Curating the Beach: Just Another Story of Plastic Trash
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.
Artists Richard Lang and Judith Selby spend their weekends gathering mounds of plastic trash from Kehoe Beach.
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.
Next week, I have even more fake plastic art to show you.
I am so glad you are writing this blog, and that I found it quite accidentally. I am already making choices for my family to eliminate plastic, but get easily discouraged at how our extended family just does not get it, and just this past easter inundated us with plastic crap in the form of Easter basket “goodies.” sigh. we also live in a tiny house and so are trying to be frugal and not have so much stuff–your blog gives me so many ideas. But recently it has also inspired me to make a homeschool unit for my kids (and other homeschool kids I teach) on the plastic problem–and thanks to your recent entries, I have loads of great ideas. We live on Monterey Bay, so might be able to participate in the events with plastic art in SF in June!
Anyway, thanks for all you do. And I have to leave by sharing with you my own classic plastic beach find:
Wow..what a great story. It is so sad that so much plastic ends up on the beach like that.
This is eye-opening and saddening and sort of inspiring. I’m glad that this couple is raising awareness. But I sort of wish it were a little harder to find the plastic.
This makes me think of entropy…the idea that everything breaks down to become uniformly distributed everywhere. The tree dies in the forest, the wood deteriorates through rotting and the particles move ever further from the site of the tree, spreading through the forest and eventually the whole world and finally, the universe! At the level of the atom, how are the atoms in your body any different than those in mine? They are identical, they don’t deteriorate, and a thousand years from now, where will they be when you and I are not even a memory? Literally, we are the world and the world is us.
Plastic demonstrates this graphically by what we see on the beach…continually breaking down to smaller bits more widely dispersed and ever harder to tell apart, making the trek back to atoms. No matter how hard we try to collect things, they becomes the sand of tomorrow, just as the Rockies are being worn to dust.
Even if we had the tightest control of plastic, still it would disperse over the planet, albeit at a slower rate. Stopping it is like trying to put the smoke back in last night’s campfire. But I’m mister litter-collector, so I’m willing to give it a go!
Richard and Judith should set aside a part of the beach to leave as-is then photograph it as the years go by and more stuff collects.
Thanks HealthNutAli – I found that cannibal book at my two local libraries and am off to get it right now. Big decision – which library to walk to on a beautiful 70 degree day! Life is hard.
Whoa! Holy Awareness! Makes me want to drive up there and help out. Garsh! Love the fake plastic fish… totally ironic! Some interesting finds, for sure. The Oreo-speaks volumes Wow! I went and visited their site… O.M.G.!!! the red Handi Snack spread sticks ( was just thinking about those in a plastic way, too)… I ate that crap in my younger days… a lot of it! LOL. Wish I would’ve known what I know now that’s for sure! Yikes!!!
How sad! I’m glad people like you and these artist are willing to help pick up all this crap.
I was at Ocean Beach on Saturday. All in all – not too much pollution – but it was definitely there. Especially among the dunes.
What a timely post! I’ve been thinking about just such a project over the past couple of weeks, although using plastic waste found in my land-locked community in the midwest. There’s still enough of it to produce endless artworks. I think this kind of work would function well as community-based collaborative projects…
gosh such lovely art from waste but wouldn’t it be a better world if that waste wasn’t there in the first place? We’ve just had the results in from the beach surveys over the past year, Scotland’s beach waste is actually decreasing, though there is still far too much
Ugh…that’s so heatbreaking! It is so huge, and I just don’t see world leaders “getting it” anytime soon. (Oh and if you think the plastic shotgun shells are bad, consider the lead pellets that came out of them!)
There is poetry and storytelling to be made from consumer society’s literal flotsam and jetsam and then some. Beth, it seems that creativity from trash seems to be this week’s theme. I encourage you to look at my partner, Sven’s blog post: https://svenworld.wordpress.com/2010/03/28/the-ecstasy-of-making-art-not-waste/ , also cross-posted on dailykos: http://www.dailykos.com/stories/2010/3/28/851301/-The-ECSTASY-of-Making-Art,-Not-Waste . Commentors from the dailykos posting offer other resources and creative outposts around the country.
“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.”
The plastic waste is sad. I live in a rural area and noticed the other day a field on the edge of town was full of plastic bags, disgusting. Good to see some people concerned enough to clean it up, and be creative in the process
This makes me sad. Their work inspires, and this couple’s efforts are commendable, but all that trash–good grief.
Having abundant material for the “Plastic Trash Art” is not a good thing. However, it is a good way to get people’s attention to raise awareness.
Here is what I do with plastic trash (please take a look at this youtube video). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkEAJ6gKO00
While having fun to make these costumes, kids and parents can learn how much non-recyclable plastic trash we are producing every day.
I remember the first time I was ever on a beach in 1960. It was pristine except for shells and driftwood. By the time I went back in 1968 you could sit on the beach and when you got up have tar on your backside due to the oil rigs. By the time I actually lived on the beach in the mid-70’s you still had litte trash but the water had more oil and was murky. I moved away from the beach for about 10 years and when I went back I found what Judith and Richard have found. It’s sickening. So many times I see the same thing happen on the beach that I see on city streets. Rather than put things in a nearby trash can people will throw in down on the street. I remember when people took care of things so much better than they do now. It’s disheartening but I just keep doing my part anyway and telling others how we need to change and do better.
Have you read J. Marten Troosts The Sex Lives of Cannibals? He and his wife lived on an atoll in the middle of the South pacific. His description of the trash and how it is dealt with is truly astonishing. He is so funny and satirical that I’d recommend the book just as an excellent read. His other book Getting Stoned with Savages is hilarious as well. However, I think you’d find what he says about trash very interesting.
One couple, one beach
Think of all the fabulously disturbing plastic art that awaits the world!
I for one hope that its day never comes, but I fear it’s already here.
Contrast Richard + Judith’s work with Andy Goldsworthy’s, whose art is gone with the wind or tide…both hold important messages that need to be shared widely.
Thanks, again, Beth for your insights and wry humor.
I just discovered your site today and I love it! Great piece on recycling found stuff. Her wedding dress is great! :)