Turning trash into treasure along the California coastline

September 20, 2013

Tires from toy trucks. Hair clips. Bleach bottle bottoms. Shotgun shell casings. Kraft Handi-Snack cheese spreaders. Tiparillo cigar tips.

They’re all made of plastic, and they’ve all been harvested (by the hundred) from a 1,000-yard-long stretch of Kehoe Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore, where Marin artists Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang repurpose the plastic waste they collect into striking art pieces.

On their first date at Kehoe Beach in 1999, Richard and Judith discovered they had something in common: they had both been picking up pieces of plastic trash and turning it into art for years as trained studio artists. Ever since, the couple has continued to see garbage creatively, chronicling their trips to Kehoe on their blog, Plastic Forever.

“It’s beautiful stuff,” marveled Richard. “There is a narrative with every piece of plastic. They are cultural artifacts.”

Though the pursuit to turn garbage into art began purely as a creative endeavor, the Langs immediately discovered that their art carried with it a powerful message about the fate of oceans and what they call a “throwaway culture.”

Of course, the movement to clean up our coasts is a fairly recent one, and the Langs have seen it evolve over the course of their careers as plastic harvesters. “When we started, nobody had heard about the North Pacific Gyre,” Judith said. Now, news about the gyre and the gigantic garbage patch it houses has become almost commonplace, and often discouraging.

Despite the constant doomsday-esque news about the state of the environment, the Langs view their art as a way to look at the problem in a positive light. After all, they are just two people, on one stretch of beach, who have managed to collect heaps upon heaps of plastic over the years.

The Langs collecting trash from Kehoe Beach. Photo: Judith Selby Lang/Plastic Forever.
The Langs collecting trash from Kehoe Beach. Photo: Judith Selby Lang/Plastic Forever.

“This is a manageable, doable thing,” Judith said. “Wherever they are, people can have a big impact.” Even if you’re not near a beach, it is possible to turn trash into treasure. Gutters on the side of the road, any kind of watershed, it all counts and makes a difference, the Langs urged.

When it comes to Coastal Cleanup Day, the annual beach cleanup effort that takes place on the third Saturday of September, the Langs are particularly enthusiastic.

“Coastal Cleanup Day is our Christmas, our Easter,” Richard said, only half-joking. “It’s our national holiday.” Many Californians feel similarly about the event, which attracts more volunteers than any other volunteer project in the state. Last year, over 65,000 volunteers participated up and down the state, collecting nearly 770,000 pounds of debris.

For 2010’s Cleanup Day, The Langs’ art featured on the event’s posters and advertisements. They also organized with a volunteer group in Hayward to clean up a stretch of beach. After collecting bags of debris, the Langs told the volunteers to grab one more bag. This one, they explained, is for art supplies. “This stuff is a creative resource,” Judith said.

“Art looks at the world in a neutral way, it doesn’t pass judgement,” Richard said. Once you take the perspective that observes, rather than one that condemns, he explained, something positive can be done about the issue. “The thing that is most important is turning the artist’s eye toward the problem.”

This year, an exhibit of their work called “Finding Meaning in the Mess” at Bay Model in Sausalito until the end of September.

Photo: Judith Selby Lang/Plastic Forever.
Photo: Judith Selby Lang/Plastic Forever.

Keen to lend a hand? Here’s Bay Nature’s roundup of local Coastal Cleanup Day events:

North Bay

Bothin Marsh, Mill Valley

Join us at the county’s premier volunteer event focused on the marine environment and its watersheds. Marin County Parks will be cleaning litter and recyclables on the Mill Valley Bike Path at Bothin Marsh. Please bring gloves.

Rodeo Lagoon, Marin Headlands

Meet us by the picnic table by the Rodeo beach bridge and help cleanup Marin. Gloves and trash bags provided.

North Jenner beach, Sonoma

Help us clean up Jenner beach. This location is somewhat difficult to access due to the partially washed- out and steep trail. However, it is in desperate need of a clean up. Please register at the Salmon Creek Ranger station at 8.45am.

Kent Island Restoration, Point Reyes

Join the team on Coastal Cleanup for the last workday of the season for Kent Island Restoration. You will have the opportunity to pick up litter or participate in habitat restoration. Please RSVP.

Coastal Cleanup Day volunteers. Photo: Heal the Bay.
Coastal Cleanup Day volunteers. Photo: Heal the Bay.

San Francisco and Peninsula

Surfrider Ocean Beach clean up

Drop- in and groups welcome to help clean- up ocean beach. Participants are encouraged to bring their own gloves, grabbers or buckets. Rain cancels.

Linda Mar Beach clean up

Come clean up Linda Mar Beach! Meet at the seawall next to Taco Bell at 9am.

Presidio, San Francisco

Pitch in for California Coastal Cleanup Day and lend a hand throughout the Golden Gate National Parks and beyond! Help out at the Presidio or other locations throughout the city. All events run from 9am- 12pm.

Aquarium of the Bay, San Francisco

Join Aquarium of the Bay for a fun morning outside caring for the ocean. The morning will include on-the-water, under-the-water and by-the-water cleanups, with kayaks available from City Kayak for those who want to get out on the water to clean debris from the surface while Aquarium divers will be cleaning up under the waves.

Photo: "Mike" Michael L. Baird,
Photo: “Mike” Michael L. Baird,

East Bay

Point Isabel Regional Shoreline clean up, Richmond

Volunteers will help clean the shoreline and remove micro plastics from the waterway. Registration is required, lunch provided.

Don Edwards cleanup, Fremont

Join us to remove invasive weeds or pick up trash along the parking lot and trails. Bring your own sunscreen, reusable water bottle and clothes/shoes you don’t mind getting dirty. Registration begins 8.30am.

Crown beach cleanup, Alameda

Join us to cleanup crown beach. Bring your own sunscreen, reusable water bottle and clothes/shoes you don’t mind getting dirty. Registration begins 8.30am.

Berkeley Shoreline, Berkeley

Join us at Berkeley Marina to help cleanup the bay. Please bring a bucket or plastic bag, gloves and water bottle. Volunteers will also help compile data about the garbage we collect for a research project.

Photo: "Mike" Michael L. Baird,
Photo: “Mike” Michael L. Baird,

South Bay

Coyote Creek, San Jose

Help us clean the creek and save clapper rail and steelhead trout habitat. The cleanup will run from 9am- 12pm

Guadalupe River, San Jose

Join the Guadalupe River Conservancy and help clean the Guadalupe. Please register online.

Cowell Beach and Santa Cruz main beach, Santa Cruz

Join us to cleanup Santa Cruz. Check-in is located right off the Cowell beach parking lot- bathrooms and drinking water available. Come early for a free yoga session at Cowell beach. Please register beforehand.

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