Midwest Energy News recently mentioned a quirky art project sponsored by Commonwealth Edison, an Illinois electric utility. To promote its refrigerator recycling program, the utility paid artists to take its message to the streets by recycling refrigerators.

The reworked refrigerators were on display in Chicago on Michigan Avenue during the summer of 2012. The photos below are from a Fast Company slide show.

Dream Engine Refrigerator Sculpture
Dream Engine refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)
Fridge Pic refrigerator sculpture
Fridge Pic refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)



Camperator refrigerator sculpture
Camperator refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)

To see photos of the other redesigned refrigerators, check out this article from Commonwealth Edison.

If you saw a fridge like this sitting in the middle of the street, would it make you think about recycling your own refrigerator? Would you have to read the plaque to realize what it was?

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Electronic waste often ends up in places where it isn’t appreciated. Sometimes, it ends its life cycle in fiery pits in China and other countries. MIT students have tracked urban trash and found that e-waste ends up in all kinds of unexpected spots.

Today, Electronics Takeback Coalition posted photos of another possible destination for our computer chips: an art exhibit in Berlin, Germany. At the Electronics Goes Green 2012+ conference, artists Muharrem Batman, Ayse Batman and Judith Brun displayed these gorgeous compositions of resistors, plugs, circuit boards, connectors, wires and other electronic fragments.

Electronic Sculpture 1

Electronic Sculpture 2

Electronic Sculpture 3

I paid for part of my college education by building electronics. During my first year working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s physics department, I thought the colors of resistors were attractive. I brought some of the discarded resistors home to add to art projects, but never figured out what I wanted to do with them.

Since then, I’ve seen electronics recycled in many ways – as jewelry, business card holders, bookmarks, coasters and clipboards. But the artwork above is the most inventive reuse of electronics I’ve found yet.

Cuff links made out of circuit boards

Have you seen any interesting reuses of electronic scraps? If so, what were they?

Leatherback sea turtles are tough, but waterborne plastic can kill them. See Turtles, a nonprofit organization, says “hundreds of thousands of sea turtles… die each year from ocean pollution and ingestion or entanglement in marine debris.” Many of these pieces of plastic come from landfills.

To show passersby how plastic threatens leatherback turtles’ survival, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation is getting ready for the Revere Beach National Sand Sculpting Festival next week by making a wire sculpture of a leatherback turtle. I helped to build the turtle’s flippers and head this afternoon today in a back yard in Revere.

Leatherback turtle sculpture
Leatherback turtle sculpture. Photo credit: Matthew Nash.

At the festival, Visitor Services Supervisor Matthew Nash will invite people to pick up plastic trash from the beach and use it to decorate the turtle’s wire structure. At the end of the festival, he expects, the turtle will be covered with pieces of plastic. Each piece of plastic the visitors retrieve will reduce the beach refuse that turtles – or other animals and birds – might ingest.

When they aren’t dining on dangerous plastic debris, leatherback turtles are very tough. Their range extends all the way to northern Canada; they don’t object to cold weather. Their shells are made of flexible pieces which help them decompress when they are surfacing from deep water. A medium-sized leatherback turtle is about six feet long.

“That’s the infuriating part of this — people who are really trying to do the right thing [and] going to the trouble of taking their old stuff to some place thinking it’s going to be recycled have no idea that it’s not going to be recycled at all.”

– Barbara Kyle, Electronics TakeBack Coalition

Miller-McCune published an article on electronics recycling last month. After recycling enthusiastically for years, I was disappointed to learn that many of my electronics may have ended up in “acid baths and burn pits.” As a consumer, I want to know where my electronics are going – especially if they are being used unsafely overseas.

What does one call “recycling”? It’s an interesting question. Should there be a definition? I doubt that shipping material to sites where people will burn electronics in open pits would meet an international standard for recycling.

This is a classic example of misaligned incentives. Manufacturers, recyclers and consumers don’t pay the full cost of cheap disposal of electronics, so we collectively lack the motivation to change this situation. Somehow, the fact that we live in a closed ecological system doesn’t enter the equation.

Electronics on the Brain
Let's use our brain circuits before we burn our electric circuits.

We pass on the residue of our mistakes to future generations.

Where in the world are our cell phones going? It shouldn’t be as difficult to answer this question as it is to find Carmen Sandiego.

MIT’s Senseable City Lab produced an award-winning Trash Track website which shows that it does take some sleuthing to find the final resting places of our waste. Here’s their video which excavates the fate of garbage from Seattle. While viewing this, remember that this video covers a limited time period; in 20 years, these batteries and cell phones may migrate elsewhere.

Because we live in a closed ecological system, what we have on this planet stays here (unless we send it out to orbit in space). And, one way or another, our garbage will be reused.

Like petroleum, which is made of compressed swamp residue – imagine the Everglades being buried for thousands of years – yesterday’s trash will become tomorrow’s treasure…. or, at least, tomorrow’s fast food packaging.

Our descendants will work with whatever we make – wherever we leave it for them. Think of it as a partly recyclable, sometimes toxic inheritance. This is one reason that I write about DIY.

