Sustainability by design: making art from trash

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April 16, 2019

Hawkeyes of all majors and interests encounter sustainability initiatives every day—whether pursuing a certificate in Sustainability or just trying to figure out if they can recycle their coffee cup.

Al Gonzales and Natalie Peterson are in the group that falls somewhere in between. As Graphic Design students, Al and Natalie spend most of their time in the Art Building on campus. While they had both always had an interest in the environment and reducing the impact of pollution, their passion lies in graphic design and its ability to translate messages through art.


When Al and Natalie were assigned a class project to pick a phrase and express it in the physical world, they were drawn to something that most students are probably trying not to think about – trash. More specifically, they chose to focus their project on the impacts of pollution and a powerful message that seems especially applicable to young people and the next generation of leaders: “We’ve always done it this way.”

"We’ve always done it this way."

Al and Natalie researched pollution and found that plastic products that they were using everyday were actually some of the world’s biggest pollutants. Coffee cups, plastic bags, soda bottles, and straws were all on the list.

One of the first steps was to find and collect the trash. This was the biggest step in the project, but Al and Natalie were surprised by just how easy it was to find the materials and just how much plastic trash there was. Al and Natalie rifled through trash cans around the community, on campus, and in their homes to find their materials.

When they realized the extent of the trash, they wanted to emphasize the reality of the problem by doing the photo shoot at locations representative of the trash they found. Coffee cups were used at Starbucks to spell “we’ve.” They spelled “always” with plastic bags at Hy-Vee. Vending machines at the Seamans Center can be seen behind “done it” in cans and plastic bottles. “This way” was made from straws and utensils at McDonalds. Al said in reflection, “It portrays the reality of the world that is closing in on us—one covered in trash.”

"It portrays the reality of the world that is closing in on us—one covered in trash."

The more they worked on the project, the more meaning they found in the message. Under each word, Al and Natalie placed a piece of green fabric representing “Earth and its beauty despite all of the trash that covers it.”

Al and Natalie finished the project in early April, but they find that they are constantly reminded of its message. They’ve tried to minimize the presence of plastic materials in their everyday lives on campus, thinking “I don’t always have to do it that way.” Plastic is normal but so can be recycling and other, more sustainable options. Al said, “it made me think about what I consume and what I do with it afterwards, because I don’t want my coffee cup to be the forefront of someone else’s project.”

"I don't want my coffee cup to be the forefront of someone else's project."

Thank you to Al Gonzales and Natalie Peterson for sharing their project and their time with the Office of Sustainability! We greatly appreciate your help and the work that you both have done to promote sustainability in our community!

Article written by Hallie Lartius, Communications Intern at the UI Office of Sustainability and the Environment.

Read more about Al and Natalie's work at The Daily Iowan!