Last year I ran a plastic/data project in Brighton, UK. We created a wave. Out of plastic bottle tops. It was — and is — over 50m long.
The project took 9 months. It involved 150 volunteers, 23 beach cleans, 7 containers to intercept bottle tops at shop and cafe counters, and 29,684 discarded bottle tops all collected from Brighton beach and seafront. If you’d asked me 2 years ago if I’d ever do something like this, the answer would’ve most certainly been ‘no’.
I’m many things, including a graphic designer and a permaculturalist. I’ve never thought of myself as an activist but I do care deeply about our natural environment. I wanted to do something to raise awareness about the impact of plastic in the seas. Something that might make a difference, however small. A Drop in the Ocean was the result.
The project consisted of collecting the bottle tops, counting them and recording the data, and then running a series of workshops to thread them. You can read all about it here.
I’d never done anything like it before. Yes, I was nervous when I started, and I had no idea how it would work. But through it I learnt so much. I wanted to share that.
If you’ve got a spark of an idea, and you’re thinking of doing something similar, but aren’t sure where to start, here are three things that might help you do something meaningful in your community.
1. Invite people in
If you want to reach people, involve them. Put your idea out there. It might not be fully formed yet but let others help you evolve it.
A Drop in the Ocean could have been a solo project. At one point I was tempted — it would have been a lot less organising. And I wouldn’t have had to worry about whether or not I got any volunteers. I could have collected and threaded all those bottle tops on my own. I doubt I’d have enjoyed it, and I’m sure I’d have been bored. But I could have done it.
I started out testing my idea on people I trusted. Close friends and colleagues. The response was positive. They thought I could do it!
Ideas, connections, a venue for the workshops, a place to install the wave, help collecting tops, the destined-to-be-recycled fishing nylon we used for threading… all of these things came from chatting to people.
Then getting volunteers involved in collecting, counting and threading the tops. Each person became another ambassador for the message. Each person involved was another one invested.
Even if you don’t feel part of a community, don’t let that stop you. You don’t need your own community to start a project. I didn’t feel I had a particularly coherent one. In fact, I’m not sure I should even call A Drop in the Ocean a ‘community project’. In essence, I invited the community of those living in my city. And they came. And in the process, different communities within the city connected. Crosslinks were forged that strengthened various communities. This wasn’t something I planned to happen, but I’m so very glad it did.
Who can you get involved?
2. Slow things down
So many of the issues we face today are down to the crazy pace of our lifestyles. We get takeaway coffee because we don’t have time to make a cup at home, or we’re rushing out the door and forget to fill a water bottle.
If we really want to solve important issues, we need to slow down.
Create a space for people to slow down and have important and intimate conversations. The kind that create connections and inspire people to do things differently. I’m not talking about preaching to people, but about creating space for like-minded people to talk, to realise they’re not alone in their fears or in how hard they find things.
The workshops where we threaded bottle tops did this. People relaxed because they were doing things with their hands. It was repetitive and calming. There was no rush to get things done. We didn’t have targets. (I’d decided early on that what we got done, we got done.)
We also stopped for lunch. I enjoy cooking and believe that taking time to prepare your own food from scratch helps cut plastic waste and slow things down too. Having delicious food at our workshops was my way of saying thank you to the volunteers, of showing people they were valued. That their contribution was valued. That what they were doing mattered.
It was also another shared experience. And shared positive experiences matter. They give us a sense of well-being.
How could the process of your project support the change you want to see in the world?
3. Instigate joy
This is not something I had as a goal at the start of the project. But I did know I wanted to have a sense of playfulness, even though the issue at the heart of the project was such a negative one. In fact, it was because it was such a negative one that I felt we needed this playfulness.
Climate collapse. Plastic pollution. Mass consumption. Extinction of species. These are all terrifying and heart-breaking issues. The enormity of these can overwhelm and paralyse us. We choose to ignore them because we don’t see how we can make any difference (or it’s just too much to think about, right?)
It’s possible to be playful and not make light of the seriousness of these problems. Playfulness creates joy and connection, not just with those we play with, but with the issues.
Joy was definitely not on my list of ‘proposed outcomes’ when I sent in my funding application. But from the moment I started hanging the strings, I saw the impact they had on people.
Kids grinned and ran their hands along the strings of plastic bottle tops, chanting colours. Runners slowed and smiled. Passersby stopped to talk to me or take pictures. One woman told me how seeing the colour had lifted her spirits after a particularly hard visit to the hospital.
It made more sense to me after watching Ingrid Fetell Lee’s TED talk on joy. Without meaning to, my choice of materials (the bottle tops) and the wavy design had met some of the aesthetic criteria we associate with joy: “bright colour, round things, a sense of abundance and multiplicity”.
I went on to read her book — Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness — and the value of surprise and joy in projects like mine made sense in a whole new way:
“… But small, surprising interventions can be gateways to broader community engagement. Surprise functions like a spotlight, illuminating a problem in a joyful way.
The poet Mary Oliver writes “Attention is the beginning of devotion”.
The moment something captures our attention we cease to become detached from it. We see it, engage with it, and perhaps we become involved…
Surprises open apertures in which the city becomes tender, personal. They can be icebreakers in a broader conversation about how to improve the world around us.”
Now, more than ever, we need joy.
How could your project surprise people and bring them joy?
If you can:
- Invite a beautiful diversity of people to get involved with your project
- Design a process that enables people to behave in a way that supports change
- Find ways to spark joy in both those involved and those who’ll see the final outcome
Then you can and you will connect people with the issue you care about.