Learning lessons from litter

Beach trash art illustrates the scope of the plastic pollution problem on-Island.


Beachcomber Suzanna Nickerson is still collecting on her regular walks on Martha’s Vineyard beaches to illustrate the problem of plastic pollution through her colorful collages. Nickerson grew up on Chatham beaches, where her father used to take her family on walks in the winter, “Most likely to get us out of the house, and probably out of my mom’s hair,” she said.

When she moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1989, after having lived in New York City for some time, Nickerson said she was already hyperaware of the plastic problem.

Before she moved, newspapers and television reporters were talking nonstop about plastic diapers, and how they were nonbiodegradable and were already becoming ever-present in landfills and incineration sites.

“It was in the news practically every day, I remember,” she said. “The news had their sights on Pampers because that was a new plastic item that was exploding onto the market.”

Even though disposable plastic diapers were a boon to families, Nickerson said, the issue of them becoming ubiquitous in every household had been overlooked, and the problem was just being uncovered.

After that, Nickerson recalls dozens of other products that originally were packaged in glass or paper that started to be sold in plastic. “And now that has continued, and it is a major threat to our future,” Nickerson said.

With the sheer amount of plastic that is thrown away or littered each day being so difficult to comprehend, Nickerson said, she wanted to convey the problem to people in a captivating way.

When she moved to Martha’s Vineyard from New York City, Nickerson immediately noticed how much trash had already built up on the once pristine beaches. “That was a long time ago, and you could already see the plastic on the beaches. Obviously, every year after that, it just kept growing and growing,” Nickerson said.

She initially just picked up trash that she saw to dispose of it while on her beach walks. Nickerson said she was resentful that people were leaving trash on the beach, and thought it might be good to show people the volume of litter amassing on sand dunes, washing up in waves, and being eaten by wildlife.

She said she was interested in a method of study where scientists would take specimens of certain plants or animal species, put them on a poster, and label them and record where they found them.

After going on her regular beach walk and picking up various Styrofoam and other plastic waste, Nickerson grabbed the pieces and arranged them in a collage on a piece of posterboard. For each poster, Nickerson records the location of her walk, the date, and the number of plastic pieces she collected.

Apart from being a powerful presentation of how widespread plastic pollution is on our beaches, Nickerson said she enjoys taking that trash and turning it into vibrant pieces of art. “I have always been interested in arts and crafts. My parents instilled that in me as a child, and my siblings are artists as well,” Nickerson said.

At first, Nickerson said she was “completely shocked” to see just how much plastic she found, having created a small collage on a posterboard with more than 90 pieces of Styrofoam. “I guess I could never really understand how much it actually was; I could never picture it,” she said.

After that, Nickerson began arranging the plastic in a more purposeful way, and experimenting with different backgrounds and colors.

“Many of the plastic things I pick up are bright and colorful — I think that is part of the thrill,” she said.

When Nickerson presents her collages at shows and galleries, she said she is always surprised by some people’s reactions, because it is such a new and unique artform that carries such a weighty message. “I think for some, it can be a real learning experience, and over time, I hope people will really start to recognize the scope of the problem, and take action,” Nickerson said.

Several years ago, Nickerson said she started making small changes to her own life that began reducing her plastic consumption. She said that plastic is used in almost every aspect of our daily lives, but she often searches for alternatives. “Maybe three years ago, I gave up any kind of chip or snack that comes in a [plastic] bag,” Nickerson said. “Go to your butcher and ask them to put your meat in paper, not plastic — things like that.”

She added that recycling should not be the central way people aim to mitigate the plastic burden on our planet. “That’s not to say people shouldn’t recycle, but the only thing we can really do to get at the root of the issue is to stop using plastic as much as we can,” she said.

Even though it takes a lot of energy and persistence to reduce your individual plastic footprint, Nickerson said, people should continue to remain cognizant of the issue, and advocate for the reduction of plastic production and use in all forms: “Eventually, I hope the public will have more of a choice [to not use plastic].”

She pointed out the Island initiative to ban certain single-use plastics, and stressed that the community must keep moving forward with those efforts. “There is always room for more people who will advocate for the reduction of plastic use, so don’t stop, don’t give up,” she said.

To see some of Nickerson’s art, check out bit.ly/3qnuFHD on the West Tisbury library’s website.