6 Extraordinary Art Projects Use Plastic Trash to Highlight the Crisis Facing the World's Oceans (Video)


The plastic trash crisis facing the Earth's marine environment is truly a tragedy of the commons, with a growing amount of manmade debris, including more than 315 billion pounds of plastic, polluting the world's oceans, killing wildlife and persisting for centuries before breaking down.

Change has come slowly, but it's happening. An increasing number of communities around the world are discouraging the use of plastic bags through taxes or banning them outright. Companies are starting to measure their plastic footprints and working on ways to reduce plastic use in supply chains.

But while legislation and corporate governance are important levers to pull, it may take something more creative for consumers to comprehend how badly plastic marine trash damages the planet's oceans and the animals who live in them. Bertolt Brecht said, “art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it,” then perhaps artists may hold a key to solving this crisis. Here are six eye-opening art projects that shine a light on the problem through artworks using reclaimed plastic trash.

1. Out to Sea? The Plastic Garbage Project.

This work is particularly insightful because it was made in a country located miles from the sea: Switzerland. In 2012, the exhibit “Out to Sea? The Plastic Garbage Project,” mounted at the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich, brought the harsh reality of the crisis to museum-goers by presenting a large space filled with plastic trash.

"How do you explain the magnitude of the ocean trash problem, particularly to people in a landlocked country like Switzerland?" asked Catherine Fox of the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy, in a blog post about the project. "Put a representative sampling right in front of them."

Watch a video about the “Out to Sea?” project:

2. Washed Ashore.

Henry the Giant Fish swims forever in front of the Bandon, Oregon, offices of the nonprofit Washed Ashore, which uses art to educate the public about marine debris and plastic pollution. Henry is the artistic creation of a group of ocean advocates who worked with Washed Ashore lead artist and executive director Angela Haseltine Pozzi to clean up their beach by collecting plastic trash washed up from the ocean.

Pozzi realized that people working together could bring awareness to the huge amounts of trash in the ocean by using it to make eye-catching trash sculptures. She leads community workshops teaching people how to use the tons of trash that regularly wash up on shore. Henry the Giant Fish is the first of her ecologically minded collaborations.

All of Henry's fishy parts are made from yellow, orange, red, white and brown plastic. Look closely and you can see that the texture around his mouth is actually an orange flip-flop. Bits of plastic bags torn into strips create movement and flowing fins, while piles of colored hoses and an assortment of tubing has been transformed into flowing waves of water underneath Henry’s belly.

One of Washed Ashore's newest works is 16-foot-long Priscilla the Parrot Fish, created as one of 12 sculptures commissioned by SeaWorld in 2012. The objective was to have four sculptures of sea life made from marine debris, displayed in each of the three SeaWorld Parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego for 18 months to draw attention to pollution in the ocean and it’s serious threat to sea life.

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Priscilla the Parrot Fish (image courtesy of Washed Ashore)

The sculptures were conceived and designed by Pozzi and her staff. The panels that make up much of Priscilla's body are assembled by local community volunteers, including students from local schools, seniors from local senior residences and tourists who visit Washed Ashore's public art gallery and volunteer workshop.

"One of the distinguishing facts about our artwork is that, although it is so-called trash art, it’s purpose is to remind that public that much of today’s plastic products should be recycled, re-purposed and re-used so that it will be less of a threat to sea life that lives on the ocean and also to wildlife that lives out of water," said Frank Rocco, the marketing director at Washed Ashore.

Watch a video about the Washed Ashore Project:

3. Steampunk artist Claudio Garzon transforms ocean trash.

Artist and teacher Claudio Garzon lives not far from where the Los Angeles River flows into the Pacific Ocean. California has long been conscious of protecting the ocean from chemicals and other pollutants that ride the river into the ocean. Plastics and other trash often make the journey down the river, and though there is a net constructed to catch debris, smaller bits still make it through the net.

Garzon takes daily walks along the river, picking up plastic and monitoring the daily pollution that travels down the river. Each day, armed with a bag and gloves, he goes on a three-mile route and is able to collect a huge amount of discarded objects, which he uses to create amazing sculptures using the distinctive, precision mechanical parts and details that are common to steampunk art.

Before he can transform the plastic trash into art, he disinfects his salvaged materials for at least a week in a bleach solution to release the dirt that has been embedded in the crevices and surface. Then his creativity is unleashed to make steampunk robots, fantasy science fiction constructions and sculptures of ocean life.

He uses this plastic sea creatures to teach his students about marine life, ocean conservation and the properties of plastics. Garzon teaches courses at 109th Street Elementary School in Watts, to emphasize how the ocean currents can take local plastic trash and spread it around the globe. He still needs to purchase basic art supplies for his sculptures, but he has enough plastic materials collected to encourage his students to enjoy recycling and develop a love for protecting the marine environment.

4. Ocean trash collages by Mandy Barker.

UK artist Mandy Barker uses her collections of discarded debris, particularly material that sea creatures have tried to digest and rejected, to make collages. Barker’s collages depict images of the sea, using tiny bits of colorful materials arranged on black backgrounds.

Particularly disturbing are the works showing items that have been ingested by sea birds or fish, which ultimately killed the animals. Each collage focuses on a different color palette and thematic collection of items.

Watch a video of Mandy Barker's work:

5. Gyre: The Plastic Ocean.

Filling 7,500 square feet and featuring 26 artists from around the globe, the exhibition “Gyre: The Plastic Ocean," mounted at the Anchorage Museum in Anchorage, Alaska comprises some 80 artworks, each created from plastic trash and other debris that the artists have retrieved from shores as diverse as Finland and Australia.

The theme of the exhibit is to explore the relationships between the oceans and humans in a consumption-driven world.

Watch a video of "Gyre: The Plastic Ocean":

6. Fish Sculptures by Alex Chiu.

Huntington Beach artist Alex Chiu created a colorful fish sculpture using a wide assortment of debris collected from the ocean as part of a trash cleanup inspired by the ad agency Innocean USA.

Chiu proves that just one creative person can help make more people aware of the marine plastic trash crisis facing the world's oceans. His fish has inspired others to help reduce waste and participate in neighborhood trash cleanup projects.

Watch an interview with Alex Chiu:

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