Artist and gallery founder Emma Washer.
Cocos (Keeling) Islands Artist and gallery founder Emma Washer is turning plastic waste into art. Image by Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS
  • plastic art

Artists turn Cocos Islands trash into treasure

Farid Farid December 3, 2023

Visual artist Emma Washer grew up seeing all sorts of debris wash up on the otherwise pristine beaches of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

A prosthetic limb was the “zaniest” piece of discarded plastic she had ever seen.

Trained as a sculptor Ms Washer runs the Big Barge Art Centre on West Island, which is part of the 27-island group off the northwest coast of Australia in the Indian Ocean.

Closer to Jakarta than Perth, the Cocos is an Australian external territory known for white sandy beaches, turquoise waters and towering coconut palm trees.

Coconut trees on a beach on Home Island.
 Beaches throughout the Cocos group are studded by towering coconut palms. Image by Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS 

But the islands are also home to one of the world’s biggest receptacles of rubbish totalling 414 million pieces and weighing nearly 240 tonnes, according to research published in the scientific journal Nature in 2019.

“The stuff you find out there is mind-blowing in its diversity,” Ms Washer told AAP at her studio where she patiently and painstakingly converts trash into art.

The plastic that washes up includes everything from shoes, thongs, toothbrushes, ropes, and fishing nets which she turns into intricate recyclable artworks, such as blue fish made out of thongs and a floating marine mandala.

Other artists in the collective she founded create and sell baskets, bags, and even earrings woven from material thrown away.

“You see a pattern of different products based on the fashion trend which is pretty wild so now it’s all Adidas slides. Before, it was Crocs and anything associated with the bigger companies like McDonald’s Happy Meals toys.”

Some of the artwork and jewelry made from discarded plastics.
 Some of the artwork and jewellery made from discarded plastics that have washed up on the beaches. Image by Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS 

Most of the trash comes from Indonesia. 

The Cocos has a small population of only 600 locals, mostly of Malay origins, spread over Home and West islands.

Ms Washer, 43, founded the community arts centre in 2009 turning a discarded wooden boat into an art gallery in a massive restoration project.

Marine ecologist Kendra Travaille of Sea Country Solutions has been working with the locals to rehabilitate its unique marine environment.

“This is a community that cares deeply about the ocean, is very connected to it and wants to be involved in making sure that it is protected sustainably,” she said.

Dr Travaille explained that since 2010 about 80 per cent of the seagrass in the lagoon has disappeared, due to climate change and urban development. 

The resident green turtle population, which is a genetically distinct stock that is only found off the islands, lives off the seagrass.

Plastic pollution has only compounded the stress on marine life.

In 2021, scientists found that accumulated plastic debris on two beaches on the islands had increased local maximum temperatures by nearly 2.5C.

The Big Barge Art Gallery on West Island.
 The Big Barge Art Gallery was founded by Emma Washer on West Island in the Cocos. Image by Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS 

“It’s particularly challenging because the trash that’s there doesn’t come from there,” Dr Travaille said.

“It is one of the main threats to marine life out there because you’re essentially taking a stressed environment and you’re adding all of this pollution to it.”

Marine conservation groups such as Sea Shepherd and Tangaroa Blue, with the help of locals, rummage through the sand and out on the ocean each year collecting tonnes of debris.

In February, the federal government announced a $3 million investment in several projects aimed at protecting Australia’s newest marine parks across the Cocos and Christmas Island, including the removal of marine debris.

For Ms Washer, any effort to keep the islands’ picturesque landscapes clean is a step in the right direction.

“They’re all pretty little steps but there’s some momentum happening,” she said.

“Any kind of action to clear any of these beaches is massive.”

This AAP article was made possible with the support of the Meta Australian News Fund and The Walkley Foundation.