The Plastic Menagerie

Art students coax animals from plastic recyclables.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor Steve Loar has long sought ways to incorporate recyclables into his art assignments, with mixed success. But the teacher of three-dimensional design hit upon the idea of using post-consumer plastic as a medium after seeing the work of artist and former colleague David Edgar, who, using simple tools, turns detergent bottles into elegant fish.

Realizing his students would need access to a healthy amount of material, Loar sought the cooperation of the nearest recycling facility, the Indiana County Recycling Center (ICRC) in Homer City, Pa. Loar says his initial proposal was met with some skepticism from ICRC Executive Director Tim Long. "In one of those little flashes of body language and intonation, Tim said, 'Well, how much are you talking about? We get so and so much per ton.' I realized that we were talking from totally different worlds. He was talking in tonnage and I was talking about six plastic bags of detergent bottles."

But a partnership was forged, and Loar assigned the project to his 2008 winter semester class. At first, he assigned specific classes of animals (birds, fish, dinosaurs), but by the project's third semester, the students had their own ideas and were freed to tackle any creature they desired. They used heat guns, scissors, hole punches, drills, pop rivets, pinking shears, wire and fasteners to craft the plastic into colorful fauna.

Certain truths quickly became apparent. Yellow plastic was hard to come by, which didn't deter one student from creating a frisky golden retriever. Loar and his students also discovered that the only source of black plastic was quarts of motor oil. After one harrowing attempt at washing out a motor oil container, Loar says his students learned to live without the color black.

During the course of the project, Loar noticed that while larger items found their way into recycling bins, smaller items were often overlooked. "I've got somebody that did a little prototype bird using the inserts off of soy [milk] containers — those little pop-out white ring things," he says. "All of that isn't even seen. So while there's at least a dawning realization that the large plastic needs to be recycled, there's another whole strata that's just going in the waste can."

The results of the students' efforts, titled "Animals In Your Trash," were exhibited at the ICRC facility, to the delight of tour groups. This summer, Loar will travel to the Bahamas with his students to create art and architecture using the trash that collects on the islands' beaches. He then hopes to teach those skills to the locals so that they can craft shelters and produce art for profit. Above all, Loar says he hopes the work demonstrates the crucial importance of all forms of recycling. "People don't really see that they're throwing this stuff away."