Comic antihero tackles humanity's absurd and tragic plastic addiction

Belgian cartoonist Pieter De Poortere magnifies solutions to the plastic pollution crisis

By Megan Neill Andrés

Earlier this year, Belgian cartoonist Pieter De Poortere put his best-known character to work on highlighting solutions to the plastic pollution crisis. In his usual childlike style and spiky black humour, De Poortere explores the ridiculous human decision-making that led to this crisis, asking the question – do we really need more plastic?

Boerke, known as Dickie in the English version, is a comical antihero known for his silent storytelling and his characteristic moustache. A perpetual loser, Boerke has taken up many roles and adventures over his almost 20 years of life. He has won several prizes in his native country, where he now has a permanent home in the Brussels Comics Art Museum.

On this occasion, De Poortere has set Boerke on an environmental journey as part of an international art initiative launched by the Magnify Art Collective. The collective is known for producing stories that go beyond awareness-raising only, inviting audiences on a journey towards specific social and environmental outcomes.

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Currently in its launch phase, Magnify includes recent works on the plastic pollution crisis by Matt Willey in Louisiana (USA), Pieter De Poortere in Antwerp (Belgium), and Yen-Ting Tseng (Kappa) in Taipei (Taiwan). These locations were chosen for their connection to some of the biggest petrochemical hubs in the world.

De Poortere’s 4 comic strips follow Boerke as he navigates the plastic pollution crisis, undertaking several roles and ventures that invariably go wrong for him. Whether it is by striking a disastrous deal with a plastics factory, making a high-risk investment in plastic production, or attempting to cut down on plastic packaging waste by misguided means, Boerke asks: how far will we take the absurd? And, most importantly: how do we break the absurdity cycle?

These comics come at a crucial time for the Port of Antwerp, which is a major petrochemical hub in Europe. Like in many other major petrochemical hotspots across the world, proposals for new plastic plants are being reviewed by Antwerp’s local authorities & partner stakeholders who are looking to attract investment in the region.

Camille Duran, Founder and Director of the Cosmic Foundation, the organisation behind the Magnify Collective, said the aim of the project was to shift people’s attention to this planned expansion in the production of plastics because, despite common belief, the projected demand for plastics does not match existing supply rates.

“There is a general sense that the issue can be solved by reducing the demand for plastics. However, when you dig a little deeper, you realise that a lot of production is permitted regardless of demand, based on market speculation. Policy and pressure on investors and corporates to reduce demand for plastics are therefore not enough to solve the plastic crisis – it is mostly about stopping production at its root.”

In fact, as more and more ambitious policies are taking effect and consumers around the world have become well aware that we cannot recycle our way out of plastic, demand for plastic packaging is set to significantly decrease in the coming years. This is shown by the steady growth of reusable packaging, deposit return schemes and zero-waste business models – but petrochemical expansion continues.

In this context, De Poortere’s comics expose the ridiculousness of continuing petrochemical expansion in Europe. If the demand for plastics is speculative and imaginary, is this the type of industrial development that should be prioritised right now? Is the port of Antwerp investing in the future, or in the past?

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Through art, humour and curiosity, De Poortere gets the message through to the public that, today, petrochemical expansion is unnecessary – and even absurd. “Humans keep doing stupid things that will be harmful to us”, he adds. “There is tragedy in this shortsightedness, but it is also the basis of a lot of humour.”

His sequence on plastics is published on the collective’s website and runs throughout May. The artist also plans to include the pages in a 50-page book which will be published in 2023, covering other environmental emergencies.

Beyond awareness-raising, in Belgium, the Magnify Collective is partnering with zero-waste shops Kabas, Robuust and Ricolab to activate audiences to strengthen reuse in the region. Duran highlights this aspect of the initiative, as making audiences aware of the problem is not enough to activate them towards solutions. “To overcome this common issue with impact-driven creations, the initiative is geared towards audience engagement, connecting to local players on the ground who work to tackle production at its root.”

“Crucially, audiences onboard this story from the hero's perspective, and not from a guilt perspective”, he continues. “The constant highlighting of the problem in environmental storytelling is perhaps a necessary part of it, but it often creates guilt in the viewer, who tends to feel responsible and helpless rather than inspired to take action.”

The problem cannot overshadow existing solutions. Because yes, solutions exist. Today, right here, right now, reuse and zero-waste business models are already working at scale and revolutionising the future. “And audiences will know that they are not the evil that furthers the currently flawed system – they are the hero who can further positive change.”