Fifth graders Natalee Bertagnoli, Sebastian Contreras, and Jacobe Birch work on creating plastic fish from local trash. The sculptures are part of art lessons by visiting artist, Elizabeth Roberts. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

In Petersburg, a visiting artist is turning plastic pollution into art at the grade school. These exercises are designed to educate kids on the true costs of plastics on our planet.



A group of Petersburg second graders are
sitting in a circle and inside the circle is a round metal tub. It’s filled
with water and thousands of tiny colorful specks.

“This is all plastic that I picked up off the beach when I was in Hawaii,” Oregon-based artist Elizabeth Roberts said.

“What?!” exclaimed a student.

You almost have to see it to believe it.

Before her plastics haul in the tropics, Roberts spent five weeks as a volunteer cleaning up marine debris on Tugidak, a small island near Kodiak. Her group collected 80,000 pounds of trash.

Some of that is in a box, which Roberts dumps out onto the floor.

“Everything in this box came off a beach,” she
said.

The kids immediately start sifting through the
pile of trash and recognize several items.

“And what was, I thought, going to be this
really fun summer adventure pretty much turned into this life changing
experience because I was picking up things that I recognized and that I used in
my daily life,” Roberts said.

A section of Elizabeth Roberts’ plastic mural for Rae C. Stedman Elementary in Petersburg depicts a halibut made out of found trash from the beach. The entire mural will be unveiled at the Petersburg Public Library May 6. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

That was six years ago. Since then, Roberts
has done other cleanup projects and has been making art out of the trash.

It’s a global problem and a human-made one.

Since the 1950s plastics have been a part of
daily life. It’s cheap to produce and easy to sculpt. Industry was quick to
embrace this wonder material. American consumers were sold on its utility. Industry
groups continue to promote plastics with the initiative, Plastics Make It
Possible.

But there’s another side.

More than eight million metric tons of plastic
enters the ocean every year. At least five enormous plastic islands have
formed. In the Pacific, one bigger than Texas is floating between Hawaii and
California.

“As an artist, using that medium is a really
powerful way to reach people because it really doesn’t matter what language you
speak, we can all look at art and really understand the meaning of it,” Roberts
said.

These grade schoolers get it. The students are
making their own art out of plastic. They’re at tables, cutting and assembling
pieces into large fish.

Fifth graders Eden Davis and Ethan Bertagnoli work on creating plastic fish from local trash. The sculptures are part of art lessons by visiting artist, Elizabeth Roberts. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

Heidi Brantuas is making a blue and white
flying fish.

“I think it is very good because we are
reusing plastic that would’ve just been thrown away,” she said.

Plastics are cheap upfront but have an ecological cost that’s harder to calculate. Eleven-year-old Sebastian Contreras understands this.

“It’s endangering species of animals in the
water because they eat the plastic and after they eat the plastic we fish for
the fish and we eat the fish and then it goes into our bellies,” Contreras
said.

Another 5th grader, Sophie Tetrault digs
through a box of bottle tops to find eyes for her fish. She says she
understands why plastics are popular.

Heidi Brantuas holds a scissors used to cut up plastic for her fish sculpture while Rae C. Stedman Elementary principal, Teri Toland, drills holes for students in the background. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

“It helps our everyday lives be easier but it’s
not good for the environment,” Tetrault said.  

Natalie Bertagnoli agrees.

“It can make cool stuff but it’s really bad
when it gets into the ocean,” Bertagnoli said. “And there’s a lot of it that
fish can eat and they can die and all sorts of things like birds can die.”

Roberts is working with every class at the
grade school for a few weeks.

One person’s trash is another person’s
treasure. That may be cliche but it’s Roberts’ approach to changing people’s
perceptions.
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