One Man’s Trash, Another Man’s Art


By Kristina Anderson
October 15, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO — When you think of the words “garbage dump,” the first thoughts or images that spring forth from your mind probably aren’t related to art.  But if you were to visit the Recology collection center in San Francisco, you would be seeing—and thinking about—trash in a whole new way.  What you would witness is not only the incredible amount of debris that comes in every day, but also the artists who thrive on it.  Twice a year, Recology SF brings in new artists to its Artist in Residence Program, a one-of-a-kind program that utilizes the center as inspiration, as a studio, and as an art supply closet. Created in 1990, the Artist in Residence Program creates greater awareness of what we throw away and how we can put our unwanted items to better use.

The residency itself is surprisingly competitive. “This residency is pretty much renowned here in the Bay Area as being one of the best,” said Tamara Albaitis, one of the program’s current resident artists. “The reason being that most of the time when an artist goes on a residency, they plan it out.  Here, you show up … and whatever comes into the dump becomes your material.  And there is something so inspiring and so spontaneous [about] that.” While in residency, the artists have 24-hour access to comb the collection piles in search of items that will help them achieve their artistic visions. Thanks to Recology, this process is not as dirty and taxing as it sounds. The center provides separate bins for different kinds of waste so artists can rummage through what is mostly building materials and e­-waste.

Albaitis creates her own art out of old sound equipment—and even actual sounds, too. The centerpiece of her current installation, “Dwell,” is a cascade of speakers carefully connected to form a doorway. Inside sits a chair that beckons onlookers in as the sound of a heartbeat plays in the background. “This whole piece was based on the fact that when you’re here, you’re seeing millions of little pieces of homes,” Albaitis explained. “Literally, construction bits or pieces of people’s lives: folders, personal information, everything. And it’s all coming together. And people are thinking, ’This is going to the place where things die. There’s no more for this stuff. This is the end of its meaning.’ And there’s something really kind of poetic about that, in taking things out [of the dump], giving them a new life, and working with the energy around these objects.”

After speaking with Tamara, I went on a tour of the 40-acre facility with the director of the Artist in Residency Program, Deborah Munk. I had always envisioned a dump site as an unhappy place full of equally unhappy workers. At Recology SF, that is simply not the case. I was struck by how Deborah knew the name of each of the employees at the site, and the pleasant way in which they all greeted one another. As one might expect from the sheer size of it, Recology SF is spread out into different sites organized by waste content. After we visited the first two sites, I looked up to see a hill decorated with lawn ornaments and general oddness—stuff the employees found and put there, their own bit of artistic expression. Atop another hill within the facility, I found the lovely sculpture garden, a place where many employees choose to take lunch. The garden is filled with the works of former resident artists, accompanied by the standard garden fare of trees, shrubbery, and tempting benches. It is a strange, beautiful, and welcoming oasis amidst an otherwise loud and busy dump.

By the end of the tour, it became clear that while the dump is, by nature, home to foul-smelling trash and “black bin” materials including items like diapers, plastic bags, and food, Recology is so much more than a waste management company. They see themselves as a center for “resource recovery.” In other words, in addition to your standard recycling, they also compost and do some heavy sorting to extract salvageable items. Recology has entire sections set aside for items they find in the trash that can be easily reused, such as plants and paint. Then, they make items such as the paint free to the public; anyone in San Francisco can come by, select one of the reclaimed paints, and take it home free of charge.

In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that Americans generate 4.43 pounds of waste per person per day, which is about 1,617 pounds per year—aka, a LOT of trash. Recology and their resident artists are doing their best to educate people and be part of the solution. At the end of each residency, Recology hosts a free exhibition of its artists’ work. Recology and the artists who take part in their program exemplify the very simple commandment, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Refuse,” and remind us that a little creativity can go a long way. For tips on ways that you can become part of the solution, visit Sierra Club Green Home’s online Recycling Center and learn more about waste reduction in your home.


For related articles, see:
Trashy Art: San Francisco Artists Get Creative at the Dump
Recology Totes: A San Francisco Upcycling Treat
The 5 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, AND…?


© 2012 SCGH, LLC. All rights reserved.

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