Plastic waste becomes art

LEXINGTON, Ky. — A magical new work of art is on display on the fourth floor of Kentucky Children’s Hospital. Unity “MoonPie” McSparkles is a 6ft by 5ft mosaic unicorn display made entirely of hospital plastic waste.

What do you want to know

  • Art created from plastic waste
  • The piece is on display on the fourth floor of the Kentucky Children’s Hospital
  • The unicorn symbolizes hope and healing
  • Part of the UK Arts in HealthCare program

After years of collecting and saving thousands of pieces of recyclable medical plastics from landfill, staff at the hospital and UK Arts in HealthCare, along with other members of the hospital community, have decided to year to create a collaborative piece of public art. The mosaic is made up of thousands of vial caps, oral syringe caps, clamps, tubes and other pieces of hospital plastic.

“Sometimes magic and human connection happens in the most unlikely places,” said Jason Akhtarekhavari, director of UKHC Arts in HealthCare, who worked in tandem with his team members Sarah Timmons and Jim Shambhu. “It often happens in the darkest hours and in times of great sadness, struggle and pain. This unicorn touched many individual lives and provided much needed ‘magic’ to those who were involved in its creation. He has built a meaningful web of human connection that will resonate over time and be felt by many who see this creation in the months and years to come.

The idea for “MoonPie” was inspired by Tilda Shalof, a nurse in Canada who spent nearly three decades collecting discarded medical plastic to create a colorful mosaic. Nurses at Kentucky Children’s Hospital (KCH) asked Child Life staff to create something similar for their hospital. The Child Life Program is a specialized service providing play opportunities for Kentucky Children’s Hospital patients and their families.

MoonPie is an interactive “I Spy” piece, made up of medicine bottle caps, syringe parts, tubes, and a few surprises such as guitar picks. (University of Kentucky)

Plastic was collected in buckets placed at nurses’ stations around KCH to collect caps from medicine bottles. Hospital staff, including the Markey Cancer Center and Chandler Central Pharmacy, also saved their plastic waste. After some discussion, KCH staff finally chose to create a unicorn because it symbolizes hope, healing and magic.

Lexington artist Christine Kuhn joined the team to guide the design and construction process, but the piece was created entirely by KCH staff.

“It’s a visual reminder that time is moving on,” said Erin McAnallen, Expressive Arts Resource Specialist for KCH Child Life. “It caused a bit of humor and consternation when we tried to get more long green caps to represent the vegetation in the mural and the pharmacy told us, ‘Morphine doesn’t come like that anymore.’ “

The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down the creative process, as only small groups could work on the project at any time, masked and socially distanced.

A competition was held among KCH staff and patients to name the community artwork. After being named Unity “MoonPie” McSparkles to reflect the repeatedly stacked plastic disks, KCH staff asked Chattanooga Bakery Inc. for permission to use the MoonPie brand name, and permission was granted.

Apart from the artistic elements, the project prevented some of the plastic from going to landfill.

“I think that’s the idea whenever we think about the vastness of the waste. It pales in comparison to the overall amount of plastic waste, but I think part of it is the idea that you’re showing people what’s possible,” Akhtarekhavari said. “If we take some time to think about ways we can be creative with some of our waste issues and how it’s not just about melting plastic now and reusing it, but there are creative ways . There are many examples of very creative artists using waste to create art, so this is not a new concept. Even if it’s small and large scale, I think what’s important is to get that message across and to get people thinking about this possibility.

According to its website, the UK Arts in HealthCare program is responsible for several art forms presented in UK hospitals and clinics. Over 2,100 works of art featuring local, national, regional and international artists can be found in the lobbies, waiting rooms, hallways, outdoor areas, patient and examination rooms. Seven rotating galleries present up to 11 unique visual art exhibitions per year.

Adding an artistic element to the hospital environment has multiple positive effects.

“Thinking of the design element was paramount in creating this building,” Akhtarekhavari said. “There are a lot of things that art does, and there’s a lot of research behind it. It has been shown to reduce anxiety, help manage pain, and even shorten length of stay. It’s about creating that environment where you often know objects, whether it’s photographs of rural landscapes, that help you relax, put you at ease, and remind you of where you’ve come from. Maybe it’s something colorful and playful that helps put a smile on your face to break up the clinical atmosphere. Often it is a kind of common sense. We live in a research driven world, but the bottom line is that whether it’s your home or whatever establishment you go to, when there has been some environmental thinking you create will have a big impact on patients, families, visitors and staff.

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