As the sun rose Monday morning, Sanders Wright inspected his truck at the transfer station before heading out on his usual route to collect the city’s trash.
With a passion for working in the waste industry, Wright collects garbage and recyclables along one of Washington’s biggest pickup routes with little interaction with the public until now. He drives a truck wrapped in colorful motifs designed by area artist Nicolas Shi.
“People from out of town say, ‘We don’t have this where we’re from,’ and I tell them this is a new design,” Wright says. “We get so many positive responses. It makes you enjoy coming to work. The children love the truck, and the parents will come out and speak with us.”
After obtaining a grant, the Commission on the Arts and Humanities (CAH) approached the Department of Public Works (DPW) about a public art collaboration, Designed to Recycle, to highlight the importance of recycling. In 2015, the project launched with 10 recycling trucks wrapped in the work of local artists. This year, 15 newly wrapped trucks were added to the fleet, bringing the total to 25 trucks servicing all eight districts in Washington
“Our primary goal was to get people thinking more about recycling,” says DPW Director Christopher Shorter. “We also saw it as an opportunity for people to not associate the agency and the sanitation workers only with trash. An added benefit has been that it’s elevated the work of our sanitation workers and the critical role they play in creating a cleaner, greener city.”
Wright says his customers recognize him by the truck. Tourists on U street snap pictures of the truck as he drives by. Children will run up to see the Latin American-influenced pop art. Customers even bring him water or juice on hot days, he says.
“I enjoy it because it brings more communication between citizens and their trash man,” Wright says. “They know who is coming. They know us by the truck. We have other competing trash haulers, and they don’t know the drivers. I get to know more of the customers and build a bond with them.”
Kennisha Rainge, CAH external affairs director, says the project’s main goal is to highlight the importance of recycling and draw attention to the important work of DPW. CAH and DPW also partner on another public art project, MuralsDC, which replaces graffiti on buildings with public artwork.
“While it may seem at first that CAH and DPW don’t have much in common in terms of the work that our agencies perform, Designed to Recycle demonstrates how CAH and DPW have a common goal of improving the quality of life for residents and maintaining the beauty of our city,” Rainge says. “Our hope is that these trucks provide a reminder to residents that they play a vital role in the city’s recycling and sustainability efforts.”
Under Mayor Muriel Bowser’s leadership, the district has committed to achieving an 80 percent waste diversion rate, Shorter says. Last fall, Bowser synchronized the list of recyclable items throughout the district and expanded the list of acceptable recyclables to include clean pizza boxes, paper and plastic cups and plates.
“These trucks keep recycling in the conversation,” Shorter says. “We use them to help create a dialogue with youth about recycling when we do truck touch events or outreach at schools. They are a great educational tool.”
The trucks support the district’s recycling efforts, as well as DPW’s goal to reduce contamination levels down to 12 percent in the residential recycling stream.
“Recycling and waste diversion more broadly are efforts that we need our residents’ help with,” Shorter says. “We all have a role to play and art is a powerful medium through which we can deliver that message.”
Recycled Fish by Carly Rounds, Urban Jungle by Jackie Coleman and Nuestra Tierra by Nicolas Shi are among this year’s new designs.
Over the summer, artist Kristine DeNinno and her students designed Save the Anacostia to bring awareness to the toxins and trash in the Anacostia River in Washington.
“There’s been environmental issues with the river, and they’re trying to get young people involved in D.C. to learn how to keep the environment clean where you live,” DeNinno says. “I almost started crying when I saw the truck. These are D.C. kids learning about the environment and recycling through art.”