How Artists Are Cleaning Up Cornwall and Beyond with Marine Litter Art

The relationship between art and Cornwall’s coastline, its seas and sands, its rocks and cliffs, is a theme that we return to again and again, not surprisingly! The Cornish seascape has inspired artists for centuries and, if anything, that inspiration has only become stronger over time. (An online search for Cornish art or Cornish artists will produce thousands of examples of paintings and painters of these shorelines, from every imaginable viewpoint at every imaginable time of day or night or season.)


All this is stating the obvious, really, but what isn’t so obvious is that art, or to be more exact, artists in Cornwall are now finding themselves in a position to give something back to the landscape that has given so much for so long.


That’s the good news. The bad news is the reason why this opportunity exists in the first place. The Cornish seaboard is in trouble.

marine litter art

In 2017, extensive research conducted by the university of Exeter established that Cornwall’s beaches are suffering from massive plastics pollution. During the six year study, 220,802 plastic items were found along only nine beaches in Cornwall.


89% of that litter was plastic and most of it was not left behind by thoughtless visitors. In November 2017 a Daily Mail journalist, David Jones wrote of his shock on visiting the beach made famous in the series Poldark:


Strung out along the shoreline, like a multi-coloured necklace, the receding tide had deposited countless thousands of waste objects — the great majority made from plastic — which had become entangled in the shingle and seaweed. Collecting random items from the unsightly detritus, and examining them more closely, their origins became apparent.


Much of the rubbish derived from unnecessary packaging: Styrofoam cups from coffee chains, ‘designer’ water bottles, sauce sachets, cocktail stirrers, drinking straws and takeaway food wrappers.


Very few of these items had been tossed aside by the handful of people walking on the beach. They had been carelessly discarded many miles from the coast, and found their way into the sea in myriad ways: via drains and sewage pipes, rivers and streams, or simply blown by the wind. More disconcertingly, a sizeable proportion of the jetsam and flotsam I picked up did not even come from Britain. Because plastic is not biodegradable, it stays in the sea indefinitely and is carried thousands of miles by currents, so our beaches are now a depository for all manner of rubbish irresponsibly jettisoned in distant countries.

marine litter art

All of this is bad news for the beauty of the seascape and much worse news for the marine life that depends on the Cornish seas and shores for its survival. And, of course, the problem is by no means confined to Cornwall. The deadly tide of plastics is suffocating oceans, marine life and shorelines all over the world.


While art can’t solve the problem, it can help to make a difference. And it is.

Artwork created from marine litter has become a worldwide phenomenon. Artists repurpose the plastic litter collected from beaches to craft murals, collages and sculptures. The work they do makes an impact in two ways. First, it removes at least some of the offending material from the environment and puts it to use. Second, the artwork is, in itself, a statement of the problem; it helps both to attract public attention and to convey something of the reality of the plight of our oceans and shores.


‘Marine litter art’ has recently begun to get the attention it deserves. As awareness of the problem has increased, so has the influence of this crusading art medium. (Appropriately, the first international conference on marine litter prevention and management, in Berlin in 2013, featured examples of ‘marine litter art’ from five different artists.)

alvaro tarmarit

Cornwall’s Rame Peninsula Beach Care, (a member of the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition, operating since early 2013), works closely with artists. The RPBC was set up to try to clean the beaches in South East Cornwall and to raise public awareness of the problem. Its volunteers actually sift through the beach litter which is collected for anything that might be repurposed by artists. Huge amounts of what would otherwise be considered rubbish, are then stored for artistic use! Some of the creative results can be found on their website.


Of course, our own Alvaro Tamarit is among the many artists who represent this new and growing, international movement. And you can see his work right here at the St Mawes gallery!

‘Marine litter art’ is art with a purpose. It makes a clear and important statement. It provides a vehicle for capturing public attention and raising awareness of a problem which Sir David Attenborough described in 2017, as threatening the future of the oceans and, therefore, of the planet. But beyond its crusading role, this is also art in its own right. Some of the pieces we have seen, from huge sculptures to intricate collages, some created entirely from plastic debris, others by mixing paint, litter or other media, are quite simply breathtakingly beautiful.


To find out more about the problem of plastics in our seas, visit the informative and impressive online site of the plastic garbage project, hosted by the Museum für Gestaltung, Zürich. Find it here.