Welcome to the Washed Up Workshop

Marine-debris mastermind Pete Clarkson tells us about palettes, tsunamis and the interconnectedness of our natural environments.

 Surprised and amazed: it was crazy how much debris was labelled with Japanese characters.
 Buoys galore.


Since 2000 Pete Clarkson has been transforming marine debris that he cleans off the beach into art pieces. When he started cleaning up Tofino’s beaches, it was mostly locally sold product containers that he found. After the devastating 2011 Fukushima Tsunami when huge chunks of Japan were swept out to sea, the flotsam started to look different. Over the next 4 years, all sorts of Japanese debris washed up on the B.C. coastline. Pete explained the detailed timeline of how all this stuff showed up:

“Debris arrived in waves, parcelled together with all sorts of like-minded stuff”, Pete recalls.

“First 4×4 wooden beams all showed up in March of 2013, after a big winter storm. Then 9 months after, massive buoys. Then Jerry cans–the Japanese burn Kerosene to heat their homes. 4 years later it was those standardized beer and milk crates. Now the same materials and objects are showing up in pieces, broken down and sorted by powerful ocean currents on the long journey from Japan to Canada.”


When making an art piece, Pete starts by cleaning marine debris with a simple soap and brush combo. He power washes off the more tenacious stuff, such as barnacles and seaweed. Besides the sun-bleached aesthetic, the majority of the plastic is completely intact and functional. 

Sometimes he knows immediately what final shape the waste will take; a mask, or a totem pole reveals itself to him in the form of a shower head, jerry can or wooden sign. Other times creative inspiration comes from the outside, through commissions like ours that give him a concrete goal to start from. He was also working on a commission piece for the Tofino Travel Co. 

It’s staggering to see all of stuff he’s collected over the years, all sorted by size, colour, and whatever ‘category’ he sees fit. Containers, crates, buoys, laundry bins, you name it. And to know that these items travelled several thousand kilometres from Japan, through storms and waves across the vast, briny Pacific to land right here in Canada.

Majority of the debris in Pete Clarkson's workshop made this huge journey across the ocean, and stayed intact.

In his workshop, he stores the small plastic goodies and knick-knacks: visor brims, flip flops, umbrella handles, surf fins, and paintbrushes galore. It’s like the Little Mermaid’s stash, but above sea-level. Pete envisions the stories behind each item:

“With the hat brims you can just picture the scenario: at sea, a gust comes by and blows off your hat, you leap to try and catch it, but its already gone to the ocean.”

He asks us if we want to go inside and see the piece he made for us. Stoke levels are high. 

Its a big rad circular sign that says PLASTIC in bold, stencilled lettering. The bottom has a fishing net with plastic paintbrush handles that look like a school of varicoloured fish. It conveys complexity of this issue, and the nauseating reality of our impact. Everything is tied together–by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight. We need better recycling systems now to stop preventing a third of all plastic from reaching the ocean and other natural habitats. That change needs to come from wealthy, developed countries like Canada: more innovation into sustainable long-term packaging and storage solutions, and better  standardised recycling on a global scale.


We’re back at the crates outside, Pete tells us that two years ago, after the world news had stopped talking about this disaster and turned to new ones, a Japanese man visited this same studio to retrieve a plastic palette. It was the only thing left of his family’s multi-generational fishing business, this palette was passed down to him from his father, and would be passed on to his own kids eventually. Unlike the wooden palettes we used in North America, these heavy duty industrial plastic palettes outlast a lifetime–are a real asset to a business. We loved this intelligent use of plastic, to accentuate it’s prime characteristic: longevity. 

 Instead of wooden palettes, Japan uses a system of heavy duty plastic palettes that last essentially forever.

Instead of wooden palettes, Japan uses a system of heavy duty plastic palettes that last essentially forever.

 Out of context, it would be hard to figure out what the broken piece came from, but because intact laundry bins came in an earlier wave, by the time the broken shards arrived it is easy to see what they started as.
 Pete explained that for lots of businesses in Japan, these palettes are an important multi-generational asset, cherished by families.


It’s insane that we ever decided to use plastic for single-use packaging. We extract oil. Ship it across the world. Polymerize and pelletize to turn it into plastic. Ship it across the world. Melt and morph it into a bottle or sushi tray. Ship it across the world again until it gets filled with food or liquid. Then you and I buy it, use it for often less than 10 minutes throw it into the recycling, if we’re lucky.

The bottom line is, our current system and ideologies around plastic use are extremely outdated, and need to drastically change. 


There’s a precedent for change too, not just in Japan. Scandinavia has been at the forefront of sustainable solutions. For example, in 2001 Sweden re-examined their grocery store-shipping system, and replaced single use containers with modular, reusable containers. Svenska Retursystem makes the highly durable containers that you see in almost every grocery store there. They also make the palettes used in transport. Canada would see massive economic and environmental benefits if we followed their model:

In Sweden, Svenska Retursystem operates such a pool of reusable packaging that services the whole retail sector — a model that, it claims, captures USD 18.7 million in savings and reduces waste by 50,000 tonnes annually.

– The New Plastics Economy

 Pete Clarkson generously made this rad sign for us. We love the bold imagery of plastic paintbrush handles resembling fish caught in a net.

Pete Clarkson generously made this rad sign for us. We love the bold imagery of plastic paintbrush handles resembling fish caught in a net.

 When Daniel commissioned Pete to create a sculpture for our club, he made this awesome wave.
 This wave was too fragile for us to take back in our cramped surf car, so thankfully Pete made a second, more durable sculpture.
 Inside the washed up workshop.
 Daniel holds a refillable Japanese kerosene container: kerosene is widely used in Japan in the winter to heat homes.  

If you love Pete Clarkson’s artwork as much as we do, you can see more on his own little corner of the interweb.

If you’re interested in volunteering at beach cleanups, they happen year round and are facilitated by awesome organisations such as the Great Canadian Shoreline CleanupSurfrider Van and the Northwest Wildlife Preservation Society.

Stay loopy. #circulareconomy
Keep flowing. #meltmorphmake