Hard to stomach: plastic bags that killed camel go on show

American artist Ann Savageau exhibits 30kg lump made of plastic bags eaten by camel in UAE in attempt to persuade shoppers to cut back on waste.

Dr Ulrich Wernery has been discovering lumps of plastic that have built up over time in camels in Ras Al Khaimah.
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A 30-kilogramme lump of the intertwined remains of plastic bags and plastic rope is not exactly pleasing to the eye. So why would anyone want to put it into an exhibition hall, let alone pay to ship it all the way from the UAE to the US?
Yet this is exactly what the American artist Ann Savageau is doing, to make a point.
The plastic rock once filled the stomach of a camel. It grew gradually as the animal grazed on discarded plastic debris, eventually blocking its stomach and causing a slow and agonising death.
The artist's message is simple: avoid plastic shopping bags, which are on average only used for 12 minutes each, and opt for reusable ones.
"I want to make it very tangible to people, to show them what happens when you buy plastic bags," said Dr Savageau, who is also an associate professor of design at the University of California, Davis.
When her exhibition opens in January next year at the university's Design Museum, the large, formless lump will confront visitors with her message.
By then, it will have travelled thousands of kilometres from the desert of Ras al Khaimah.
The artist, who has more than 70 exhibitions under her belt, acknowledges that the piece has no aesthetic value.
But she is certain that once visitors learn of its origin, what may at first look like a curio will become laden with meaning.
The man who discovered the piece, Dr Ulrich Wernery, a Dubai-based scientist and activist, has spent years campaigning for people to stop littering and to cut down their use of plastic.
His find was retrieved from what he calls "the valley of death", a spot in Lipsa where dead camels, cows, sheep and goats are discarded. Dr Wernery often finds plastic lumps of various sizes along with the remains of the animals.
Dr Savageau learned about the Lipsa finds from pictures on the internet. She contacted the Dubai scientist and, early last month, she received one of his biggest finds, the 30kg lump.
Dr Savageau has calculated that the weight of the lump is the equivalent of 4,000 plastic bags.
"I will put in a very prominent place the camel rock that Dr Wernery found," she said. "It would make our message twice as powerful."
For two and a half years, the artist has been working to show that reusable bags can look good. She has sent 200 bags, made by fashion design students at the university, to 100 people around the world.
The students used material which would have otherwise been discarded - vinyl exhibition banners and textile samples used by interior designers - to make pitches to clients. Every year, some 1.13 billion kg of textile waste goes to landfills in the US, she said.
Meanwhile, the bags produced by students look like something you wouldd see at a small boutique store.
"The response has been overwhelming. People just love the bags," Dr Savageau said.
The exhibition, which opens on January 23, will feature pictures and mementoes from the international group of people who now own the reusable bags.
In addition to the Lipsa find, there will be an installation, extending from the ceiling to the floor of the exhibition space. It will feature a giant funnel of a thousand plastic shopping bags, which equals what the average American family uses in a year. The exhibition closes on March 11.
Meanwhile, Dr Wernery has found an even larger lump. Early in November, he went back to his valley of death, and it did not take him long to find the specimen.
"It was so heavy I was not sure I was going to lift it or not," said Dr Wernery, who is also scientific director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai.
He eventually managed to lift it into the back of his four-wheel drive. It later turned out that the piece weighed 50 kg, the biggest he has ever discovered.
"It is a sad record," he said. "But yes, it is my record."
In addition to killing animals on land, plastic waste is responsible for the death of large numbers of marine birds, turtles and marine mammals, experts say.
New research also shows that plastic debris floating in the ocean is releasing a cocktail of toxic chemicals, which are finding their ways into fish, and possibly even humans.