BioCycle Magazine

Dumpster Divers Give a Boost to Recycling


Courtesy of Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

Recycling advocates are always searching for new driving forces to move the field forward on the road to materials recovery. Greater emphasis is now placed on composting programs, commercial office paper recovery, construction and demolition salvage projects, and support of reuse centers. While these strategies have been successful, there is still the sense that — for recycling to be more prominent to the average American — the impetus must come from somewhere other than institutionalized recycling coordinators. One potential group that may turn out to be the “sleeping instigator” to advance recycling as a cultural phenomenon is the growing band of creative individuals called “found object artists.”

The Dumpster Divers in Philadelphia Pennsylvania is one of the many such groups that have sprung up nationally over the last decade as recycling has really taken off. It is comprised of roughly 40 artists, collectors and junkaholics who have been meeting monthly for lunch since 1991 to discuss the ins and outs of picking through trash. They are constantly in search of discarded cultural artifacts ranging from marbles, Lego pieces and action figures to bowling balls, stereos and broken lamps. But they aren’t going through other people’s trash in order to make ends meet — although the occasional computer, couch or CD player often comes in handy. They’re in search of material for their specialized work — computer chip jewelry, bowling ball busts, Popsicle stick cities, giant animal assemblages, you name it.


Neil Benson’s small living room in center city Philadelphia spills over with treasures. Lamps made of children’s toys and tin cans full of butter knife handles. Boxes of junk jewelry, several piles of Hawaiian shirts, a lamp shade made of extended metal measuring tapes. An old Philco television screen, circa 1955 minus its housing. There are big batches of aluminum can pop tops all stuck together creating a cascading effect.

Shelves, old bookcases and display cabinets overflow with collections of colorful old transistor radios, dusty porcelain figurines, exotic books, and any plastic trinket imaginable. A vague, dappled rainbow hue permeates the space, with shiny logos of soda can cutouts, belt buckles, hifi emblems, and political buttons reflected in the light of neon signs hanging on the wall. The room has been put together and collected in such a fashion to make it both a museum and collector’s showroom. What it is, of course, is a junk artist’s warehouse and workshop.

Benson — a freelance news photographer in his mid-40s with the eyes of a trickster and enthusiastic chuckle of a kid in a candy store — is one of the founding members of Philadelphia’s Dumpster Divers.

During a recent visit, Benson is extremely apologetic that his house is so empty. Most of his big projects have been packed up and shipped down to South Carolina where a conference called the “Revival Design Camp Meeting” is being held. The national conference will bring junk artists together for show and tell sessions. The state of South Carolina, positioning itself to become a labor state for manufacturing bulk quantities of junk artists’ prototypes, is funding the conference. It’s part of an effort for South Carolina to become known as what Benson says can be called an artists’ factory.

Found object art shows are popping up all over the country. In 1997 the Oakland Museum of California sponsored a successful show called “Hello Again: A New Wave of Recycled Art and Design.” The show traveled to Texas and British Columbia in 1998. The slow growth of this new field is also spawning numerous regional exhibits and one-person shows.

Although Benson is working on several big sculpture pieces and is only too happy to show off several lamp ideas he is playing with, his main money making enterprise comes from his typewriter key jewelry. He keeps approximately 10 display cases of earrings stocked in different museum shops around the United States, garnering several hundred dollars in profit a month. The typewriters come from his regular Dumpster diving trips and, if he can get a good deal, from flea markets and rummage sales in the Philadelphia area.

Like most junk artists, Benson admits that he isn’t really saving much landfill space. But the combination of his enthusiasm for other people’s trash with his own creative zeal allows him to earn a living. “I just enjoy trash picking,” he says. “Trash is simply a failure of imagination and that’s my reason for being involved in this world.”

Waxing philosophical, Benson says that the Vietnamese were famous for adapting hi-tech American “trash” to low-tech functions. He says he’s heard that the Vietnamese don’t have a word for trash. He points to a lampshade he’s made out of aluminum soda can tops, waves at picture frames that use the brightly colored can bodies as veneer, and then glumly reveals that he can’t figure out how to use the beveled base for anything yet. “If I could find a use for all parts of the can, then I’d be happy,” explains Benson.


Known affectionately as junk artists, some of Benson’s peers have become highly successful mainstream sculptors and artisans using material found in people’s trash or purchased at flea markets to make everything from giant animal pieces to high quality furniture and glass tableware.

