At the Lisbon Architecture Triennale, which opened in the Portuguese capital on Sept. 29 and runs until Dec. 5, 2022, this year’s theme is Terra (earth), meant not only as planet or material, but as a set of communities, of systems, of solutions to common problems on different scales. Among the independent projects on display we found After Plastics, a research project begun with Andreea Vasile Hoxha‘s master’s thesis at Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2020. We’ve talked a lot about microplastics and recycling on WeVux, but this project offers a completely opposite point of view: the spread of microplastics around the world is a fact – what if we could use them to our advantage?
After Plastics is a transitional landscape – from glacial to post-glacial – where microplastics play a critical role in the development of a new plant growth pattern, augmented through the intervention of the landscape architect, in close collaboration with a team of scientists.
This exhibition questions the emergence of microplastic particles in the most remote places on Earth over the next two centuries and the imminent implications on landscape systems and their formation through parallels between geological and biological time scales.
For the Triennale, Kala.Studio – a design and research practice co-founded by Andreea Vasile-Hoxha, Ergys Hoxha, along with James Stevens in 2021 – designed a series of experiments with the intent of visually communicating scientific inquiries showing effects of microplastics on soil ecologies. The goal of the exhibit is to communicate the connection between the microscopic scale (soil ecologies) to the regional scale (glaciers). They took an epistemological approach to experimental design focusing on visualization strategies making the topic more approachable to a more diverse audience. Although these are small sample sizes, their first results were consistent with some of the previously published studies showing a synergistic relationship between microplastic and mycelium on plant growth. The research team then measured initial growth rates of plants through height, observing an increase in the plants seeded in soils saturated with microplastics and mycelium.
In the second round of experiments, the team evaluated the implication of mycelium and microplastics on the growth rate of corn in three different soil types (peat moss alone, peat moss and topsoil mix, and peat moss and native soil mix). In this round of experiments, corn plants with mycelium added consistently outperformed plants without mycelium independent of soil type or plastic type. However, the team explains the effect of plastics on plant growth was inconclusive from a scientific study perspective.
The results were not as solid as those in the first experiment and were not consistent with all combinations of microplastics and soil types. Yet, the experiment raised questions for future studies regarding how the different types of microplastics, in combination with the soil types can shape the plant root morphology and plant growth rate.
In the context of the Triennale, the goal of the After Plastics project was to demonstrate the process to make complex topics approachable to a more diverse audience, thus expanding the reach of the study and more thoroughly promoting future scientific and/or design exploration. Future studies will be needed to further elucidate the connection between plants, mycelium, and microplastics.