If you could write a letter to a member of your family, 1,000 years from now, what would you tell them?
Letters to the Future contains hundreds of such letters written by people addressing their great-great-great grandchildren. With a projected lifespan of 1,000 years, the book, created by Vietnamese creative agency Ki Saigon, was made from a rainbow of single-use plastics that were collected from streets and streams in Vietnam.
With 327 letters that were collected from 22 countries, it reads like a time capsule of a planet on the brink. Hopeful and shattering at once, it’s tangible proof of our noxious obsession with disposable plastics. With global warming nearing a point of no return, it’s also an urgent reminder for us to take stock of our habits and take action while we still can.
The idea arose when Kumkum Fernando, Ki Saigon’s creative director, watched a documentary that mentioned that “every single plastic that has ever been made” is still around, somewhere on this planet. “It’s common knowledge now that plastic is durable and lasts for thousands of years or more,” says Indraneel Guha, who cofounded Ki Saigon with Fernando five years ago.
It’s important to note that different plastics have different lifespans: fishing line has been tagged as the worst offender, taking up to 600 years to biodegrade, while plastic bottles have been estimated to take around 450 years to break down. However, plastic has only been in circulation for a century, so many of these figures are based on long-term estimates by scientists and indeed, some conservative figures point to a 1,000-year lifespan.
For Letters of the Future, Ki Saigon partnered with a group of local recyclers and collected enough plastic to fill about 30 “full-size garbage bags,” says Guha. Much of the plastic that was collected is considered single-use: from styrofoam (which takes about 500 years to decompose), to bubble wrap (it ranges from 10 to 1,000 years), to plastic bags (up to 20 years).
Once collected, these plastics were ironed in between baking paper sheets to fuse them together, lending the book a variety of colors and textures. Each letter that was received was then scanned, turned into silkscreens, and individually hand-printed on each page, retaining each author’s handwriting. “We felt it’s very important for us to preserve the original handwriting of the writer to stay true to the process,” says Guha.
Over the span of four months, Guha and his team collected letters written in various languages from all over the world—Brazil, Germany, Mongolia, Vietnam. The team at Ki Saigon wrote a template letter that invited people to imagine receiving a letter from their great-great-great-grandparents and the feelings it would conjure. “Then we asked them to write such a letter to their great-great-great grandchildren because we had found a way to preserve it,” says Guha, noting that they didn’t reveal exactly how the letters would be preserved.
Some people shared secrets, Guha says, others decided to be anonymous. In her letter from the U.S., a woman named Holly wrote: “What I want you to know is that it’s an extraordinary and precarious time right here, right now, on Planet Earth—chaotic, fragile, and with deep changes afoot.”
Despite Holly’s somber note, Guha says love and compassion were a recurring theme. “Also the importance of appreciating and taking care of what we have around us and value it.” He says concerns about climate change were rarely explicit, but that the theme felt pervasive throughout, particularly through a lens of uncertainty about the future, and a desire to cherish the planet, “because we need to take care of what we have.”
Letters to the Future was funded by one of Ki Saigon’s clients: 4P’s, a Vietnam-based restaurant chain that is known for its sustainably operated venues. Guha says the book reflects the vision and values of 4P’s, and while the project may read like a publicity stunt, it’s hard not to fall in love with the core of its mission, which is to spread awareness about the environmental toll of plastic and the sheer amount of single-use plastics that has saturated our lives.
Since the first fully synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was invented in 1907, our plastic consumption has gone through the roof. Researchers estimate that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the early 1950s, when our habits really took a turn for the worse. Of those 8.3 billion tonnes, about 79% has accumulated in landfills, dumps, or the natural environment, like the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Vietnam, in particular, discharges more than 1.8 million tonnes of plastic waste, only 27% of which is recycled. Together with four other Southeast Asian countries, it’s responsible for more plastic washing into our oceans than the rest of the world combined. Letters to the Future helps us visualize the impact of our plastic consumption in a way that is both engaging and eye-catching (there’s even a tutorial on how to make your own art using recycled plastic scraps).
When lockdown measures ease up in Saigon, Ki Saigon has an exhibition in the pipeline, with artworks inspired by some of the letters, and screen-printed letters displayed alongside the book. After that, they want to bring the project overseas. “We want to open it up to universities, schools, and museums, so we can spread awareness to the cause,” he says. “I am happy that people can see it and get inspired to make a change.”