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When Kathy Vones looks out on a trash-coated beach, she sees possibilities in the pollution. While many people see ocean plastic only as rubbish, she sees its value—artistic and otherwise.
Vones is a digital artist who designs jewelry that can change color or shape in response to its surroundings. While researching wearable smart materials for her recently earned doctorate, she immersed herself in the study of a mind-boggling array of futuristic and sustainably sourced materials. So, Vones was intrigued when a colleague at Edinburgh Napier University showed her photos of the massive amounts of ocean plastic coating Scotland’s Outer Hebrides Islands. She was struck by the idea that in the not-too-distant future, waste plastic plucked from the beach may be considered a precious commodity.
She’s not alone in that view. In 2016, the Scottish government launched an ambitious initiative to develop a circular economy, eliminating waste and slowing the consumption of new materials while investing in novel techniques to salvage and repurpose the refuse. This move, along with concerns about the environmental toll of ocean plastic, inspired Vones to act.
She and some colleagues made a trip to the beaches in the Outer Hebrides, where they found a strange array of plastic detritus, including false teeth. “Once we found a [rain boot] and it had something in it. We hope it wasn’t a foot, but it could have been—we didn’t dare to look too closely,” she says. But Vones did take a closer look at the tangles of nylon and polypropylene rope, which she collected, aiming to turn them into a tangible lesson on recycling.
With funding from the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, Vones created a workshop to teach kids about recycling and the concept of a circular economy using reclaimed ocean plastic. Her recent paper about the project describes how the children, ranging from eight to 11 years old, collected beach debris and then used 3D-printing techniques to transform salvaged plastic into inventions of their own design.
On the beaches of the Outer Hebrides, the kids and workshop leaders found plenty of plastic rope full of sand and salt, some of it dating to the 1950s. They took it back to a digital fabrication workshop, where they washed and macerated it. After mixing the broken-down plastic debris with new plastic, the kids extruded it using a hand crank, molding it into long strings to feed into a 3D printer.
The children crafted designs for the 3D printer and watched their creations emerge. They also played with 3D-printing pens, which ooze plastic like glue guns, to “draw” freehand in three dimensions. The mechanical aspect is very exciting for the children, says Vones, adding that for students unfamiliar with 3D printing, the process seemed like magic.
From the bits of plastic waste, the kids made everything from toy cars and fidget spinners to swords and a boomerang modeled after one used by Batman. But perhaps the greatest transformation involved the children’s perceptions: Vones says they gained a deep understanding of the materials, energy, and effort needed to make things that they previously took for granted.
Vones’s workshop is “a very good model,” says Boris Worm, a marine ecologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and author of a 2017 paper detailing the problems of plastic as a persistent marine pollutant. He describes Vones’s workshop, which combines environmental awareness, positive action, and education, as “a wonderful thing.” He says beaches are the most accessible place to begin removing plastic from the oceans.
Vones’s ideas are catching on: she and her team are expanding their educational efforts to secondary schools across Scotland. Even if picking plastic off the beach won’t itself solve the pollution problem, Worm says it is the simplest first step in dealing with plastic waste in our oceans. No matter the quantity of plastic waste collected in any given workshop, he adds, “it’s an essential contribution” to ridding the ocean of plastic.