The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

June 29, 2009

Kathleen Egan: Surfing the Plastic Wave

Kathleen Egan — surfer, artist, and environmental activist — heads up SF Surfrider’s Plastics Subcommittee, which is working to end the plague of plastic pollution in our oceans. I first met her last month displaying her Plastic Wave sculpture (made from the collected plastic of 12 friends over two weeks) at Adventure Ecology’s SMART Art competition.

We met again this past Friday and ended up hanging out at San Francisco’s Pier 29-1/2 (where David de Rothschild is building his Plastiki boat from recycled plastic) after an unfortunate collision between a U-Haul trailer and a metal warehouse gate. Sitting and waiting for the repair people to arrive gave us a chance to see a glimpse of the Plastiki in progress, play with a couple of cute dogs, and enjoy the sun while chatting about all things plastic.

Kathleen began surfing in 2001 after moving to San Francisco and having a surfer friend take her under his wing, and the practice has become life-changing.

“Every wave is unique. Every time on the board is a slightly different experience. Balancing is hard, but catching a wave in the first place is the first challenge. It takes hours of practice. You can’t accelerate the learning process. You just have to put the time in.”

She tells me that to surf is to be totally in the moment. Multi-tasking is not possible because the sport requires total focus. You’re aware of wind, water, other animals or people around you, and emotions like fear. These waves can be very scary. And then she says something I love so much, I have to make her pause so I can get the words down exactly right:

“You are where you are. You have to go through the waves to get out and through the waves again to get back in.”

It’s a metaphor, not only for life, but for the environmental movement and for finding ways to live sustainably. There are no shortcuts. My interpretation: we can’t wait for some miracle technology to save us from the mess we’ve made. Each of us must do our part, every day. We can’t bypass the waves; we have to go through them.

Kathleen became aware of the plastic pollution problem after a presentation given by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation over two years ago. Surfing in destinations all over the world, she’s seen the problem first hand in Indonesia, Mexico, Hawaii. Now, she points at an empty plastic bottle on the dock near our feet and says that when you first start noticing how much plastic there is, and then realize how fast the population is growing, you make the connection about how much plastic each person generates, and the amounts are alarming, the problem overwhelming. “We can’t reach everyone all at once, but we can focus on the people who are open to change and who just need the right information to get involved.”

(Perhaps we can start a “wave” that will pick up the others as it gains momentum and grows bigger.)

As for art, Kathleen has always been creative, but she started working with plastic trash around the same time she became aware of the problem. During a beach cleanup a few years ago, the colored shards of plastic strewn across the sand reminded her of mardi gras beads and gave her the idea to create mosaics. She collects plastic from the beaches wherever she surfs. In fact, the plastic in her blue wave mosaic (on the left) is from a trip to Indonesia. She plans to create her next piece with plastic from El Salvador.

But scooping up bits of plastic for art projects isn’t enough. And, Kathleen insists, all of our small personal changes will not be enough without cooperation and change from businesses. Our conversation becomes animated at this point — me arguing that we won’t get companies to change until individuals themselves change first and begin to vote with their dollars — and Kathleen insisting that not all individuals are going to change and that a handful of passionate activists can make a big difference.

We’re both right, of course. Look at the success of the Brita campaign. Kathleen wants to take a similar approach to urge Jamba Juice to give up using Styrofoam cups and plastic straws for its drinks. And she wants more visibility into what companies are doing. In addition to her avocations as surfer, artist, and activist, Kathleen has a day job involving some pretty large corporations. When she asks what motivates them to “go green,” she hears answers like brand image, efficiency, government regulation. But she never hears that they want to avoid negative press. She asks, why not? Why aren’t more of us out here letting companies know we won’t tolerate unsustainable products and practices?

What will it take to create this wave?

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10 years ago

My names Josh and i am a year 12 art student who attends Ormiston College which is located in Queensland Australia. At this very moment in grade 12 art, the assignment is to look at ‘Globalisation and changing cultural identity’. From searching the net i have come across this magnificant art piece of the wave made out of plastic waste. This very art piece has given me alot of ideas of what to look at. I will most likely create the same sort of art work but in my own way. I would just like to know what sort of material were used to create the framework of this art piece and how long it took to make?
any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Beth Terry
10 years ago

Hi, Josh. I forwarded your question to the artist. Hopefully, she will reply here. Cheers! Beth

10 years ago
Reply to  Beth Terry

Thankyou kindly,

Berit Mason
12 years ago

I am a reporter interested in your plastic free life.

Can you please get in touch at my email and tell me the latest?

Thanks ! I am in San Antonio.

13 years ago

Does Kathleen have a website or some contact information? I would love to learn more about her work!

14 years ago

Sounds like a great example of what we should all strive for. Not just "pass the planet by" but actually contribute to its well being! I hope she catches the wave she needs to make this the ride of her life!


Crafty Green Poet
14 years ago

Great post, I think the part about involving corporations is vital and yes it does go hand in hand with raising individual awareness.

Beatufil artwork that Kathleen creates…

Natural Mamma
14 years ago

I have started asking the restaurants I eat at why they are not using recyclable or compostable carry out containers, we all need to push these businesses.

Beth Terry
14 years ago

Amy, if you’ll send me your email address I’ll forward it to Kathleen and she can let you know what’s going on with Jamba Juice.

Contact me at:

Plastic-less Amy
14 years ago

Has she started anything with Jamba juice yet? I love their drinks, but had to give it up due to their use of plastics. I'd love to join her campaign!

14 years ago

I love it when seemingly opposing view points dove-tail into a common goal!

If we all learned (myself included) to first look for the commonality instead of the differences amoungst us, so much more would be accomplished (besides war[as if that was an accomplishment]).

Great post!!