Last week I learned that you don’t have to travel to Kamilo Beach in Hawaii or Midway Island to find mounds of plastic trash. No, there’s plenty of it just up the California coast at Kehoe Beach, part of the Point Reyes National Seashore. And I got to see it.
From a distance, Kehoe looks pristine. In fact, there are some days when Richard and Judith are all alone on the beach. So you wouldn’t imagine there would be much trash, especially in Marin County where folks are a pretty green bunch. But get closer, and you’re in for a disheartening surprise.
Because of ocean currents, Kehoe ends up a plastic waste dump every year. And Judith and Richard come there to mine the beach for art supplies and help educate people about plastic pollution. I was fortunate to hang out with them last Monday and collect some plastic trash myself. And what a bitter sweet day it was. I had such fun with Richard and Judith, and yet felt such despair at the seemingly insurmountable plastic problem.
Richard and Judith are a hoot. They’d both been making plastic art individually since 1995, and met and had their first date at Kehoe Beach in 1999. After being together for a while, they decided to tie the knot… at Burning Man, where Judith wore a gorgeous white dress made completely from plastic trash.
I met them at their home, where they gave me tours of their studios. After collecting the beach plastic, they clean, sort and categorize the pieces according to color and kind. There are a few expected types of plastic: bottle caps, lighters, hair clips, straws, toothbrushes.
And there were some things I’d never have thought of. Piles of Tiparillo cigar tips, for example. Or plastic shell casings and sabots from guns. Whatever you might think about hunting, can you believe it is perfectly legal to shoot plastic projectiles into the environment without any requirement to clean them up?
Richard and Judith also save special little beach finds, like this tiny plastic duck. And in fact, I found my own special prize on the beach that day. But I’ll get to that later.
Before heading down to the beach, I had a look at some of the plastic art in the studio. Bright colors. Fun stuff. Even a fake plastic fish. Such irony, no?
The day was sunny if chilly as we headed down to the beach. No plastic so far.
And yet, no sooner did we reach the end of the path, than I started spotting it. Plastic pieces strewn across the sand.
Instantly, I was on my knees trying to gather it all up.
Judith pointed out the plastic pellets informally called “nurdles,” the pre-production plastic from which all plastic items are manufactured. To me, these nurdles are proof that the problem of plastic pollution is not solely the fault of careless end users but that of the plastics industry, which must take responsibility for its waste, since nurdles come from manufacturing, not the grocery store.
There’s no way to clean it all up. It would be impossible to recover so much plastic, as new plastic washes up with every wave. This is why Richard and Judith call what they do, “curating the beach.” There’s so much plastic, they can pick and choose what pieces they want to bring back with them for their art. The rest stays there. What else can you do?
Soon, I was curating my own plastic collection. And sorting through piles of natural debris to find plastic “treasures” hidden within.
I won the prize that day for the most interesting find. Look. It’s a fake plastic Oreo cookie. Well, one side anyway. It’s missing the creamy high fructose filling. That’s useful.
Richard retrieved a plastic bathtub that he had discovered during a previous trip and used it to drag back their loot. A plastic bathtub on the beach. WTF?
Back at Chez Selby-Lang, I was treated to dinner and more plastic art. Some of it beautiful and quite sad.
Some actually scary. Or maybe that was just because I viewed it in Judith’s dark shed after the sun went down.
Please read more about Judith and Richard’s work with plastic and pollution at their site BeachPlastic.com and on their blog, PlasticForever.blogspot.com. Richard is also a regular contributor to the Plastic Pollution Coalition blog.
Next week, I have even more fake plastic art to show you.