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How Picking Beach Garbage Lead to Creativity and Loads of Fun

By Perley-Ann Friedman April 27, 2021 Lifestyle

I have a giant garbage art cat sculpture hanging on the side of my house, and I’m loving it. At sunset, the cat lights up and you can see it from way down the road. When you get closer, it mysteriously disappears. This is due to the wall around my house, but don’t tell anyone.

“I’m sure I saw a giant cat glowing in the dark near your place, but then it disappeared,” people tell me. I laugh and shrug my shoulders as if I have no idea what they are talking about. I like to keep the mystery going.

Picking Up Beach Garbage Was the Start

About a year ago I started picking up the garbage on my daily beach walks. I’m 67, retired from a career in technology and live on a small island in southern Thailand. In the spring, the winds change direction and blow inwards from the Andaman Sea.

These monsoon winds are super strong and bring garbage with them. The volume of debris that washes up with the tide is astounding. It continues to pile up on our beaches until the winds reverse direction in the fall.

It feels good doing my tiny thing for the environment.

When I Got Inspired

About this time, I saw a seahorse sculpture hanging at a local beach bar. It was made with lighters, glowing from a string of lights inside it. Immediately, and I mean right that second, I knew I absolutely had to make a giant cat.

I found the artist and asked about his process. He laughed and said that it wasn’t rocket science. He advised me to use a clear glue and remove the tops from the lighters. He also told me that it was trial and error, saying that I would figure it out as I went along.

I Started Collecting Lighters

The next day, I stopped picking up all the garbage and focused on collecting only lighters. A group on Koh Lanta had recently started cleaning up the beaches, rotating to a different beach each week. This meant I could focus solely on collecting the lighters and not feel guilty about walking by the other garbage as this new group would be collecting it.

Since picking up garbage is back-breaking work, I got myself a grabber. I still have to bend a bit, but this little gadget changed it all. It has given me the precision to easily grab the lighters, even when they are hidden under other debris.

Every afternoon I’d go for my beach walk, bringing my trusty grabber and empty bags. I sometimes go to a different beach to mix up my walks. The lighter supply is endless whatever beach I go to.

Preparing the Lighters

The lighters can’t be used right away. They have to be cleaned and taken apart. I set up three cleaning stations in my garden: cleaning, bleaching, and rinsing. I wanted to remove the grime and germs as some of the lighters looked like they had been in the ocean for decades. I didn’t want to get sick from them.

Once the lighters were cleared, I removed the tops. I also pulled out the long white thing inside every lighter. I used heavy duty pliers as the tops are fastened on tight. Sure, my right hand was super sore those days, but it got stronger after a few weeks.

I must have done this whole process on about 8,000 lighters the past year. Crazy!

Building my Masterpiece

While I was collecting, washing and taking apart the lighters, I started to sketch my massive cat using a cat design I’ve been drawing since I was a kid. I drew it on a huge piece of corrugated plastic as the base. I then started to build the sculpture by gluing lighters to the sketch perimeter and then upwards in layers. I wanted to have lighters in elevated mounds to shape the legs, the body and the tail.

The build took about four months. I worked on it at least few hours every day. I had to be strategic with how I placed the lighters as the glue dried really quickly. Some days I was stumped and other days I was on a roll. I made lots of mistakes and slowly figured it all out.

I even used colour in some sections, so I had to make sure I had enough lighters in the right colour. This wasn’t easy. I couldn’t go to the beach and ask for only blue or yellow lighters. I learned patience and perseverance.

giant cat from lighters

The sculpture was so big it took up the whole living room. I moved it inside to keep it safe from the rains and critters roaming at night here on the island. I definitely didn’t want a frog hiding inside the tail or a gecko getting glued to a lighter.

I was having a blast! 

Lighting the Cat and Hanging It on the Wall

When I was almost finished building my giant cat, I asked an electrician friend to help light it up. He put together a super plan and got at it. First, he made a frame backing for the cat, and then built a base for the lights. This base can be unscrewed from the frame for any light repairs and cleaning.

Friends helped with gluing the cat to the frame and then lifting it onto the base. It took two strong men to hoist the giant 6-foot cat up as it’s super heavy. It now hangs on big brackets screwed into the wall.

giant cat lit up

It looks amazing during the day and especially at night when it’s lit up. I totally love my giant cat and will hate to part with it. But that is the plan, once Covid-19 is behind us.

The Future of My Giant Cat

Originally, I was going to donate my giant cat to Lanta Animal Welfare, the animal rescue centre charity I support here on Koh Lanta. However, the cat is really a night thing, so I need to rethink my strategy. Maybe I’ll look for a corporate donor. The giant cat will look amazing hanging in a night club, in a bar/restaurant, or in a building lobby.

Wherever my giant cat ends up, the new owners will have a gem, absolutely! But until this pandemic is in our history, it will remain on my wall, lighting up every evening.

When I started picking up the garbage on the beach I had no idea, especially at my age, that it would turn into so much fun. The other great benefit is that this whole experience helped me get through the past year of Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions.

It’s all good!

What have you been doing this past year? Have you a project of your own to show? Do you think your hobby can benefit someone else – the environment or an organization? How? Please share your projects and hobbies, and let’s explore the creative possibilities together!

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The Author

About Perley-Ann Friedman, The Happy Cat. I now live on Koh Lanta, a small island in southern Thailand. I am enjoying my alternative lifestyle as I ease into retirement. I’m in my 60s, healthy, active, have red hair and totally love cats. I’ve consciously chosen to be positive and to continuously grow as I journey through life. Visit me at

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