Visitors to Out to Sea? The Plastic Garbage Project, an exhibition at Darb 1718 in Old Cairo, are greeted by a floor-to-ceiling heap of rubbish.
Built out of tires and bottles, flippers and fishing nets and a rainbow of plastic bags, the heap is just a sampling of detritus pulled from underwater off the coasts of Marsa Alam, Dahab and Alexandria.
“Our oceans and our seas are like a huge soup of plastic,” explains tour guide Samaa Arafa. “We don’t have a square kilometer free of plastics.”
The “Out to Sea” project was launched in 2012 at the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, and traveled around European cities before being brought to Cairo this September with the help of the Drosos Foundation. Local versions of the exhibition will also be held in Alexandria, as well as in Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon.
The international aspect of the project makes sense given the nature of the issue it highlights, Arafa explains. “It’s a global problem. There’s no one state that’s responsible.” Even the heap of plastic pulled from Egypt’s seas contains waste from as far away as Turkey, she says.
However, the exhibit is also tailored to the local setting, with graphics showing how improperly disposed plastic waste from Cairo winds up in the Nile and, eventually, the sea.
Split into a series of display islands, the exhibition focuses on different aspects of the plastic problem, attempting to combine information with an artistic touch. In a display called “Archaeology of the Future,” decaying plastic waste is rendered in the style of archaeological drawings. A series of photos shows sea bird skeletons decaying on a beach, their stomach contents a riot of primary-colored plastics. Even micro-plastics—the tiny fragments of decomposing plastic that fill the sea and, in turn, the bellies of sea life—prove beautiful when photographed and blown up to poster size.
It’s easy to get a sense of doom and gloom when looking at pictures of dead birds on a beach, or computer graphics of giant gyres of plastic twice the size of Texas, but the exhibition aims to balance that with a more empowering message.
It shows the dangers of plastic waste, but also gives a nod to the technological advances and modern conveniences allowed by plastic, which is used for everything from carrying water to medical equipment.
Overall, the message is to consume plastic in a conscious way, and seek alternatives to single-use products whenever possible: look for natural products instead of toiletries containing micro-plastics, and re-embrace the local tradition of buying goods in bulk, by weight, rather than in individually wrapped packages. Instead of a plastic bag, carry a re-usable shopping bag, or bring your own mugs and containers when ordering takeaway food. The more common these practices, the guides explain, the more normal they will become in a country where it is still often a battle to purchase even the smallest item without being handed a plastic bag.
The show’s “reuse, reduce, recycle” message is designed to be accessible and interesting for children. Several of the exhibit’s display islands are interactive, allowing visitors to search through beach sand with a magnifying glass or examine waste pulled from the sea, and text-heavy info graphics are balanced by video installations. Tour guides are available to guide groups through, in either English and Arabic, and with the school year beginning, groups from local schools and youth centers are scheduled to visit the exhibition.
But even adults should learn a thing or two—for example, that the mysterious little cylindrical pellets on the beaches of Egypt’s north coast are not an interesting and attractive natural phenomenon, but rather worn down bits of plastic that present a serious hazard to sea life. If nothing else, it should make visitors think long and hard before accepting a plastic bag from a vendor, or tossing plastic waste into the streets, where it will eventually be swept out to sea.
“Out to Sea? The Plastic Garbage Project” will be hosted by the Darb 1718 Contemporary Art & Culture Center until November 22. Exhibits are open to the public Sunday to Thursday from 9 am to 3 pm and from 7pm to 10 pm. Special events will be held each Saturday, during which the exhibition will be open from 2 pm to 10 pm.