The transformative power of environmental art: Creating beauty from plastic waste

When John Dahlsen first started experimenting with what would soon become his creative medium of choice, it had some of his friends slightly worried. The huge piles of plastic rubbish – all neatly sorted by colour – that had taken over much of the available space in the artist’s house certainly raised eyebrows. “Some of my friends asked me if I was OK”, the Byron Bay based environmental artist remembers laughingly.

Byron Bay based environmental artist John Dahlsen.
John Dahlsen is an environmental artist based in Byron Bay. Image credit: John Dahlsen.

But what may have initially looked like an odd quirk, turned out to be a tremendous source of inspiration for John. An influence so big that it would change the course of his career. The artworks he created from plastic rubbish washing ashore on local beaches catapulted him into the Australian art scene and helped him win international acclaim.

John received the prestigious Wynne Prize for his Thong Totems sculpture in 2000 and was selected as a finalist in 2003 and again in 2004. His work featured in exhibitions in Florence, Milan, New York, Beijing – and countless places in between.

Absolut and Nespresso commissioned work from him to raise awareness about plastic pollution and recycling long before the David Attenborough effect brought the issue into the mainstream.

The accidental environmental artist

All of this was set in motion by happenstance. In 1997, John discovered the potential of plastic rubbish as a means for creative expression while scouring remote beaches in Victoria for driftwood to make furniture. “I noticed all this plastic washing up, so I started picking it up with the intention to take it to the local tip for recycling,” recounts John.

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compostable alternative soft plastic

This Kiwi start-up offers a compostable alternative to soft plastic

As the former owner of three busy restaurants in New Zealand, Ben Grant knows a thing or two about the issue of packaging. “We had about 10,000 people moving through our premises every week and around 50% of our customers were ordering takeaway”, he recalls. “Add to that all the packaging the produce is coming in and you’re dealing with huge piles of rubbish and recycling every day.”

Having always been conscious about the footprint he’s been living, Ben decided to change the packaging industry for the better after he sold his restaurant business in 2018. Together with Josh Kempton he founded Grounded Packaging, a start-up company that is aiming to replace soft plastic with compostable packaging from bio-based materials.

“The reason why we focussed on soft plastic is that it is the most problematic area within our current waste and recycling system”, says Ben.

Ben Grant is the co-founder of Grounded Packaging offering compostable alternatives to soft plastic.
Ben Grant is the co-founder of Grounded Packaging.

Soft plastic cannot be processed through the kerbside recycling system because it gets caught in the machinery (side note: soft plastic can get recycled through RedCycle). At the same time, soft plastic – like most plastics – is made from petrochemicals and is therefore detrimental to the environment in more than one way.

Why we still need packaging

Yet, while the movement against single-use plastic is gathering momentum in some regions, it’s difficult to imagine a modern world without packaging.

“Packaging material fulfils an important role in life – and especially in the food industry”, says Ben. For instance, packaging is known to significantly increase the shelf life of fresh produce which in turn helps to reduce food waste.

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