Planet of the Unrepurposers

Perceivings by Alan Dean Foster

Day after day we find ourselves bombarded with announcements, declarations, exhortations (and sometimes exorcisms) prodding us to recycle. Pretty much everyone I know dutifully complies, or uneasily says that they do.

Since 5enses frequently deals with art and science, we see the word 'repurposing' a lot. This is the word that artists use when making “art” out of junk so they don’t have to use the word 'recycle.' In most folks’ minds, “recycling” conjures up images of garbage, of things we throw away, and for an artist struggling to sell their junk art, “repurposing” provides a less objectionable moniker.

Far be it from me to chastise the creative for their choice of certain labels, though. It's just that I have yet to see a contemporary repurposed piece of art to which my initial gut reaction is not “hey, that’s a pile of rubbish!” I understand that art is in the eye of the beholder. I’m just not so sure that it should once also have been in the nose of the beholder.

I guess it is better to have old cans, cardboard, glass, office supplies, paper clips, clipped hair, tree clippings, beautified baby diapers, and abandoned cars slapped with paint placed in museums and art shows than simply thrown out. If nothing else, this provides a useful service by freeing up valuable space in landfills. If we are really serious about recycling, it should be the law that a certain amount of money ought to be freed up for individual citizens to spend on art — so long as it’s “repurposed” art. Think of it: itinerant, impecunious artists would gain incomes, there would be less rubbish altogether, speeding up trash collection, and a general aesthetic edification would be inflicted on a reluctant public. A win all around.

Given the prices that some of the repurposed art I see bring, I am always surprised that our noble and hardworking refuse collectors do not all double as commercial artists. C’mon, guys, you know you can do as well as half the stuff you see in museums of contemporary art. As long as your wives are going to drag you to such venues because “it’s educational,” you might as well snap some pictures of samples, go home, and get to work in the garage.

I personally think that Prescott, a community proud of its artistic heritage and leanings, should sponsor a contest once a year open strictly to refuse collectors from around the world who have made it a point to repurpose a small portion of the crap they are forced to handle every day. Think of the national publicity!

By golly, if Sweetwater, Texas (a charming little community on the interstate to nowhere, now subsumed in a jungle of wind generators) can derive national notoriety out of annually massacring hundreds of innocent, vermin-eating reptiles, then how much more upscale would it be to throw a yearly bash celebrating the artistic accomplishments of men and women creating art out of the debris (excepting that hoarded by your Uncle Fred, who never throws anything out) they deal with daily? I tell you, The New York Times would send its art editor out to cover the event. Guaranteed.

Better for the environment, too. Not just because it keeps garbage out of landfills, but also off the necks and legs of small animals and birds that don’t know any better, and out of the stomachs of sea turtles. A floating plastic bag looks just like one of the turtles’ favorite foods: jellyfish. And surely there is a clever tinkerer out there who can figure out a way to do something with the tens of thousands of pairs of cheap flip-flops that litter beaches from California to the Comoros. Glue them all together to form a single pair of gigantic, multihued floppers. Call it “The Essence of Future Past” or something equally pretentious. Win prizes, impress your friends.

Having dumped, I hope with some small eloquence, on pretend artists and non-recyclers alike, I’ll offer a suggestion of my own. Why can’t we reuse the hundreds of thousands of pill bottles that are discarded every year? Surely there’s a quick, cheap way to disinfect them without compromising the integrity of the plastic. Each bottle already has the name and relevant information of the recipient on it. Save the pharmacist time looking up details. Take in your tough plastic Rx bottles and have them refilled. Every modern pharmacist has an electronic record of how many refills a customer is due, so pasting over or trying to change a label wouldn’t work.

Failing that, cut out the bottom of each bottle, glue ‘em together, and make a cockroach run. Fun for the whole family.

And if the kids get tired of it or your spouse threatens to leave you unless you get rid of the creepy thing, you can always enter it in an art show. Sometimes the roaches win.

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at

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