New Paltz High School students’ reused-plastic sculpture to be unveiled June 7 in Peace Park

New Paltz High School Seniors (L-R): Tahlia Quintero, Noa Raskin and Veronica Hill have done a final project combining art with environmental awareness. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

In April, a group of PIGLETS — members of the 12th-grade Participation in Government, Literature and Economics for Today’s Students class at New Paltz High School — scored a big win by persuading the Town and Village Boards to pass non-binding resolutions urging that local restaurants not give out plastic straws with beverages unless requested by the patron. Plenty of students put in their PIG time observing municipal meetings, but few actually manage to craft legislation and have it go into effect. These particular kids have probably already earned A grades on their final project, and will certainly have some groundtruthed grassroots activism to brag about when they start college in the fall.

But they’re not stopping there. At 5 p.m. on Thursday, June 7 in the Peace Park across from Village Hall, Deputy Mayor KT Tobin will preside over the installation ceremony for a sculpture that the students have been working on for several months: a sea turtle made of unrecyclable plastic garbage. “Her name is Shelly. She’s become very dear to us,” said Tahlia Quintero, one of the environmentally conscious young masterminds behind the public art project. “She’s all single-use plastic: lids, straws, flowerpots…” Bottle and jar caps form the turtle’s scales, and segments of straws slit down one side cover the chickenwire mesh that molds its limbs, head, neck and tail, all stuffed with plastic bags.

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According to Quintero, she and fellow PIGLETS students Noa Raskin and Veronica Hill chose the plastics issue as the focus for their spring-semester project after conducting a needs-assessment exercise called a “community scan.” Like many others who follow social media, the young women were horrified by a video that went viral in 2015 of a sea turtle having a whole plastic straw painfully extracted from its nostril, and by more recent pictures of gigantic mats and islands of plastic debris that have accumulated in certain spots in the open ocean where currents converge. Their research revealed that toxic bits of microplastic are also wreaking havoc on the marine environment and making their way into the food chain.

Reducing the unnecessary use and disposal of straws seemed to Hill, Raskin and Quintero like a place where practical action could be taken at a local level; but they decided that they needed to go further, “bringing awareness” to local consumers, especially their peers, Raskin said. “It started with the straw ban, but the focus of this is more general,” Hill explained. “We’re all in Studio Art [class], so we know something visual can provoke thought.”

The students described how visits to the New Paltz Reuse and Recycling Center had made them more conscious that the single-use problem extends far beyond drinking straws. Another major source of non-recyclable plastic is container caps, so the girls decided to make them an obvious component of their turtle sculpture. Hill said that the Reuse Center had provided hundreds of them for the project, as did the janitorial staff at the high school.

Shelly will be installed on a concrete base in Peace Park — “probably at a tilt,” to create the impression of swimming underwater, according to Hill — and left on display for the duration of the summer. Raskin expressed hope that the plastic-scaled turtle shell will prove an educational, thought-provoking image for passers-by, “if you can see it right in front of you – that this all came from our community in a short amount of time.”

Quintero said that she had some activities planned for the installation event, and was even going to bring themed refreshments: “I’m making turtle cookies. I’m 3-D printing my own turtle cookie-cutter.” Wanting to make things herself, preferably from recycled materials, rather than buying new things is part of the project’s effect on her own consumer consciousness, she said. “Being zero-waste is very hard. But if everyone even made a slight effort, it would impact the world in a positive way.”

For more information about the June 7 installation event and other community efforts to reduce plastics consumption, e-mail ktobin@villageofnewpaltz.org.

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