Washed Ashore: From Beach Trash to Ocean Art
From a distance, Henry the Fish looks like a typical quirky and colorful sculpture you'd find in a small beach town. But when you look up close, Henry begins to change. His bright yellow and red scales are pieces of plastic, including lighters, beach shovels, and toothbrushes among the larger scraps. His large lips are pieces of Styrofoam and abandoned buoys. And his glittering round eyes were once a black buoy, two plastic rings, and cut water bottles from the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
It's a shocking transition as a fun work of art shifts into a symbol of our society's plastic consumption and waste before your eyes. But the meaning goes even deeper: all of the pieces of plastic trash that make up Henry's frame were collected from the beach in a community effort led by Angela Pozzi, an artist and educator at Washed Ashore based in Bandon, Oregon. "It’s a project to show the everyday person how much garbage is coming up on the beaches," she says. "I aim to grab people with the power of the sculptures, which are beautiful and then become horrifying."
While we don't know exactly how much trash is afloat in the ocean, one thing is sure: there's a lot of it. One expedition found up to a ton of garbage per mile on "remote" beaches in Alaska, and it is even accumulating on the deep seafloor. Some of this trash is dumped directly onto beaches or into the ocean. But far more comes from landfills or litter on the street—which is then washed to sea by rainwater via city storm drains and rivers. Most of it is plastic, which can take many years to degrade, harming ocean wildlife that easily confuses it with food. When it does break down, it can release harmful chemicals.
Once the plastic washes back up on the beach, it's fair game for Washed Ashore to use in its sculptures. Angela is the brain behind the project, designing the sculptures, leading school workshops, and manning the open-house workshops. The sculptures' construction is truly a community effort, with volunteers collecting trash from the beach, cleaning it, sorting it, and then building the sculptures together.
Angela tries to portray the diversity of ocean trash in her many sculptures while alluding to other ocean problems. With the help of the community, she's made several large animal sculptures since Henry the Fish in 2010, including Lidia the Seal, Avery the Giant Bird, and Tula the Sea Turtle. They've made a whale ribcage from white bleach containers, a jellyfish from clear water bottles, and a bleached coral reef from Styrofoam. There is even a musical starfish made from glass bottles that can be played with a mallet. (See slideshow below to see some of these sculptures.)
The community effort helps to spread the message that ocean trash is a huge problem—but it has a further symbolic meaning. Just as the sculptures themselves were built by a series of intentional actions by individuals—the trash collection, the plastic washing, the hole drilling, the wire stringing—the plastic got to the beach in the first place because of the individual action of buying a plastic bottle and discarding it improperly. "We really show that every action counts," Angela says. "You hear [that line], but I love that you can see that in this project."
What can YOU do to help solve the problem? Reduce your purchases of items wrapped in large amounts of plastic, reuse plastic you do have, and recycle what you can’t use. Use cloth bags and reusable water bottles instead of the throw-away versions. Look for “disposable” packaging that really is disposable – bioplastics that degrade quickly and without releasing toxins. And spread the word about our plastic problem so that others join you in this effort.
Editor's note: From May 27-September 16, 2016 visit the Zoo to see a larger-than-life exhibit of 17 Washed Ashore marine wildlife sculptures—from jellyfish to sharks—made entirely of plastic pollution directly recovered from oceans.
Henry the Giant FishHenry the Giant Fish was Angela's first idea for the Washed Ashore project. "If I make a giant bright fish, everyone will get their picture taken in front of it," she says—and, in the process, they'll learn about the harms of ocean plastic. Now it sits outside the Washed Ashore offices in Bandon, Oregon and at least 50 people a day pull over for a photo op, she says.
Lidia the SealLidia the Seal sits on top of a pile of netting, rope and buoy. The sculpture itself is colorful and playful—but opens up the conversation to how discarded plastics and trash can harm marine life like seals.
Lidia the Seal DetailA close-up of Lidia the Seal—like the view you'd get if you approach the sculpture in real life—shows the gory details of the everyday objects that wash up on the beach. Have you thrown out any objects like these that could have washed to the sea and back ashore? Items shown here include a Frisbee, a toy car wheel, an umbrella handle, a juice bottle, and the clasp of a cooler.
A Musical Sea Star
The musical sea star is crafted with glass bottles that can be played with a mallet like a xylophone. Watch a video of Ward Spangler, lead percussionist from the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra playing the sea star.
The Plastic Gyre
The Gyre is a more abstract piece symbolizing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a large ocean vortex that collects trash from around the Pacific Ocean. A lot of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is very degraded and consists not of large pieces of garbage and plastic, but small plastic particles invisible to the human eye that can still harm animals.
Sorting Plastic from the BeachA volunteer sorts washed plastic collected from the beach into buckets by color and size. Washed Ashore uses all but around 5% of the plastic volunteers collect from the beaches in its sculptures. Some of the plastic is so degraded by waves and light while floating in the ocean that it isn't strong enough to be used in sculpture.
Sorted Beach PlasticLarge pieces of plastic are sorted by color into large troughs. After coming in from the beach, the plastic is hosed down, soaked in biodegradable soap, and dried in the sun before it's sorted by color, size and type. Holes are drilled into each piece individually, and then they are woven together with thread or wire—never using any extra plastic, even in glue.
Fish Bite Fish
The Fish Bite Fish is made exclusively from pieces of plastic that washed ashore with bite marks from fish and other animals to make the point that animals trying to eat floating plastic is a real problem.
Whalebone Rib CageThis whalebone rib cage is a simple structure, made by just stringing empty white bottles onto wire. Even though whales are large animals, the accidental consumption of plastic or other ocean trash can kill them.
Building the Whale Ribcage
After collecting, cleaning and sorting the plastic, the community came back together to construct the whale ribcage.
This plastic bottle jellyfish reminds us that even invertebrates are at risk. "Even sea jellies are found with plastic particles in their translucent bodies," Pozzi says.
Bleached Styrofoam ReefA fish made from pieces of plastic found on the beach swims above a bleached reef made of Styrofoam. While Angela Pozzi focuses her artwork on outreach about the harms of ocean plastic, she wants to raise awareness of as many different issues as possible, including coral bleaching.
Building the Bleached Reef
A volunteer puts together the bleached coral reef by stacking pieces of Styrofoam onto wire.