New laptop

Imagine the millions of people that travel the world each year, attending conferences, living out of suitcases, staying in hotels where daily needs, like shampoo & conditioner, are provided in small, single-use containers. Imagine if all these shampoo & conditioner bottles could be recycled to create something beneficial, like casings for laptop computers for needy children. I need your help to collect as many bottles as possible, to demonstrate what one single conference can generate in just one week. Support the Frank Zappa Project today: Drop off your hotel, motel & travel shampoo & conditioner bottles in the collection bin next to the registration desk for the 2009.

Why the “Frank Zappa” Project?

When collecting all manner of post-consumer materials, I sometimes look around my studio and will see a pile or box of materials that will trigger a thought, or remind me of something I have seen or done before. I started to collect small plastic containers about eight years ago, and so there are always some about somewhere in my home or studio. The hotel shampoo & conditioner bottles somehow made me think of the classic 1970s road movie, 200 Motels, starring and featuring the music of Frank Zappa. That was about three years ago and it has stuck in my head ever since.

When I was invited to be a part Batteries Not Included for the 2009, I thought this would be a great opportunity to collect a large number of these bottles, by inviting the conference delegates to collaborate with me on the project. As I thought about the whole idea more, I realized there was actually a connection between the life of a rock’n’roll star and a conference delegate. Living out of a suitcase, staying in a hotel room, is both an isolating and comforting experience. On the one hand you are away from your family & friends and your usual lifestyle, surrounded by strangers and sometimes unfamiliar lifestyles. Yet on the other hand you have all your basic needs met, food, shelter, entertainment, and are essentially quite comfortable.

Background to the Frank Zappa Project

Have you ever heard that if you collect the aluminium ring pulls from a drink can, that they can be used to provide artificial limbs for land mine victims in Africa? There have been a number of hoaxes in recent decades involving large amounts of usually small, seemingly worthless items being collected to aid some unfortunate person, usually with some type of medical assistance. They are certainly not new, having circulated since the 1950s and seem to have mostly begun by word of mouth. If you want to know more about these hoaxes go to this website.

Although they do not involve money directly, they have inconvenienced and disappointed many people. There have been the occasional cases where some companies have honoured the scams, no doubt for a bit of good will publicity. It is most interesting because people are quick to take up these ideas as they appear an easier and quicker way to raise money. I guess you could say they are a well intentioned get-rich-quick-scheme.

The real irony is that, if instead of collecting the ring pulls, you collected the whole can, you could actually raise a considerable amount of money, though you would still have to collect a lot of cans. The other irony is that many of these small items, like bottle tops and ring-pulls are considered worthless and are thrown away, instead of being recycled. Modern recycling plants can handle all sorts of materials, and a tonne of aluminium ring-pulls is worth as much as a tonne of aluminium cans. In Australia scrap aluminium is worth about AU$1500/tonne.

Items like small shampoo & conditioner bottles from hotels and motels are still most likely to be thrown away rather than recycled, although they certainly are recyclable. It is a question of their perceived value. People perceive two and three litre plastic bottles as more valuable because they are bigger. But like aluminium, a tonne of plastic is a tonne of plastic. In Australia recyclable plastic is worth about AU$300/tonne.

This plastic like all plastic has the potential to make other plastic items, eg. laptop computer shells. Laptop computers are something we value, but we would throw away a tiny shampoo bottle without a thought. But if we knew that the plastic from that shampoo bottle was not only going to help provide a case for a new laptop computer, but one for a poor child in an impoverished society, then we would give that bottle great value!

So, although there is no direct link between aluminium ring-pulls and artificial limbs it is a feasible link, as aluminium is recovered after use and pooled back into the production cycle. Plastic, too, is collected in all manner of shapes and sizes, then pooled back into production in all manner of ways. So, there may not be any direct link between hotel shampoo and conditioner bottles and lap top computers for children in impoverished countries, but the link, however tenuous, is still feasible.

You could also look at it like this: an OLPC laptop computer costs about US$100. A tonne of plastic collected in Australia would buy about two of these laptops, and a tonne of aluminium about seven. You would also be saving valuable resources and energy by recycling rather than producing more new material. This is especially true of materials that would otherwise go to landfill, like hotel shampoo & conditioner bottles.

Rethinking the Way We Consume

We are all consumers in some manner or form; we all have basic needs, as well as wants and desires. What varies enormously around the world is the way we use valuable resources. Western society consumes most of the world’s resources and at an alarming rate. But even this would not be so bad if we were consuming wisely. But we don’t; we consume wastefully. Oil will run out soon enough, having an enormous impact on the world economy. But we have no one but ourselves to blame. We could have meted out this precious resource for centuries to come, but instead we have gobbled it up needlessly and heedlessly.

Wars have been fought over oil, and war consumes vast quantities of oil. We still produce ridiculous sized engines for motor vehicles to move our ever more obese bodies about. We throw away plastic though it were indispensable, as though it magically appears from no where for nothing. Most worrying of all we have an entire agricultural system where the fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, machinery fuel and transportation are all derived from oil. Yet we still boast that we can produce more food per hectare than ever before! Sure, for now, but what happens when the oil runs out. Bio-fuels? Solar power? Wind Power? Unfortunately there is nothing yet discovered or invented that can replace oil for power, efficiency, and (initial) cost. We have had something precious but not realized, and the price will be payed by future generations.

Hope for the Future

However, I see no value in being a pessimist. Too much of the green movement is effected by doom and gloom, and same goes for the conservative end of politics. Its all you read in the papers, economic down turns, another species threatened, job losses, more rainforest demolished etc. Its not a matter of denying current threats to the economy or environment, it’s a matter of focusing on solutions. To get to the solutions we need to be more aware of what’s happening and what is possible. You can be a realist and an optimist.

In some small way this is what I choose to do as an artist. I am all for art for art’s sake, and I admire art and artists that do nothing but produce amazing art. It is simply not what I choose to do. Whatever opportunity I have to present art to the public, I am deliberate in intent and outcome. I deliberately choose to highlight obscure and often overlooked aspects of consumerism and capitalism, and hope that I have helped someone somewhere along their journey to a more sustainable way of living.

Small plastic containers like hotel, motel & travel shampoo & conditioner bottles are most likely thrown in the rubbish, then buried in landfill. This needn’t be. They are recyclable, and recycling facilities could easily be fitted in hotel bathrooms. We also probably don’t need them in the first place. Hotels & motels could fit large capacity dispenser bottles in their bathrooms instead. We throw out an incredible amount of plastic containers of all shapes and sizes. Yet this is becoming an increasingly valuable resource. In Australia recyclable plastic is worth about AU$300/tonne.

The OLPC project is a great concept and a positive way of increasing knowledge and understanding around the world. I can’t help thinking if only we recycled all the plastic in Australia, how much more could be given to projects like this one. The plastic itself could be used to make the laptop casings. The Prosthesis Foundation already uses recycled plastic to produce artificial limbs for needy children in Thailand. Australians only recycle about 40% of materials that are recyclable. What a travesty that we are burying tonnes of plastic in landfill that could be used to assist such worthy causes.

Its up to you and me to make a difference. Make the effort to recycle everything you can from your own use, then your household, then your workplace, then maybe even think what your community or social group can do together. It does all make a difference, and each time someone else sees you doing something, they may think that’s something they can do as well. Part of my job as Education Officer for Resource Work Cooperative is going to schools. I am privileged to see the many projects that schools have initiated, and children enthusiastically participating, from worm farms to recycle bins, from art from trash to songs about the environment.

There is hope for the future.


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