Death by plastic

Artist raises awareness of growing waste stream

Artist Anne-Katrin Spiess and her assistant, art historian Jamie Morra prepare “Death by Plastic” at the Moab Landfill Sept. 20. Speiss, a conceptual land artist, hopes to raise awareness of the burden plastic waste has on the environment. Photo by Doug McMurdo

Conceptual land artist Anne-Katrin Spiess is a Swiss-born U.S. resident from New York City, but she spends a huge portion of the year in Moab and other Utah locales that inspire her creativity as someone who’s passionate about protecting Earth.

“I’m an artist who works in nature, mostly in very remote sites, to address environmental issues,” she said during an interview at the Moab Landfill on a windblown Friday, Sept. 20.

The Moab Landfill?

Yes. She was there to lie inside a Plexiglass casket with plastic containers and other plastic trash piled under and over her to shine a light on the amount of such items entering the waste stream, in the aptly named project, “Death by Plastic.”

Spiess is not here to lecture Moabites or anyone else about their consumption habits. She believes Moab’s commitment to recycling is an example that should be followed elsewhere. After all, Spiess is acutely aware of her own contribution to the world’s plastic trash problem.

Nineteen years ago she came to Moab towing a 1971 Airstream travel trailer and fell in love with the area – as so many have – and while here she ventured about 110 road miles to Hanksville, where she cleaned a mile of highway. She’s been back every year. “I love Moab. It fills my heart,” she said.

Artist Anne-Katrin Spiess has visited Moab every year for nearly two decades, but this most recent visit marked the first time she lay in a Plexiglass casket at the Moab Landfill covered in plastic trash as part of a project called “Death by Plastic.” Photo by Doug McMurdo

It was upon learning that China no longer accepts America’s recycled plastics that she decided on this latest project. She had always been a fan of the Community Recycle Center. “I knew Moab was a community that was sustainable,” she said. “You are very forward thinking.”

The project is as much about frustration as it is artistic expression. “Now that China is not taking plastics and we don’t have the facilities to dispose of them, I’m trying to raise awareness. I don’t have a solution,” she said. “But we’re killing the planet. It’s crazy. Nobody knows what to do with the trash and I’m as culpable as everyone else. We need to think about what we do and corporations need to think about how they package their products.”

Her frustration is palpable. When Spiess and her longtime assistant, art historian Jamie Morra returned to Moab a few weeks ago – towing a newer Airstream – they came armed with a much broader understanding of what’s at stake.

“My ongoing environmental concerns led me to research the lifecycle of plastic in hopes of addressing the attendant issues of this product, which is both incredibly useful and undeniably one of the leading causes of pollution on the planet,” she said. “The result of this research is a series titled “Death By Plastic.” The piece aims to draw attention to issues of refuse and recycling by highlighting the plastic products regionally that are no longer profitable or possible to recycle.”

She might be a regular visitor, but Spiess understands the impact Moab’s booming tourist economy has on the local landfills.

“For two decades, I have used southern Utah as a base for my projects in the West. My work in the Moab area, specifically, has made me acutely aware of the infrastructure for waste management in a small community that is seasonally infiltrated by tourists,” she said. “This piece came about from a feeling of helplessness (in terms of my own consumerism), but also as a way of drawing attention to the items that we think or hope are getting recycled and are instead being landfilled. Many of us have long assumed that the recyclables we were carefully cleaning and sorting were being processed and eventually re-used. The reality is that our planet is being smothered in plastic.”

“Death By Plastic” would not have been possible without the enthusiasm, good will and support of Sara Melnicoff at Moab Solutions and Evan Tyrrell, director of the Grand County Solid Waste Special Service District, said Spiess.