Meow Wolf & SFCC Raise Plastic Awareness with Giant Recycled Whale Sculpture

Life-sized “Ethyl the Whale” unveiled for Earth Day.

“The weight of a blue whale — 300,000 pounds [of plastic] — goes in the ocean every 9 minutes.”

San Francisco Bay Area artist Joel Dean Stockdill shares this sobering statistic while standing next to “Ethyl,” a life-sized, 82-foot-long blue whale sculpture made entirely of steel and recycled plastic trash. The desire to raise awareness and create art with impact spurred artists Stockdill and Yustina Salnikova into action.

Along with Building 180 — an arts management and consulting agency — the artists originally built Ethyl for a commission by the Monterey Bay Aquarium (and their agency Hub Strategy & Communication). This dramatic art piece was recently acquired by Meow Wolf and transported from the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to Santa Fe.

Ethyl the Whale being installed at her new home at Santa Fe Community College. Photo by Kate Russell

“I think Santa Fe is a perfect place for it for many reasons,” says Salnikova. “One, this used to be ocean. . . also, this is about plastic, and for us this project is more than just about saving the oceans, but actually bringing awareness to the plastic problem.”

Meow Wolf, in partnership with Santa Fe Community College, introduced Ethyl at SFCC’s campus for an Earth Day unveiling (or un-whaling). Ethyl’s debut coincides with Earth Day’s efforts to address climate change, foster a sustainable, healthy environment, and protect our planet for future generations.

Ethyl the Whale is made of recycled plastic. "Ethyl" is short for Polyethylene, one of the most common plastics. Photo by Kate Russell
“We all have a deep addiction to fossil fuels, which is what plastic is made out of.”

“We all have a deep addiction to fossil fuels, which is what plastic is made out of,” Salnikova continues. “New Mexico has a lot of big oil reserves and natural gas reserves. . . I think it’s important to bring awareness to that.”

Vince Kadlubek, Meow Wolf’s Co-founder and CEO, agrees,

“We want to help raise awareness in New Mexico for plastic’s life cycle and the dangerous impacts on all living creatures on our planet. We brought Ethyl the Whale to Santa Fe to elevate awareness and inspire New Mexican families to make changes in their plastic consumption and recycling practices.”

Artists Joel Dean Stockdill and Yustina Salnikova along with the Building 180 team installing Ethyl the whale. Bottom left to right: Tiffany Angus, Sally Coassin, Michael Ward. Top left to right: Shannon Riley, Yustina Salnikova, Meredith Winner, Joel Dean Stockdill, Makoto Iwagishi. Install Crew not pictured: Jeff Howard, Meia Matsuda Photo by Kate Russell

Stockdill and Salnikova are internationally-renowned artists and developed a custom recycling process done by hand to demonstrate that small-scale, high impact waste management is possible and not necessarily something that has to be done on an industrial scale.

Outside one of Meow Wolf’s buildings, they clean plastic barrels for to prepare additional material for Ethyl’s installation.

“It’s a strange twist on our relationship with the whales,” Stockdill muses. “We [humans] used to kill them for their oil—now we’re turning oil-based plastics into a whale to try and help rid the oceans of plastic. Plastic is filling up our landfills and only nine percent of it has been recycled. As a society, we need to reduce our reliance on single-use plastic. That’s why I wanted to be a part of this effort.”

A look inside Ethyl the Whale at the steel structure that supports the recycled plastic panels. Artist Yustina Salnikova installs a panel. Photo by Kate Russell

"As a society, we need to reduce our reliance on single-use plastic."

The name “Ethyl” is short for polyethylene, which is a #2 type of plastic known as HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene), one of the most commonly used forms of plastic. HDPE is the stiff plastic used to make milk jugs, detergent and oil bottles, toys, and some plastic bags. Ethyl is predominantly made from hand-recycled plastic laundry detergent bottles and milk cartons, and will be internally lit to glow each evening.

“The scale, the dimension and all of that, was based on an actual whale that washed up on the beach in Bolinas, California,” Stockdill explains. “It’s a portrait of an actual creature.”

At night, Ethyl the Whale will be illuminated. Photo by Kate Russell
“The scale, the dimension and all of that, was based on an actual whale that washed up on the beach in Bolinas, California,” Stockdill explains. “It’s a portrait of an actual creature.”

Ethyl’s message reached Meow Wolf and SFCC. “Our partnership with Santa Fe Community College is really meaningful as they have a world-renowned sustainability and environmental program,” says Danika Padilla, Director of Community Outreach for Meow Wolf. “

Together, we plan to partner with local schools and non-profit organizations to convey Ethyl’s message of conservation. . . In the coming months, we will be taking specific actions to assess our impact on the natural world and work towards becoming a more sustainable business.”

Kadlubek adds that Meow Wolf is B-Corp, “investing in our local community and advancing the sustainability of our planet is integral to how we define success in our business model.”

Inspired by Earth Day and Ethyl’s message, Meow Wolf and SFCC are issuing a community-wide call to action to live one day without the use of any plastics this Earth Day.

The presence of Ethyl the Whale on Earth Day asks viewers to consider their plastic consumption practices and participation in the fossil fuel industry that impacts all of the earth's creatures. Photo by Kate Russell

Want to know more about Ethyl?

Here are some interesting facts about this massive work of art and the plastic usage it represents:

-The plastic used to create the whale represents one person’s plastic trash by age 20.

-All of the soap used to clean the trash was recycled from found laundry and soap bottles.

-The placing of the skin onto the whale took three weeks, fabrication of the metal took four weeks, and recycling the plastic paneling took fifteen weeks.

-One plastic panel is 4 cookie trays of plastic and weighs about 4.5 - 5 lbs., which equals about 37 empty milk jugs or 21 empty laundry detergent containers.

-Most plastic bottle caps and labels are not made from the same type of plastic and cannot be recycled together. They must be separated.

-HDPE is the most commonly recycled plastic, and is considered one of the safest forms of plastic.

-The appliances used to make each panel were either handmade (shredders), donated (grey water), or found on Craigslist (oven, washing machine).

-All of the plastic for this project was donated.

-Over 4,000 lbs in plastic bails (plastic crushed into cubes) were used to create the diamond-shaped panels. The average human in the U.S. uses about 200 lbs of plastic per year. The diamond skin panelling makes up about 20 people’s plastic waste in one year.