The world is drowning in plastic debris and Washed Ashore wants to do something about it.
To give you an idea of the scope of the issue, a plastic bag was recently found at the bottom of one of the deepest ocean trenches on Earth and microplastics from polyester and acrylic clothing is now inside almost every living organism sampled.
Microplastics are in our salt, our food, and in us. The Pacific Ocean garbage patch is over twice the size of Texas and eight million metric tons of plastics enter our ocean daily.
Washed Ashore can’t solve the problem on its own. In the short time of its existence the arts group has transformed over 40,000 pounds, or 18 metric tons, of marine debris into works of art shown locally, nationally and globally. For context, it’s estimated that there is 150 million metric tons of plastic in our oceans so the organization has taken 0.000012% of the total plastic out of the environment, which is part of why they are focused on changing people’s behaviors through education, the problem is too big for one small nonprofit to solve.
“It’s not just coming from L.A., it’s flowing down our rivers from inland cities as well. Even if we stop all new plastic from entering the ocean we’ll have enough materials to work with for many years,” said Washed Ashore’s newest Executive Director John Tannous.
Tannous met with Seaside residents, city councilors, environmental and Visitor’s Association representatives on May 7 at the Seaside Brewing Company to showcase the work they’re doing and see if Seaside could be home to a future sculpture. The average cost of a single sculpture can run upwards of $75,000 and Washed Ashore has funding to bring several new sculptures to communities in Oregon.
Creating the sculptures are process intensive. Debris is collected, sifted, sorted, and soaked in vinegar to sanitize the plastic before it’s cut into small enough pieces for the artists to work with. Sculptures are constructed with minimal new materials, no paint, glue or other adhesives.
The creation of the sculpture is designed and created collaboratively with the featured artist-in-residence doing most of the detail work, and three full time artists and volunteers puzzle piecing bits of plastic together to make components of the larger work such as individual feathers.
The final sculptures are massive with bases often over 100 square feet and steel frames 11 feet tall. Earlier pieces were initially constructed on found objects such as buoys but degradation and weathering lead to collapse so Washed Ashore shifted to a more permanent steel frame for durability. From a distance, the sculptures resemble beautiful, traditional depictions of local sea life such as puffins, polar bears, and sharks but upon closer inspection it’s easy to see the flip flops, plastic tubing, and rubber ties that comprise the larger image.
“Visibility is important, we’re using great art to educate people about plastic in the ocean,” Tannous said. “We want to inspire others first and foremost.”
But the art still needs to look like the material that it is to meet their mission of reducing plastic consumption. They don’t want the work to look “like a hunk of junk” but still be visually attractive so that the communities where the sculptures are installed are proud to have them on display.
“If we just did abstract art people wouldn’t know what the materials are,” Tannous said during the Seaside presentation. They can see recognizable pieces of plastic they use in their lives.”
Washed Ashore is aware that the concept of marine debris art isn’t new and they don’t hold any proprietary rights over the beach plastic model.
The nonprofit started in Coos Bay after Oregon artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi unexpectedly lost her husband to a brain tumor. As part of her grieving process she would walk the local beaches looking for solace in the steady rhythm of the crashing waves.
Instead, she found what many have come to think of as commonplace, endless bits of beach plastic.
Haseltine Pozzi started collecting the bits of crumbled bottles, baby toys, machinery, and amassed a pile so large that she was inspired to create art. Shortly thereafter the nonprofit Washed Ashore was founded to generate a larger public interest in solving what has become one of our time’s most pressing issues.
Seaside might be the latest location for one of these sculptures. The location of the new sculptures is dependent on a few factors including community support and visibility. After all the purpose of the organization is to increase awareness regarding the extent of the problem of marine debris with the goal of eventually changing behaviors.
“We want to spark change,” he said. It happened one piece of plastic at a time, eventually the tide will turn.”