Trashy art: Recology's 20 years of shoving artists into heaps

Bottle caps and caution tape = tomorrow's asymmetrical bang and Lady Gaga hair bow
All photos by Caitlin Donohue

One thing I learned yesterday about the artist in residence program at the Recology dump; Sirron Norris and other alums were not wading through the mountains of lightly used diapers and rotting carrots to cull the materials for the flights of foraged fancy they produce in the program, a 20-year retrospective of which opens today, Wed/21, at Intersection 5M. No no, they pick through the goods turned up by the city's curb-side and drop-off recycling program, which you think would be a little cleaner. I mean, look at the art they made from it. But you'd be surprised...  

“That section anyone can drop something off is where you garbage pick,” artist Sirron Norris tells me when I called him up for comment on the sweet gallery show Recology's assembled. He assured me that the dump's program changed his artistic trajectory, and yet “You will come across rotting food -- vegetables and rotting stuff. They'll dump fish in the styrofoam cases, a lot of vegetables -- a lot. Ive seen all kinds of stuff, nasty stuff and trippy stuff, a box full of stuffed animals; a box you could fit a loveseat in [note: here Norris commenced with a story about said box I don't feel comfortable relating to my gentle readers. Ask him for details when you see him, dear ones]. Tons of pills, so many pills. Cough syrup.” 

“It's up to them if they want to wear a respirator,” says dump advisory board member (and program director for Intersection for the Arts, who let us into the building even though I blatantly got the day wrong of the exhibit's opening reception – thanks!) Kevin Chen. Artists, who spend up to eight hours a day at the recycling facility, are encouraged to wear not only steel toed boats, but also steel soled boots. Tre rugged, no?

But judging from the gems assembled at the Recology retrospective, the experience is more than worth the sanitary incursions. A kicky dress made from bottle caps and junk food wrappers by Remi Rubel hung next to Sandy Drobny's intricately woven “Caution” tape apron. I wanted them for my own, just like I wanted to sit and finger Linda Raynsford's saws carved to resemble their enemies in nature, the majestic fir tree, every day before I head to work. 

What I saw yesterday

The retrospective provides a lot to look at, nearly all of it made from things that otherwise would have been crushed into recycling. Packard Jennings created a “Terrorist Alert” board during his 2003 residency, which he installed on Division Street to warn post- 9/11 automobile drivers of threat levels approaching the ominous “pineapple” or “far-fetched” measure of urgency. David Hevel's trio of bright fascinators – which he reverse-melts with a blowtorch in a video installation included in the gallery – baffled me with their preciousness until Chen cleared up their providence. “Sometimes a party store will drop off a whole bunch of stuff,” he said. Ah, streamers and sparkles, got it. 

Perhaps for obvious reasons, the residency program is an SF exclusive in this country. Chen says a similar program is being plotted for Portland, Oregon, but the set up – which allows artists free range in the recycling area in exchange for giving Recology temporary ownership of the pieces created, plus a few for their permanent collection – is mainly made possible here by a dump administration who, Chen told us, “really loves art.” Thanks guys! The whole thing left me stoked to check out the actual trash heap itself, where a sculpture garden lives and where regular gallery openings give people a chance to see their waste in a whole new light. 

Just like Norris did. “You'd see these piles and the piles would have these really great stories,” the artist told me, speaking as a man who knows the worth of another's cast-offs. “I furnished my entire apartment from that place -- cool stuff too, like old displays from Radio Shack.” 


Art at the Dump: 20 Years of the Artist in Residence Program at Recology

opening reception: Wed/21 6-8 p.m., free

through Sept. 25


925 Mission, SF


I thought this was about recycled art. Why the tirade about taking garbage elsewhere?

Posted by Guest on Jul. 22, 2010 @ 10:21 am

It is about art.

