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The finished sculpture rests in a manmade lake connected to Shenzhen Bay. (Credit: Cindy Pease Roe courtesy)

In a man-made lake in southern China sits a 20-foot sculpture made of trash, unusual not only for its building blocks, but for its connection to the North Fork.

The sculpture, a whale’s tail constructed from hundreds of discarded plastic bottles, was conceived by Greenport artist Cindy Pease Roe and built in 23 days.

Roe was commissioned by Overseas Chinese Town Group (OCT), a corporation that runs a resort near Shenzhen Bay, to fly halfway across the world to create this vision and bring awareness to water pollution. It will remain on display in the lake, which is located outside a Chinese shopping mall and feeds into the bay, indefinitely.

“The message is all of us have to be aware of how much plastic is floating in our waters,” said Roe, who creates artwork fashioned from debris that washes up along Long Island Sound. “One person can make a choice and make a difference.”

Earlier this year, Roe visited Beijing, Dalian and Guangzhou during a U.S. Department of State-sponsored tour to educate citizens on the dangers of marine litter. She connected with the federal government through her stepdaughter Devon Whitney and Devon’s husband, Stefan, both of whom work for the state department in Beijing.

Roe, center, poses with project particpants in front of the scupture's fin.
Roe, center, poses with project participants in front of the sculpture’s fin. (Credit: Cindy Pease Roe, courtesy)

“It’s desirable to have people reach out and talk in a way that is not finger-pointing,” Roe said. “That whole area has a lot of litter because they don’t have the systems in place to handle one-use plastics.”

During the trip, she met wetlands program manager Yang Ming, who thought she would be perfect to drive home a conservationist message. He reached out over the summer and connected her with OCT.

“The finished sculpture of the whale made of plastic bottles is very beautiful, but it also indicates that we produce so many wastes everyday,” Mr. Ming said in an email. “We have to change the way [we live] to realize sustainable development.”

Pollution in Shenzhen Bay, largely attributed to illicit dumping, has been documented in Chinese news reports. Shenzhen officials plan to build two sewage treatment plants and expand five existing ones to improve water quality in the bay, according to a June 2016 report on the Shenzhen government’s website.

“Plastic in the ocean does not go away,” Roe said. “It degrades from the sun and the sea and it becomes smaller and smaller and becomes what is called micro plastic.”

Project participants carry the sculpture to the bay. (Credit: Cindy Pease Roe, courtesy)
Project participants carry the sculpture to the bay. (Credit: Cindy Pease Roe, courtesy)

Working in a studio inside a shopping mall, Roe put in 10- to 12-hour days, with dozens of people — some volunteers, some OCT employees — rotating in. She estimates that more than 100 people in total worked on the project over 23 days.

“It was really ambitious to build a huge sculpture in that amount of time,” she said. “The Chinese people are raised to work in groups. They are the ultimate team players.”

The blueprint for the whale’s stainless steel frame, created by North Fork Welding owners Fred and Joe Schoenstein, was designed to withstand a typhoon, she said. The bottles were collected from hotels in the complex surrounding the lake. Holes were drilled in the bottoms and threaded with brightly colored marine rope.

It’s a career highlight for Roe, whose maternal grandparents were missionaries in China and whose mother was born there.

“I went over there to build a sculpture, but I made really good friends,” she said. “We just had such a blast with each other, even with the language barrier.”