Even sea animals may live inside bottles or reuse bits of glass. The video below shows that some of them already do.

Although recent headlines say consumer spending in the United States is rebounding after the recession, I spent part of the holiday season doing the opposite of shopping. I cleaned my entire apartment and collected six boxes of items to donate to nonprofits or give to friends.

Unwanted household items can become less noticeable over time. Like extra e-mail, unnecessary material things lose their value. A few years ago, people were curious if they saw five new e-mails had arrived. Now, that’s barely worth noticing.

There’s some evidence that cleaning one’s environment can change one’s behavior. In The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell attributed the drop in subway crime in New York City to a reduction in graffiti. His theory was that people respected the subway once it was clean, so crime decreased. Some readers question that cause-and-effect relationship. Either way, I think it’s likely that selecting possessions one values – and giving away the ones one doesn’t – could improve how one takes care of one’s space.

Most of the material things I discovered this week were interesting and useful. One of them was a new DVD of March of the Penguins; I plan to watch that soon. Other things, like the bag of chocolate-covered coffee beans, are potential gifts for friends.

After simplifying my living space, I’m approaching the new year with a resolution to focus on what matters, appreciate what I decide to keep, and know what to pass on to the next person.

Trash Menagerie, a show in the Art and Nature Center at the Peabody Essex Museum, uses recycled materials to tell the story of our view of objects and our choices about what is disposable. If we saw these objects differently, what would happen?

The artists bring this question to life in many different media. On walking into the exhibit, I was confronted by a green-eyed dragon made of bundt cake pans and bicycle brakes. Each section of a pan was part of its body; each brake had become a leg. I can imagine how much welding it took to get that right.

Behind the dragon, visitors meet a pair of mechanical insects – built from drafting tools and sewing machine parts – and their sister sculpture, a squid made of small electronics.

Mechanical stinger insect from the Peabody Essex Museum

Ironic uses of plastic are a central theme of the exhibit. A shimmering trout turns out to be a composite of layered plastic. An ethereal crowd of hovering jellyfish and other sea creatures reveal their past lives as plastic soda bottles.

A statement by Nnenna Okore, the artist who rolled magazines into a roving band of large spiders, says that seeing poverty in Africa gave her a different perspective on what reused materials are worth.

Seeing ways to reuse everyday items we throw away – magazine covers, plastic bottles, newspapers – is a creative act. When we reframe what a plastic bottle means to us, that’s when the sea creatures start emerging. Literally.

Edited 4/25/2011: Here’s an update on the plastic that is floating in the Pacific Ocean.

So there is a lot of plastic in the ocean, but the Pacific garbage patch is NOT nearly the size of Texas: http://bit.ly/gFj39K


Plastic is everywhere – in packaging and in all kinds of products.

The amount of plastic industrialized societies use is amazing. For one illustration of this, check out Chris Jordan’s art (below):

An image of the worlds plastic consumption. For more details, click the image and visit Chris Jordans most recent exhibit.
An image of the 2.4 million pieces of plastic that enter the world's oceans every hour. To see close-ups, click the image and view Chris Jordan's most recent exhibit.

Once we, ah, contribute this plastic to the oceans, it stays there, unless we harvest it for other uses. There is currently a patch of plastic debris the size of Texas circulating in the Pacific Ocean. I find this disturbing. So does Pete Friedrich, a close relative of mine, who created a comic book about the adventures of these pieces of plastic.

Because plastic is everywhere, it becomes invisible to people. Hence the title of this post.

Plastic became more visible to me the day I realized how much of our household garbage – and recyclables – consisted of food packaging. Take-out containers were the most obvious problem, but there were plenty of other packages – styrofoam mushroom containers, for example – that are not very useful and are often non-recyclable.

When I realized this, I went through the kitchen and thought about ways to stop using extra plastic containers – as well as cans and bottles. The main problems were:

  1. Buying salad dressing, sauces and dips rather than making them at home. Sauces and dressings are easy to make at home and aren’t usually available in bulk, even at health food stores. Making sauces at home also means that one can choose the ingredients. It’s a win-win situation. Making sauces can also save money – up to $5 or more for the expensive kinds of peanut sauce.
  2. Using canned food. The process of making metal cans – and plastic-lined cans – probably contributes significantly to global warming, especially if the metal is manufactured overseas and shipped to North America. In contrast, buying fruit and vegetables fresh or frozen eliminates a lot of the packaging.
  3. Buying bottled shampoo, soap, detergent and household cleaners. Some of these can be made at home using vinegar and other ingredients one can buy in bulk. Many health food stores also give customers discounts for reusing shampoo and soap bottles.
  4. Buying any item in a box that one can buy in bulk (or make at home and store). These items can include granola, honey, soy sauce, nut butters, rice, baking mixes, pasta, nuts, beans, couscous, dried fruit, and even chocolate chips.

While I feel good about making these changes, I can’t take a big chunk out of that picture of Mt. Fuji on my own.  So I hope some of you will give this a try and think about ways you can cut back on your own use of plastic.