Single-use plastics given new life in “The Plastic Bag Store”

America has a plastic problem.

In 2018, the most recent year tracked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans consumed over 35.7 million tons of plastic. That is over 70 million pounds of plastic waste generated. Seventy-five percent of that waste ended up in landfills, while the other 25 percent was recycled or destroyed.

Despite technological advances and increased resources, plastic is not easily recyclable. According to an NPR investigation, companies do not have incentives to recycle because it is cheaper and more convenient to produce new plastic than it is to melt down and recycle old plastic.

Because companies are not willing to recycle, most plastic waste is single-use. A package or container is used once and winds up in a landfill forever.

Artist Robin Frohardt is taking on single-use plastic in her own way. Frohardt is the creator of “The Plastic Bag Store,” a touring public art installation made out of plastic waste she collected in New York City.

According to its website, The Plastic Bag Store is “a tragicomic ode to the foreverness of plastic.” It uses humor to explore themes of consumption of and reliance on single-use plastics.

After making rounds in New York City, Los Angeles and Adelaide, Australia, the exhibition made its fourth stop in Chicago.

At first glance, The Plastic Bag Store looks like any other grocery store. There are stacks of produce, shelves of cereal, a selection of baked goods and cases of frozen foods.

Customers can look, they can touch, but it is not recommended that they taste. None of the products are edible because they are made of 100 percent plastic.

Michelle Yard, the company manager of The Plastic Bag store, said Frohardt has been working on the exhibit for years, collecting plastic waste and transforming it into plastic food products.

“Every time we go to a new city [Frohardt] tries to incorporate local products from the city that we’re in,” Yard said.

In Chicago, that meant spoofing Affy Tapples with “Awful Apples” and making plastic cases of Polish kielbasa.

The exhibit was brought to Chicago as the anchor attraction for the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, drawing in puppetry fans.

“I am a puppeteer and I’m a puppetry scholar,”  Ana Diaz Varriga said. “I [first] came to the festival two years ago and I’m an avid puppetry audience member.”

Diaz Varriga said her favorite part of the exhibition was looking at the package design.

“They really put all the details on it,” she said.

Familiar brands like Marlboro cigarettes, Arizona Iced Tea and Ben & Jerry’s became “Marlbags cigarettes,” “Plastizona Iced Tea,” and “Bag & Jerry’s.”

The Plastic Bag Store is an engaging viewing experience that doubles as a call to action.

The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival hung posters urging The Plastic Bag Store customers to take a stand against plastic waste. Visitors could scan QR codes linking to environmental resources and learning opportunities.

Kardamin Politzer, an aspiring environmental biologist, was drawn to The Plastic Bag Store because of its environmental message.

“I thought ‘Wow, I want to visit this because it’s totally in my interests,’” Politzer said.

In addition to visiting “The Plastic Bag Store,” customers can buy tickets to watch an immersive puppet film that continues its vision.

The Plastic Bag Store will continue its tour in Austin, Texas, this April.