How to Make a Marine Debris Mural

In March of 2019, I was asked to help with a 5th grade exit project for the students at Kalaheo School. The students were exploring the life of a plastic bottle and the effects of single use plastics on our environment. I was contacted by Marly Madayag, a teacher coordinating the effort. She had a wonderful curriculum and lesson plan to cover the teaching part, but wanted some hands-on art and action, which is where I came in.

First, she asked me to help the students create a comic strip about the life of a plastic bottle. All 5th graders in the school piled into the cafeteria for the exercise. In just an one hour, the students had each created comic strips with plastic PET water bottles as the main character. The comics were hung in the halls for others to ponder.

Now, Kalaheo School had repeatedly received honors for their recycling program, and well, I was going in there to tell them that recycling isn’t good enough. Throughout the project the students were exposed to different stories and practices to open their mind to a different way of thinking about plastic. One thing that came up was that while the school excelled at collecting and redeeming plastic bottles and cans, the students and their parents were made aware that the bottle caps were not accepted for recycling.

So, we decided to have them start collecting the lids along with the other hi5 containers. Within just a couple weeks, more than 2 Hefty bags full of caps were collected from just one rural school in Hawaii. Before moving forward with art, I wanted the students to have a chance to see what kinds of plastics wash up on shore, when you live in the middle of a gyre.

So, I sent Surfrider Rockstar, Barbara Wiedner in to take over for a while (ok, I didn’t send her, sheʻs always part of the plan, in fact usually the first part, but it sounded good, right?). Barbara gives a little talk and slideshow about marine debris and making choices in the supermarket, before taking the kids on a full-blown beach cleanup. The cleanup really exposes the kids to reality.

The reality is: Surfrider Volunteers are cleaning up FIVE TONS of marine debris on this tiny little island, every month! And while cleaning up is good, turning off the tap is better.

Meanwhile, I met with the teachers and started to design a mural to match their needs. In our excitement no one catches the spelling error seen (photo above) until my husband asks, “Um, is that a play on words”…whooooaa, good catch. HAHAHA

Then Senator Hirono calls and asks if she can participate in the making of this mural, which seems to be making the news. This presents me with a dilemma. How am I going to have 90 kids and the Senator make the mural all at once without complete chaos. I mean, normally,I would have the kids meet in small groups for short sessions over a period of time and monitor their progress, adjusting as we move forward.

Well, we had the kids clean the debris before the event, we created stations, we divided the mural into eight panels, we recruited some amazing parent volunteers, and then we took over the gym. And in just a few hours, some real magic happened.

A week or so later the whole thing was installed right above the Kalaheo School recycling center and drop off area, where it still remains today. My hope is that those amazing students realize the true legacy that they left behind.


The mural hangs at the front entrance of the school if you would like to see it in person. The video below shows the process. Note: the mural does not encourage recycling, because cleanup and recycling are inferior to prevention.