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Creating our Aero Solar sculpture: five things I learned

Arup across Australasia took part in a collaboration to create an ‘Aero Solar’ sculpture. Part of the global Museo Aero Solar or ‘Aerocene’ movement, this airborne sculpture is made from plastic waste, bringing awareness about sustainability, reuse, renewables and the possibility of a fossil-free future. We launched our balloon-like sculpture on a crisp spring morning using only the heat of the sun to warm the cold air.   

Hundreds of our people across Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia brought in old plastic bags lurking in cupboards and under sinks, to create the individual ‘skins’ that made the balloon form. One region, together, in one shared experience. 

We wanted to do this right. It was important to us that the Aero Solar lived on after its first flight, with material reused and repurposed using circular design principles (more on this to come). This will not end up in landfill. We also minimised its carbon footprint, using our people with pre-existing travel plans as couriers, transporting the skins to a single location for the final build.

We always wanted to raise awareness – but the journey of many hands took us much further. Here are five things I learnt from my colleagues and friends:

1. We are united in our passion to reduce plastic waste

The collective passion around the issue of plastic waste was immense. Working with the material – handling the bags, feeling the plastic – made the issue very immediate. “It wasn’t until I saw, and touched with my own hands, the mountains of plastic we collected that it hit home just what a problem we have,” said Rebecca Nunan, a participant in Sydney. 

2. And yet we do not always agree

We were passionate but did not always agree, and that was ok. Some thought that the debate was done, “I don’t have any plastic bags anymore, I stopped using them a long time ago,” and “why would we use plastic bags to talk about the plastic waste problem?” 

Others thought the topic too important; that this was a great way to raise awareness. To me, the conversations provoked through making the Aero Solar, was one of the most important parts of this collaboration. 

3. It’s bigger than a plastic bag

The Aero Solar collaboration sparked dialogue on the need to get a grasp on the size of the issue, and critically, how to solve it. “Plastic bags seem so small and light, yet the problem is so large,” said Joyanne Manning, our Resource and Waste Management lead in Australasia. “There are global efforts to work out how to reuse plastic bags and other materials like glass and toner and repurpose to make asphalt for our roads, but the solution is not quite there yet.”  The collaboration showed the need to think innovatively, and at scale.  

4. Collaboration is impact

The act of coming together to collaborate, has power, impact and meaning. “People learn from what they touch and feel,” said Joan Ko, a Planner in Melbourne. “Aero Solar, and art more broadly, shapes our community conversations. Aero Solar provided a tangible representation that, for many people, waste data and metrics could never fully explain.”

5. Hope and joy: art is part of the human experience

We wanted to create awareness of an issue, but we also wanted to raise hope and bring joy. 

Hope – in using art and the human experience to promote change. The Aero Solar is indeed a reflection piece. In launching it, albeit tethered to the ground, our desire was to use it to create a community of commitment within Arup and as part of the global movement, all working towards the same goal – a brighter, more sustainable future.

Joy, in just being together and creating something. “This work recognises that art is part of the human experience and how it can get us to think more deeply and differently about things,” says Roger Swinbourne, Sustainability Consultant.

And in the end, our message is a human message. There is nothing more meaningful than being together. Isn’t this what it should be all about – working together, being together as community and family… and then watching the efforts of our many hands rise in the light of the early morning. 

Read more about the global Museo Aero Solar/Aerocene movement here.