Make Art Not Waste: Creating beautiful art from waste found on beaches
Cambodia has a serious plastic problem. A photo essay carried by The Guardian in 2018 portraying a sea of plastic clogging the water beneath decrepit houses in Sihanouk city reflects this uncomfortable truth. Everyday approximately 10 million plastic bags are used in Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh, and the average urban Cambodian uses more than 2,000 plastic bags annually, ten times more than their Chinese counterparts. Unfortunately, due to a lack of proper recycling and waste disposal system, most of this plastic (bags, bottles and other non- biodegradable materials) finds its way into the country’s numerous water bodies, hurting its fragile marine eco-system.
The Cambodian government did initiate a few rules to counter the growing plastic menace like levying a charge of $0.10 per plastic bag at certain supermarkets. But experts say this move along with monetising recycling is not enough to stop plastic pollution.
Shocked by the statistics and having experienced the extent of plastic pollution in Cambodia’s waterbodies first hand, environmental artist and conservationist Nina Clayton started Make Art Not Waste, a unique initiative to create awareness about the persistent plastic issue in the country.
The project is an art-based communication venture, aimed at raising awareness about marine plastics pollution while offering creative solutions. “After cleaning a particular beach, we use the beach plastics to create artworks which are exhibited publicly as well as circulated online through the Make Art Not Waste Instagram and Facebook accounts. We also teach in schools and coordinate plastic upcycling workshops with volunteers. Although the project was founded at Marine Conservation Cambodia in 2017, we have since worked at other locations around Cambodia, Thailand, the UK, Belgium and France. Ocean plastics know no borders so, from cities to seas, any place in the world can benefit from a better understanding of how our consumption choices impact the environment,” explains Nina.
In conversation with TAL, the 29-year-old speaks about the genesis of her project, the need for stricter regulations from the government on the plastic pollution front and the importance of avoiding plastic use at an individual level.
Before we delve deeper into your project, please tell us something about yourself?
I am a divemaster, environmental artist and a conservationist. I am from the United Kingdom but have been living in Cambodia for the last two years, first on the island of Koh Seh in the Kep archipelago, and now on Koh Rong Samloem near Sihanoukville.
Growing up were you always environmentally conscious? Or, did you become so as an adult?
I was brought up in an environmentally conscious household and was encouraged to adopt eco-friendly habits by my parents quite early on. They taught my sibling and me to turn off the lights when we left a room, recycle our trash and not waste food. My mother was a vegetarian when she had me, and that influenced me to become one too.
When I was six, I remember seeing a campaign by WWF on endangered species at the back of a cereal box. I was so moved by the advert that I would collect whatever little pocket money I would get and mail it to WWF.
I feel it is imperative that all of us should be more concerned about the environmental destruction occurring all around us.
What about arts and crafts, was that a childhood passion too?
Absolutely! As a child, I loved collecting candy wrappers, cardboard, tin foil, anything I could lay my hands on, and make things out of them. Although my parents are scientists, they have always encouraged artistic activities among us children and partook in them too.
I have been taught to find creative ways to upcycle things through my parents’ emphasis on DIY; they reused and repurposed items whenever possible.
Did any particular incident prompt you to start Make Art Not Waste? What inspired you to try and create art out of discards?
When I was working for Marine Conservation Cambodia on the island Koh Seh, I decided to start Make Art Not Waste after seeing how much plastic from our regular beach cleans were ending up in the incinerator.
Indeed, on this small remote Cambodian island, there is no other way to discard trash than to burn it. However, this is far from ideal because incineration of plastics releases toxic gases into the atmosphere. So, I started sorting the trash we found into different categories, cleaning it, and thinking of creative and functional solutions to recycle or dispose of them more responsibly; anything to prevent some of the plastic from being burnt. The sheer amount of durable and colourful plastic we found made it an excellent resource for creative projects.
How do you go about collecting the discarded plastics and creating art out of them?
To collect the waste, we arm ourselves with old rice bags (nice big bags are readily found in Cambodia) and choose a stretch of beach to clean.
As we pick up the rubbish, we use the bags to sort it into different categories: bottles, 'collectibles' (hard colourful plastics), 'non-burnables' (items such as gas canisters or metal which cannot be incinerated), general trash that we can't use (such as ripped or dirty plastic bags), etc. This sorting also enables us to collect data on the type of pollutants we find, which we send to Ocean Conservancy, who is leading a global initiative to reduce marine plastics.
Next, we empty out the 'collectables' bag and sort it further, clubbing similar pieces together: straws with straws, lighters with lighters, red fragments together, etc. We give them a quick clean and store them.
Finally comes the fun part! We look at our bounty and try to come up with creative ideas. We try to use the materials as they are, without too much processing to avoid energy usage or much glue as that is also plastic! It feels good to find functional solutions like using the plastic for interior design as this gives creations an added purpose, on top of raising awareness.
What was the first art that you created? How did the experience feel? Did you get a lot of stares from other beachgoers while working on your art?
The first artwork I made was a lampshade out of lighters. I didn't get any strange looks because I was cleaning the beach on the private island where Marine Conservation Cambodia is based. Beach clean-up drives are a regular activity on this tiny island where astounding amounts of trash washes ashore every day.
The lighters were so colourful but transparent, and last for a long time (this is an understatement). So, I had this idea to create a lampshade because the light shining through them looks beautiful, and the initiative just grew from there. Plastics are easy to work with and are, unfortunately, an incredibly abundant resource.
What are the most common pollutants you notice being thrown in the sea?
