Material Monster: Packaging Purgatory

Art project recycles laboratory waste

Students from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, led by sophomore Caitlin Lee, installed Packaging Purgatory, a public art project built from recycled laboratory packing materials, in the Dula Foundation Central Courtyard last Sunday, Nov. 4. The installation was timed to coincide with the conference “URBANISM(S): Sustainable Cities for One Planet,” which takes place Nov. 9-10. All photos by Sid Hastings/WUSTL Photo Services.

Every day, laboratories from around the university must dispose of boxes, bubble wrap, packing supplies and other waste items. Indeed, in the United States, packaging makes up about one-third of municipal solid waste.

Last summer, Susan Shen, a neuropathology student in the School of Medicine, approached the student-led Art Council in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts with a proposal: instead of recycling such materials, would it be possible to transform them into art?

The result is Packaging Purgatory, the inaugural installation by Material Monster. A subgroup of the Art Council, Material Monster works to collect and reuse recyclable materials for a variety of creative endeavors.

For Packaging Purgatory, Caitlin Lee, vice president for Art Council, and fellow Material Monster volunteers created a three-part installation utilizing hundreds of colorful rectangular plastic plates. Originally created to package pipette tips, the plates were collected for the group by WUSTL’s Environmental Health & Safety department.

Using Ziploc ties, Lee and other students knitted the plates together and, on Oct. 27, wrapped them around a series of tree trunks near Olin Library.

Then, Nov. 4, the installation migrated east to the Sam Fox School, where it took the form of both freestanding sculptures (the “exoskeletons” of the previously wrapped trees) and additional tree wrappings. All will remain on view during the upcoming conference “URBANISM(S): Sustainable Cities for One Planet,” which takes place Nov. 9 and 10.

The final iteration will come next week when the project moves to the School of Medicine’s Farrell Learning and Teaching Center.