One Beach, One Year: A Trashy Love Story

This is part nine of Stiv Wilson's tour to better understand how plastic ends up in the ocean. Read the previous installments here.

Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang met on the beach: Two artists, from two different walks of life, find each other collecting plastic flotsam on California’s Kehoe Beach over a decade ago. As if it's fated, they fall in love.

Visiting with them at their house, which doubles as a studio, I’m blown away by there beach plastic collection. Typically, beach plastic nerds have big, nasty piles all over the place—but not the Langs. It’s like a curiosity shop of garbage organized in jars and displayed with a curator’s eye. As I survey all the stuff they've collected, Richard pulls a little flat plastic stick from a pile and asks me if I know what it is.

At first, I’m puzzled, but then it dawns on me: "It’s one of those little cheese spreader thingies for those Kraft cheese and cracker snack packs." Richard smiles. They have piles of them. Piles. It's bizarre to think that this one distinct plastic item is so prevalent in the ocean that one could have a collection of them. After spending a month talking about dead birds and poisoned oceans, I find this little plastic cheese spreader particularly despairing.

Judith pulls out a plastic toy identification guide from the 1940s. Richard opens to a page and then produces a small toy train and points to its facsimile in the book. It was found on Kehoe Beach, and it’s a an artifact from the North Pacific Gyre: It has probably been circulating there for nearly 70 years and it remains remarkably intact. “It’s been a particularly productive spring for old plastic,” says Richard.

What’s important understand about oceanic gyres is that they move around a bit, sort of mysteriously, depending on wind patterns and other seasonal variations. It's currently being posited that a dominant westerly flow for the past six months has been pushing the garbage patch up against North America and that that's why we're finding all sorts of decades-old plastic on the beach.

As we arrive at Kehoe Beach, I watch Richard and Judith. Until now, I’ve looked at beach garbage as nothing more than trash. But they teach me plastic taxonomy, synthetic aesthetics. Judith produces a black tube-like piece of plastic about the size of a pen. It comes from the oyster industry, used to space them in beds. They show me a part of shotgun shell that holds BBs, probably a bullet casing ejected for bird hunting in an estuary that flowed out to sea.

But no matter how interpret this experience, one thing remains—Kehoe is trashed. It’s still overwhelming; it still hurts the soul. On the ride back Richard asks me, “What did you see?” I tell him about how I’ve begun to look at beach plastic differently after looking at it with him and Judith, but that I still feel pain from seeing such ugliness everywhere.

“The opposite of beauty is not ugliness," he says, "it’s indifference. And an artist is never indifferent.” I nod. Because that's what we're fighting here: indifference.

Stiv Wilson is a freelance writer/photographer and the communications director for the Project. He lives in Portland, Oregon. Next up: did you know all chewing gum is made of plastic? Learn about Beth Terry of Fake Plastic Fish and her mission to teach the world how to eliminate plastic from one's life.
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