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Artist Mary Ellen Croteau: Bottlecaps as Art and Environmental Warning

What to do with all the plastic waste we create? It is made from petroleum. It doesn’t compost or decompose. And what little is recycled creates its own pollution. Chicago artist and environmental activist Mary Ellen Croteau (1950-2019) made art with this waste.

She made portraits and self portraits, implicating us all -- friends, family, herself -- with the environmental waste but showing hope for a solution. Her layers of colored plastic were sophisticated and beautiful, with nuanced hues and sizes creating the final work. Maybe we can design a way out of this mess, she seems to say.

You can see her careful sorting and layering process in these images from her website,

CLOSE is a large self-portrait made of 7000+ plastic bottle caps. It took 7 months to build, and two years to collect enough caps!

She made installations that filled space with elegant columns of caps.

Her final works were large scale images of ecological disasters -- Flooding in Atlanta, Melting Glaciers in Greenland, Tsunami in Japan and Marine life in an oil spill. All made of bottle caps. Through this work with plastic, she intended to make this waste visible and to make the connection between our throw-away culture and our responsibility to the earth.

“Single-serve plastic bottles are the worst of the worst and should be assiduously avoided,” she wrote. “Excessive packaging comes next. We need to rethink our needs and our desires if we are going to save this planet.”

All works copyright as dated.

Want to try making art from bottle caps? Read Mary Ellen's How-To page.

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