Waste to Wildlife / Trail Plastic to Mini Otter Sculptures 

While the world remains in turmoil over environmental havoc caused by plastic waste, Robbie Rorich emerges as an innovative trailblazer, demonstrating a profound passion for nature and an unyielding dedication to his art. Robbie, not only the talent behind the mini otter sculptures which will be awarded to runners who have completed more than 10 Otter African Trail Race races; but a local legend and “forever-returning Otter runner,” shares his artistic vision for sculpting with repurposed material. Delving into his inventive work, he demonstrates how his plastic sculptures have breathed new life into the waste that haunts our trails.

Robbie’s journey of working with recycled plastic began about two years ago. When running Devil’s Peak, the revelation struck him. What captivated Robbie was his realisation that plastic, once an eyesore and disruptor to the harmony of nature, could easily be transformed into cherished artefacts. It was this initial conceptualisation that excited him, saying that he felt this “surge and calling” to create from waste; becoming so obvious that his artistic “quest was now to reshape the narrative of plastic’s destiny,” from “disposability to cherished heirlooms.”

The journey to mastering the art of sculpting with this repurposed medium has not been easy, but Robbie says it has been incredibly rewarding. The process started with simple, yet crucial steps – melting HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) plastic, sourced from bottle tops and thick plastic bottles collected on his beach walks and runs along parts of the Otter Trail and in Nature’s Valley. The delicate art of achieving the perfect melting temperature was mastered through much effort and many experimental burnt plastic pots later; eventually finding the sweet spot between 180 to 200 degrees celsius. 

When first starting out, Robbie sought expert guidance of a polymer scientist, who enlightened him on the behaviour of plastics during the melting and solidifying stages. It was then that he realised the need to slow-dry his sculptures. Incorporating overnight drying and oven-baking triumphed as the secret to strengthening his sculptures; as this allowed the plastic’s molecule chains to weave together and form an unbreakable lattice. While understanding how to construct sturdier and more intricate plastic artworks, the bubbling and distortion of his plastic moulds proved another challenge. Again, the practice of eliminating bubbles and achieving a smooth consistency became an intricate dance of experimentation and learning from trial and error; until eventually discovering that shaking the mixture during the melting process and periodically lifting the lid to let bursts of fire and flames out helped create the desired smooth texture.

As in any tale of creativity and transformation, obstacles have marred Robbie’s path. Another poignant moment arose when a dear friend raised the alarm about the environmental impact of his artistic alchemy, challenging him on the front that his plastic-melting process released toxic chemicals. So, he returned to the drawing board once more, probing further until he discovered that adding sand to his kitchen-stove melting pots reduced the harmful emissions, and diminished any negative environmental concern. Terracotta powder, known to Robbie from his clay artistry, also crept into the mix, infusing his sculptures with a mesmerising blend of structure and exquisite detail.

This process of ceaseless experimentation, guided by countless trials and tribulations, meant that his plastic-to-art journey has taken far longer than anticipated. Despite unfolding slower than intended, he said he is “not going to rush this evolution;” and rather uses these periods of refining and re-sculpting to return to his reason why? The fact that “our relationship with plastic is such a complex one,” drives Robbie, and he confesses he too “has spent so much time hating plastic and its presence on our trails and in nature.”  But, by reframing his mindset around plastic, through this process of artistic play, he’s “celebrated how melting it to create something, he has been able to turn plastic into a new life form.” 

Robbie’s new art fosters elements of metamorphosis, not just for materials, but for entire perspectives. As his recycled plastic sculptures take shape, he challenges others to discard the notion of plastic as an adversary, and invites us all to see it as an opportunity for transformation and celebration.

Robbie’s hopes to move exclusively towards sculpting with plastic were reaffirmed in a recent encounter with a friend. As an avid cyclist, he has embarked on many life-changing expeditions, but one in particular resonates. In 2013, while pedalling through the picturesque landscapes of Namibia, Robbie came across the Himba people, bearers of ancient traditions who harvested copper from the earth using time-honoured methods to craft patterned bracelets. One of these bracelets found its way into his possession, becoming a cherished memento he holds close to his heart. This copper bracelet adorned his wrist through countless Otter African Trail Races, and the blue traces it marks his arm with reminds him of his favourite trail running coast line. However, the revelation that followed was nothing short of extraordinary. A chance encounter with a friend wearing a bracelet identical in pattern, but fashioned from plastic, left Robbie utterly astounded. “People in Namibia make these,” his friend remarked nonchalantly. The revelation was astonishing – a journey that transcended time and cultures, where ancient people once mined copper now embraced plastic artistry having seized the opportunity to make the most of this abundant modern material.

“It’s honestly mind-blowing,” he said and “super reassuring.” The notion that his artistic pursuit of recycling plastic resonated with an ancient art practice, uniting diverse cultures and ages, has only fueled his motivation. The essence of his Himba bracelet, once forged from natural copper, now thrived in plastic, is a testament to the adaptability of human creativity… which he has channelled in his creation of these mini pièces de résistance Otters, crafted from waste collected on the trail exclusively for the Otter African Trail Race 10x finishers.