On a gray, rainy, vacation day last week, my boys and I spent several hours at the Virginia Aquarium and Science Center. The first thing we saw before we entered the building was a sculpture of Lidia the Seal (pictured above), made entirely of trash found in or along the sea. The sculpture is part of a larger Washed Ashore Exhibit that runs through September 28, 2014 at the aquarium.

The exhibit features giant sculptures made from trash collected by volunteers on West Coast beaches. There are 14 sculptures in all along with signs that give information and statistics about the environmental impact of the trash that ends up in our oceans. Washed Ashore currently has art exhibits at Sea World in San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio and at the San Francisco Zoo, as well as the one in Virginia. If you can’t get to one, I thought I’d share some of the photos I took along with some of the information shared in the exhibit.

Real squids can get as large as 46 feet long. This gigantic squid made with many, many plastic bottles might not have been quite that big, but it is huge. A sign accompanying the squid made it clear that this is just a tiny fraction of the amount of plastic now in our oceans. It’s estimated that 70 percent of the plastic in oceans is at the bottom, a great threat to squid and other sea creatures that live in the environment.

The objects made to create this wall art are all made with objects that have something in common – they all have bite marks from fish, crabs, birds and other sea creatures. Marine animals mistake plastic for food. Eating plastic can kill or permanently harm the creatures that ingest it.

A closer look at Lidia’s tail reveals the variety of debris that’s found in and along the ocean. Sunglasses, flip flops, bottle caps, plastic crates, fishing rope and more – all made from non-biodegradable plastics and petroleum products – are filling the oceans. Fishermen in foreign countries often use flip-flops and shoe cut-outs as buoys. They break loose and as they travel the currents, invasive species catch on to them. The materials in them are often toxic to the fish and birds that bite into the.

As you leave the exhibit and exit the aquarium to head to another part of the science center, you cross a bridge that goes over a marshy waterway. Ironically, there were some plastic beverage bottles in the water, presumably thrown there by visitors to the aquarium.

The exhibit doesn’t simply show the depth of the pollution, though. It also has suggestions that individuals can do to minimize their contribution to the problem. Here are a few of the suggestion.

  • Refuse single use plastics – buy in bulk and bring your own container.
  • Recycle all aluminum, glass, paper and plastic products.
  • Bring you own water bottle, coffee mug, silverware and bags when you’re away from home.
  • Use something other than plastic shovels when digging in the sand. Use sticks and shells or bring a metal shovel with a wooden handle.
  • Purchase biodegradable cleaning products in refillable containers.
  • Buy products made from reused products.
  • When picnicking, use biodegradable and reusable products and take your trash home.
The day after we went to the aquarium, we were on the beach, and I was extra vigilant about cleaning up our own trash, and I made sure we picked up some stray plastic bottles on our way off the beach to take to the trash/recycling cans. Not only did this exhibit educate my family, it made us more proactive in a practical way.

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Ocean debris makes cool art, but it's still not cool
The Washed Ashore Exhibit at the Virginia Aquarium features huge sculptures made from debris collected during beach cleanups.