But the same company behind this wonderful art program seeks growth and profits by dumping tons and tons of non-recyclable California waste in a small community in another part of the country, without so much as performing an environmental impact statement as they'd be required to do in California. This same company refers to locals questioning this 'landfill' as 'angry citizens'. And, when the time on their conditional use permit runs out and it's not renewed, this company sues the community.

I think many Californians would be concerned about partnering with a company that takes these approaches.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 23, 2010 @ 10:03 am

" I thought this was about art."

I KNOW!!! This IS about art, and beauty, and freedom, and the joy of finding sources of loveliness in the most unexpected places.

The "tirade" is about protecting the beauty that people from remote cities disregard as "wasteland". Recology then attempts to ship the nasty, disgusting, POST- recycled waste that these artists were able to avoid to a pristine desert playa just downwind of my home in Nevada. I have yet to be offered "steel toed boots" or more importantly the "option" of wearing a protective mask...WHILE I LIVE IN MY HOME.

I don't want to rain on your parade but you can't have it both ways!

A heartwarming story about a puppy being saved by a good Samaritan loses it's luster if the puppy is abandoned to starve after the limelight is burned out.

I support any contribution to the arts given the lack of recognition and support that artists battle daily.

I just want us to remember that a rose is still a rose... be it in a gallery or on a playa.

Thank you, Carra Otto
Winnemucca, Nevada resident.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 22, 2010 @ 9:48 pm

I firmly believe this is a great program and shows leadership in reycycling, inspiring culture, re-use, and education in the arts.

But there is a huge dichotemy. On one hand hand, Recology is seen as a leader in recycling/reuse and the arts in education in California, specifically San Francisco; but, frankly, as a corporate bully/environmental-risker in Nevada.

Given my involvement with Nevadans Against Garbage (N.A.G.), I’ve enjoyed and commented on many articles on Recology from SFBG (“Recology Can’t Have it Both Ways” and “Recology’s Nevada Landfill Blocked” Thanks.

It’s admirable to see what San Franciscans have accomplished with recycling as they work toward their 2010 zero waste goals. And even more admirable to see and enjoy the Art at the Dump program. While it’s great the city gets to work with the ‘green’ , artistic, educating face of Recology, there’s another side to this company. I encourage all of you to dig into the Jungo Road Landfill issue to see that other side.

N.A.G. is focused on stopping a proposed landfill just outside of Winnemucca, NV, part of the Black Rock Desert, that Recology will build and manage. The landfill would be bringing in 4000 tons of non-recyclable trash from California communities 5 days per week, via rail for 95 years (not a typo). We are unclear which California communities this would involve given Recology (or, in this case, their subsidiary Jungo Land Investments) cannot sign contracts with these communities until they have a permitted landfill. They indicate all of this waste will fit on one section of land, although they own more than one section in this area. I can’t see how it will fit on one section.

The site is over an active aquifer. Recology is seeking an exception to Nevada statute to build closer to the aquifer than is standard. Flooding and strong winds are common in that area. Waste sludge, asbestos and tires are part of the waste stream. Given their history in Yuba County and problems in Lincoln county, Nevada, I do believe a)Recology will expand this site and attempt to bring in more waste; and b)Not bring in the revenue they ‘promise’. In addition, I can’t see any amount of money being worth the environmental risk.

Also, the business case is iffy at best (for a view on that see: ). In fact, while Recology claims they worked ‘with’ the Nevada Economic Development group, as quoted in this article, and based on an email received by N.A.G., they simply plugged Recology-provided numbers into a software model. I can’t imagine any Californians being supportive of sending the worst of their waste to another state given their efforts in being environmentally accountable.

It is comical to see Recology quoted as telling San Francisco none of their waste would go to Jungo Road out of state, and that Jungo Road was only ‘speculative’. Yet they are suing this Nevada community for loss of revenue (see Recology quote in your article at: Also, how can you sue for loss of revenue when you don’t have any contracts with communities for this proposed landfill?

