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Project 2: Sustainability / Waste

This was my second project on Craft for Conversations, where I make creations that can help spark conversations on topics.

The Issue

With increasing attention on sustainability, I have been trying to be more environmentally-conscious. In my journey, I learnt things I never previously thought of, and realized some "obvious" questions may not be as straightforward to answer. The project seeks to start conversations about sustainability and waste.

The issue which was somewhat the trigger for this was when I read an article "Biodegradable plastic alternatives not necessarily better for Singapore, say experts" - this made me realize that environmental impact requires asking deeper questions - just because something is biodegradable doesn't mean it will be biodegraded (in Singapore's context, all waste is incinerated as there isn't space for trash to naturally biodegrade)

Translating the issue to this project

I used different materials to create the pieces, and asked a question about which of the pieces is the most environmentally-friendly:

Fallen bougainvillea leaf, coated in resin

Let’s take a look at the journey of a bougainvillea leaf after it falls - there are many pathways, and that results in a different impact on the environment (did I miss any? Let me know!) By coating them in resin and converting them into accessories - I am keeping the leaves from going further down the path of their usual fate. Is this being environmentally friendly? I suppose it depends on which pathway it was headed for. Arguably, if it was going to be incinerated, extending its life could be better

However, I recognize that resin itself isn’t necessarily environmentally-friendly. From what I could find, it’s made from petroleum sources, not biodegradable, and when burnt does release toxic gases 😔 sounds pretty much like plastic. So in the process of creating this, I added environmentally undesirable materials to the mix. What does this then mean? 

Plastic from a 1.5l PET bottle, cut, carved and melted into the shape of a bougainvillea leaf

The journey of this plastic bougainvillea leaf has a more complex ancestry than its natural counterpart - it once lived as part of a plastic bottle. I’ve tried to map the different alternative pathways of its fate, and similar to the real bougainvillea leaf, the outcome is highly dependent on the choices we make in how we process and discard it. By upcycling it and converting it into something else, I’ve extended its lifespan for a bit longer.

The two key environmental impact aspects I identified as differing from the real leaf are: 1) no additional materials were created / added to extend its life (versus having to coat resin on the real leaf); 2) it was man-made - even though no additional materials were added to create the leaf (and I essentially tried to convert something headed for the trash into something that can live on for longer), was there a need for a single use plastic bottle to be created in the first place?

One more thing to note: recycling plastic doesn’t just depend on your own effort. My understanding of the current model in Singapore: if recyclable materials are contaminated (not properly washed), the whole batch that is affected by spillovers from the contaminated pieces can’t be recycled either. This means that someone else’s actions contribute to whether something can be recycled.

Is it more environmentally-friendly to interrupt and add “impurities” to a naturally occurring object (which may impact its fate after its useful life ends), or to extend the useful life of a man-made object that requires resources to create & dispose of?

Resin with print from fallen bougainvillea leaf

These pieces weren’t created intentionally. They were born when the resin-coated bougainvillea leaves didn’t hold up well - the resin didn’t adhere well to the leaf and I realised there was an air space between the resin and leaf.

The instinctive response for most people when something doesn't work out is to discard the “failed” object. Over the years of crafting and trying to pick up more sustainable habits, I have developed a different instinct, which is to keep something just in case I can repurpose it into something else (my husband might call that hoarding 😅). When I looked at them a little longer, I realised these transparent resin leaves were very charming, and felt like the “ghost”/“spirit” of the real leaf.

As for the leaves, they tend to “break” when they are dismantled, so can’t be reused for another piece. I pop them onto a soil of a potted plant at home, hoping that they’ll break down naturally and give some love to the plant. Does this make this transparent piece environmentally-friendlier?

Wood from offcuts, sanded and coated in beeswax

For the wood pieces - this came into the picture after the feedback and poll to create other objects beyond earrings. I needed something to “hold” the leaves to make a brooch, so I incorporated the wood into the design. Thank goodness for that push, because the wood somehow “completes” the picture of a plant, too, don’t you think?

I think the environmental impact of using wood is similar to that of the real bougainvillea leaf, except that:
1) the felling of the tree may not have been a natural occurrence, but for a man-made purpose (for timber / to clear land)
2) no resin (non-biodegradable material) was added to it. In the event one gets tired of the piece (I hope not for a long time 🤞🏼), it makes it easier to recycle the material if it gets discarded.

Reflections

All proceeds from this project was donated to Zero Waste Singapore, to support efforts to engage communities for a less wasteful world

Check out the project on Craft For Conversations' Instagram posts for more photos and commentary 

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