At the intersection of public art, community space, and the environment, the Environmental Justice initiative uses art as a tool for conversation and learning. You may have seen their billboards throughout the city, encouraging people to #BYOBagPHL—applying the well-known concept of “Bring Your Own” to reusable bags. We sat down with Environmental Justice Project Manager Shari Hersh and local activist Ron Whyte to talk about how this campaign got started and why it matters.
Ron: I got involved with Trash Academy and Environmental Justice through environmental justice organizing here in Philadelphia—that’s where I met Shari. And I’ve been an environmental activist for going on 10 years now, really focusing on how environmental issues affect people of color especially, and poor people. People who generally are left out of the conversation. So I’ve been working with with Mural Arts, learning how to use art and creativity to amplify that message, how to use art to get people to think about the issue in a way that they wouldn’t think about it otherwise. Communicating with art and through art is a way of getting people to take the issues seriously, and pay attention. I’m interested right now in how we can use different forms of art and creativity to talk about the environmental crisis, activate people, and organize people.
Shari: As we work in communities, we use visual art and participatory games. We have a lot of fun. We go through the door of fun to talk about a complicated issue and let people know it’s not just about municipal services. It’s about the volume of consumption. It’s about who makes money from extraction.
We got to reusable bags as our focus now because a few years ago, Trash Academy did a project in South Philly where everyone took over a block and documented the trash there every week. And to everyone’s surprise, most of the trash that was consistently found was actually bags and takeout containers. And low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by dumping, and they’re doing all the cleanups over and over. So right then we started talking about bags.
Communicating with art and through art is a way of getting people to take the issues seriously, and pay attention.
Ron: Philly has a really well-known problem with litter and dumping and trash, and I know that Environmental Justice, Shari’s program, is interested in transforming and mending spaces that have been neglected and overlooked in the city. A lot of our neighborhoods have been written off as, “well it’ll always be that way and nothing will change.” So we’re trying to come in and reinvigorate and transform and educate people about how to keep their neighborhood clean—organizing people in a neighborhood to know each other.
Environmental justice is different from environmentalism. And environmentalism is more of a white-oriented thing, about saving the whales and the polar bears—not like that’s not important, but environmental justice is focusing more on how certain policies and institutions affect people of color adversely more than other people when it comes to the environment. Like how more fossil fuel infrastructure projects happen in neighborhoods that are low-income, and how many low-income people and people of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental harm, and trash and litter are definitely a part of that.
Shari: As part of the next project, the Trash Academy cohort went to the landfill and recycling center, and saw that in recycling, plastic bags would clog the recycling machines. They’re very dangerous, and we found out that they have zero value as a recycled object. So not only are they not really able to be recycled, they’re messing up our capacity to recycle. And of course we saw the incredible quantity of plastic in our landfill.
Ron: A lot of the young people we work with were interested in combining fashion and sustainability, so this project was also a way of expressing themselves. There’s this misconception that a reusable bag is only the fancy kind that you buy at Whole Foods. I keep seeing kids with those little black corner store bags and I’m just like, you could’ve just put that in your book bag.
Shari: Backpacks are the quintessential reusable bag. And almost every young person carries one! There are actually a lot of people who have the capacity to use a reusable bag, but when you go to a checkout line, the cashier just hands you the plastic bag. Through the billboards, we want to share how many different kinds of people carry a reusable bag.
So this is a positive message. It’s a creative message. We repurpose t-shirts to make bags. We have a Jeopardy-like game to help people talk to their friends about the issues. We think of it as a network that gets broader, and the billboards are making that conversation bigger.
The #BYOBag billboards were designed by artist Margaret Kearney, with photography from Teishka Smith. Funded by the PTS Foundation and City of Philadelphia; in partnership with the City’s Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet and Clean Water Action.
Last updated: May 11, 2020