Art with an indispensable message

How can an artwork be both a load of rubbish and award winning at the same time?

Trevor Woods has managed the feat by upcycling plastic waste into a thought provoking sculpture.

Last week the Kildallan native was announced as the winner of the special prize award in a competition run by, and sponsored by the EPA.

The sculptural work (pictured above) features a set of legs with a trail of plastic left discarded in its wake. The title of the piece ‘What’s Your Plastic Footprint?’ assists the viewer in absorbing the message, and challenges them to consider, if not alter, their consumption and disposal behaviours.

The competition has numerous categories, but Trevor was drawn to the special prize as it focuses particularly on plastics.

“It’s a mannequin’s legs that was taken out of a skip and all the plastic bits are from my own waste bin. Then I sprayed them white to give a ghostly effect,” he explains

Plastic waste is a topic with which Trevor is well versed as he works as a technical officer in the School of Pharmacy in Trinity College Dublin. He also has a degree in Polymer Engineering and Science, and has researched into biodegradable plastics.

“I just think art is a great way of educating people about this, hence making the sculpture ‘What’s your plastic footprint?’”

“As in what do you leave behind you if you don’t recycle properly, because these plastic can end up in the environment and in the sea for over 500 years.”

He insists Ireland could be doing more when it comes to plastic waste.

“I don’t think we’re doing enough,” he says, observing Ireland’s recycling rates lag far behind the likes of Germany and Holland.

“They have a major percentage of their plastics recycled, but Ireland needs to up its game with that because, if you are putting it into landfill, it’s going to be there for generations ahead. It’s not going to be got rid of in a year or two - it’s our kids’ kids’ problem.”

Trevor agrees with the Celt that recycling plastic has its limits.

“You can only recycle the same plastic six or seven times. Eventually it becomes unusable, you have to go back to what they call a virgin feedstock, or brand new material."

Artist Trevor Woods

Should we not just replace the use of plastics entirely?

“I wouldn’t go that far,” he says.

“Plastic has great benefits as well. It does have a good shelf life for beverages. It’s probably cheaper than the aluminium cans that you use. Aluminium is much easier to recycle because companies will buy aluminium and get money for it. With plastic, you can’t,” he says, though expresses optimism in a move by the Green Party for people to be refunded for recycling plastic.

“This is the reason why, for example, in Holland and Germany recycling is so big,” he says noting it’s in people’s interest to even collect discarded plastic items they come across.

“If we have a similar system in Ireland’s, then, of course, people are going to collect as many plastic bottles and cans as they can, and that will help to promote more recycling.”

His work materialised whilst undertaking a part-time diploma in Art and Design in the National College of Art and Design in 2019.

“Through the diploma, they push you to do your own artwork and I ended up focusing on plastics or mostly recycled objects to make my artwork, I’m called an Upcycler I guess. I spend a lot of time some time in skips and WEEE electrical waste.”

A scroll through Trevor’s Instagram page shows he also has penchant for laying out pithy comments or song lyrics spelled out in plastic lettering, all tastefully framed in reclaimed wood.

“I take apart keyboards, and I make poetry and song quotes and funny quotes out of the keys. The wood is upcycled material as well - I never buy any of the wood. I take it out of wood bins and stuff like that.

"I make the frames back in Cavan and then I’ll bring them to Dublin and I make the poetry and song quotes there."

Trevor doesn’t have to go too far in sourcing his materials.

"I’ve been here for like 16 years," he says of his work in Trinity, "so I’m able to go into the waste centres here. As you can imagine, there’s 3,000 staff and 20,000 students, so they are always upgrading computers.

"It’s estimated you are meant to change your keyboard in a work environment every five years. It builds up dust and bacteria, especially with so many students."

The bounty of keyboards come in handy for his framed quotes.

"I’ve already taken apart 400-500 keyboards, so I have columns of As, Bs, Cs, all the way to Z. So if a poetry quote or song quote interest me I’ll make it, or I can make them upon request. Some people have asked me for specific sayings, like one that I’ve made a few of is: ‘Did you turn off the immersion?’", he says, noting those particular ones are typically given as presents to parents.

Trevor describes his work as "educational art".

"It’s something to make people stop and think about their own plastic use and what they leave behind if they don’t recycle."

Just like recycling has its limits, Trevor is approaching the point where he’s exhausted it as a medium.

"I’m definitely going to continue the recycling aspect, but I think I’m moving a little bit away from the plastic and hopefully go into recycled wood."