How Can Trash Help Us to See More Sustainably?

A former Artists in Residence sculpture

I think we all know that in order to make the transition to a truly sustainable society, we need to learn to look at things differently. But how—or where —can we get that new perspective?

Recology, San Francisco’s recently rebranded waste and recycling management service (formerly NorCal Waste Systems), is providing a lens for seeing things differently through its Artist In Residence Program. In this program, artists work to show us the inherent beauty in objects that had previously been deemed worthless—and in the process inspire us to recycle more and conserve natural resources, thereby reducing the amount of waste we generate.

“I am visually narrating a beautiful dream battled by an undercurrent of destruction,” says Erik Otto, a current Artist in Residence. “My work critiques not only the detritus produced by the media industry, but the consumers of these products as well,” says David Hevel, a former one. The program provides local artists with access to materials, a work space, and other resources. It originated in 1990 with a mission of turning “trash to treasure,” creating art from what would have been sent with the rest of San Francisco’s trash to landfills across the Bay or recycling plants across the nation.

The Artists in Residence program puts trash in a culture context. Bill McKibben said a few years back that although we as a species have managed to raise the temperature of our entire planet, we don’t really know about it in our gut. “It isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?”

It’s part of the way that Recology is working to advance its mission, which is described in its promotional video as “ideas and insights meeting at the corner of hope and opportunity.”

Recology uses a 3-cart curbside collection program designed to make recycling easier for customers, preserve resources, and help the city of San Francisco reduce its carbon footprint. The program, in which recyclable items are placed in blue carts while green carts are used for compostable material, is central to San Francisco’s effort to divert 75 percent of waste generated in the city away from landfill disposal by 2010 and to achieve zero waste by 2020. As stated in the video: “We believe in making the best use of every resource that we can.”

Recology’s efforts bring us closer to nature’s model, where there is no waste. Leaves fall from trees to become food for micro-organisms. Their waste, in turn, nourishes the soil, which then provides food for more plants and trees.

Recalling the words of Will McDonough, “In the natural world – a grand, evolving system based on hundreds of millions of years of research and development – the processes of each organism contribute to the health of the whole. One organism’s waste is food for another, and nutrients and energy flow perpetually in closed-loop cycles of growth, decay and rebirth.”

And it all starts with how we see things.

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact:

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