“It’s a strange twist on our relationship with the whales. We used to kill them for their oil — now we’re turning oil-based plastics into a whale, to try and help rid the oceans of plastic.”
—Joel Dean Stockdill
The biggest beast that ever lived, the blue whale dwarfs even the dinosaurs: 150 tons, if you could weigh one. Sadly, 150 tons is also how much plastic trash washes into the world’s oceans every 9 minutes.
That’s not even long enough to rock “Rock Lobster” twice, and while you shimmied with the stingray and the manta ray and the narwhal, those 300,000 pounds of polyethylene, polystyrene, polypropylene, PVC, ABS, and other polymers were rain-washed, wind-blown, or just dumped into the sea, where great gyres of plastic garbage are wreaking havoc on marine life, entangling dolphins and whales, being ingested but not digested by turtles, birds, and fish. The problem is epic in scale, and growing.
That’s why the Monterey Bay Aquarium set out to build a gigantic, 82-foot blue whale out of recycled single-use plastic and display it in front of the Golden Gate Bridge to raise public awareness. They commissioned the Building 180 arts consultancy, who brought in Joel Dean Stockdill and Yustina Salnikova to create such a thing. The team had only a vague idea of how to make a life-sized plastic whale, but they said yes.
Stockdill’s WildLife series of monumental animal sculptures made from refuse had graced Burning Man and festivals around the world. His new series on North American wildlife called The Trace includes an enormous dire wolf built with Salnikova from discarded plywood on-site at Maker Faire Bay Area 2018. But a life-sized blue whale? By far the most ambitious build the team had tackled. Just the weight of it, the cantilevered masses of head and body, demanded a massive steel skeleton superstructure — a first for Stockdill, but doable for local fabricators.
But how to recycle consumer plastics to create 1,500 square feet of whale skin? That was a first for anyone. The team had never before re-manufactured waste into new building materials. The process required plenty of time, trial, and error.
First they had to choose which plastic to use. Polyethylene best represented the pollution problem, because it’s literally everywhere. “Polyethylene is the number one plastic used in the world, mainly HDPE #2 and LDPE #4,” said Salnikova. “We used HDPE because it has a low melting temperature and doesn’t off-gas at that temperature, making it one of the safest plastics to work with.”
I visited Stockdill and Salnikova, currently artists-in-residence at the Agapolis community high above Silicon Valley, in their cavernous open-air workshop. They walked me through the freshly assembled steel whale skeleton that towered overhead, then I asked them to show me their process for turning HDPE trash into the hundreds of massive plastic tiles that compose the whale’s skin.
It’s not just melt it and forget it. Here’s their rough recipe:
RECYCLED HDPE PLASTIC TILES
Makes 750+ tiles, 4–5lbs each — approx. 1,500 square feet
Enough for 1 endangered blue whale
You will need:
5,000lbs HDPE (high-density polyethylene) plastic
Washing machine, top loading
Wood chipper, small
Push stick to jam plastic down the chipper barrel
Baking sheet pans, large (4)
Spatulas and heatproof gloves
Plywood, ¾” or 1″ to build tile forms
2×4 lumber to build tile press rack
Car jack for tile press
Collect 2½ tons of HDPE plastic milk jugs, laundry detergent bottles, food barrels, etc. from your friendly neighborhood recycling center. Then sort out all the stray trash and non-HDPE plastics that inevitably sneak in there.
Clean the fillets in the washing machine, using the soap left over from the laundry and soap bottles.
Shred the cleaned plastic in the wood chipper, using the push stick to cram it through. Then sort your shredded plastic by color and brightness, into enormous bins.
Fill 4 sheet pans with desired colors and bake in 2 ovens, 30 minutes at 350°F.
Close the form, slide it into the rack, then compress the form using the car jack, until cooled.
Repeat 750 times.
Design to Final Build in 18 Weeks
Commissioned in April, the artists designed the whale within weeks, with structural help from Rhbu Engineering. By June they were deep into prototyping their hand recycling process, inspired in part by the Precious Plastic series of DIY open source recycling machines. Ultimately it took 4½ months to create all the plastic panels.
Metal fabrication of the skeleton frame, built in 17 sections largely from 2″ square steel tubing, took 4–5 weeks at Fineline Metals of Brisbane, California. The biggest joints, where the cantilevers take off, are made of massive 1-5/8″ steel plate I’ve only seen in ships and buildings before.
With the structure completed, it was time to weld the long curves of steel rebar to create the skin framework. The plastic skin panels were sorted by color and brightness, laid out accordingly to create light and shadow effects on the whale, and then screwed to the rebar frame using steel pipe straps and similar hardware.
During the four-day setup at San Francisco’s Crissy Field, the team erected the skeleton, bolted the skin panels on, and added the eyes, mouth, and enormous chin pouch (“ventral pleats”) using portions of 65 smooth, unshredded blue and white food-grade HDPE barrels. The whale was unveiled Saturday October 13, and remains on display until January 13. It is shockingly huge and it looks pretty fantastic with the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop.
Doing It Together
Obviously this was no DIY project, but a major DIT (do it together) campaign. From the initial impetus at Monterey Bay Aquarium, the project traveled to their ad agency, Hub Strategy and Communication. The whale idea came from Hub chief D.J. O’Neil, who had been deeply affected by the sight of a dead female blue whale on the beach in Bolinas, California, just north of San Francisco, the apparent victim of a ship strike. “You just could not believe the size of this animal,” O’Neil recalled.
Hub in turn commissioned arts consultants Shannon Riley and Meredith Winner at Building 180 to find the right artists and help execute such an enormous project. And the ultimate installation at Crissy Field was a collaboration between the aquarium, the National Park Service, and the nonprofit Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy’s Art in the Park program.
Once Joel and Yustina tackled the project, a team of 20-plus artists and uncounted volunteers worked long, dirty hours in hot summer weather at the workspace at Agapolis. Three different Bay Area recycling centers donated plastic. Rbhu Engineering, noted for its work on Burning Man mega art, made the structure safe for travel and public display. Washing all that plastic created a lot of wastewater, which the artists diverted into a Plavel Water greywater system, donated by Questa Engineering, that uses “plastic gravel” biomedia for filtration, another bit of recycling.
“Recycling Is Not Enough”
But recycling plastic won’t solve ocean pollution, said Kera Panni, science outreach manager for Monterey Bay Aquarium. “Recycling is not enough because plastics aren’t a closed loop like glass or steel; plastic’s quality degrades each time you recycle it.” The demand for lower-grade plastic can’t keep up with the ever-growing supply.
Some makers, led by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, are testing ways to clean up ocean plastic, but even they agree the ultimate solution requires “closing the source” — preventing plastic pollution in the first place.
How can you help? Use less plastic in the first place, and repair things before you replace them. Single-use plastic products and packaging are by far the main culprit in ocean pollution. “Abandoned fishing gear is an ocean-based source that’s solvable mostly by the fishing industry,” Panni said. “But the majority of ocean plastics are land-based — consumer products, mostly plastic packaging. We’ve got to rely on reducing use.” It’s hard to argue with that logic when 9 million tons of plastic go from land-to-sea each year, and the total amount in the ocean is projected to double by 2025.
See the big blue whale: Crissy Field, San Francisco, October 13 – January 13, 2019, near the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center
Joel Dean Stockdill: joeldean.me
Monterey Bay Aquarium: Ocean Plastic Pollution
CORRECTION: The plastic used in the whale is recycled post-consumer, not salvaged from the ocean as stated in the video voiceover. Make: regrets the error.