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Garbage for Art’s Sake: Making art at the Sanitary Fill Company
by Summer Burkes

“Dilettante” column originally published at the turn of the century on 12.15.98 in the SF Bay Guardian. Re-intro December 2018 here.


The Sanitary Fill Company’s recycling and transfer station sits in the shadow of the hazy San Bruno Mountain amid a low sea of warehouses and industrial yards. Past the genial security guard, red-and-white trucks whiz around cyclone fences to and from sundry airplane-hangar-sized buildings.

All trash and recycling from the city goes through this joint — the trash on its way to the Livermore landfill, and the recycling materials all over the world, back into the consumer fray. The old S.F. landfill (it’s full now) looms in the distance, a flat mosaic of refuse that almost negates the splendor of the pink sunset over the mountain.

Tonight the company is hosting an open house for its artists-in-residence program, a dream come true for found-art enthusiasts, who can hang out and play in Dumpster-diver heaven and then get recognition for it. I arrive early; more interested in the process than the result, I take a tour of the grounds.

20 years later, we still participate with Recology’s dragon in the Chinese New Year’s Parade, made by trash-artist-friends Dana Albany and Flash Hopkins

The trucks that spirit away the recyclable refuse of the city’s more responsible citizens have two bunkers — one for paper and one for containers. An open warehouse reveals a mountain of former trees that, when dumped, goes up a conveyor belt along which people separate the paper from the cardboard by hand. Yes, by hand.

On the way to the containers building, the tour guide shows me one of the newer trucks, an innovation developed with Volvo and Cummins Engine that runs on compressed natural gas, reducing emissions 90 percent over the diesel ones they use now.

He says San Francisco has 17 separate recycling programs (as opposed to most cities’ 2 or 3) which handle, among other things, produce, window glass, hazardous waste, Christmas trees , and something called Confidential Document Destruction and Recycling. They’re also building an environmental learning center for the 6000-odd students that tour the place each year (any taxpayer can make an appointment for a tour, though).

I start to believe that, even though it’s a big company and the tour guide’s wearing a suit, he might be telling the truth and that our town kicks environmental ass.

this event happened in 2010. art from trash ftw

Inside the containers building (cavernous, drafty, things to hide behind, perfect place for a shoot-out), the noise of a truckload of bottles and cans being unloaded almost breaks the sound barrier. The stench factor is surprisingly low.

On the conveyor belt here, a giant fan blows off the plastic and a magnet picks up the tin and aluminum. Afterwards, three workers separate the clear, green, and amber glass — by hand. The paper and cardboard will be made back into paper and cardboard and shipped to places like Japan, where they don’t have much forest to clear-cut. The aluminum and tin cans may end up as refrigerator parts or siding for houses. And the plastic, amazingly enough, can be recycled into Old Navy Performance Fleece. (Does that count as vintage wear?)

Metal and plastic are smashed, baled, weighed, and shipped. Out back, surreal squares of recyclable materials the size of small cars, stacked like toy blocks for giants, are works of art themselves. The aluminum ones weigh about 1000 pounds.

Others made of colorful detergent bottles look almost edible. The one made of pie tins looks like something from Area 51.

In the public disposal area a woman unloads a truckful of tree cuttings as someone else discards Sheetrock. A bin full of metal things looks particularly inviting, but alas, only the artists-in-residence are allowed to Dumpster-dive, even in this sector.

The Sanitary Fill Company also recycles paint and then gives it away (yes, free) to the public. The hazardous waste recycling area, where you can ditch your old motor oil and Mr. Yuk cleaning products, sits threateningly behind a fence.

The Joseph E. Johnson Memorial Sculpture Garden, a hilltop garden just past the construction and demolition debris recycling area, acts as an aesthetically pleasing buffer and sound barrier for the neighboring residential area. Works by past artists-in-residence sit among plants and gravel pathways that have also been rescued from the waste stream.

An oversized teardrop made out of uniform plastic bottles hangs in the air like a cartoon; a double archway made from mosaic glass, metal, and wood takes my breath away. The sun sets, and we make our way to the art opening.

one of the sculptures from Recology’s garden in South City, in 1998 at least

An intricate cardboard sign at the door says “Make art, not landfill.” Inside, half of the art looks more like an engineering project; the other half is unsophisticated but cute. (It’s all trash, but it’s not all trash.)

The international recycling symbol is crudely re-created in newspaper, cellophane, tinsel, and wire. A whimsical collection of makeshift rocking chairs clatters with metal adornments such as old scissors and film reels. Discarded lamps and chandeliers, illuminated with colored bulbs, splay out over a big silver floor. And as the centerpiece, an immense “rain stick” crafted from oil drums, suspended by a pulley system, and filled with melodious garbage is rocked back and forth by art show attendees. (Two words: Burning Man.)

A far cry from Sanford and Son but closer to Martha Stewart than you might think. (Note to self: gather half a ton of pie tins and smash it into a cube for a lovely space-age coffee table.) In fact, it occurs to me that fear of dirt and cooties must be the only thing keeping recycled art from being the biggest craft movement since marbleizing.

That, and the fact that we can’t dumpster-dive in those enticing metal bins. Hell, I’ll take signing a waiver and getting scratched up over another stupid watercolor rendering of a fruit bowl any day.


This is the 34th piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; this post’s intro is here, and Dilettante’s first installment is here.

Oh and ten years after this article, on 12.21.2008, the SFBG‘s next nightlife columnist Marke B talks Nite Trax.

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