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Article Published August 9, 2017
Turning Trash Into Treasure
Pem McNerney, Living Editor

A few years ago, Marsha Borden favored high quality, organic skeins of wool to create things like knitted hats, mittens, and scarves for her beloved children. Then, one day, she looked at the pile of colorful plastic bags growing in the kitchen of her Guilford home.

“I thought, hmmmm, what can I do with these plastic bags? I really kind of became captivated. Maybe I didn’t need to buy expensive new materials like organic cotton to make them. Could I use stuff I already had?” says Borden.

Since then she has used those plastic bags to make a skirt, a bustier, handbags, Christmas ornaments, an entire tea set including a tablecloth, and several other works of art that have been shown in art gallery exhibitions next to work by artists with national and international reputations. Borden, in fact, credits her obsession with transforming these plastic bags as being key to her transformation from a mom who makes mittens to a mom who makes mittens and is also an artist and budding activist.

“For the past year, I’ve been totally concentrating on plastic bag ideas. And the reason for that is that I really feel like there’s been a visceral reaction from people. It connects with people and their concerns about rampant consumerism and mass-produced items. I’m making works that are funky, interesting, unusual, colorful, and when people look at them, there’s this sideways jolt,” she says. “These are plastic grocery bags, New York Times delivery bags. They will be on our planet longer than we are. And these are being used to create something, rather than polluting our planet.”

Several Ways to Help

As Borden and, in fact, other artists explore the best way to turn trash into treasure, there are several other ways people can clean up and transform the junk littering our roads, which often ends up in our rivers, and then travels down those rivers into Long Island Sound, and then our oceans.

• There is an upcoming Coastal Cleanup seeking captains now to help lead teams that will gather trash on beaches along Long Island Sound. The trash will be disposed of properly and documented, transforming it into data to guide policy discussions that can support legislative initiatives. Most of this will be done in September, but captains can select the day and date that works best for their team. (

• A similar initiative, the Source to Sea Cleanup, will tackle trash along the rivers that feed into Long Island Sound, with the same objectives. This will take place from Friday and Saturday, Sept. 22 and 23 (

• There are several organizations, always looking for support and volunteers, involved in furthering legislative initiatives that should help prevent some of that trash from ending up in Long Island Sound in the first place.

• And there are ways individuals can change their own behaviors to help prevent trash from ending up in our waterways.

The haul for the upcoming cleanups is likely to be impressive. In the last six years, the Coastal Cleanup program alone has removed more than 96,500 pounds of trash from nearly 345 miles of Connecticut waterfront. The Source to Sea cleanup, in last year alone, pulled more than 50 tons of trash from more than 127 miles of river banks and waterways. Paint cans. Pieces of carpet. Diapers. A catalytic converter from a car. Two lawn mowers. Nine couches, 19 TVs, and 37 chairs. A skateboard and 42 balls. Several bikes were not only fished out of the waterways, but were also fixed up and donated to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have bikes.

While all manner of trash will be collected, most of it likely will comprise the usual ugly suspects—cigarette butts from smokers who think the world is their ashtray, abandoned tires, carelessly discarded plastic bags, styrofoam Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cups, and bottles of all kinds but particularly those little “nips”—alcohol bottles like the ones you get in hotel mini-bars.

Cleanups: Coastal Cleanup and Source to Sea

The Connecticut Coastal Cleanup sponsored by the Connecticut Fund for the Enviroment/Save the Sound is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 16 this year, but the cleanups can be done any time in September and October, says Katie Nolan, the Coastal Cleanup coordinator. Team captains, being recruited right now, can pick the best date and place for their cleanup.

“We know not everyone will be able to do it on Sept. 16, so they can pick the location and date pretty much on their own. We’ll help them get it set up, send them a guide and materials, and at the end of it, collect all of the data,” she says. “That will be sent to the Ocean Conservancy, and they will compile the international data, along with how many miles were covered and the weight of the trash.”

Nolan says her group will provide guidance to team captains on how to obtain permits from the appropriate authorities to do the beach cleanups. She said one reason a range of dates is provided is that it sometimes can be hard to get cleanup permits while the beaches are still open for the summer and early fall.

“Right now we are looking for captains, and we are trying to build on the previous years’ group of volunteers, to grow the pool of people we have available,” she says. “In terms of looking for captains, we are looking for anyone who cares about the ocean and has the motivation to put a team together to do a cleanup.”

Already, three captains have been signed up to do cleanups in this area, including George Smith at the East Haven Town Beach (203-812-8658); Tom Paul with the Sierra Club, who is cleaning East Beach at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison (203-421-5612); and Dan Nolan, Katie’s dad, who will be tackling East River Preserve in Guilford (203-640-1273).

The process of obtaining beach permits varies from town to town, so the process of planning should be started as early as possible, she says. Captains will receive, in addition to webinar training, kits with trash bags, and rubber gloves, along with waiver forms, and other appropriate materials. Nolan said people who want to be captains, but who might not have a full team are welcome to participate, and CFE/STS will help publicize the groups in an effort to gain more members. Captains who prefer to put their own team together are welcome to do that as well.

Nolan says she is excited to be helping with the effort.

“Trash is a big thing, a big problem, and it needs to be cleaned up. Even something as small as a cigarette butt can be a big problem. It can take up to five years to degrade, and in the meantime can be mistaken for food by a marine animal,” she says. “And our work will definitely help with the research. It will help to raise awareness about the problem.”

Alicea Charamut, a river steward for the Connecticut River Conservancy, says her organization’s 21st annual Source to Sea Cleanup with be Friday and Saturday, Sept. 22 and 23. It will cover rivers, streams, parks, boat launches, trails, and more in the Connecticut River’s four-state watershed that includes Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts.