Leo Sewell, another Philadelphian, earns a six-figure income creating sculptures primarily out of metal items recovered while Dumpster diving. Over 100 of Sewell’s pieces are in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museums around the world. He has also sold to private collectors like Sylvester Stallone, Demi Moore, George Carlin, and Nelson Rockefeller.
Sewell says that works like his are called assemblages. They are essentially three-dimensional collages. His somewhat controversial “The Crucifix” is a sculpture of Jesus on a cross composed of old sections of church doors and pews,
numerous crucifixes, religious figurines, and even a religious license plate. His studio is full of animal sculptures he has made, including various cats, dogs, ducks, fish and a life-size horse assembled out of scrap aluminum hardware.

While obviously approachable and often humorous, the actual artifacts that Sewell, Benson and others like them use in their work tend to be highly recognizable symbols of contemporary culture — artifacts which may well be collector’s items some day, automobile emblems, toys, bottle tops, sports equipment, appliances, license plates, etc. Thus, although the going price for a Benson lamp may be several hundred dollars today and a Sewell duck may fetch several thousand dollars, in 40 or 50 years those same pieces may be worth 10 times their original price because they contain collectible items and even memorabilia that can no longer be purchased. “I recognize the power of nostalgia,” says Sewell.

Despite the strong connection between mass consumer culture and junk art, Sewell points out that there is a long tradition of using found objects in art that goes back to Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, the founder of Dada. He says the Dadaists and Futurists made objects part of their work as did the Surrealists and those influenced by Andy Warhol. But Sewell also links his success to taking a businesslike approach to his work: “I’m a businessman. In our day, being a businessman is more honored than being an artist. It’s seen by many people as pretentious when you call yourself an artist.”

In fact, Sewell’s first degree was in business, and then he got a master’s degree in art history, although he did no studio work (his master’s thesis was on the use of the found object in art). Sewell says that he brings to his work what he learned in business school: “In business you have to be organized, prepared, and tenacious.” He also points out that he makes rules for himself. One rule is to get to the bottom of every pile every two years. With a sardonic smile, he also admits that he has probably broken all of his own rules over the years.


In fact, making up rules and creating order out of chaos seem to be traits of Dumpster Divers. Meetings regularly include special sessions called Tech Talk where people give presentations on special techniques like drilling through glass. They also have show and tell sessions that allow members to discuss objects they’ve found. Benson relates The Rule of 100 in which “something you won’t take five of you’ll take 500 of.” He is also proud of the new term the divers have coined: garbitrage. Garbitrage is the process whereby Dumpster Divers use trash as a trade currency.
The Rule of 100 and garbitrage are concepts that have ultimately led to the Dumpster Divers’ newest project, “Please Take Materials Exchange” (a takeoff on the name of Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum for children). In essence, Please Take is a warehouse for stuff that no one wants anymore. Some of it is obviously material collected by the Dumpster Divers. But founder cdavid hall-cottrill says that they also receive donations from government agencies and corporations throughout the metropolitan Philadelphia area. The facility houses everything from cases of unused copy paper, art supplies and light bulbs to medical equipment, textiles and electronics.

Please Take is a joint project of the Dumpster Divers and the Creative Artists’ Reuse Project (CARP). It is fashioned after the Materials for the Arts program in New York. Unlike Materials for the Arts, which limits materials distribution to nonprofits and educational institutions, Please Take does not receive support from municipal government. As such, it allows open membership.

Please Take charges a membership fee of $40 for six months, or $80 a year. Members receive a $50 credit toward any of the material housed in the exchange warehouse. According to hall-cottrill, the idea is for artists to be able to find any medium they need for a low cost in one spot.
After only a year of operation though, Please Take is a victim of its own success. All available space to store material is taken. Benson and hall-cottrill are in search of a new facility. Not surprisingly, they are looking for a large abandoned building that the city doesn’t know what to do with. And they’re not worried about where they locate either. “If we end up in some drug dealer’s zone,” says Benson, “it’ll take two weeks before those guys move to get away from us crazies.”

In the final analysis, junk art is probably not going to save the world. Even though every little bit helps, the landfill space saved by Dumpster Divers throughout the country is nominal at best. But the passion and enthusiasm these people bring to the world of trash has the power to be infectious. Even more so, as people like Benson and Sewell hone their crafts and get better at selling the fruits of their labors, they prove once again that the success of recycling is dependent upon adding value to what people discard. And what higher value than art? By David Biddle

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