This summer, Chautauquans can leave a legacy simply by donating their blue plastic.
At the Chautauqua Farmers Market, the Chautauqua Climate Change Initiative has set up a collection spot for blue plastic that will be used to create a permanent sculpture on the grounds of Chautauqua Institution in the style of “Washed Ashore – Art to Save the Sea.” Donations are welcome through the end of the 2023 season.
Mark Wenzler, the Peter Nosler Director of the Chautauqua Climate Change Initiative, said the Institution is looking for clean solid blue objects made of plastic that have “outlived their useful life” and are going to be thrown away.
“It could be beach toys – think about a little beach rake or a bucket. … It’s actually not necessarily what most people think of as recyclables,” Wenzler said.
So far, he and his colleagues have collected three bags of plastic, in addition to several large pieces, including a pallet and a plastic deck chair.
“When (Washed Ashore) creates their sculptures, all of the plastic is collected from the beach – it’s all stuff that washes up from the ocean. Fortunately for us, we don’t have that much plastic washing up on our shores, … so we just asked people to directly donate things that were going to be thrown away,” Wenzler said.
Washed Ashore volunteers collect washed up plastic debris from the coast of southern Oregon. Katie Dougherty, executive director of the organization, said Washed Ashore aims to “empower the individual to feel they can do something that leads to change.”
Fourteen Washed Ashore sculptures have been on the grounds of Chautauqua Institution since the beginning of the season. Wenzler said talks about creating a permanent sculpture at Chautauqua began even before the exhibit was installed.
Originally, he said, the idea was to bring Washed Ashore artists to Chautauqua. However, because producing a sculpture requires “a very specific skill set, welders and materials,” Wenzler said, the plan had to be altered.
Shipping all the collected plastic to the West Coast, he said, was not an effective option either, and keeping everything local meant choosing one color.
“The sculpture that we are going to do will somehow involve the lake. The lake is so important to us, we thought: ‘Why not blue?’ The blue plastic can be used to represent our lake,” Wenzler said.
A final decision on the design hasn’t yet been decided, Wenzler said, so more specific conversations about feasibility of different designs and cost are expected in the fall. An osprey, however, would be Wenzler’s first choice.
Ospreys, he said, used to be prevalent in the region, but were extirpated from the area around a century ago through pollution and because of habitat loss.
“It’s only within the last 10 years that the ospreys are coming back, as we have restored habitat (and) eliminated pollution, so it’s a very powerful environmental story,” Wenzler said. “I think an osprey would be a great representation of our lake and a hopeful story for the future of our environments.”
If the plan to build an osprey sculpture does not work out, Wenzler said, the second choice would be a fish that is native to Chautauqua Lake, as it is full of “some big, iconic fish.”
“It could also be an osprey catching a fish – an osprey diving into the lake with his talons holding onto a fish,” he said.
Plastic, Wenzler said, causes a multitude of environmental problems from the process of extraction to disposal. First, the process of drilling for oil and gas, he said, destroys vast amounts of land and pollutes air and water.
Then, facilities where plastic is made emit toxic chemicals into the air. Once the material is ready, he said, it ends up in the environment, where it can last for hundreds of decades, breaking down into microplastics.
“(Microplastics) enter our bloodstream, they pollute the water, they kill fish and wildlife – it’s an environmental disaster; … it’s probably one of the worst environmental problems that we have in our world, and it’s a tragedy,” Wenzler said. “It’s a shameful example of the negative consequences of our overconsumptive culture.”
That’s why, he said, people need to change the narrative from recycling to refusing to use plastic in the first place.
Greenpeace’s 2022 Circular Claims Fall Flat Again report estimated that in 2021, only 2.4 million tons of plastic waste out of about 51 million tons generated by U.S. households were recycled.
“It’s not that plastic itself is evil. It’s quite a remarkable material, and it has some great uses that can be lifesaving; but in terms of consumer products, we could easily (avoid them) if we made that decision. We have alternatives today, we don’t have to invent anything,” Wenzler said. “There will always be a need for specialty plastics and medical devices, … but that’s not going to cause an environmental disaster like the consumer products are causing.”