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Harvesting trash to create an entirely nutritionless grocery store of single-use plastic

Jamie Sherman Blinder

Robin Frohardt, The Plastic Bag Store. Photo credit: Jeremy Marble

ANN ARBOR—When what you harvest is trash, your crops are in season year-round and they yield overwhelming surplus. 

In the case of Brooklyn-based artist Robin Frohardt, her haul of single-use plastics, organically harvested from streets and garbage dumps, are artfully repurposed to create and fill an entire 6,000-square-foot supermarket. With her public art installation and immersive film experience, The Plastic Bag Store, every banana, every frozen pizza, every sushi roll and box of cereal is made of single-use plastic (read: DO NOT EAT).

In Ann Arbor through Feb. 5 and co-presented by UMS, UMMA, and the Graham Sustainability Institute, in partnership with the U-M Arts Initiative, Frohardt uses humor, craft and a critical lens to question our culture of consumption and convenience.

At her free artist talk as part of U-M’s Penny Stamps Speaker Series, Frohardt said, “I got the idea from watching someone bag, and double bag, and triple bag all my groceries that were already bags, inside of boxes, inside of bags … and thought: ‘We should make a grocery store that just sells packaging to highlight the ridiculousness of how much trash we go through.'” 

Shelves are stocked with thousands of original grocery items meticulously sculpted by hand and poignantly shedding light on the enduring effects of single-use plastics. For her Michigan audiences there will be a section of “Bagyo Redbag,” a play on the popular Michigan-born Faygo Redpop, and “Straws” ice cream, for Detroit’s beloved Stroh’s.

Several times a day, the store transforms into an immersive, dynamic stage for a film in which inventive puppetry, shadow play and intricate handmade sets tell the darkly comedic and sometimes tender story of how the overabundance of plastic waste we leave behind might be misinterpreted by future generations—and how what we value least may become our most lasting cultural legacy.

“I had learned in my research that all the plastic that has ever been made still exists—it doesn’t decompose; it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces but it doesn’t go away,” she said. “And I thought ‘Oh my God, a straw that I used in a Happy Meal as a child in the ’80s is still somewhere,’ and that was just a mind blowing experience. 

“I started imagining, ‘What is it going to be like for people in the future that are excavating these plastics? How are they going to know what these things are?’ They might get it totally wrong and misinterpret the function of all of these things, and that is a funny idea for a puppet show.”

With sustainability efforts being a cornerstone initiative at U-M, students and faculty alike are using this art installation as a catalyst for larger dialogue and additional programming. 

“There is no question The Plastic Bag Store is born out of dazzling artistry, but it also transcends traditional artistic lanes to illuminate and amplify one of the greatest issues of our planet,” said UMS President Matthew VanBesien.

“It is fun and joyous while still serving as a serious prompt for discussion and, hopefully, action; outcomes that are becoming increasingly important to artists and the work they create. It tangibly shows the dual-role of the arts, not only in human expression but also in catalyzing societal change.”

In addition, UMS and the Graham Sustainability Institute, U-M Museum of Art and U-M Arts Initiative will present “Talking Trash: an Interactive Discussion Inspired by The Plastic Bag Store.” Researchers, scientists, artists and activists will tackle the question of what can be done about single-use plastics and ways to reduce our reliance on them, aiming to empower and inspire individual action. This free event will take place at 6:30-8:30 p.m. Jan. 30 at UMMA’s Helmut Stern Auditorium (525 S. State St., Ann Arbor).

“As I look at the work the Graham Institute does, and the complexity of the sustainability challenges we face, it is so obvious that the solutions are interdisciplinary, and that we need to really touch people’s hearts to motivate them to work on these issues—and you can’t do that just with the science alone,” said Jennifer Haverkamp, director of the U-M Graham Sustainability Institute.

“This particular project brings the crisis of plastic pollution home so vividly with the right mix of seriousness and whimsy and humor to reach all kinds of audiences we wouldn’t otherwise reach. I hope there are many more opportunities like this to partner our sustainability work with the power of the arts.”

Additionally, the Student Life Sustainability intern team will have the opportunity to attend the installation and speak with the artist following their visit, and the Planet Blue Student Leaders will host an ecocraft night full of crocheting with upcycled yarn, felting and weaving with old t-shirts Jan. 22 (free at U-M Union, Room 2210 AB).

The Plastic Bag Store is a ticketed event taking place at the 777 Building, 777 E. Eisenhower Parkway, Ann Arbor.