Frankly, I can’t even imagine San Franciscans wanting to do business with a company that would send any California waste out of state given their track record as leaders in managing waste, recycling and being accountable for the environment. Clearly, Californians know zero waste doesn’t mean shipping it out of state.

Recology started their project with intentionally little community awareness via a 3-year conditional use permit (CUP) provided by the Regional Planning Commission (RPC), at a time when a 2nd landfill wasn’t legal in Humboldt County (the ordinance was changed months later by officials with limited notice at a regular meeting); in April, 2007. Recology and local officials did not hold any public hearings. As of January, 2010 they did not have any permits finalized, due to their own delays, and it was clear it was going to take much longer than 3 years for them to do so. When applying for an extension of their CUP, Recology blamed a group of ‘angry citizens’ for speaking up and blocking their progress on permits. By their own timeline, Recology notes these ‘angry citizens’ did not speak up until 2+years after the original CUP was issued. So, it is hard to fathom these ‘angry citizens’ every got in the way of their permitting process. The Humboldt County Commissioners voted unanimously against a 5-year extension of the CUP on April 5, 2010, supporting an appeal of the RPC decision that did grant that extension.

A local citizens group filed a initiative for the November ballot that received rousing voter support. The initiative would limit the amount of out of town waste received by up to 150% of what the regional landfill receives. Since April 5, 2010, Recology has a)Filed papers to sue Humboldt County, b)Filed to sue Humboldt County Commissioners individually, c)Filed for a judicial review of the Commissioners 4/5 decision and received an emergency stay, which also halted a case filed against them on the original CUP, and d)then had the gall to DIRECT the County District Attorney to file suit against the voter initiative for the November ballot (See Recology lawyer letter: The commissioners recently voted unanimously to let the ballot issue proceed.

Recology did secure an air quality permit from the NDEP, February, 2010. The appeal for this permit was held and denied in Carson City, NV on Friday, May 21. (more information: Expert witness testimony to point out that data in the permit application was wrong was denied because Nevada Department of Environmental (NDEP) employees testified they hadn’t read that data (appendix H). Therefore, it wasn’t part of the basis for granting an air quality permit. Apparently, accurate wind direction and speed does not come into play when getting an air quality permit in Nevada, as long as the applicant promises no fugitive dust will escape the site. And yes, it is hard for me to get my head wrapped around that logic. Having lived in the desert many years, I’m very skeptical about such promises.

But it gets even more comical. While Recology is not a local business in the community today, and they have filed two lawsuits and suggested stopping a voter initiative, they have given money to fund a local ‘Winnemucca Futures’ project designed to set goals for the city. * Apparently, they are ‘excited’ about getting more involved with the community. Clearly, the Humboldt Development Authority needs to re-think the ethics around funding for this project.

Did I mention local officials and Nevada state laws do not and have not required an environmental impact study? Just reviews by the NDEP. A recent USGS study requested by Senator Reid, while noting the possibility of underwater ground contamination was incomplete. Senator Reid has requested a re-work of this effort (see ).

There is more to the Recology story and the many faces they present from community ‘green’ partner to corporate bully. I used to think Recology only changed personalities when crossing the state line between Nevada and California. Now I see them establishing their good cop/bad cop roles right in Winnemucca.

My hope is that the press continues to dive in, and that our communities learn from one another in stopping this. After all, even Recology states ‘landfills will lose their significance (see: This is just a brief summary of what’s gone on at Jungo Road. Links to more information are below. If any of us can answer any questions; please don’t hesitate to contact me. We invite you and your team members to follow and report on Jungo Road.

Tracy Austin
Get involved/informed/donate: Join our e-mail list by sending your request to:
Join our Facebook Group, Nevadans Against Garbage:
Show your support, sign and share:
Follow DesertPlaya for updates and news on the landfill on Twitter at:

Posted by Guest on Jul. 21, 2010 @ 8:47 pm

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