• Maria Jose Arceo. Photo: Ed Stone

Maria Arceo is an artist fascinated with visualising the environmental impact humans are having on the world. In September 2016, Maria became artist-in-residence at King’s College London, and started working on an expansive examination of plastic pollution in the Thames. Future Dust is the artistic outcome of this year-long exploration that aims to challenge our understanding of the dispersion of plastic debris into both fluvial and marine environments.

We spoke to Maria to find out more about the project and the final artwork which will be popping up at riverside locations during Totally Thames. 

You’ve focused on environmental themes throughout career, tell us how you came to focus on plastic pollution?

I moved near to a river and started to walk along the shore: not only would I find ceramics, bones and metal but also old leather soles, heels, and fragments of shoes. One day an archaeologist told me one of the shoes I had in my hand was Tudor and that you can find shoes from Roman times – that blew my mind. If a natural material can last over 2000 years in the river, what happens to the plastic?

I started going to the beach to collect leather, and would also collect plastic and put it in my own recycling bins. Through this I saw how much I was collecting, and realised I had to do something so I began to collect for sculptures.

What are some of the more memorable objects you have found on your clean-ups?

I’ve found two messages in bottles: one was a love letter to Kate Tempest, and one from a lonely man who wanted someone to call him: we did and no one replied. I have also found two guns at Hammersmith; one a modern short machine gun, and one a German gun from around 1910 which was wrapped in a plastic bag – the Police said someone did not want it to be found and it could still be used. There are also huge numbers of wet wipes which get flushed down the loo and become disguised by mud, seeds, and driftwood.

How did this fascination lead to Future Dust?

I wanted to create a plastic footprint for London’s river, the Thames. As well as pollution, I am also interested in the way nature ages and reshapes these mass-produced objects. They become unique depending on how they are eroded and treated. This natural process creates new sculptures in many ways – a metamorphosis from mass to unique item that you will never find a duplicate of.

The Thames is cleaner than it has been in many years, so it may not be apparent visually just how much plastic is in it. Future Dust shows how much just one person can carry with limited facilities through 40 clean-ups. That is the message I want to get across.

80% of plastic found in the sea is actually land-based, especially plastic which doesn’t end up in the bin. To make Londoners aware, they have to make the connection with the plastic on the street, what ends up in the Thames and eventually on the beach. This artwork is aiming to quantify and demystify just how much plastic is out there, and make the point that we have control over this.

What do you want the artwork to do, and through making the piece have you thought about how people could better engage with plastic?

 I want the viewer to question consumption and disposal habits. Rubbish collection and disposal needs to be addressed. We forget that there are over 8 million people in London, and that the systems we have in place currently are not adequate.

 I think consumers need to be aware, but also that too much pressure is put on consumers and not enough on the manufacturers and companies who sell the plastic. One idea is for London and the UK to look at a bottle exchange system, like in other countries in the world, so that people are given an incentive to recycle.

 When I was working at a school, many of my students could not recognise the problem. They would often say to me, ‘it doesn’t matter if I throw it on the ground Miss as it means I’m giving someone a job to pick it up’. This attitude in young people needs to change, as they are so used to plastic and don’t bat an eyelid.