The Washed Ashore Project Turns Beach Plastic Into Gorgeous Sculptures

The goal is to amaze, educate, and inspire viewers.

plastic fish sculpture
Priscilla the Rainbow Parrotfish.

Washed Ashore

When most of us see bits of plastic littering a beach, we feel helpless and depressed. The scale of the pollution is so extensive, it's hard to know what to do. The team at Washed Ashore, however, has channeled that sense of overwhelm into action. It collects beach plastic and uses it to create magnificent works of art that are meant to amaze, educate, inspire, and ultimately change the human behaviors that are driving such waste in the first place.

The Washed Ashore Project was founded in 2010 by Angela Haseltine Pozzi, an artist who came up with the idea to put this plastic to use and to rely on volunteers to collect, wash, and prepare it for use as art supplies. Over the past 11 years, the project, which is based in Bandon, Oregon, has combed over 300 miles of Oregon coastline and processed 35 tons of trash to make 86 sculptures. 

Brad Parks, conservation education director for the project, told Treehugger over email that the plastic is "collected by individual volunteers and dropped off at community collection points, or by groups doing organized beach cleanups. Some is collected by state park rangers and given to us as well. We estimate that we use between 75-90% of the marine debris collected. Things like plastic films (packaging) isn't a durable product to use in our sculptures, so that and any other unusable waste is responsibly disposed of."

For the first decade, the sculptures were designed and built under Haseltine Pozzi's guidance. She worked with apprentices and supporting artists to complete projects. "Now we have a lead artist and art assistants leading our production," Parks explained. "A design can come from the artistic team, or from someone wanting to commission a particular creature. The idea is researched and images selected to work from. A 2D graphic illustrator then creates a standard look and feel for the piece that the artist uses to guide the creation."

These are major sculptures. As Free the Ocean describes on its blog (and where you can find more pictures), the latest one—Rosa the Bald Eagle—is "a nine-foot-high bird with a wingspan of 15 feet. Rosa weighs around 2,000 pounds and is entirely made from plastic marine debris, assembled by 1,550 volunteers across the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic." Other sculptures include an enormous puffin, seal, sea turtle, clownfish, octopus, jellyfish, shark, whale tail, sea star, and many more. 

plastic seal sculpture
Lidia the Seal.

Washed Ashore

Washed Ashore outlines five key educational objectives on its website:

  1. To love the ocean—to know it, to know its shorelines and its inhabitants, as that knowledge affects everyone on Earth.
  2. To understand how plastic pollution works—"where it comes from, how it happens, how it travels, and the environmental and ecological impacts."
  3. To use art to draw attention to a serious issue, to "awaken the senses, gain attention and promote solutions."
  4. To teach people about the processes of recycling and repurposing plastics.
  5. To shift consumer habits by encouraging people to refuse plastics, choose more eco-friendly materials, and advocate for broader change.

Parks summarized the mission as being "to build and exhibit aesthetically powerful art to educate a global audience about plastic pollution in the ocean and waterways and to spark positive changes in consumer habits."

The fact that the project relies on volunteer labor to collect and prepare plastic for use is a valuable component. It gets citizens involved in a hands-on way with an issue that will then become more real and personal to them.

Mimi Ausland, cofounder of Free the Ocean, told Treehugger, "The Washed Ashore Art Project believes that, by working together, we can make a big difference. This resonates with me, as it's an idea we strongly encourage at Free the Ocean. Our small actions may not seem like much in the moment, but collectively, small actions add up to a big impact."

She pointed out how it's often difficult for people to make a connection between the plastic they use on a daily basis and the stuff that's polluting the environment. "When we don't see it with our own eyes, it's very hard to grasp. The Washed Ashore Art Project takes everyday plastic pollution and brings it to life by creating eye-catching art projects, at a scale large enough to get people's attention! This can be a powerful tool for connecting the plastic we use daily to pollution and lastly, to the marine animals who are harmed because of it."

Parks described the "spectrum of responses" that the sculptures provoke in viewers. "From afar they appear to simply be whimsical sea creatures that are supersized with eyes that draw you to come closer. Once you're up close, one sees that they're made of plastic and covered in items that you recognize from your day-to-day routines: toothbrushes, combs, kitchen utensils, flip flops, toys, lighters, or water bottles. When observers realize that the art supplies comprising each piece are from the beaches of Oregon, many are in awe while some are really upset and horrified."

These emotions are important to prompt behavioral change. "Whether it's replacing that single-use water bottle with a reusable one, or saying 'no thanks' to a plastic straw, we simply ask everyone who sees our sculptures to Do One Thing to help us protect our oceans," Parks added.

There's a full-length documentary film about Washed Ashore's work, here. There are permanent exhibits in Bandon, OR, and at the Oregon Zoo in Portland. Currently there are shows at the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, and at Botanica Gardens, in Wichita, Kansas. There is a permanent piece called Turtle Ocean at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.