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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Group Of Artists Turns Chittenden County Recycling Containers Into Works Of Art

Courtesy of Michael Sipe
Sarah-Lee Terrat and her recycling container. Terrat is one of 11 artists who have focused their creative energy on Chittenden Solid Waste District recycling containers.

If you frequent any of the transfer stations in Chittenden County, you may have noticed some changes to the big metal containers you throw your recyclables into. The Chittenden Solid Waste District has initiated a new public art project — "The Art Of Recycling" — in collaboration with and funded by Eight of the district's big receptacles have been turned over to local artists to beautify. And they're pretty striking.

The other day, in full-pelting sleet, I met up with CSWD's marketing specialist Jonny Finity and local artist Mary Lacy to see a few of these containers and talk about the project. As Lacy explains, the containers make an unexpectedly perfect canvas.

"Jonny [Finity] and I actually met in the fall of last year when I was working on a previous project: the silos at's [Burlington offices]. He talked about these dumpsters being such a viable and unexpected canvas. And that's really where the ideas started," Lacy explains. "He also talked about the recycle paint program that CSWD runs in their toxic waste depot, where people bring all their leftover paint and then they recycle it into big new colors. And so at least 25 percent of all the paint used to make these containers are also from that recycled paint."

Lacy brought together a group of artists to help turn eight containers into works of art.

"There's a total of 11 artists, eight containers because Anthill [Collective] is three people and the last container is two people." Lacy explains.

Because so many people drop off their recycling at various points around Chittenden County, it's a natural for a big public art project. But Finity says it's about more than just beauty.

Credit Courtesy of Michael Sipe
Five of the eight containers.

"This is the art of recycling, it's really a celebration of recycling," he explains. "When I first met Mary [Lacy] and saw this public engagement, the community loving the work that she was doing, I thought, 'We have these really functional mobile canvasses people are interacting with on a daily basis to do something really good for the environment, for the community.'"

"To give a message that what you're doing has some intrinsic motivation but it also has a big part to play in building a bit more beautiful community." — John Finity, CSWD's Marketing Specialist

"And it was a great opportunity for her to bring together a team of artists in the community and strengthen that piece and to use the artistic vision — a lot of color, recycled paint — to give a message that what you're doing has some intrinsic motivation but it also has a big part to play in building a bit more beautiful community.”

Credit Jane Lindholm / VPR
On the left, one of the containers included in the art project, and on the right, another recycling container in use at the Chittenden County solid waste district facility.

"I'm not expecting the art to actually drive people to say, 'Oh! I need to recycle more because there's art on the container!'" Finity says. "But it does create a more subtle emotional connection with recycling when you drop your recyclables off in a beautiful container; you just have a better feeling about it. Our operators have been saying the public response to this has been amazing." 

"The operator here at the Burlington drop-off center actually said it was a home run for the district." Finity adds. "And besides just actually having this interaction here, these containers move all over Chittenden County. Once they fill up here, they're get taken to the materials recovery facility, the recycling center in Williston, they unload the recyclables and they're taken to a different drop-off center ... It's a way of making the invisible visible.”

"I don't even notice these green containers going down the road because they're green, they're easy to miss," Finity says. "But you can't miss these.”

Credit Jane Lindholm / VPR
A CSWD container painted by Sloan Collins leaves the drop-off station in Burlington full of recyclables.

"For me personally, [and] I think for many people, one of the challenges [of] overcoming waste and reducing it and doing it responsibly is it disappears from your sight after you dispose of recycling or trash or whatever. Remembering that just because it's not in your sight, it does not go away," Lacy says. "That's my favorite part of them being seen in transit, is that it's even one step further into the unexpected realm of remembering. I'm more passionate about art being put into an unexpected location, versus something that you seek out within a closed space."

For her container, Lacy created an abstract mural of Chittenden County, including downtown Burlington, the Waterfront, and even CSWD.

Credit Jane Lindholm / VPR
Mary Lacy and John Finity in front of the container Lacy painted on a cold rainy Burlington day.

"It's the area that CSWD is taking care of," Lacy explains, pointing to the various locations depicted on her map. "And I love the idea of people coming up and being like, 'Where's my house? Where is this? Where's that?' It evokes some interaction, some play.”

While the containers do provide a large canvas to create, Lacy says the size and shape presented some challenges.

"The ridges were very difficult to paint," she says, "but I think standing back and in transit they don't affect the design as much as the artist probably thinks in the moment.”

Credit Courtesy of Michael Sipe
Mary Lacy sitting inside the container she painted for the project. The container is an abstract depiction of the Chittenden County area.

"[Mary Lacy's] was the first container that we painted in the whole project," Finity says, "and so we still didn't know what was going to happen. It was like, there's this big open end to the project. And it was really exciting to see it all come together."

“We had just moved into this warehouse space in Essex, this giant warehouse donated by Bob Miller from Bob Miller reality and so this was this tiny little container inside this enormous like airplane hanger or warehouse," Finity says. "And Mary's just sitting in there, you know making these small shapes on this giant container. And so some of the sense that I feel when I look at this is the sense of accomplishment, of really making this project come to fruition."

When we visited, two other containers from the project were parked at the CSWD drop-off center.

Credit Courtesy of Michael Sipe
Members of the Anthill Collective with their recycling container, titled "Reimagine."

“Reimagine," the title of one of the other two containers that happened to be at the drop-off center, also has recycling and community themes integrated into the design. The artists, Anthill Collective, used recycled paint as a background for an explosion of color.

"[The artists] got the concept as a whole project right from the start. The reason they're called the Anthill Collective, the reason ants are a big part of their image, is they're a community that uses all of their resources and they don't waste anything," Finity says. "It was a perfect tie into this whole project. The art of recycling isn't just about recycling, it's a bigger landscape of ideas that includes everything that we do to reduce our impact on the environment and reduce waste away from the landfill."

A third container was done by local artist Sloan Collins.

The entire structure is painted in shades of blue, with birds in flight stenciled on to it. Some of the birds are very detailed and crisp and then some of them are shadowy, suggesting birds farther away.

Credit Courtesy of Michael Sipe
Sloan Collins (top) in front of his container.

"[The birds] are sparrows, specifically," Lacy explains, "Another animal that is based in community and working together."

"I like this one because it totally changes the color [of the unpainted container]. There's no green in here, it is not a green dumpster," She says. "It is a totally different spectrum coming at you and then the detail in the stencils on this one is mind blowing.”

Finity says each container is expected to last roughly seven years before it reaches the end of its life with the district and gets sold.

“We hoped, at the start of this project, these murals would last at least a couple of years. I'll be very interested to see how they age because Mary and these other artists have created a beautiful piece of art. But now, the public gets to shape the direction that art takes ... They see a lot of wear and tear and that age will be a representation of the function of the art."

You can see more from the project at the CSWD website and the project's Facebook page.

Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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