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Trash to bikini? One woman cleans beaches with artsy results 

A  bikini-clad woman poses for the camera, exposing flashes of sun-kissed skin. She’s poised on the bow of a boat, backdropped by azure Avila waves. It’s a pretty picture, the kind of photo you’d expect from any swimsuit ad. But this is no ordinary photo.

click to enlarge MORE THAN PLASTIC:  SLO Surfrider Rise Above Plastics Lead Sarah Bellum crochets bikinis out of discarded plastic bags in an effort to bring a fresh twist to a daunting problem. - PHOTO COURTESY OF LIAM PHOTOGRAPHY
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF LIAM PHOTOGRAPHY
  • MORE THAN PLASTIC: SLO Surfrider Rise Above Plastics Lead Sarah Bellum crochets bikinis out of discarded plastic bags in an effort to bring a fresh twist to a daunting problem.

The model’s white bikini top is made from Tribune newspaper bags. Her light green and dark blue bikini bottoms are made from Trader Joe’s reusable shopping totes and New York Times newspaper bags. 

In essence, artist and environmental activist Sarah Bellum has breathed new life into single-use plastic goods with sexy, striking results. What’s more striking still? Her materials aren’t purchased or even donated. The scraps of plastic that Bellum uses to crochet swimsuits, purses, and other accessories are largely sourced from local beaches.

“So many plastic items are designed to be used for five minutes, then discarded,” Bellum said. “These are high integrity materials and they’re going to last a really long time. We’re talking tens of thousands of years. Plastics will outlast us all.”

In the ocean, plastics never truly disappear; instead, they break down into smaller and smaller particles (some are so small even plankton can consume it). You can guess what happens next.

“Plastics are making their way into fish, and the seabirds are eating it, too,” Bellum said. “Plastic is now part of our food chain. It’s shocking.”

The plastic isn’t just killing thousands of wild sea animals. “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” which was discovered in 1997 about 1,000 miles from Hawaii and California, appears to be growing. According to Columbia University’s Earth Institute, some reports estimate that the patch is twice the size of the continental U.S. Gaining an exact measurement is difficult due to the slippery nature of how plastics decompose.

“The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not a floating island of garbage; it’s more like a soup with micro plastic particles everywhere,” Bellum said. “It’s such a daunting task, and the solution is not so much to clean it up, but to stop plastics at its source—production. I try to educate people that it’s not about guilt or blaming. It’s really about the question, ‘Why are manufacturers allowed to create this material for single-use items that do not biodegrade?”

click to enlarge TWO WHEELS, ONE MESSAGE :  Local eco activist Sarah Bellum spreads wonder and curiosity wherever she goes thanks to a bike featuring crocheted plastic trim. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SARAH BELLUM
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF SARAH BELLUM
  • TWO WHEELS, ONE MESSAGE : Local eco activist Sarah Bellum spreads wonder and curiosity wherever she goes thanks to a bike featuring crocheted plastic trim.

This unanswered question is no doubt troubling, but Bellum isn’t trying to freak us all out. Instead, she tries to change minds through creating beautiful things. Her inspiration came in 2010, when she first moved to SLO.

The outdoorswoman spent long days at the beach, and each Sunday morning, she’d visit a remote Morro Bay surf spot and enjoy the spray while her boyfriend, Scott Kam, paddled out. Although the couple saw very few people on these trips, there would always be mounds of trash scattered across the sand: cigarette butts, takeout containers, and plastic grocery bags, among other eyesores.

“Scott would pick up trash every time he went out, so I started doing it too,” Bellum said. “He had been working with the Surfrider Foundation, and he really was my mentor. I had crocheted since I was a little kid, and when I found out I could crochet with plastic bags, I thought it was a great way to get the message out there.”

That message is not a pretty one (read: some scientists believe that the ocean’s plastic to plankton ratio stands at about six to one). As Surfrider’s Rise Above Plastics Lead, Bellum is working to raise awareness any way she can. The bikinis are just one tool in her ever-growing arsenal of crafty goods. Maybe you’ve seen her bicycle parked in front of the Hemp Shack, where she works? It’s covered in crocheted plastic netting—a good conversation piece.

“I want people to see that, in every part of our lives, we are surrounded by this toxic material,” Bellum said. “I try to take that material back, put my energy to it, and revalue this negative energy, transforming it into something positive and beautiful.”

Late last month, Bellum and her eco-conscious friends came together to remove litter from more than five local beaches for International Coastal Cleanup Day. The group dragged the bags of trash back to Mitchell Park in SLO and worked to clean and sort each piece by color and size. Bellum is currently working on crafting the trash into a community art project, and anyone interested in helping out is welcome to join in.

- RISE ABOVE PLASTICS:  Check out all of Sarah Bellum’s upcycled “trash art” projects at her website sarahbellums.com. To help out with her community art created from trash found on local beaches during International Beach Cleanup Day, email sarah@sarahbellums.com. For more information on Surf Rider San Luis Obispo, visit slo.surfrider.org. -
  • RISE ABOVE PLASTICS: Check out all of Sarah Bellum’s upcycled “trash art” projects at her website sarahbellums.com. To help out with her community art created from trash found on local beaches during International Beach Cleanup Day, email sarah@sarahbellums.com. For more information on Surf Rider San Luis Obispo, visit slo.surfrider.org.

Looking for other ways to ensure that plastics stay out of our ocean? It could be easier than you think. Try shopping with reusable cloth bags, buy in bulk, and bring your own mug to your morning coffee place. And for those willing to show a little skin, there’s always an itsy bitsy teenie weenie little plastic bikini.

“The bikinis are a fun and sexy way to spread the message,” Bellum said. “No one wants to see a dead bird. It makes people feel guilty and turns them off the cause. What I aim to do is give a twist to my art pieces and challenge people to look at the beauty of it, then look closer to see what lies beneath.” 

Hayley Thomas upcycles and recycles at hthomas@newtimesslo.com.

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