The Reuters graphics team came up with a striking way to visualise how much plastic the average person eats in their diet. Using real plastic that was ground down into shavings, weighed out on digital scales, and pictured at table settings, we were able to drive the message home in a powerful and compelling visual format.
The refreshing change with this project was that no major technology was used. Hard work and smart ideas made this possible. Physically weighing out plastic on measuring scales in the office and tipping it onto white plates and bowls was very satisfying and a refreshing change to reporting and visualising data programmatically on a computer.
The entire piece was also made in an environmentally friendly way with no plastic wasted.
The photographs were shot with a DSLR camera and tripod in front of a natural light source in order to create the nice shadow. They were then edited in Photoshop and placed on a cleanly designed web page.
The project was widely shared on social media and featured on websites of environmental groups. It is still widely shared as a striking explainer on the dangers of microplastics.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The straight-line projection is simple math. Showing the results in a way that would be readily understood proved to be a challenge. Even with the innovative idea of physically weighing out the plastic, there were still big obstacles to overcome.
First of all, a high volume of finely ground plastic was needed. At first, the author tried to shave down his own bottle caps manually but after a couple of hours and only a spoonful of plastic later, it became obvious this was not the solution. To get the type and volume of plastic required, professional help was needed.
After trawling the internet to find places that would import large amounts of shredded plastic into Singapore we realised this was a terrible solution for environmental reasons. A Singapore recycling initiative agreed to provide plastic chips in a size that was suitable and in a range of colors. They could be returned afterwards to be recycled.
The next major challenge was the photography. Determining suitable table settings and assuring consistent lighting conditions took a lot of work. After the white tableware was returned to its rightful owner, the team decided to go even bigger and visualise the amounts of plastic over longer periods of time such as 10 years and a lifetime.
For this, larger plastic items were donated by other companies in Singapore, all with the agreement it could be returned afterwards for the sake of the environment.
What can others learn from this project?
Sometimes, an innovative idea can drive a powerful visual data project. This piece was based on only a handful of numbers but with some innovative thinking around how to show the data, how to get the materials needed, and how to execute the final product, a strong story can be delivered.