By JOEL MILLMAN and ROBERT GUY MATTHEWS
Even though gift-giving was relatively stingy this Christmas season, enough stuff changed hands to generate plenty of leftover trash. And that means good tidings for the artists who transform cast-offs into commodities.
Curbsides and trash bins are suddenly overflowing with bags, boxes and other booty that will become the raw material for creations ranging from candle holders to jewelry to undergarments.
"Ross Dress for Less has a bag, a solid gray, that I love," said Barbara De Pirro of Shelton, Wash., a 49-year-old "eco artist" who crochets handbags and baskets out of ribbons cut from shopping bags. While she also treasures a "beautiful royal blue" that Nordstrom's department stores use, her true love is a bright red sack with silver lining from Target Stores that leaves her almost misty-eyed.
One reason for the bounty is that recyclable holiday trash this season is worth only a fraction of what it fetched a year ago. Haulers, recyclers, brokers and vendors of American trash, who usually rejoice this time of year when waste paper, plastic and cardboard pile up, are joyless amid the world-wide economic slump.
"The Yellow Sheet," an industry bible for pricing the market in recyclables, reported export prices were down sharply toward the end of 2008. The bid price on exported OCC -- industry jargon for "old corrugated cardboard," the most-gathered type of paper trash -- had dropped to about $49 a ton near the end of the year, down from peaks of close to $200 a ton in early 2008. Clear plastic milk containers that garbage haulers recently sold for 30 cents a pound now fetch less than a nickel.
Nor is it expected to get much better anytime soon. "If you thought the OCC market was ugly to date, there's a very good chance it will only get worse in the weeks and months ahead," the Yellow Sheet warns.
Jason Young, a vice president at Allan Company Inc., one of Southern California's largest haulers of recyclable trash, has been stockpiling bales of OCC in rented warehouse space east of downtown Los Angeles. The reason: Selling it doesn't fetch much money. He added 300,000 square feet of space the past two months, and he will probably add more in the new year while he waits for the price of old cardboard to go up.
But while commercial garbage handlers struggle with their holiday hangover, plenty of creative types see Christmas -- with all its packaging, wrapping and other gifting byproducts -- as the perfect time to advance artistic and environmental causes. With less monetary incentive to recycle trash, there is plenty to pick through despite this season's shortened shopping lists.
Carol Tanzi is particularly interested in ExpandOS, a packaging material. The interior designer from Burlingame, Calif., has been commissioned to produce 45 eco-friendly centerpieces for a fund-raising gala scheduled in San Francisco in February. Designed by a Denver firm, ExpandOS are miniature cardboard wedges made of recycled paper and used instead of bubble wrap or spongy packaging peanuts.
"They are quite interesting to look at," said Ms. Tanzi, who signs some of her emails "Goddess of Garbage." The stiff cardboard strips with their Swiss cheese-like perforations will work perfectly as holders for the votive candles she plans to use.
She herself trolls the curbs, but also has a network of family and friends who know what to look for.
With consumer spending down, so too is demand for cardboard boxes, which in turn means less demand for recycled fiber used to make those boxes. It isn't just an American phenomenon, either. Four mammoth cardboard mills in China have drastically cut back production and are sitting on a mountain of unsold inventory. Since the summer, more than 10,000 small recyclers have gone out of business in China. That means tons of waste paper is backing up in the U.S., a big exporter of recycled goods. The market isn't much better for soft-drink cans, plastic containers and scrap metal, either.
Artist Kat Cole scours one of Pittsburgh's busiest thoroughfares, Liberty Avenue, for bits of steel, wire and bolts that have fallen off the streams of rumbling trucks and cars in and out of downtown. She was busy last month making Christmas gifts from cans discarded on the roadside; one woman wanted three handmade broaches.
Ms. Cole, 23, said she used to make jewelry from metals such as copper and silver, too, but scrap prices rose too high this past year. So, she switched to the free stuff that had been thrown off cars and trucks along Liberty Avenue and other streets. "It has been good for my work and my pocketbook," she said.
The recycling bin at the Springdale Tavern across the street from Chris Tymoshuk's studio in Oregon's Multnomah County is a treasure chest she is mining with particular diligence. Thanks to holiday revelers at the bar -- and fewer profit-minded scavengers looking for cans to redeem -- she has a lot more inventory to choose from.
"I like a long, slender can," she said, preferring #10 orange- and cranberry-juice cans she burns with an oxyacetylene torch and renders into garden sculpture, candle holders and lanterns.
The availability of so much excess trash has the 47-year-old Minnesota native dreaming of new media to work with. A charter member of Oregon's "Cracked Pots" art-show group -- a loose community of artists who work almost entirely in recycled trash -- Ms. Tymoshuk has been inspired to try her hand with milk jugs and Styrofoam.
Ingrid Goldbloom Bloch, an artist in Massachusetts, looks for Coke cans and washing-machine-hose clamps, weaving pieces into garters. The red and silver garter is one of 13 items in her line of trashy lingerie, which also employs old dryer vents and, in her homage to the Wonderbra, welded steel.—Miho Inada contributed to this article.