Don't Eat That Lighter: The Case Against Plastics
In November 2016, I was invited by World Monuments Fund to discuss possible solutions to and methods for overcoming plastic pollution and other waste management issues at their work sites. In the process, I discovered many things about myself, Siem Reap, and Cambodia.
My first week was largely observational. I witnessed the incredible restoration work at Phnom Bakheng and at Preah Kahn being done by WMF staff. I observed tourists and locals using massive quantities of disposable plastic in Siem Reap and at Angkor archeological sites. I observed the huge cultural event of Bon Om Tuk (water festival) in the city center and its utter reliance on plastic products. I also observed the daily routines of the World Monuments Fund staff at Angkor.
Plastic is everywhere, and it is far too easy to simply say that it is bad. Yes, of course, with connections to cancer, infertility, respiratory disease, and many other human illnesses, plastic is bad. But strangely, this information doesn’t overcome egotistical immunity. Why? Few of us know, and I was determined that this be the focus of my work: to make information about plastic pollution accessible and personal. I also observed that the scale of plastic use is far too great to understand when our level of understanding is at zero. With this realization gained from the first week of observation I had undertaken, I shifted to research focused on several widely popular materials, including plastic bags, Styrofoam take-away containers, personal plastic water bottles, and plastic cigarette lighters. My objective was to create an understanding that would result in an elimination or serious reduction in the most prevalent and destructive types of plastic pollution.
I spent the second week developing my goals and research into a tangible experience. I researched and connected with local organizations and enterprises in the same field in order to assess what methods were working. I felt that the didactic ‘top-down’ instructional method of workshops on plastic pollution was not working; there was no understanding on the part of the learner. The learners were simply instructed to not use plastic, but they didn’t know why (this was confirmed later in talks with WMF workers after my presentations). I also found a need for more cross-collaboration between the organizations, and have committed myself to continuing the dialogue in the hopes of furthering this group effort. Having reached out to all the different entities working on curbing plastic pollution, I am eager to see what happens next for Cambodia, and hope that I can continue to be part of the solution. The more immediate task, though, was to develop an experience that would educate WMF staff at the work sites and at the office.
In my previous teaching positions at universities, I always found that teaching and learning are experiences, and making that experience visceral is the key to comprehension for the student. Sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell would be used in a memorable experience that would also establish a baseline of information for the learner. So I presented myself to WMF staff as somewhat of a clown—attempting to eat plastic bottles and bags, my hand pretending to be a fish, eating lighters, etc. In this way, I lured the audience in with humor. Then, a dialogue-based presentation of documentary images showing plastic pollution built on the absurdity of my character attempting to understand why we would want to use plastic, when plastics (and cancer-causing dioxins) are being found in the stomachs and flesh of animals destined for human consumption. All my actions are backed by science but in this manner, the message was simple and clear: why use disposable plastics if it will ultimately wind up on our dinner plate?
It was a great compliment to all our efforts, that after the first presentation, the workers asked not only for reusable containers they could use for food and water, but also for copies of the pictures so that they could take them home to share with friends and family. In short, my time at WMF was successful in laying the groundwork for future collaborations as well as planting the seed of understanding and action amongst the staff. I also look forward to my continued correspondence with the many other organizations I contacted in Cambodia working on plastic pollution, and I sincerely hope a connection can be forged amongst all, as we move forward in eliminating disposable plastics from the consumer lifestyle.
To read more about Melvin's time at WMF, visit his Tumblr account.