Disposable Future: “The Plastic Bag Store” at MASS MoCA (2024)

Mass MoCAis an excellent venue for artists to engage in world building. Robin Frohardt’s “The Plastic Bag Store,” tucked away in the recesses of Building 1, is no exception. Resembling more of a bodega than a grocery store (or art gallery), this faux-mart doesn’t actually sell anything. Instead, visitors will find fruits and vegetables, baguettes, cupcakes, sausage links, deli meat, junk food, flowers, cereal, soda—even cigarettes and magazines—made from or containing plastic trash. The objects, which visitors are encouraged to touch, aren’t breathtakingly transformative. Instead, many dry goods house single-use plastic garbage inside sleek and seemingly new packaging.

I should clarify: Visitors are ticket holders. After 10 minutes of browsing the store’s inventory, a pleasant intercom voice announces the start of the performance and apron-wearing museum staff roll away shelves and Gaylord boxes, unfold the produce display, and transform the store into a theater.

click to enlarge

Photo: Julia Dixon

Installation detail.

What follows is a one-hour immersive and singular theatrical experience involving film, puppetry, and live performance. A film plays first. Act One introduces us to Thaddeaus, an ancient European who invents a “single-use disposable vase” that contains “Knowledge Water,” meant to be thrown away once consumed.

“What is ‘away’?” asks his mother. “Where’s that?”

“I dunno—somewhere outside of town,” Thaddeaus replies.

click to enlarge

Julia Dixon

Installation Detail

Set in modern times, Act Two follows a character named Helen, a janitor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she collects various pieces of plastic detritus she encounters throughout the day—a water bottle, a cup lid with straw, and a six-pack ring. Once home, and after learning from a television program that plastics live forever, she pens a tender and, at times, wry letter to “Far-Off Future Person.” The letter becomes a message in a bottle, found by said
Far-Off Future Person in Act Three.

Frohardt’s storytelling, puppet design, and intricate sets—coupled with moving puppetry performances, a mesmerizing score by Freddi Price, and skillful photography and sound design by Robert Kolodny and Chad Raines—elevate the film from dramatized advocacy to a poetic fable.

click to enlarge

Maria Baranova

Installation detail.

The show is also chock full of brand symbolism, tongue-in-cheek references to consumer culture, and other jabs at American capitalism. “I’m more interested in calling out the corporations that are creating the problem,” says Frohardt. “I don’t want to shame people…but we definitely can’t recycle our way out of this.”

The exhibition’s activity guide spells out the problem in no uncertain terms: “Imagining a world without plastics is nearly impossible [but] plastic doesn’t decompose; it only breaks down into microplastics which have been found in the water we drink, the food we eat, the air we breathe, the soil below us, and even inside of our bodies.” The guide offers information, poses questions, makes suggestions, and presents challenges, such as inventorying a week’s waste, avoiding plastic-wrapped consumables, and finding alternatives to single-use plastic products.

click to enlarge

Julia Dixon

The back of a box of “Italy’s #1 Plastic Bags,” a spoof on Barilla pasta.

Start with a small change to begin with, it says, and then challenge yourself more over time.

But we have been at this for a long time, haven’t we? We watched An Inconvenient Truth, former Vice President Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning 2006 climate change documentary. The 2015 video of a plastic straw being removed from the nostril of a sea turtle has been viewed over 86 million times on YouTube. We bring our fabric bags to the supermarket, purchase reusable coffee filters for our Keurig machines, religiously refill our BPA-free Nalgene water bottles and stainless-steel Stanley tumblers, and buy expensive bamboo cutlery for our Fourth of July picnics.

click to enlarge

Greg Nesbit

“The Plastic Bag Store” installation view at MASS MoCA.

What else can we do? Frohardt doesn’t have any answers. But her message lingers, but not because of the punny products or the bag-themed playlist. The film in particular is a gentle, touching, sincere reminder of what is happening to the Earth, and asks us to, at the very least, acknowledge it.

“I wish I could do more,” writes Helen. “But I am but a humble custodian.”

“The Plastic Bag Store” is presented in association with Williamstown Theatre Festival and is on view through September 2. Reservations required.

Location Details


1040 Mass Moca Way, North Adams

(413) 662-2111


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  • Visual Art,
  • plastic bags,
  • pollution,
  • plastic bag store,
  • mass moca,
  • Robin Frohardt


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      Disposable Future: “The Plastic Bag Store” at MASS MoCA (2024)


      What Massachusetts towns are banning plastic bags? ›

      Plastic Bag Bans

      Some communities such as Brookline, Northampton and Yarmouth are also banning polyethylene produce bags as has been done in France. Bans are present in all 14 counties in the Commonwealth. Boston and Worceser are the two largest communities in the New England.

