According to their website, "Plastic Free July is a global movement that helps millions of people be part of the solution to plastic pollution."
Atlanta-based artist and activist Pam Longobardi spoke with me this week about the initiative, her work, and how she got involved in helping to protect the environment.
Longobardi, whose fascination with nature manifested at an early age, had the opportunity to travel to Hawaii a few times when she was younger. But life circumstance resulted in a gap of several years between visits, and she didn’t return until 2006. The difference in the cleanliness of the islands between those early visits and when she came back was stark.
"I was on an artist residency right down at the southern tip of the big island," she told me. "And when I got there, there were so many, like, piles and acreage, of plastics. And I felt like I’d stumbled onto this giant kind of a crime scene or something. And there was all this evidence laying around."
The experience completely changed the way that Longobardi was working, compelling her to investigate the plastics themselves to express her creativity. She began picking up the pieces, which she calls "drifters," to use in her artwork.
"We have contact with [plastic] almost every second of our contemporary lives," Longobardi related. "And it’s around us to the point where I think it’s kind of invisible now. And then it leaves our hands and it goes on this tremendous journey. It literally is oftentimes drifting at sea for decades. And at some point it washes back ashore, but it comes back changed. It has been through environments and invaded the living spaces, and sometimes even the mouths and stomachs of vast amounts of creatures that live far away from human contact. And yet here we are right up in their lives."
Work in the "Drifters Project" takes on numerous forms, from sculpture to colorful wall-mounted assemblages to photography. Much of the work is, on the surface, quite beautiful. This in spite of the heart-wrenching message contained within, both due to conscious decisions the artist has made, as well as the "evidence" left behind by the animals that have come in contact with the individual components used to make up each piece.
"I think there’s a lot to be learned from the materials," Longobardi said. "You can examine it to see who made it. Where was it made? How long has it possibly been out there? And then just the physical changes on the surface of it. You can see all kinds of creature’s bite marks that are all over the material, and oftentimes other things are living on it."
Once Longobardi came to understand the negative impact that plastics were having on our planet, it became impossible for her to ignore. Before long she was not only creating artwork which spoke to the issue, but also getting involved on the front lines of the environmental movement as "a way of combating feeling helpless in the face of this giant, giant problem," she said.
Her advocacy for Plastic Free July is just the latest in a nearly twenty-year span of continuous work towards cleaner oceans. And the changes the initiative seeks in people’s behaviors are something the artist believes almost anyone can achieve.
"This idea of having a plastic free July came from the notion that to see the amount of plastic that inundates our daily lives can seem really [overwhelming]," Longobardi explained. "And so we started to break this apart into the sort of low hanging fruit. Let’s start with something simple, the straws, the plastic bags. And as you start to take apart those things you realize you don’t really need these things in your lives at all."
And although the enterprise has July in the name, it’s really meant to change the practices of individuals and their interactions with plastics in the long term.
"This is a way to just kind of focus an attention on steps that can become habits," said Longobardi, "which are to change our behavior in terms of just blindly accepting a plastic bag that’s handed to you, or a straw. And to make other choices when you’re in the grocery store. To look for something that’s un-packaged in plastic. To find things that aren’t packaged at all, and to buy those, or to bring your own containers. All of these things are behaviors that are easy to change if you start to just make a mental effort to do so."
It’s important work that the artist is doing because, as Longobardi cautioned, if we don’t make changes now, we can expect to see a lot more plastic littering our oceans in the future.
"There’s no disposable plastic," she warned. "It’s not going anywhere. It’s still around. Every piece we’ve ever used is still here."
For those interested in learning how they can reduce their use of plastic please visit PlastiFreeJuly.org or Plasticpollutioncoalition.org for more information. You can see more of Pam Longbardi’s work at DriftersProject.net and on Instagram @driftersproject. Listen to our entire conversation embedded here.
Tune in to "Art on the Air" every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show "Art on the Air."
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.