Plastic waste is always a reflection of human activity, so it depends on where you are. Party beaches will have a lot of cigarette butts, plastic cups, straws, and flip-flops for example. Most of the trash we find here on Cambodian islands are - along with the usual single-use items - fishing debris: buoys, lures, nets, hooks, floats, and rope.
The fishing industry is by far the biggest polluter of the ocean, as fishing activities cause more damage and destruction to the ocean than anything else. This seems obvious, but people are focusing a lot on objects like disposable bottles and straws. Sure, we find shocking amounts of these unnecessary single-use plastics (bottles, straws, cups, lids, all sizes of bags, food wrappers) and they are entirely avoidable by a few lifestyle changes and new policies. But we should also be paying a lot more attention to the destructive impact of fishing methods that are being carried out all over the world.
Avoiding spending our money on fish and seafood can be an effective way of reducing marine plastics, as well as cutting out single-use plastic from our lives.
Have you come across any pollutant that completely shocked you?
The large amount of tangled rope and nets that we find is shocking. They form mounds so entangled, vast, and heavy that they cannot be shifted. They get trapped on the reef, suffocating corals, and in trees on shore, destroying mangroves. We also find endless amounts of bottles, which is frustrating as this problem could easily be reduced by opting for reusable ones. Also, so many flip-flops! Even shoes seem to have become 'disposable'.
What's the thought process behind the art that you create? How do you come up with a particular idea for your creation?
I do research online to see what is being done elsewhere and draw inspiration from that. There is a beautiful community of people all over the world using trash to create things.
Mostly, I just play around with the things we find on the beach. Sorting items by colour or shape and thinking about the message we want our art to reflect are good starting points. For example, creating a turtle out of plastic has a clear message about how plastics are detrimental to turtles’ well-being.
Have you had other people join and help you in creating art from ocean waste? Or, do you do this alone?
I started alone, but it has been the most beautiful, encouraging and inspiring experience to see so many people get on board with the idea and help in many ways. I was lucky to have a team of volunteers working with me at Marine Conservation Cambodia, and since then, everywhere I have travelled, I have always met people who are keen to get involved.
I feel more people world over need a proactive outlet for their environmental concerns. They want to feel like they're doing something; being part of the solution rather than the problem. Leading by example definitely pays, you will attract like-minded people and create a community! Nothing makes me happier than seeing plastic upcycling ideas spread far and wide across the globe.
How have your family and friends reacted to your project? Are they encouraging and have they joined you in your endeavour?
Everyone has been extremely encouraging, which reassures and validates my initiative. My father has eliminated all single-use plastics from his office and even made a coffee table out of discarded plastic lids, and most people around me have drastically reduced their plastic usage.
It's not easy to always be surrounded by trash and picking up others’ rubbish; but all it takes is for one person to say that they have been inspired by my actions to make the efforts feel worthwhile.
What would you say are the reason contributing to this growing plastic menace in Cambodia?
I think the issue is more complicated than people tossing waste in the sea. In Cambodia, there are many contributing factors to ocean plastics: unaffordable waste collection, inefficient waste management, lack of infrastructure and education surrounding waste. Also, the fact that Europe and Australia's plastic 'recycling' waste is being shipped to South East Asia and that this part of the world is being flooded with single-use plastics by plastic production companies (which are also oil companies as plastic is an oil by-product) aggravate the situation.
So, there is a long way to go. But the way I see it, if we're at least planting the seed of knowledge in young people's minds, then hopefully they'll grow up to be more environmentally conscious.
Perhaps the most significant impact we can have with this project is with tourists. Public artworks in tourist hotspots can trigger change as they have a major role to play in encouraging more sustainable practices. If they make it the norm to travel with reusable bottles, for example, locals will start selling them and setting up more refill points. It's a simple supply and demand paradigm. Responsible and sustainable tourism are compulsory for a plastic-free future.
Do you have people being dismissive about your efforts, telling that the work should be done by the council or elected representatives and not you?
Sometimes that happens. To some people, cleaning the beach isn't as effective as writing petitions, but I believe doing something is better than doing nothing. Lots of small actions add up, snowball, and can create far-reaching changes. Plastic pollution requires a multi-faceted approach as it is a global problem with many aspects. There are many players involved: governments, consumers, and producers. Clean up drives are great, but we really need to be stemming the plastic tide at source, by halting production. This can only be done through policy change. Governments will listen to people’s demands if they want to be re-elected, so people need to demand stricter regulations on plastics from their local representatives. Organising clean-up drives and making artworks are effective at getting individuals involved in the issue.
We have also initiated many clean-up drives to create awareness about the need for cleaner coastlines. On International Cleanup Day last year, along with the students of the Liger Leadership Academy in Phnom Penh, we cleaned the Kep coastline, collecting over three tonnes of trash. We have also worked with Trash Hero on Koh Phi Phi and Save Cambodian Marine Life on Koh Rong Samloem.
Has the local council reached out to help or appreciate your efforts?
We coordinate with local government as much as possible to make sure that everything we do is supported and that waste can be picked up and disposed of correctly when we conduct big clean-up drives. So, yes there is support.
What precautions do you think Cambodians should take to stop the growing meance of plastic pollution?
Demanding stricter regulations from local government by sending emails, making phone calls and signing petitions. Altering consumption behaviour to avoid all single-use plastics, organising clean-up drives in the local community, talking to our peers about the issue to spread knowledge. And of course, not supporting the fishing industry.
What are Make Art Not waste’s future plans like?
Our future plans include setting up a plastic upcycling volunteer program, painting public murals about the impact of plastics on marine ecosystems, teaching, more art, less waste and to keep moving forward, inspiring and growing.