Four hundred tiny pieces of extruded black plastic poured out from the hula hoop I had just slit open. You could see they had been cut by hand because they were all different lengths. Someone, somewhere, chops them up, day in, day out to provide each polyethylene hoop with the right momentum and that “shoop-shoop” sound. At some point it must have been decided that plastic noise-makers were cheaper than ball bearings, rice, sand or water.

I had a white hula hoop as a kid, but hadn’t thought about what they are made of until I saw one yesterday in the ‘bulky plastics’ skip at the recycling centre. I looked it up. Hula hoops were heavily mass marketed by the Wham-O toy company in California, beginning in 1958. Before that, they were part of the long history of people making their own using natural materials. The resulting craze saw production rise to more than 50,000 plastic hula hoops per day and in two years they had sold more than 100 million units. Although the craze died out in the 80s, there are loads of hoopers now, performing, dancing or working out with glowing, glitter or reflective ‘stunner hoops’.

So, hula hoops are part of the huge, worldwide market for High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE), which has a market volume of around 30 million tons per year. It’s non-biodegradable and takes centuries to decompose, so I’m glad the hoop we hooked out of the skip will be recycled (if the container ships of plastic circling our oceans are accepted somewhere). It also seems like hoopers nowadays treasure their hoops, trading rather than ditching them.

Why did I want the hoop and why did I dissect it? To make art that hopefully will make a point, or several. I scored and folded it to form the open mouth of a 4m-long salmon with chicken wire skin, stuffed to vomiting point with Single Use Plastic (SUPs). The salmon will be carried in a cradle-to-grave procession, to BLC’s 3rd Annual Archimedes Screw Fest.

The Screw Fest brings together the threads of arts, economy, ecology and learning. If this salmon’s innards end up in the River Dart they may break down, act like fish food and ultimately end up in human bodies. What can we do about that here in South Devon? A lot. Better manage the processes we have caused or inherited and/or reduce our impact by increasing accountability. The latter more directly challenges the way the market works (not accounting for the real environmental and social costs of supply and demand). We can do both, which is what BLC’s next project, the River Dart Charter aims to address.

Central to the Screw Fest is the Totnes Weir micro hydro scheme with its considered siting, clean energy generation, local ownership, community investment and improved fish passage–a symbol of the kind of informed change we can make, together.

“Well the times have changed, it’s a different world.” Wham-O Hula Hoop commercial (1977):




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