You can’t see it, but plastic is floating in the air all around us. What happens to plastic items when we dispose of them? They degrade into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics, which then end up within the air we breathe.
Pentagram partner Giorgia Lupi and her team have developed “Plastic Air,” a web-based, interactive experience that vivifies a type of pollution that most people don't even know exists: airborne microplastic deposition, the result of ever-increasing global plastic production and consumption. The experience provides a lens through which to “see” and to explore the invisible plastic particles that are ever-present in the atmosphere around us, and to consider the impact they are having on the environment and our health.
The project was developed in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture and released to coincide with Earth Day 2021. Google Arts & Culture is the tech giant’s non-profit platform with a mission of energizing art and artists and engaging people around visual culture. The initiative’s projects are wide-ranging, from digitizing museum collections to partnering with artists and creative coders on new and exciting experiments. Plastic Air will be featured in the free Google Arts & Culture app and is part of "Heartbeat of the Earth," a series of online experiments by artists that interpret the planet’s data, launched by Google in collaboration with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The Google team reached out to Pentagram to specifically articulate the rising danger of plastic pollution. The challenge for the designers was to create a visual experience based on something largely invisible. At the same time, microplastics are an emerging area of scientific inquiry, and not much is known about them. A major component of the project was establishing a methodology for visualizing the problem and shaping various datasets with information that is still limited and speculative.
To begin the project, the Pentagram team interviewed several leading atmospheric researchers and referred to existing studies to identify datasets they could leverage in the experience. The concept hinged on a seen/unseen dichotomy: because microplastics are invisible to the human eye, they go unnoticed despite having real impacts on ecosystems and human health.
“Plastic Air” allows viewers to imagine these particles as objects and see what we usually don’t see. The experience consists of a speculative “window” onto a data-driven approximation of plastic particles that exist all around us, but remain hidden to the naked eye. Users can drop identifiable objects like housewares and apparel to “pollute” the sky, and then see the items break down into the air. They can also adjust factors like location (cities vs. rural areas) and weather conditions like wind, rain and snow to see how these affect dispersal patterns.
The designers wanted the experience to be highly engaging, to encourage users to spend some time with it and share it with their friends. Like much of Giorgia’s work, the project utilizes the principles of “data humanism”––using data to uncover a relatable human element behind the numbers and statistics, to help make the issue more accessible.
Clicking on each particle reveals its chemical composition, and what household item it perhaps originally came from (e.g., a shower curtain, car bumper, shopping bag, t-shirt, etc.). Prompts like “Eat some candy,” “Order takeout” and “Buy new underwear” result in the corresponding everyday objects being deposited into the air and bursting into confetti-like particles.
The design team focused on surfacing surprising sources of microplastics for the viewer, while also underscoring the incredible visual and material variety of these particles as they exist in the environment and how far they can travel from their origin source. Inspecting each particle gives users a sense for what it is made of, where it came from, and how far it has traveled. The designers selected five types of particles of different sizes, each represented by a graphic shape inspired by the actual granules.
Plastics are made to be durable, and once they exist, they don’t easily disappear. A slide bar at the top of the page allows visitors to toggle between seeing and not seeing the particles. If they choose to look away (by selecting “don’t see”), the experiment presents the plastics in their more familiar forms––sometimes obvious and sometimes surprising––inviting viewers to inspect what they are made from. This second state shows these very objects floating through the atmosphere, almost comically suggesting the urgency (and absurdity) of this type of pollution.
The design of the experience speaks to the synthetic nature of the material, with a plastic-inspired color palette that is bright and shiny––the opposite of the “dirty” pollution people normally associate with environmental issues. The subject may be scary and daunting, but the site looks beautiful and appealing to users, like plastics themselves.
The background image of the sky changes based on the time of day, and eagle-eyed viewers may notice that the frequency and quantity of microplastics also shifts according to busy hours like the morning and evening commutes.
Visitors can manipulate parameters like location (cities vs. more remote, rural areas) and weather conditions (wind, rain and snow) via a dashboard at the left, which also includes a graphic key for the various particles and a console for adjusting their size and rate of dispersion. The real-world phenomenon of plastic air may currently be beyond our control, but these adjustments allow viewers to get a sense of the type and scale of microplastics and the factors that go into their movement.
At the right, tabbed calls to action invite visitors to “Find Out More”––where they can read about how the site works and learn about the various microplastic particles and existing research––and “What Can I Do?,” which answers this difficult question in the most simple and straightforward language possible. The best thing you can do: Stop using plastics. At the bare minimum, start being aware of the vast quantity of materials around you that are composed of plastics.