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Oregon nonprofit that turns trash into art lands permanent display in Smithsonian museum

The nonprofit Washed Ashore creates artwork out of beach trash to inspire people to reduce plastic pollution.

BANDON, Ore. — An Oregon nonprofit that's on a mission to bring awareness to plastic pollution by turning trash into treasure has landed a permanent display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

Based in the coastal town of Bandon, Ore., the environmental nonprofit Washed Ashore has processed more than 37,000 tons of plastic from Oregon's beaches, and it has used some of that waste to create 87 works of art.

Katie Dougherty, executive director of Washed Ashore, creates sculptures made entirely from debris that has washed ashore. 

"We see a lot of lids, we see a lot of lighters, golf balls," said Dougherty. "Sea animals of any type have eaten them. They don't recognize it at plastic, they recognize it as a food source."

Each sculpture is meant to represent the impact of plastic pollution on marine life, with the goal of inspiring change. 

"The urgency to increase awareness and education around the topic is really important," said Dougherty.

Now, that mission has reached the nation's capital with a permanent art installation at one of the most renowned museums in the world. 

Credit: PacWest
Close up of turtle structure by ' Washed Ashore' made out of beach debris

"The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History is the most visited natural history museum in the world. This brings a little bit of awareness to what is happening that we dispose on a day-to-day basis," Efrain Tejada with the Smithsonian Institution said of the new display.

The display is a sculpture of a turtle entangled in a fishing net in search of food. When observed closely, visitors can see the debris used to create the piece, such as bottle caps, toothbrushes and even flip flops.

"There are pieces that are recognized as plastics that came from the 2008 Beijing Olympics," said Dougherty. 

She wants visitors to not only interact and engage, but also change their habits. 

"What can you do to change your single-use plastic use, and we believe and we encourage that one thing by one person can make a huge difference," said Dougherty.

Her ultimate mission is to reuse and recycle to keep trash out of the ocean. 

"We've been working hard to, what we jokingly say, 'run out of art supplies.'"

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