      How much is the bag fee in Massachusetts? ›

      Basics of the Plastic Bag Ordinance

      Boston retailers can no longer stock single-use plastic bags with handles. Retailers have to sell any bag with handles for at least 5 cents per bag. The retailer keeps the charge.

      Does Boston allow plastic bags? ›

      Learn the basics as a customer

      Retailers in Boston can only give reusable bags, recyclable paper bags, or compostable bags with handles to customers. They can no longer stock plastic bags with handles.

      What are the sources of plastic bags? ›

      Plastic bags are mostly made out of petroleum products and natural gas. 8% of the world's petroleum resources are used for creating plastic bags at 12 million barrels of oil a day. Half of that is used as materials to make them, and the other half for energy to make them.

      What state does not use plastic bags? ›

      However, the states of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii (de facto), Maine, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington and the territories of American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, United States Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have banned disposable bags.

      Are plastic water bottles banned in Massachusetts? ›

      Massachusetts: First State to Enact Procurement Ban on Single-Use Plastic Bottles. ON SEPTEMBER 21, 2023, MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MAURA HEALEY signed Executive Order No. 619 (EO619): Eliminating the Purchase by the Executive Department of Single-Use Plastic Bottles.

      Why do grocery stores charge for paper bags? ›

      The manufacture of paper bags has serious upstream environmental impacts and they are far more expensive than single-use plastic bags. Providing them free of charge at checkout in such large numbers may increase retailer overhead, which may result in higher prices.

      Why is there a bag fee? ›

      Many state and local governments have implemented plastic bag fees at grocery stores in an effort to curb Americans' plastic pollution.

      Why are bag fees so expensive? ›

      Some airlines attributed the most recent increases to their own rising costs. Carriers are having to shell out for costlier fuel and higher salaries. And it is tough for airlines to raise fares without a rival swooping in to undercut them, said Engel.

      Is it worth it to recycle plastic bags? ›

      According to the EPA, the equivalent of nine barrels of oil is saved when we recycle one ton of plastic bags. By my calculations, that means one barrel saved for every 10,000 grocery bags recycled. Put another way, one shot glass full of oil is saved every time three grocery bags are recycled.

      Can you recycle plastic bags in Massachusetts? ›

      Most supermarkets and numerous other retailers accept plastic bags and wraps for recycling at no cost. Visit the Wrap Recycling Action Council to find a nearby drop-off location.

      Can milk cartons be recycled in Boston? ›

      Cartons (Milk, Juice, Soup)

      For most of Massachusetts, cartons should go in the trash. Cartons are made with multiple layers of plastic and paper (plus an aluminum layer in drink and soup boxes). To recycle them, they must be sorted and sent to a special mill that can separate the layers.

      How long does it take for a plastic bag to decompose? ›

      Plastic waste is one of many types of wastes that take too long to decompose. Normally, plastic items can take up to 1000 years to decompose in landfills. But plastic bags we use in our everyday life take 10-20 years to decompose, while plastic bottles take 450 years.

      How long does a plastic bottle take to decompose? ›

      Traditional plastic bottles are made out of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). It's a lightweight and flexible material that doesn't decompose easily, mainly because bacteria cannot consume and break down the chemicals used in PET. A plastic bottle made from PET takes around 450 years to decompose.

      Where are Ziploc bags manufactured? ›

      The assembly of the Ziploc bag is carried out by SC Johnson at one of their factories. They have many production plants around the globe, including several in the United States, Netherlands, and China. 32.7% of SC Johnson's energy comes from renewable sources (Sustainability at SC Johnson).

      How many cities have banned plastic bags? ›

      In total, there are more than 500 citywide ordinances banning plastic bags in the U.S., as well as 12 statewide bans — in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawai'i, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

      Are plastic bags banned in Rowley MA? ›

      On September 8, Rowley retailers will no longer be able to offer single-use plastic bags at checkout. Rowley voters passed the bylaw at the 2022 annual town meeting. The town is now one of 159 Massachusetts municipalities that have passed similar laws.

      Are plastic bags recyclable in Massachusetts? ›

      The materials recovery facility uses an automated system to sort and package the recyclables. Some items, such as plastic bags, will jam the machinery. However, plastic bags of all types can be recycled at most supermarkets, in a container often located near the entry/exit.

      What was the first U.S. city that put a ban on plastic bags? ›

      San Francisco was the first city to completely ban plastic bags in 2007. The rest of California implemented their plastic bag ban in 2014, and since then there has been a 70% reduction in plastic bag usage within the state.


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