Like Diamonds, Plastic is Forever
Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang are beachcombers and artists from Forest Knolls, California. Both accomplished and renowned artists, the Langs are well-known for their “One Beach Plastic” project, a commitment to only collect plastic from a single 1,000 yards on the Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore. Richard and Judith collect and assemble the plastic into beautiful pieces of art, both to provide beauty and to spread awareness of widespread marine-born plastic.
For their latest project, they focused on a different kind of plastics: microplastics. Their work using nurdles, small industrial plastic pellets, and microplastics left when the plastic is worn away into slivers by friction or sunlight, was part of a show called “Here is the Sea” at the Richmond Art Center in Richmond, California. Artists featured in the show explored the relationship between humans and nature, reflecting on what is at stake in the maritime environment.
For their part of the exhibition, the Langs created jewelry, mounting nurdles as if they were precious gems and stones. The rings were designed to be worn as jewelry or displayed as a precious artifact, a relic of contemporary consumer culture. The exhibition also featured large-scale photographic prints enlarged over 300 times actual size, showing the nurdles as glorious gems. By making plastic pollution fun and fashionable, the Langs hope to make the bad news about the state of the oceans less frightening, and instead share their message with a smile.
The Langs first became aware of nurdles in 2006 when a back injury left Richard unable to beachcomb and he started researching the origins of the little things they’d found on the beach. “The number of nurdles in the marine environment has surpassed the number of stars in the Milky Way,” says Judith. “Nurdles have been washing up on Kehoe Beach for years. What we’d found opened a new world of astonishing facts about human impact on the world.”
These small, round pieces of plastic look like food to many marine animals, who swallow the nurdles. The tiniest of animals, such as krill, die prematurely by choking on nurdles, and nurdles have been found in the digestive systems of larger animals. The nurdles aren’t simply plastic, though. PCBs and DDE collects on nurdles, absorbed from the sea water and present in concentrations up to 1 million times higher than in the surrounding water. All of this enters the food chain when marine animals unsuspectingly eat the nurdles.
The Langs aren’t the only people working to educate people about microplastic pollution. Rangers at the Point Reyes National Seashore offer a “Revenge of the Nurdles” Beach Walk, where visitors learn about micro-plastic pollution and pick up nurdles found on the beach. They recommend using a small colander or hand-held sifter to help sift nurdles from the sand.
Richard and Judith each separately started beachcombing in 1996, then started going to the beach together in 1999 after their first date at Kehoe Beach. They enjoy working with others on Coastal Clean Up Day, but for the most part, they love the shared quiet communion of beachcombing together. The Point Reyes National Sea Shore Lighthouse is a favorite destination. “Before we head to the beach, we always, always stop at Bovine Bakery for a piece of quiche or pizza and a pastry that we set on our dashboard so it is warm when we return from the beach.”
What is a nurdle?
Nurdles are small beads used in plastic production. Small and easy to transport, they melt quickly and evenly. They are used to make plastic jars, bags, and more items that we use every day.
Unfortunately, nurdles are sometimes released into the environment through accidental spills, and they make their way into waterways or oceans. These microplastics are consumed by marine animals, who confuse the nurdles for food, and the creatures can get sick or die. Other nurdles wash up on beaches, where they are eaten by birds.
For information about their shows, prints of their work, presentations, and workshops, visit www.beachplastic.com.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2019 issue.