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© 1972 – 2021 Pentagram; Google Arts & Culture

What happens to items made of plastic after we dispose of them? They break down into increasingly tiny fragments called microplastics. Although these particles cannot be seen with the naked eye, they are all around us, floating in the air we breathe. Pentagram partner Giorgia Lupi and her team have devised a web-based interactive experience to bring attention to the accumulation of microplastics in the air caused by the ever-increasing use of plastics worldwide. Plastic Air was developed in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture and was made available to the public on Earth Day 2021. The project functions as a lens through which people can “see” the invisible particles of plastic in the atmosphere, as well as explore the ways they impact the environment and our health. Plastic Air will be available in the free Google Arts & Culture app and is part of the Heartbeat of the Earth series, a collection of online experiments by artists interpreting the planet’s data. Google developed the series with the support of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

On the Plastic Air website, visitors can drop objects such as household items and clothing into the browser window to “pollute” the sky and see how the items dissolve into the air. Users can adjust for factors such as location (urban or remote areas) and weather conditions (wind, rain and snow) via a dashboard. The dashboard also displays a visual key to the different particles and features sliders that allow users to determine their size and the speed at which they spread. Clicking on a particle reveals its chemical composition and the item it may have originated from. Accepting prompts such as “order takeout” results in the associated everyday objects being thrown into the air and disintegrating into confetti-like particles. Although we can’t directly perceive the saturation of the air with microplastics, the website makes it possible to get a sense of the type and scale of the pollution, as well as of the factors responsible for the dispersion of these particles.

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