Data Helps Shape Policy

“We are absolutely looking for participants,” Charamut says.

You can join a group, register a group, report trash, or submit a trash tally on the conservancy’s website at, “But our work does not stop with the cleanup. When we collect those trash tallies from our participants who are willing to contribute that, we use that data to shape policy to help keep trash out of the rivers.”

One of their initiatives includes working for a producer responsibility bill for tires. The state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection says Connecticut produces about 3.5 million scrap tires annually. The state used to have a plant in Sterling that would burn about 10 million tires a year, but it stopped operations in 2013. As a result, there are now many more tires being illegally stockpiled or dumped, and some of them end up in waterways. A producer responsibility law would make the tire manufacturers responsible for coming up with a plan to help deal with the problem.

The Connecticut River Conservancy also is working to help reform and update the state’s bottle laws. During the most recent legislative session there was an effort to change the law to replace the current five cent deposit fee with a four cent fee on the consumer with proceeds going to the state. While that would have helped grow the state’s coffers, the fee was designed to sunset in seven years.

The problem, Charamut says, is that doing away with the deposit fee takes away the value of the trash, reducing the incentive for individuals or organizations to collect bottles and put them into the recycling stream.

Instead of doing away with the bottle deposit system, Charamut says, the state should instead increase the fee and extend it to more types of bottles. Right now it covers bottles that contain carbonated beverages, and water. It does not cover juice and sports drinks or those little “nips” bottles and the fee has not gone up since the law was enacted in the late ‘70s.

“The shoreline’s only dedicated redemption center in East Haven recently announced it is closing because the legislature’s failure to increase the handling fee meant it would no longer be able to cover the cost of their operation there. It’s time to give the recycling operations a raise, Charamut says.

“The legislation that enacted the bottle return system needs to be updated for the system to work,” she says. “The organizations that run those vending machines that take back bottles need more money to run their businesses. We are working to expand the types of bottles that are included, and to increase the handling fee for redemption.”

Quite simply, every little nips bottle picked up during the cleanups will be turned into data that could help convince a legislator that such a change is necessary, she says.

Plastic bags are another huge issue. Recent efforts to outlaw plastic bags, or require that stores charge for them have not been successful, even though this year’s bill would have also provided additional money for state parks, which often have to clean up trash like the plastic bags.

Too Many Dunkin’ Cups

Charamut says she would also like to see some sort of action—even if it’s a social media initiative—to encourage people to stop using the ubiquitous Dunkin’ Donut foam coffee cups that will be picked up during the clean up.

“You know what? We live in New England. And there is a Dunkin’ Donuts on every corner,” she says. “You cannot go to a spot on the river and not find a Dunkin’ Donuts cup.”

Someday, she says, she hopes someone will convince Dunkin’ Donuts to switch to paper cups. In the meantime, individual customers should ask for them to switch while ordering their coffee, and take their own refillable mug to be filled up.

“If I go do Dunkin’ Donuts, they are going to put that coffee in my own mug,” she says.

In 2016, Dunkin’ Donuts served nearly 18.5 million beverages in reusable mugs, something it started doing, in part due to environmental concerns, in 2012. It has plans to expand that program and is exploring acceptable alternatives to the foam cup, company officials say.

A Creative Approach

In the meantime, Borden is going to continue doing her part by creating her art. She says it’s mostly about the art, but that her work has also prompted her to think about the political and environmental implications of the choices we make every day.

“What does it mean that we have all of these plastic bags? Billions of them! Can we appreciate the plastic bag and its creative uses, while at the same time understanding to how we might be contributing to the problem of how we don’t want to give up on the convenience and joy of carrying out our groceries in something we can then get rid of? Really, we have to think about how we are contributing to this problem,” she says.

She says a work she has currently hanging in the Spectrum Gallery in Essex, Ocean, was prompted in part by her concern about huge trash gyres being created in the world’s oceans, some of them in remote places far away from inhabited land.

“Every time you bring a grocery bag home from the store, you could be contributing to this in some way,” she says. “Everything is truly connected...My goal is not to clobber people over the head with this, but maybe make them think a little more about the contributions we are making and what obligation do we have to do something about the problems, and to sit with our discomfort.”

Besides all of that, and her joy at being an artist with work hanging in prominent galleries, she says it’s “super fun” to make her work. She takes the bags, cuts them with scissors to make loops, then pulls those loops together in a chain, then makes those chains into balls.

“And then I use it like yarn,” she says. She adds that she’s only getting started. She’s also experimenting with bottle caps and discarded clothes to create some new artwork.

“You don’t have to be an artist or an emerging artist, you just have to want to create something,” she says. “Anybody can look at their trash in a different way and create something of value out of it. I’m not the first or the last to have thought of this. But it’s fun, and I like doing it, and if I can also touch a nerve to help people save the planet, then, yay!”

Want to help? If you are a shopper, use re-usable bags. If you’re a smoker, dispose of your butts properly and consider signing up for Terracycle’s Cigarette Waste Brigade, which accepts extinguished cigarettes, cigarette filters, and other smoking-related trash to be turned into plastic pallets and other useful items. More information is available at If you like your Dunkin’ Donuts joe to go, bring your own mug and ask the folks who work there to recommend the to-go cups be changed to paper. Check out and for information about upcoming clean-ups, and work with those groups to identify, become familiar with, and support environmental legislation with which you agree. To see Marsha Borden’s work, visit Spectrum Gallery, 61 Main Street, Centerbrook, The current exhibit is called Abstract Nature and runs through Sunday, Sept. 10.