastics too. For instance, the beads in bean bags are not, as its name suggests, actually beans but a type of plastic foam known as expanded polystyrene, while mirrors are often made of acrylic instead of glass because the former is lighter and shatterproof.

Long story short, we live in a plastic world. Or the Plasticene (the age of plastics), according to Plastic: Remaking Our World, the Asian premiere of a travelling exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore. Featuring over 300 exhibits from the inception of plastics to objects of the pop and contemporary eras, the exhibition unpacks the discourse surrounding the controversial material—at once essential yet a major contributor to waste and pollution.

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Plastic bears a dual identity, representing both innovation and an environmental challenge, a fact evident right from the start of the exhibition. Initially developed out of necessity as a substitute for limited natural materials, the demand for synthetic plastics across the globe grew significantly due to its versatility and durability.

It even played pivotal roles in historical and cultural milestones, such as the debut of Mattel's Barbie doll in 1959 and Neil Armstrong's moon landing gear in 1969, largely sourced from DuPont's plastic business.

The monobloc chair on the other hand, emerges as a global symbol that signifies both utilitarianism and a culture of mass production. While plastics have enabled new ways of living, it has also fueled a disposable culture and environmental crisis, particularly with single-use plastics. This calls for a growing urgency to reassess plastic usage.

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Plastics can be found everywhere in the physical environment and even the bodies of living things. In the interactive installation The Shore Debris Table by Singaporean artist and photographer Ernest Goh, a 6m-long table is filled with debris collected from the coastline of Punggol beach.

Visitors are invited to sit at the table and use the steel tweezers provided to fish out plastic fragments from among the rocks and twigs, an activity that should prompt reflection on the extent of plastic pollution and how it has penetrated aquatic ecosystems.

Similarly, Kalpa, a nine-minute film by London-based architecture firm Asif Khan Studio, reinforces this point. The film traces two billion years of life on earth, including the commercial discovery of oil in the late 19th century and invention of synthetic plastics.

The healthcare sector today is a prime example of the plastic paradox. While it works to save lives, plastics are used in almost all medical supplies, including blood bags, incubators, surgical masks, and gloves. Most significantly, the industry has a wasteful side: surgical equipment that used to be sterilised and reused is now discarded in favour of cheaper single-use alternatives.

Make plastics precious again

In hopes of creating a circular plastic economy, Dutch designer Dave Hakkens founded Precious Plastic. Created in 2012, this international open-source recycling project requires collaboration from all corners and has successfully amassed over 7,000 members worldwide, offering free plans and support for people to build simple machines that can recycle plastic.

Back home, the Singapore University of Social Sciences has developed Flam, an alternative material to plastic that uses the two most abundant organic materials on earth— chitin and cellulose. The goal is not just to replace plastic, but outperform it entirely. In fact, the entire exhibition itself refrains from using plastic as far as possible, electing to use wood, steel, and aluminium for the display cases.

It is apt that this final section of the exhibition is simply titled “Re-”. Beyond just reducing, reusing, and recycling, it might be time to start rethinking our relationship with plastics and reimagining what we could use in their place.

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Join in the conversation at Plastic: Remaking Our World. The exhibition runs from 10am to 7pm daily at the National Museum of Singapore.

Check it out here!

All images are credited to the National Museum of Singapore.

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