A new book showcases an endangered species: New York City’s ubiquitous plastic bags
When designer Sho Shibuya moved to New York from his native Japan seven years ago, he was drawn to the city’s everyday icons – most of all, the ubiquitous plastic bags found at almost every deli, bodega and corner store in the five boroughs.
“In Tokyo,” he explains, “plastic bags are more durable and each store adds its own logo and branding. When I moved to New York, I began collecting plastic bags and sorting them by design. There are four main templates: the smiley face, the stacked THANK YOUs, the ‘Thank you for shopping here’ font and the purple flowers. They’re all over New York City, but each store has its own twist. These four designs have become graphic design icons, and symbols of the city – like I♡NY, yellow taxis or the Greek coffee cup.”
With New York governor Andrew Cuomo currently pushing for a ban on most single-use plastic bags, these everyday objects could soon be a thing of the past. That’s part of the reason Sho created Plastic Paper – a new book project showcasing these (hopefully) endangered species, with all proceeds going to Parley to support our AIR Strategy to end plastic pollution.
“Single-use plastics are choking our planet, and especially our cities and oceans,” Sho says. “I dream of a day when we’re finally free of any single-use plastic products. I realize that there is some irony in creating a book to memorialize objects that will linger in a landfill for thousands of years longer than the book itself. My intent is to celebrate daily works of design, not waste. These bags were useful, and that usefulness led to their ubiquity.”
Shot by photographers Henry Hargreaves and Vanessa Granda, the self-published book is a meticulously-detailed look at New York’s current plastic taxonomy. Leafing through it almost feels like visiting a museum; something to show your kids one day, when single-use plastic bags are just a memory.
“It’s finding the beauty in ordinary things that encompass our daily lives,” says Vanessa. “While we are starting to eliminate plastic bags in an attempt to help our world, I think it’s a cool way to look back at the designs these soon-to-be relics once had.”
There is another side to the project, too. As Sho explains, there’s a concept in Japan known as yaoyoruzu no-kami, or “eight million gods.” It means that every single item has a god living inside: a single grain of rice, a chopstick, a drop of water, or even a plastic bag. A second concept, mottainai, he explains, means people should cherish things.
Even as an object ages, as long as it serves its purpose, it should be kept in use. As a kid, these values were instilled in Sho. Referencing the recent trend for Marie Kondo-ing your life, he has kept all the plastic bags from the project neatly folded inside a drawer, organized by type and color. He pulls open the drawer to show us, revealing row after row of blankly-smiling yellow happy faces.
“Some of them have a definite design lineage,” explains copywriter Cole Kennedy, who worked with Sho on the book. “The smiley face was created for an insurance company and soon mass produced. Others are more obscure, like the purple flowers. They are a complete mystery to me but I would love to know more, because they are everywhere.”
A lot of factories around Sho’s design studio in Brooklyn actually still make plastic bags, he explains, and you can see the designs offered as templates on signs outside the factories. We wonder aloud if the designs themselves will persist in years to come, on canvas, cotton and hemp bags, and also how brief the age of plastic will end up being.
“This book is not an exercise to advocate for wasteful plastics; it is the opposite. It is an act of preservation of everyday design and a call to give greater care to the objects we use every day, to reuse them and waste less.”
– Sho Shibuya
Plastic Paper launches 14 March 2019 at Court Street Grocers in Manhattan with three limited-edition artworks by Anna Roberts. The first fifty copies sold at the event will come in a complimentary Parley Ocean Bag made with Ocean Plastic®. All proceeds from the book support Parley’s AIR strategy around the world – our sincere thanks to Sho and his team for their support.