Origins of the “Plastlantis” exhibit

The objects that make up this exhibition were collected during a beach clean at Scapa Bay Beach on Saturday 18th February, 2023. The beach clean was organised by Greener Orkney and attended by members of the group, local members of the public, two of the Waste Stories Future Archaeologies team and a radio journalist. It was a beautiful, sunny day. Despite the fact that Greener Orkney organise regular cleans, more than 40 kg of litter were collected. After the beach clean, a group of us chose both a selection of objects to include in the exhibit, the future that the exhibit would belong to, and some of what happened between now (2023) and that future (approximately 4-5000 years away). This is the story of the future we imagined together:

What happened after 2023 AD?

Three parallel pressures result in a build-up of plastics on the Islands.

On the one hand, the Islands are forced to stockpile an increasing quantity of plastic appearing in the waste-stream generated locally. Food and drink, clothing and household goods manufacturers and suppliers are not interested in adapting their production, packaging and distribution models – which seem to work in densely-populated areas with good transport connections – to suit minority, quirky Island contexts. The fishing industry is now dependent on plastics, and transport and farming are too. The amount of plastic arriving on the Islands in order to satisfy the needs and demands of the islanders increases, in spite of the efforts of some parts of the population to avoid plastics altogether.

At the same time, fuel and transport costs soar as a result of the war in eastern Europe and the series of earthquakes that disrupt supply lines and oilfields in Syria and the middle east. These rising costs prohibit the collection and transport of plastics between the Islands by an already cash-strapped council. The notion of shipping plastics to recycling facilities in the south rapidly becomes laughable.  Although a local plastic recycling facility that takes waste plastic and converts it into nurdles for re-use is mooted and eventually funded, there is no consumer interested in buying the recycled plastic pellets, exporting them and using them to produce new plastic items or packaging when the same materials can be obtained more cheaply from local sources, without the expense associated with sourcing them from the Islands.

The third cause of the build-up of plastics is the status of the Islands as innocent and unwilling recipients of much of the plastic that reaches the north Atlantic ocean, whether from the east or west shorelines. Predominant winds and currents carry increasingly large amounts of increasingly small plastic fragments to the north-western coasts of the UK, and the Islands, with their south-west facing bays and inlets, accumulate large quantities of this driftplastic. Removal (and in some cases, sorting and re-use) of marine litter plastics has depended on volunteers for years, but this becomes unsustainable, both because beach cleans soon need to be carried out on a weekly or even daily basis, and because larger objects are broken up into ever smaller scraps and fragments which get embedded in seaweed and sand, impossible to dig out.

Global climate change causes sea levels to rise, reducing the area of land that the plastics can be distributed over. It also results in more frequent extreme weather, so that strong winds and tidal surges bring the plastics further and further inland.

In time, the most north-eastern of the Islands become uninhabitable and are evacuated according to the Islands Council emergency plans. In 2038, the Islands Council makes the heart-wrenching decision to use the abandoned islands as “storage sites” – a polite term that everyone knows saves them having to identify them as dumps. This is perhaps the only possible solution for the huge volume of tyres that have built up in various locations around the Islands – tyres that have been critical to both agriculture and transport, but for which there has long been no economically viable disposal route. All the Islands’ waste plastics are shipped there. And with no one to clear the beaches and pick plastics from the tidelines, the winds soon ensure that these islands are covered in an almost unbroken layer of plastic.

Increasingly hot spells of weather start to trigger fires, especially in the tyre dumps. These spread easily through the grasslands of the Islands, resulting in a layer of “vitrified” plastics that coat the ground where the plastic deposits have developed most thickly. A similar phenomenon develops elsewhere across the globe, but these Islands have the distinction of remaining uninhabited – and practically unvisited – for centuries. The combination of tyre dumps, peat soils and rhizome roots means that fires, once lit, can smoulder for decades, giving rise to toxic fumes and earning the Islands a reputation as a poisoned, cursed place. Initially people stay away for practical reasons – no one wants to wade through melting plastic or risk being caught in one of the sudden more dramatic blazes. Over time, as 21st century civilization crumbles, these rational concerns are replaced with a fear of the Islands themselves, and the dark spirits they harbour.