Whales Swimming in an Ocean of 70,000 Plastic Water Bottles
An art installation project in Bristol, England, is turning the spotlight on the problem of single-use containers.
by Liz Dwyer
Aug 30, 2015
‘The Bristol Whales’ art installation. (Photo: Instagram)
Running a road race—whether it’s a 5K, 10K, half marathon, or the grueling 26.2-mile distance of a full marathon—is certainly an accomplishment worth celebrating. But after the cheering crowds have dispersed and the athletes have gone home with their medals, there’s usually plenty of garbage left behind on the pavement, including tens of thousands of plastic water bottles.
Facing criticism that running events are an “environmental disaster,” races are increasingly touting their sustainability. But the folks at Cod Steaks, a Bristol, England–based design and model-making firm, decided to use the water bottles left behind after this year’s Bath Marathon and Bristol 10K to turn the spotlight on a broader issue: the amount of plastic marine life in the world’s oceans has to swim
With funding from Arts Council England and in collaboration with Artists Project Earth, Cod Steaks created “The Bristol Whales,” a life-size environmental art installation in Bristol’s city center. It depicts two of the massive mammals emerging out of an “ocean” of plastic.
The whale heads are nearly 30 feet long and weigh 2.5 tons each, while the tails are almost 50 feet long and weigh 3.5 tons each. They’re woven from biodegradable willow that grows in abundance in the area, But the waves of water are constructed from 70,000 plastic water bottles discarded by spectators and runners at the two road races. The bottles that make up the whale bodies were strung together on a steel frame, and the droplets of water are bottle caps. A bit of bubble wrap was added to the tops of the waves to resemble foam, and at night the installation is illuminated with LED lighting.
“Whales are intelligent, beautiful, charismatic animals and have become symbols of the world’s oceans,” Cod Steaks lead artist and managing director Sue Lipscombe said in a statement. “Our sea of recycled plastic bottles represents the detrimental effect of plastic pollution on the ocean, which is something that all of us can act on—today—by reducing our consumption of single use plastics.” Cod Steaks and its partners are inviting people who visit the display, which ends on Sept. 1, to pledge to ditch single-use plastic bottles.
In 2014, U.S. residents are expected to consume 10.9 million gallons of bottled water. And if you’re wondering just how well companies have marketed their product over the years, consider this: In 1976, the average person only drank about a gallon of bottled water per year, but by 2017 each person will consume more than 300 gallons of it annually, according to the Pacific Institute. Peter Gleick, the president and founder of the institute, recently told The Washington Post that by his estimates, two-thirds of used water bottles end up in the trash.
“The bottled water industry says correctly, but misleadingly, that the plastic the water comes in is recyclable,” Gleick said. “It’s misleading, because ‘recyclable’ is not the same thing as ‘recycled.’ ”
Indeed, it takes 450 years for one single-use plastic bottle to degrade, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, data from the United Nations Environment Programme found that plastic waste causes approximately $13 billion in damage to beaches and marine life habitat.
“Plastic does enormous damage to the marine environment: killing animals, poisoning the food chain, and smothering the sea bed,” said Herbie Girardet, the director of Artists Project Earth. “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch covers an area six times the size of the U.K. Located in the Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and California, this floating island of plastic sits on the migration route for populations of humpback whales. These whales are literally swimming through a sea of plastic and eating the waste that we discard because they are filter feeders.”
The whales and their waves of plastic have been a hit on social media since they were first installed in July, with people posting hundreds of images of them.
Close-up of plastic bottle “waves.” (Photo: Instagram)