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Since 1999, Richard and Judith Lang have found countless ways to turn their huge collection of beach debris into extraordinary art. (Courtesy of Richard and Judith Lang)

Making Beautiful Art out of Beach Plastic

Artists Judith and Richard Lang comb the California beaches, looking for trash for their captivating, yet unsettling work

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Since 1999, the Langs have collected more than two tons of plastic. But it’s not your typical beach cleanup. “We’re not cleaning,” Richard points out. “We’re curating.”

During our two hours on Kehoe, we find plenty of common items: white Tiparillo tips, old Bic lighters, shriveled balloons, corroded SuperBalls, nylon rope and shotgun wads: the frayed plastic cores of shotgun shells, expelled when a shot is fired. The Langs scour the tide line and search below the rocky cliffs with Zen-like concentration. In the past, diligence has rewarded them with everything from vintage toy soldiers to tiny red Monopoly houses. But finding plastic on the beach, even if it’s your main art material, is always bittersweet. Vastly outnumbering those rare treasures are single-use water bottles, sun lotion tubes, soft-drink lids—and tiny round pellets called nurdles.

Nurdles, or “mermaid’s tears,” are by far the most common plastic found on Kehoe, in fact on any beach along the North Pacific Gyre. Smaller than popcorn kernels, these are the raw material from which plastic objects are made. Millions of nurdles escape during the manufacturing and transportation process, and often wash out to sea. The chemically receptive pellets readily absorb organic pollutants, and toxins like DDT and PCBs.

“They look like fish eggs,” observes Judith, holding one on her fingertip. “So birds eat them, and fish eat them. They’re little toxic time bombs, working their way up the food chain.”

Richard approaches, his high spirits temporarily grounded. “We put a gloss on what we do and joke that it’s ‘garbage yoga’,” he says, “because there’s so much bending down and physical activity involved…”

“But it’s pretty sad,” continues Judith, finishing his thought. “To see this plastic strewn all over the beach. And it’s so recent. I remember going to the beach as a child; I never saw plastic. This problem has washed into our lives—and it’s not going to wash out any time soon.”

But creating beauty out of an ugly phenomenon—while raising awareness about the plague of plastic trash inundating the world’s oceans and beaches—is the Lang’s primary mission.

“When we make artwork out of this garbage, people are surprised,” says Judith. “They almost feel that it’s horrible these things are so beautiful.”

* * *

The Langs drive back home from Kehoe Beach with bulging duffle bags. The day’s harvest is rinsed off in a big bucket, laid out to dry and sorted by color, shape or purpose. Each piece of plastic they find has a secret story: a girl’s pink barrette; a kazoo; a tiny Pinocchio weathered almost beyond recognition.

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