Image: Burke Museum
Fact: 1,500 plastic water bottles are used every second in the US.

A giant, sparkling grid of 1,500 clear plastic water bottles makes an attractive bit of modernist sculpture. But try to wrap your head around the numbers behind it: That’s how many water bottles get used every second in the United States. Multiply that by the minute, the hour, the day, year after year, and you get an inkling of what the Burke Museum exhibition Plastics Unwrapped is about.

Most Americans have gotten the message—we use too much disposable plastic stuff. This show puts that foggy notion into exact terms, what museum staff members call “statistical sculptures.” A sprawling multicolored froth of a wall hanging demonstrates how much space 3,000 plastic shopping bags takes up. That’s the number used in the U.S. every quarter of a second. (An average citizen goes through 500 bags a year.) Electronic debris? That’s 170 pounds tossed out every second—a hefty tangled heap taller and wider than a person. Medical waste? A mess of disposable tubing, pumps, pails, containers, syringes, and other hazardous waste created from just a single surgery.  

But we recycle, right? Well, sort of. According to the exhibition wall text, about 7 percent of plastics produced each year get recycled.

And the rest?

Girl sits among cables and electronic waste in Guiyu, China, 2005.

In the 1950s, plastic was touted as the material of the future. How true that turned out to be. It doesn’t biodegrade, but piles up in landfills and swirls around the ocean for hundreds, even thousands of years, slowly breaking into smaller bits. Marine animals and birds eat it or get tangled in it and die. At the Burke, the sleek body of a fur seal found strangled in a discarded fishing net illustrates that sad fact. In the midst of all the plastics on display, that vivid beautiful creature really grabs the heart.

So does the underlying message of this exhibition, discovered in cases displaying the kind of cultural artifacts the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture is known for: an Inuit sealskin ball, reed and bark baskets, gourds, utensils and toys made of wood, clay, glass, cotton, wool, rubber, leather. These are the elegant, well-crafted relics of an earlier time: useful everyday objects to be treasured and preserved. What are we leaving behind to future generations as clues to our values, aesthetics and way of life? One thing for sure: a whole lot of indestructible garbage.   

Image: Burke Museum
Fact: 3,000 plastic shopping bags are used every quarter of a second in the US.

Plastics Unwrapped
Thru May 27, Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture

Author Susan Freinkel: Plastic: A Toxic Love Story
Apr 3 at 7, Kane Hall 120, UW campus. Free preregistration recommended at burkemuseum.org/events

Coast Salish Art and Artists Day
Apr 6, 10–3, Burke Museum; weaving, sculpture, printmaking demonstrations and more