SpongeSpace Trash Takeover

A comment by Tamiko Thiel.

For the Medientage München 2020, Cyan Planet and the xR HUB Bavaria kindly invited me to stage an intervention, which became the "SpongeSpace Trash Takeover."

Outside of the sponge, visitors still see Cyan Planet's peaceful 360 video of fish feeding at a reef, and the massive pink sponge that is the conference space Cyan Planet developed for xR HUBS Bavaria. When they go inside, however, visitors are confronted with the growing plastic pollution of our oceans that fills up the whole sponge. Water bottles, plastic cutlery etc. have always been a prominent part of ocean plastic waste, but now the coronavirus pandemic has seen the sudden appearance of disposable masks and gloves polluting the waters as well.

Sponges actually do filter microplastics out of sea water, and a study says they seem to be resilient to damage from the waste. But organisms all the way up the food chain to human beings are injesting more and more plastics, that have now permeated all the waters of the world from the sea bottom of the deepest trenches to the uninhabited reaches of the North and South Poles.

For years I had been seeing the awful images of animal carcasses filled with plastic garbage, but they had always seemed so far away, somewhere in the Great Pacific Trash Vortex. While on artist residencies and visiting professorships in South Asia and Southeast Asia from 2010 onwards, however, I realized that the beaches were beautifully clean only when people were paid to go out in the morning before tourists woke up, and pick up all the trash that had accumulated overnight. On common public beaches with no tourism, and on uninhabited islands, the beaches were full of trash.

I began reading about the problem, and all the articles talked about how China, Indonesia and Malaysia especially were "responsible" for most plastic waste in the ocean, because their standards were not as high as the Western countries. Then I started finding a few articles that talked about how most of the plastic trash from Western countries and Japan was actually shipped to China, Indonesia and Malaysia to be "recycled," because very little plastic waste has any value. Slowly I started finding articles that talked about how there was a lot of trash in from Western countries that had entered the ocean through illegal dumping in China and SE Asia.

Then, at the beginning of 2018, China announced it would no longer process other countries' trash. Suddenly, cities around the world that had prided themselves as being green and clean were shown to be shipping all their plastic waste to poorer countries to dispose of - by open air burning, illegal dumps or simply directly into the ocean. Nothing has changed since then except that other countries have stepped in to fill China's role. Just as the world seemed to confront its addiction and be ready to drastically reduce use of plastics, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and use-once disposable plastics became the easiest way to feel safer. Not only plastic bottles, bags, cutlery, take-out containers - now also disposable masks and gloves litter the sidewalks of our cities and are entering the oceans.

There will be no vaccine against plastic, and the global warming caused by the fossil fuels used to produce and then incinerate our garbage. We must stop our addictions, to plastics and to fossil fuels, and to a lifestyle that is destroying our planet before our children are old enough to stop us.

- Tamiko Thiel