Most people know you can recycle glass, plastic, and paper, but what about foam and concrete? Artists in Houston are “upcycling” such difficult-to-reuse refuse into sculptures, doors, mirrors, and other works of art.

It all started when Solid Waste Management Department (SWMD) Public Information Officer Sandra Jackson decided that some art would look nice in the lobby of the Bob Lanier Public Works building. Public Works and Engineering Deputy Assistant Director Dave Buster jumped on the opportunity.

The first exhibit was a collection of decorated doors. Keith Koski, who runs SMWD’s Reuse Warehouse, sent Jackson photos of doors that had been decorated by local artist Charles Washington. Launched in 2009, the warehouse offers new and used building materials donated by suppliers and builders to non-profit organizations for free.

As examples of “creative upcycling,” Jackson thought the doors would be great publicity for Public Works and Solid Waste Management; and she was right. The departments got such positive feedback that there have been four more exhibitions:

  • Transitions – an Exploration of Recycled Art, which was coordinated and curated by the Center for Recycled Art. In addition to the warehouse, artists were asked to use materials from SWDM’s Environmental Service Center (ESC) South.
  • Reconstruction, also organized by the Center for Recycled Art.
  • Holiday Trees in partnership with the City Gardens Group.
  • The fifth exhibition was a series of 96-gallon recycling carts that had been decorated by teams of middle and high school students. Container manufacturer Toter, donated the carts and prize money. The carts have appeared at a career day, a Houston Rockets game, and Earth Day Houston.

Like the trash it’s made from, the artwork is being used in new capacities. Some are on permanent display at ESC South. The doors from the first project are at the local library.

Jackson credits SWMD Director Harry Hayes with much of the program’s success, describing him as a big believer in art and partnering with the community. “His management style is A.R.T.: accountability, responsibility, and teamwork,” she says.

SWMD Division Manager Marilyn Leday advises those interest to just jump in. “It’ll snowball,” she says. “A lot of things that could have another life are discarded. It only takes one person to come up with the idea, and then others will join in.”

Kelley Lindsey