Brighton, England-based artist Louise McCurdy has been making artworks about plastic pollution for 13 years. You might recognize her iconic rusty shopping trolley full of beach plastic photographed by Alex Bamford, or her supermarket installations, entirely stocked with found plastic called “Dirty Beach.”
It is one of her latest projects with Alex Bamford, however, that has weaved its way across Instagram and into the collective zeitgeist. “Plastic Toy Stories” shows the bright and plastic colorful toys that are found every day on beaches across the world. From “free” toys given out by McDonalds or found in cereal boxes to army men, dinosaurs, tiny cameras, and dolls—the toys continually wash up and seem infinite in number.
Though colorful, many of the toys are vintage. A plastic boat was found in the Arctic circle in 2017—it was a free toy from a cereal packet in 1958.
“Whether they came from a river, fell overboard, were dropped on a beach, or lost from a shipping container, these toys have stories to tell,” says McCurdy. “Plastic toys are endless time travelers since they can last forever and reveal the ocean’s secrets.”
On Instagram, Plastic Toy Stories invites us to imagine where the toys have been and write funny or poignant captions. “I lost my feet along the Great Barrier Reef!” reads one caption on a post of a Barbie doll on the shore. “I am plastic pollution brought to you by Mattel!” reads another.
The project has resonated with many, including Albertus Gorman, an artist who collects discarded plastic along the Ohio river in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Cool toys were a special part of my childhood,” writes Gorman. “My Dutch grandfather worked at a toy import business in Amsterdam. However, being a part of an American military family, few toys survived the back and forth deployments that come with that life as well as having a brother and two sisters! I have great toy nostalgia from growing up. I still have a recurring dream about losing a favorite stuffed toy that circles around Amsterdam in a train forever until I guess I find him again? I weirdly empathize with the lost toys I find at the river… Toys when found intact still illicit childhood wonder. But not lost on me is our cunning use of this material to fabricate a need in children. Perhaps ironically mortgaging their environmental futures while subconsciously manipulating them and their parents to want and buy so many more toys. Toys are fascinating objects and loaded with meaning.”
This so-called “Mudlarking” involves people combing rivers for treasures—like an archaeological dig of the “plastic age.” In fact, at least 90 percent of toys are plastic and every plastic toy ever bought still exists in one form or other. Plastic does not biodegrade but instead photodegrades into microplastics over time.
“This project has shown that there are beach cleaners, beachcombers, and mudlarkers across the world who are dedicated, inspired, and motivated; people really care about where they live,” says McCurdy, who sees the project as a springboard for schools and educational groups to utilize. Indeed, the project has already become a global library on social media.
“We want everyone to be involved,” says McCurdy. “I want each of us to ask ‘What is the message these plastic toys have for us?’ in order to protect the environment.”