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Turning Trash Into Art for an Earth Day Lesson

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Published April 26, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

What do you make of a pile of debris that includes old tennis balls, empty beer cans, crushed plastic foam, sodden socks, discarded masks and a gargantuan collection of plastic containers?

On a sunny Earth Day on the Church Street Marketplace, the answer was: You build a trash monster. All you need is the help of a Lake Champlain cleanup crew and a handful of small children wielding tongs to artfully place the disgusting throwaways.

Over the course of a single hour on Saturday, dozens of volunteers gathered 313 pounds of trash along the Burlington waterfront, then hauled it to the street in front of city hall. There, Vermont artists Annie Caswell, Rebecca Schwarz and Kelly Hickey had created a 10-foot-long, six-foot-tall chicken-wire cage in the shape of Champ, the mythical lake monster. While volunteers sorted and weighed the debris, passersby were invited to help fill the sculpture with trash.

Organizers had a name for this collection of polluting discards: the Real Lake Monster.

"You can't look at this trash without connecting to pieces of the debris that you use — whether it's a lid of a coffee cup or an old lighter or a toothbrush, your single-use straw or your takeout containers," organizer Ashley Sullivan said as Champ filled up with old milk jugs, coils of soiled plastic rope, dock foam, plastic flip-flops and a dirty white soccer ball retrieved from the shoreline.

Sullivan heads the Rozalia Project, a Burlington-based nonprofit that focuses on removing trash from waterways as a way to conserve a healthy marine ecosystem. Rozalia also offers education programs for communities and schools and hosts science expeditions aboard its 60-foot research vessel American Promise, based in Maine.

Sullivan said "data cleanups" like Saturday's — at which all 2,545 pieces of debris were sorted and cataloged — not only show the public the size of the problem but also help spark ideas for combating plastic pollution. The top five items from Saturday's cleanup were 283 cigarette butts, 282 food wrappers, 208 paper napkins, 182 metal can pieces and 161 plastic drink bottles.

"The data is really a critical piece, because it helps tell the story of what the problem is locally, but we can also connect that to global datasets to see the trends," Sullivan said.

Trashy Champ was a new addition to Rozalia's Earth Day cleanup, thanks to a $2,000 grant from the Ocean Conservancy.

Caswell built the bulk of the sculpture's cage and frame in her South Burlington basement. She was inspired to incorporate trash in her art, she said, when she sailed across the Atlantic for the first time and "saw a mile-long, mile-wide stretch of plastic in the ocean."

As an environmental artist, "I do a lot of trash pickup, and then I put the trash in my paintings," she said. "I just want to educate people about keeping our planet clean and healthy."

People of all ages showed up to lend a hand, including Miss Vermont Teen USA Nadja Dacres and Miss Vermont USA Jenna Howlett. While much of the trash the volunteers sorted was unsurprising, the waterfront also yielded a pink-and-white-striped sweater from which a healthy plant was growing and a greeting card that began, "My wife, the love of my life." One child smiled as he used tongs to pluck up a discarded red-and-white Santa hat and place it inside Champ's belly. From nearby came the steady crunching sound of cans being stomped flat before they were added.

Sarah Jetty, a passerby, stopped so her older child could feed trash to the lake monster. Her reaction made clear that the sculpture was getting across the message that organizers intended.

"It's disturbing that there's that much garbage that came out of the lake just this morning," she said. "That really is the real lake monster."

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Real Lake Monster | Turning trash into art for an Earth Day lesson"

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