Photo courtesy of Maddi Boettner

LTE: Thrown-Away Art Project Reflects BC's Environmental Injustices

For our Easy Being Green? Waste Consumption, and Environmental Justice in the 21st Century class this semester, we were given a creative communication project to design an art piece from recyclables/trash that would communicate a message on environmental justice to the Boston College campus community. The final projects were featured in this year's Arts Festival as installations within the Consumption and Environmental Justice Exhibition that was designed to start conversations about today's most pressing and often hidden environmental challenges. For our project, we chose to highlight the issues associated with single-use plastic straws and their impacts on human beings, marine life, and the world’s oceans.

We worked tirelessly to create an art piece that had powerful imagery and an eye-catching design that would draw students in to inquire about our message and intentions. We created a turtle out of straws, minimizing the straw count by layering the same size straw pieces, effectively making the turtle hollow. We used the plentiful paper straw wrappers as a paper mache human head and “sea grass” that was taped around the turtle. The colorful straws in the center of the turtle represent the toxic plastics marine life ingest every day. The human head sucking the life out of the turtle represents how the poisoning of these creatures is caused by human beings, and that the microplastics build up in the food chain; essentially we are poisoning ourselves in this manner. Furthermore, we made sure that our project was zero waste by incorporating every part of the straws we collected—with the intention being that we saved these materials from the landfill. We even had interest from BC Dining to display our turtle in the dining hall following the Arts Festival.

We were instructed to pick up the installation prior to the conclusion of Arts Fest on Saturday at 10 p.m. We showed up to the tent to retrieve our hard work around 6 p.m. to find that our turtle was no longer in the tent. We were told that it had been locked in Carney and that we could email Arts Council in the following week to pick it up. We emailed Arts Council only to find out that our installation had been thrown away—like trash—and was never actually stored in Carney. Not only is this disheartening for us as students, that our final project ended up in the trash, but more importantly, it also completely defeated the purpose of our project, as all of these straws are now in the landfill and will likely end up in the oceans; the exact issue we were bringing awareness to.

Unfortunately, we are unsurprised by the results and the response we received from Arts Council. In an email that suggested our project was “just trash,” we concluded that the Council reflects the greater BC attitude towards the environment: total disregard. It has been proven time and time again that consideration of environmental impacts is not at all a priority among many students and most faculty/staff, and Arts Festival proved that by throwing away a piece of art they deemed trash—a fate that they would never dream of for the beautiful paintings, photographs, and other traditional art mediums that were presented at the festival.

What we would like to highlight is the hypocrisy and irony around Arts Festival this year and with BC in general. First and foremost, the environmental impact of throwing away an art installment that was made entirely of single-use plastics is absolutely sickening and only further perpetuates the dire issue of plastic disposal that we were aiming to draw attention to. The sheer volume of straws that we used, wholeheartedly believing that we were saving them ending up in the oceans of landfills, are now somewhere in a landfill leaching toxins into the ground and causing damage to the earth.

Some of the straws will likely end up in the ocean to either break down into microplastics, slowly poisoning animals all along the food chain, or be ingested, whole, into the stomachs of marine animals, at best poisoning them and at worst killing them. For BC to incorporate environmental justice into the Arts Festival, at first, seemed like a victory for environmentalists around campus, but ended up being another illusory attempt by the institution.

A plaque was taped next to our piece explaining a little bit about our message and the impact of straws on the environment: Single-use plastic straws pose a huge threat to the environment, and it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than there are fish. This has huge implications not only for marine life whose habitats are threatened by plastics, but also for humans who are consuming fish that likely have leached toxins from ingested plastics.

For most, straws are simply a convenience and are unnecessary. It is appalling to us that this was completely ignored and the first thought of the festival staff was to throw the installation away. The fact that they disposed of students' artwork before the deadline without even so much as a simple email suggests that the Arts Festival couldn’t recognize our piece as art in the first place. It would be absolutely horrifying if someone's paintings or drawings were removed preemptively from the display and tossed in the trash, so what makes our art piece any different? The unusual materials? The message? If that is the case, then why invite an Environmental Justice class to present student work if you will not even try to understand our methods and message? This is again another classic example of BC giving the illusion that it is a school that genuinely upholds its value of “men and women for others” (tell that to the students of color, LGBTQIA+ students, victims of sexual assault, and so many others).

In our correspondence with the Arts Council, they expressed that they were deeply sorry for the mistake and that, “it was removed from the space before Dancing with bOp! Saturday night, due to the needed space for the event.” This is not an acceptable excuse. For one, because our installation was in the back of the tent against the edge, we find it hard to believe that it was in the way whatsoever. And, if they were so pressed for space, they should have better coordinated the set-up, rather than deciding which pieces of art weren’t worthy of the space in the tent. Whose space is this exactly?

Second, this act is yet another example of BC prioritizing other things on campus over serious environmental issues. While the Arts Festival continues to apologize and suggest we “remake the turtle for a future display,” it only proves that they still do not understand the point that we and our peers in Easy Being Green? were trying to make. The fact that our time and hard work has been thrown into the trash is, obviously, unfortunate, but we are more concerned about the nuances of that message. “In the trash” has so many implications on the environment and waste workers around the world. We are trying to draw attention to the physical dangers of waste as well as the horrible “culture of waste” that we live in. The waste impact that our piece will now have is something that will weigh on each of us.

Above all, we hope that our piece can continue to communicate the message we were trying to spread through the photographs we have and the impression that Olive the Straw Turtle made on students the three days she was on display. We are hopeful that the students of BC will continue to learn and be conscious of environmental issues, even if our institution is not. We would like to encourage students to try to stop using single-use plastic straws and look to paper, metal alternatives, or stop using straws all together—unless medically necessary. Finally, we sincerely hope that through our project and this letter, the BC Arts Festival, faculty, staff, and administration will, in the future, take care to listen and learn from students trying to communicate issues of environmental justice and sustainability.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Maddi Boettner, MCAS '19
Nick Flowers, MCAS '18
Annette Heffernan, MCAS '19
Jess Perry, MCAS '18
Mary Posillico, MCAS '18

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