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One Artist, 500 Volunteers and 168,000 Recycled Straws: A Clarion Call Against Plastic

Viral photographer Benjamin Von Wong is no stranger to making waves with his mind-blowing photography, often dedicated to raising awareness about environmental issues while blurring the lines between the hyper-real and the fantastical.

His latest masterpiece, 'Strawpocalypse: The Parting of the Plastic Sea,' done in partnership with local nonprofit organization Zero Waste Saigon and Starbucks Vietnam, brought together a collection of environmentally focused people, all seeking to spotlight the negative environmental impacts of plastic straw usage. The striking installation is made of 168,000 straws.

Video via YouTube channel VonWong.

There is no shortage of statistics that describe changes that the world's seas are already undergoing as a result of human activity like waste-dumping and the usage of fossil fuels. Experts calculate that every year eight million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean, while it is possible that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish. Phrases like “awareness is key” and “knowledge is power” are prescribed like mantras, but often these statistics can lead to people feeling overwhelmed to the point of inertia: a condition that some psychologists refer to as “statistical numbing.”

Benjamin Von Wong's past works are known for their impressive scale and unabashed environmentally conscious stance.

“While statistic can appear daunting and impossible to fight against, it all starts with small, simple actions,” Von Wong told Saigoneer. The Canadian-born artist of Malaysian-Chinese descent has developed a reputation for having the ability to turn statistics into stunning visual art that not only has an emotional impact, but empowers the viewer with a sense that he or she can make a difference.

Von Wong’s work has won him international acclaim, not only as a visual artist, but as a proponent of environmental protection. He often uses live subjects in extraordinary environments and shocks viewers with visual representations of environmental degradation and the far-reaching effects of pollution.

When asked how he measures the success of his projects Von Wong said: “I try to track the metrics in success of my projects by the same indicators that other people do, press coverage, views, comments, likes, engagement and how far it spreads, but I think that’s all soft metrics. It’s not about measuring the number of views, it’s about measuring the depth of view.” He is as concerned with the quality of engagement the viewer has with the work as the number of viewers it receives.

The straws were collected over six months from all over Vietnam.

Community empowerment is an integral part of Von Wong’s work and mission, including this project. Founded by Julia and Michael Burdge, Zero Waste Saigon has been active in a number of waste reduction campaigns, including promoting the elimination of plastic straws in Saigon and replacing them with their own brand of bamboo straws. They were integral in helping Von Wong to gather a community of about 500 volunteers to help with the collection, cleaning, and sorting of the 168,000 plastic straws needed to complete the installation. Straws were collected from all over Vietnam over six months in order to complete the 11-foot-high (3 meter) structure, a representation of tall collapsing waves under a glimmering sun.

Scores of volunteers in Saigoneer wash, sort and spray over the straws for the installation.

Unlike many of Von Wong’s previous works, 'Strawpocalypse' is an interactive installation, and viewers are encouraged to take photos in front of and inside it, each making their own individual statements. In this way, the installation is itself “recyclable,” enabling people to create a boundless number of works of art from it as they each engage with the piece.

Von Wong was impressed by the work ethic and sense of community among the people he came across while creating 'Strawpocalypse.' "I feel like people in Vietnam are very hard-working," he said. "They like community. They like being a part of something. They don't need to be the leaders of something, but they love supporting something that they care about, and that sense of community is really interesting.”

'Strawpocalypse: Parting the Plastic Sea' is on display at Estella Place, 88 Song Hanh, District 2 until March 24.

Related Articles:

- Saigon Student Group Finds New Use for Organic Waste

- In Vietnam's Nascent Anti-Plastic Movement, Straws Are the First to Go

- Laiday Refill Station Sells a Sustainable Lifestyle to All Saigoneers

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