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San Francisco's Utopic Dump: Visual Artists Remake City's Trash into Treasure

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Artist in Residence SculptureIn their book, Cradle to Cradle, authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart lament the one-way, cradle-to-grave model of our industrial system. The detritus in our landfills—upholstery, old furniture, computers, paper and food—is the end of the road for products made from material "that required effort and expense to extract and make, billions of dollars’ worth of material assets." Yet once they’re in the landfill, the materials’ value goes to waste.

In San Francisco though, a good deal of our waste avoids that fate. The Board of Supervisors passed a mandatory recycling and composting ordinance in 2009, and our curbside recycling and compost pickup is free. Our compost feeds soil at local farms and wineries. Partially used cans of paint left at the household hazardous waste drop-off are available for free. All told, 77% of our waste is diverted from the landfill. The city hopes to reach its goal of zero waste by 2020.

And a select group of artists is also chipping away at the city's waste stream. In their hands, used glass becomes icy sculpture; discarded fur coats become a husk of jackrabbits; Styrofoam becomes a full-scale (non-operational) Hummer; and engine parts, a gas pump, baseball bats, ten-speed bike handlebars, vacuum parts, a lamp, extension ladder parts, a garden soil aerator and golf caddy cart wheels are reborn as a giant mosquito.

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