What Price Expression?

Nudibranch-Bamboo, polymer clay jewelry by artist Melanie West

Nudibranch-Bamboo, polymer clay jewelry by artist Melanie West (No offense at all is meant to this wonderful artist! This image is to show the dazzling colors and flexible shapes the medium is capable of achieving.)

Clay is not all that portable as an art medium; one needs access to a kiln for the crucial steps in the creative process. Lately I haven’t had access to a kiln, so I’ve been looking around for other, portable media to use to create work.

Imagine my euphoria (short-lived, if you already know the ending to this story) to find polymer clay — a material that doesn’t need firing in a kiln. Colorful, elastic, pliable, and portable, it seems suited to a variety of artistic expressions. There are thousands, if not millions of educational videos about the medium on YouTube; there are books; one can use the same tools for polymer clay that one uses in ceramics (or baking, for that matter); and, the medium gives itself over to a rich host of expressions. I eagerly ran out and bought several kinds of clay and began experimenting.

Several Web sites had mentioned the clay needed to be cured in an oven, so my next step was to begin researching the curing process. That led me to discover polymer clay’s dark side: it is based on the plastic polyvinyl chloride. Better known as “PVC“, the dreaded and toxic plastic #3.

Annie Leonard of the Story of Stuff project describes PVC as the most toxic of all plastics at all stages of its production, use, and disposal.

PVC is also the material used in plastic wrap and bags (for storing meals), containers for cosmetics, soaps, and cleaning products, plastic packaging, credit cards, baby toys and bottles, pet care product containers, fake Christmas trees, waterbeds, drinking straws, wrapping on phone wires, shower curtains, flooring, eating utensils, 3-ring binders, notebook covers, computer cases, waterproof coating for backpacks, dashboards, raincoats, rainboots, traffic cones, door and window frames (“cladding”), gaskets, fencing, gutters, molding, siding, tiles, tablecloths, catheters, tubing, plastic gloves, mousepads, keyboards, garden hoses, children’s swimming pools, inflatable furniture, outdoor furniture, and tarps. Just to name a few.

The process for making PVC involves fusing petroleum-derived chloride molecules with heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, releasing significant toxic byproducts (dioxin is an example) that persist in the environment. Workers in polyvinyl chloride production facilities suffer high rates of cancers — especially liver and lung cancer, brain cancer and liver cirrhosis. Additives to PVC like phthalates — which are used to make PVC products less brittle — leach into skin, into materials and liquids, and they off-gas into the air. Inhaled, eaten or taken in through the body, these toxins travel up the food chain and persist in the environment. PVC items are not recycleable because of the toxins, like dioxin, that are released when the plastic is melted.

According to Annie Leonard, Americans toss out about 7 billion tons of PVC annually, with 2-4 billion tons going into landfills where they leach into the ground, water and air. Several states incinerate PVC products, with Florida at the top of the list. Washington state is one of the top ten states landfilling PVC. (Source: Center for Health, Environment, and Justice.)

PVC is a confounding material for me as an artist and as a citizen. If it poses such hazards to human health that we cannot safely recycle it, why are we risking human health to manufacture it in the first place? I think it is precisely because of that plasticity, ability to take color and shine and be molded into an infinite array of objects that makes PVC so appealing to manufacturers.

There are discussions going on about polymer clay, in particular about the phthalate additives that make the material so plastic. (Phthalates, you’ll remember, are the toxins that easily leach from materials we come in contact with. If you have a vinyl kitchen floor, don’t walk barefoot on it.) According to the industry, new formulations of polymer clay are being researched and clays on the market are considered “safe”. But before there was heavy consumer activism about the topic, even baby bottles contained phthalates. Whom do you trust?

I have half a mind to create an art project specifically using the material in question to confront the contrast between a beautiful artistic expression and ugly risk to health and the planet.

But if I only have half a mind, I’d better not waste it on such projects.

Some think the answer is plant-based plastics, with an emphasis on changing current agricultural processes to use less pesticides.

What do you think?

Meanwhile, perhaps I’ll take a stroll on the beach to find some nice beach glass …


Tess McMillan
Gallery Space

p.s.: For an uplifting and hugely informative story on vinyl, check out the DVD “Blue Vinyl”, which is available from the King County Library System. Or take a peek here: at BlueVinyl.org

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