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Can You “See” Me Now? Making Trash Visible through the Arts

CoCo Milk Tea, a popular bubble tea chain (奶茶店), dominates the Taiwanese landscape. Drinking milk tea is practically part of daily life in Taiwan. (Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)

It’s an open secret. I love Taiwanese milk tea. For ten years, I’ve had the same large, iced, half-sugar, no boba milk tea in teahouses across California. I never really noticed what the milk tea came in—the plastic cup, plastic cover, plastic straw were all just part of the experience. Out of habit, I drank the tea, tossed away the plastic components, drank more tea, discarded more plastic, a procedure to which I gave no thought, no mind, no second look.

Until three years ago. I finally “saw” the cup.

I saw the way it overflowed from the trash cans near the café entrance; I visualized the millions of people who purchase single-use items and discard plastic cups, straws, and bags into garbage bins each and every day. How many people actually think about where this trash goes? How many realize that their consumer habits are damaging the environment, and in turn, themselves?

We are creatures of habit. You see people around you on their phones, so you pull out your phone. You see someone drink coffee and then throw away the cup, so you drink coffee and throw away your cup. Throwing away trash has become habitual, a mindless process.

But if we can change the perception, then we can change the behavior. And to me, the best way to change perception is through the arts.

On October 15, 2017, I launched the #MyWasteMyWay Tweet this digital media contest series. Designed to promote environmental education and open to a global audience, the first theme of #MyWasteMyWay was to take trash and transform it into art.

We received entries from elementary school students, amateur opera singers, acrobats, artists, and researchers from Taiwan to the United States to the Philippines and beyond.

Today, I am happy to announce the winner of the contest and share some of the great submissions we received.

WINNERS: Izzy, Coco, and Kiew National Taiwan College for the Performing Arts

16-year-old high school students studying Taiwanese opera won the first #MyWasteMyWay contest! Using plastic cups and straws, they created a revolving Earth to demonstrate how trash is a global issue that effects us all. (See their video post below)

" @lillysedaghat #mywastemyway Environmental Education Digital Media Contest Globe Plastic cups, tape, colored paper, straws We used the theme of environmental protection on earth, with the hope that everyone can be very environmentally friendly. So we thought of doing a globe, with America, Taiwan, and a happy face. A post shared by NTCPA ACC (@ntcpa.acc) on Oct 20, 2017 at 11:38pm PDT   "


Check out some of the other awesome, creative projects made entirely out of trash!

Yes, I See You: Public Installations of Trash Art in Taiwan

The notion of using trash to create art is not unfamiliar to Taiwan. Over the course of my two months here in Taipei alone, I’ve witnessed countless art installations, both small and large, made entirely out of things people have thrown away. And it’s not just limited to one sector-- government institutions, community artists, Buddhist nonprofits, and private companies are all experimenting with this new form of creativity in different ways.

Contrary to what you might think, the installations aren’t dirty or smelly, unpleasant or strange—they are beautiful and striking, accomplishments in engineering and architecture, demonstrations of collaboration and ingenuity. They showcase the potential of any object to be reused, and most importantly, they allow people to perceive “trash” in a completely different way.

Government: Neihu Recycled Furniture Exhibition (內湖再生家具展示場)

At the Neihu Recycled Furniture Exhibition Place (內湖再生家具展示場), recyclables from 6 of Taipei City's 12 districts are weighed, sorted by quality and type, and determined if they can be reused. (Plastic containers soiled by food waste, for example, cannot be recycled, so they are sent to the incinerator.)

Every item, from paper to plastic, is then sourced to a different company contracted with the government, except for furniture. Here, repairmen fix previously used chairs, couches, bikes, shelves, which are then re-sold in public auctions. Over 3,000 people work in this massive recycling operation that has been in business for 10 years.

內湖再生家具展示場 also serves as a community center. Public art installations invite citizens to interact with recycled materials, either as a place to rest their tired feet or play with their children. Their goal: to help people recognize the many ways commonplace objects can add additional value to their lives before they’re thrown away.

Civil Society: Poly the Turtle

Poly the Turtle, the world's largest sea creature made entirely out of industrial plastic waste. (Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)

Annie Hsiao-Wen Wang, a Taiwanese-born, Australian-bred artist, loves turtles. But when she saw how plastic waste is killing them, she resolved to protect these gentle creatures with what she knows how to do best: art. Over the course of two years, she collected industrial waste plastic from factories, turned them into plastic yarn, and crocheted the world’s largest plastic sea turtle.

Her goal is to raise awareness on the dire state of our oceans and inspire people to say “NO” to single-use plastics. Poly the Turtle is on an exhibition tour around Taiwan, and is now showing at the National Museum of Marine Science and Technology in Keelung, Taiwan. She and her husband Mark run One Brown Planet, an environmental nonprofit that educates people on sustainable living.

Business: EcoArk

Side view of The EcoArk, the world's first building constructed entirely out of recycled PET bottles. (Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)

What can you do with your plastic water bottle? How about build a massive eco-friendly building with Lego-like superpowers? The EcoArk is an architectural feat made from 1.52 million recycled PET bottles, known specifically as POLLI-Bricks, that can be deconstructed and put together elsewhere. It is considered the first “building constructed from garbage,” and now stands proudly as one of Taiwan’s tourist attractions.

Designed for the 2011 Taipei Flora Expo, the structure is 130 meters long, 9 stories high, and engineered to withstand typhoons and earthquakes. The Taiwanese are especially proud of this structure because everything, from R&D to manufacturing and construction, was made in Taiwan. The structure was sponsored by the Far East Group and designed by Miniwiz, a leading engineering firm, using zero waste as their guiding design principle and business model.

Nonprofit: Tzi Chi Neihu Recycling Center

90-year old Tzu Chi volunteer sorts plastics at the Neihu recycling center. (Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)

In 1990, Master Cheng Yen stood in front of large audience. The founder of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation was a global sensation-- thousands of Taiwanese inspired by her values of love, compassion and empathy volunteered to “help the poor and educate the rich.”

To the sound of thunderous applause, Master Cheng Yen called on the public “to carry out environmental conservation with applauding hands.” With this proclamation, the recycling initiative of the Tzu Chi Foundation was born.

Now one of the most well-known recycling ecosystems in Taiwan, Tzu Chi transforms recyclables into disaster-relief blankets, apparel, and solar-powered backpacks. Their dedicated volunteers sort through trash, separate colored and clear plastic bottles, break down every item to its core parts, and then send the materials to Da Ai (大爱), the entrepreneurial arm of the organization. PET bottles are crushed into pellets, melted to create fibers, and then sewn into blankets and clothes.

Total Transformation: From Single to Multi-Use

Inside a Starbucks Matcha Green Tea Latte. How can we reimagine the things we use in our day to day? (Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)

These are just small examples in a single city where artists, repairmen, volunteers, from all ages and walks of life, work to promote environmental awareness through the arts. Our goal is the same-- to eliminate the idea that every object has only one purpose, one use.

We need to perceive trash in the same way we perceive our bodies: multi-purpose with a great deal of potential. But first, we have to change the perception.

Join me in my next #MyWasteMyWay contest, "A World Without Plastic Straws." Take a photo of you creatively drinking your favorite drink without using a plastic straw, and inspire your community to perceive waste in a new way.Tweet this

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Lilly Sedaghat is a 2017-2018 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow using interactive photo galleries, audio, and a live Instagram campaign to document the human narratives shaping Taiwan’s waste-management system and the innovations emerging in plastics and electronics recycling.

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