‘People laugh but think twice’: Belgian cartoonist takes on plastic pollution

Pieter De Poortere is putting his best-known character, Dickie, to work to help galvanise opposition to a giant plastics plant in Antwerp

Belgian cartoonist Pieter De Poortere was trying to do his bit for the environment: eating less meat and diligently sorting his rubbish – glass, paper, plastics. He realised it wasn’t enough. “I thought if we all sort out our trash, then everything will be recycled, everything will be OK, then we are doing great. But actually that is not true,” he said pointing to the problems of the global waste industry, where wealthy countries’ plastic may be dumped, or burned on open fires in poorer countries.

So he put his best-known character to work, as part of an international art project that launched in April, aiming to draw attention to the problem of plastic production.

Pieter De Poortere, creator of Dickie.
Pieter De Poortere, creator of Dickie. Photograph: Jennifer Rankin/The Guardian

Dickie, a pudgy antihero with a bristly moustache, is a perpetual loser, whether in the guise of farmer, astronaut, fairytale hero, or biblical character. “I always try to imagine what is the worst possible thing that could happen to Dickie,” said De Poortere of the character he created nearly two decades ago, who now has a permanent home in the Comics Art Museum in Brussels.

Known as Boerke in the original Flemish, the series is drawn in a childlike style, but with a spiky black humour aimed squarely at adults. It has won prizes in Belgium, a country where comic strips are celebrated as high art.

After years of mishaps, Dickie is now wreaking havoc on the environment – striking a disastrous deal with “Plastics Inc”, or shooting a kangaroo in a misguided attempt at cutting down on packaging waste. “A lot of my work is very ambiguous,” De Poortere said. “Dickie is sometimes bad, sometimes he is good, sometimes he is a loser, sometimes he is really greedy, he is selfish, he uses people … People start reading it and they are laughing, but often they have to think twice, is this really happening?”

Camille Duran, founder of the Swedish-based Cosmic Foundation, the organisation behind the Magnify initiative, the art project featuring De Poortere’s work, said the aim of the project was to shift people’s attention to the production of plastics, not just consumption. “Even if demand is going to start to decrease as policy gets more ambitious, more [petrochemicals] facilities are getting permitted around the world.”

Earlier this year, 173 countries pledged to develop a legally binding treaty by 2024 to end plastic pollution. The agreement, which will include measures to tackle plastic production, has been described as the most significant multilateral environmental accord since the Paris climate deal. Yet on current trends, plastic production is expected to double within the next 20 years and by 2050 could account for 15% of the world’s annual carbon budget.

Duran, who hopes to expand the project to other parts of the world, began by choosing three artists near some of the world’s biggest petrochemical hotspots: Louisiana, Taiwan and Antwerp.

The Boerke comic strip.
‘There is tragedy in this shortsightedness, but also the basis of a lot of humour.’ The Boerke comic strip. Photograph: Nanuq for De Hofleveranciers.

The organisers hope the Dickie pages will help galvanise opposition to a giant plastics plant in Antwerp, planned by the British petrochemical company Ineos. Campaigners have launched a legal challenge to Antwerp’s decision to grant Ineos a permit to build a chemicals installation to make ethylene from fracked US shale gas.

The campaigners say the project will fuel single use plastics and fails to meet EU climate targets. Ineos counters that the installation will be the greenest of its kind and will aid the production of long-lasting plastics used in technology and healthcare.

De Poortere’s sequence on plastics runs throughout May in the Dutch-language weekly Knack. The artist plans to include the pages in a 50-page book covering other environmental emergencies, including global heating, which will be published in 2023.

De Poortere, who was born in Ghent, knows Antwerp well, but chose not to locate his work in any particular place, to preserve a universal message.

“It is important to get that message through to the public – and not in an annoying way – but through art, through humour, through trying to convince people, just to make them think. I want to show a bit the absurdity of the reality.” Humans, he added, cannot stop doing “stupid things that will be harmful to us. There is tragedy in this shortsightedness, but it is also the basis of a lot of humour.”


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
'Lost Michelangelo' goes missing from Belgian church
Police called after 16th-century painting disappears days before expert due to visit

Daniel Boffey in Brussels

14, Jan, 2019 @2:37 PM

Article image
Bruegel museum in Brussels blocked by Belgian bureaucracy
Celebrations to mark 450th anniversary of death of 16th-century painter put on hold

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

25, Aug, 2018 @4:00 AM

Article image
Belgian police examine claims Russian art show was full of fakes
Homes raided after Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent cancels exhibition of avant garde works

Daniel Boffey in Brussels

20, Mar, 2018 @11:17 AM

Article image
Italy creates Europe's first plastic-free ski resort
Pejo 3000 in Trentino cuts use after discovering nearby glacier contained microplastics

Angela Giuffrida in Rome

27, Dec, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Green shoots: Spanish firm tackles plastic waste from shotgun cartridges
BioAmmo aims to make 50m of its plastic-free, biodegradable cartridges this year

Sam Jones in Madrid

25, Jan, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Rubbish mixtape: fan reunited with cassette 25 years after losing it
Stella Wedell astounded to spot tape in exhibition of art made out of plastic marine pollution

Steven Morris and agency

14, Feb, 2020 @12:01 AM

Article image
Puzzler says he has cracked code to stolen Belgian masterpiece
Citizens told not to dig up square in Ghent to look for 15th-century painting missing since 1934

Daniel Boffey in Brussels

15, Jun, 2018 @2:19 PM

Article image
'World's tallest work of public art' to land on Belgian motorway
A 250-tonne steel arc twice as high as the statue of Jesus in Rio will stand over busy E411

Daniel Boffey in Brussels

31, Jul, 2019 @1:07 PM

Article image
‘Better ugly than boring’: book celebrates bizarre Belgian houses
Hannes Coudenys’ Ugly Belgian Houses updated with more from the ‘chaos known as Belgium’

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

24, Sep, 2021 @11:05 AM

Article image
Fashion legend Martin Margiela to make comeback as artist
Reclusive Belgian who retired as designer in 2009 will stage Paris exhibition of his artwork in April

Priya Elan

04, Jan, 2021 @1:50 PM