December 6, 2019

How plastic waste found on beaches finds a new life as art with message

Here are three stories about the power of recycling to inspire you as you head into the weekend.

Plastic trash can be turned into treasure and an opportunity for education, like this sculpture of Rufus the Triggerfish located at the Denver Zoo. Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Each week, The Renewal Project shares three stories from around the country that highlight the innovative solutions people are creating in their communities. This week we’re focusing on people who are taking plastics and other trash and recycling them in creative ways to benefit their communities. What are the innovative ideas in your hometown? Tell us at and your project could be featured in an upcoming story on The Renewal Project.

Art of the ocean: Artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi spends a lot of time on the beaches near her hometown of Bandon, Oregon. But instead of sunbathing or swimming, Haseltine Pozzi combs the beaches looking for plastic items and other bits of trash that have been discarded by her fellow humans. The artist gathers these unconventional materials to create massive sculptures of the sea creatures so often harmed by the trash that makes it into our oceans. Her pieces include a six-foot-wide sea star made of water bottles, a jellyfish formed out of golf balls, and a shark made of old flip-flops and plastic lighters. Haseltine Pozzi even turned this passion project into a nonprofit named Washed Ashore in 2010. The organization operates an art gallery and an outreach program in order to educate people about the dangers of littering.

“I want to reach everybody. I want to reach kids,” she said in an interview with NPR. “I want to reach people who might throw something on the beach and not think about it, and I want them to start to think about it.”

Cans for college: You might be used to taking your recycling to the curb each week, but what if there was an extra incentive for gathering up recyclable materials? That’s the idea behind a new partnership in Oregon. The state’s redemption center of recyclable materials, Bottle Drop, is working with the Oregon College Savings Plan to turn plastic, glass, and aluminum into funds for higher education. The funds from redeeming these materials—10 cents for each bottle or can—will go directly into an Oregon College Savings account, NationSwell reports. This account is part of a 529 program, which a is taxed-advantaged plan and will continue to build interest over time.

“We know that no matter where you live in Oregon, every penny adds up, and we want to make it easier for everyone to start saving for their future today,” Oregon State Treasurer Tobias Read said in a press release. There are more than 50 BottleDrop locations across the Beaver State, making it even easier to collect future tuition money.

Gettin’ crafty: Disposable plastic bags are able to take on a whole new life. Residents of the Village at Orchard Ridge retirement community in Virginia collect plastic bags and turn them into waterproof mats. The crafty residents were featured recently in the Washington Post. They donate the mats to shelters, providing those in need a warm place to sleep once it gets cold out. So how are these waterproof mats made? The bags are turned into “plarn,” plastic yarn, and volunteers use that to crochet them into mats. Scraps of the plarn are sent to Trex, the Winchester-based manufacturer of composite deck material.

Aside from mats, plastic bags can also be transformed into a reusable bag. By ironing four bags together, this tote-like bag is perfect to reuse while grocery shopping. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, over 380 billion plastic bags are consumed in the United States each year. Taking measures, like these two above, can give plastic bags another reusable purpose that can further protect the environment.

The Renewal Project

The Renewal Project, made possible by Allstate, tells the stories of individuals and organizations who are solving problems in their communities.