Fact Sheet: Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Life-Sized Blue Whale Art Installation Made from Discarded Single-Use Plastic

What’s the purpose of the blue whale art installation?

  • The Monterey Bay Aquarium built a life-sized blue whale made out of recycled single-use plastic to bring awareness to the serious issue of global plastic pollution and its effects on the ocean and marine life.

Why was a blue whale chosen as the subject?

  • The blue whale art installation dramatizes the scale of the problem. A blue whale is the largest animal on Earth and weighs around 300,000 pounds -- the approximate weight of plastic that ends up in the ocean every nine minutes.

Who built it?

  • Bay Area artist Joel Dean Stockdill, Yustina Salnikova, and Building 180, an art consulting and management agency, were commissioned to build the life-size blue whale.
  • The artists were supported by a crew of about 15-20 people who worked on and off the whale and also by dozens of volunteers.

How long did it take to make the whale?

  • A total of 4.5 months (18 weeks)
    • Processing and hand recycling the plastic paneling took 15 weeks
    • Sculpting and screwing on the exterior panels onto the frame took three weeks
    • Fabrication of the steel metal frame took four weeks

What’s it made of?

  • The plastic panels that compose a majority of the whale’s exterior are made from hand-recycled type #2 plastic (HDPE).
    • HDPE plastic is the stiff plastic used to make milk jugs, detergent and toys, and some plastic bags.
    • HDPE is the most commonly recycled plastic and is considered one of the safest forms of plastic.
    • There is a relatively simple and cost-effective process available to recycle HDPE plastic for secondary use.
    • HDPE plastic is very hard-wearing and does not break down under exposure to sunlight, or extremes of heating or freezing. For this reason, secondary uses of HDPE include picnic tables, plastic lumber, waste bins, park benches, bed liners for trucks and other products that require durability and weather-resistance.
    • Products made of HDPE are reusable and recyclable.
  • 750 panels were used for the exterior along with 65 white and blue recycled plastic barrels.
  • The structural support and fastening materials for the sculpture are steel.

How were these panels made or hand-recycled?

  • Plastic trash was donated to this project from local recycling centers. The artists received more than 4,000 pounds of donated plastic.
  • The donated plastic was hand sorted by type of plastic and color.
  • It was then cleaned and washed using a gray water system. The liquid soap used to clean the plastic trash was salvaged from the donated laundry and soap bottles.
  • Then, it was cut it into small pieces in order for it to be more easily melted in molds that formed individual panels for the body of the whale.
  • Each panel took about 30 minutes to bake.
  • Note: The appliances used in the panel-making process were themselves either donated (grey water system components), or found or purchased second hand (oven, washing machine).

Additional panel information:

  • One plastic panel is made up of 4 cookie trays of melted plastic.
  • Each panel weighs about 4.5 to 5 pounds, which equals about 37 empty milk jugs (an average milk jug is 60 grams) or 21 empty laundry detergent bottles (an average laundry detergent bottle is 112 grams).