Cover Stories

One Man’s Trash

Artist Adam Horowitz takes on the waste industrial complex (again)

Crushed cans, old milk jugs and other items wrapped in plastic sit near the north entrance of Railyard Park and SITE Santa Fe. The sheer grandness of the installation—four 1,000-pound blocks of compressed, recycled materials in stacks that measure roughly 65 inches tall—draws attention. Fourteen people, some sporting plastic skirts and water bottle necklaces, dance and catwalk to ‘70s music. While in most instances, piles of trash would trigger outcry and clean up, this mess is intentional. Artist and filmmaker Adam Horowitz, who constructed the block formation with a custom orange crane attached to a massive Ford truck, looks on with pride.

“They’re just beautiful,” he says with a smile.

The blocks also serve a purpose: They provide a stark representation of the 2,000 pounds of trash generated annually by the average American. Horowitz wears a jacket with the letters “USA” on it in classic red, white and blue “because we’re number one,” he says. “Number one in waste.”

“Plastolithic,” the first of Horowitz’s two-part land-art sculpture series, debuted April 14 at the park in advance of Earth Day on April 22 and will remain until late June. The presentation, he says, aims to invoke ancient Egyptian art. Informational signage about waste reduction and recycling accompany the sculpture.

“It’s a public service about waste reduction and recycling and how we solve this problem,” Horowitz says. “It’s something important that’s killing the Earth. We got to talk about this and think about this and educate ourselves about this.”

A second piece, the spiral-shaped effort “PlasticGyre,” which Horowitz originally intended to erect last summer, will be installed in Railyard Park in October and stay there until April 2025, if all goes according to plan. A big “if” given the bureaucratic hurdles Horowitz has already faced with the installation. Still, he’s accustomed to such obstacles.

In the late 1990s, Horowitz’s plan to construct a replication of Stonehenge made out of old refrigerators in the old Paseo de Vista landfill also faced setbacks, including multiple “accidental” destructions on top of multi-year delays while the city grappled with closing the landfill. Still, “Stonefridge: a Fridgehenge,” eventually got built and rebuilt, remaining at the site until 2007, and garnering international attention along the way.

“It was really interesting, because by being destroyed, it became way more successful as a concept,” Horowitz says of Stonefridge. “It was food for thought and discussion about what’s going on.”

What’s going on, as Horowitz points out in all of his work across mediums, is a culture of waste: plastic waste, food waste, nuclear waste—you name it.

“This is a symbol of all of the waste that we make,” he says, gesturing toward the blocks, “including, especially, nuclear waste.” Horowitz points out Santa Fe’s close proximity to Los Alamos National Laboratory. “If you look at these trash bales, they have everything in them,” he adds. “I can’t promise that they have nuclear waste in them, but I am going to check them with a Geiger counter.”

He’s joking. Probably. After all, like Stonefridge, the latest installation addresses a serious issue, but it’s also supposed to be funny.

“If I can laugh at something dark it disarms me, and it makes me think about the subject in a different way,” Horowitz says. “It reaches parts of your brain and your psyche in ways that you don’t expect and in a lot of ways it can be more effective.”

Laughing also can help when dealing with the inevitable hurdles such public art projects face.

“It’s experimental,” he says, “and I think when you try to make public art with thousands of pounds of trash—on its face, it’s a hard sell.”

Indeed, Horowitz’s project faced several roadblocks, including securing the trash itself.

The artist originally intended on using four bales of recycled materials from Albuquerque-based Town Recycling. Horowitz says President and CEO Martha Lara initially committed to the project—for which it would have received credit via signage, but pulled out in a March 21 email Horowitz provided to SFR.

Per its website, Town Recycling—which processes Santa Fe’s recyclables—”packs together hundreds of tons of material everyday,” leaving Horowitz to question why four wouldn’t be available for his project. He then approached Santa Fe Solid Waste Management Agency, which operates Caja del Rio Landfill and Buckman Road Recycling & Transfer Station, and Executive Director Randall Kippenbrock provided the construction materials, aka trash.

Then there was the question of construction. The Railyard Park Conservancy’s Art Committee gave preliminary approval to the project, with Railyard Park Conservancy Executive Director Izzy Barr telling SFR the committee regularly supports art projects focused on “environmentalism, conservation and sustainability,” and was drawn to Horowitz’s art piece due to the “contrast between this great public green space and this tower of waste…because they’re not compatible.”

“I think that’s that’s one of the primary messages for us from this piece is that we can’t have both sustainability and this culture of disposability and waste that we’ve created,” Barr says, “so for people to be able to see that right as they walk in I think is really, really powerful.”

She was excited to work with Horowitz, she notes, and describes Stonefridge, as “one of my all time favorite art pieces.”

“I’m still missing it when I drive on the 599,” Barr says, “so when I kind of made the connection that that’s who it was, it was just sort of personally very exciting to me to be able to kind of continue that work that he’s doing.”

Nonetheless, “Plastolithic” was nearly delayed when Horowitz discovered the blocks he intended to use were heavier than he anticipated. In response, he organized using a crane to make the installation safer and faster. While Barr agreed on the use of the crane, she initially suggested the delayed approvals for its use might push the project back into the summer.

The potential delay provoked “deja vu,” Horowitz says, given the multi-year pushbacks he experienced with Stonefridge, though he ultimately credits Barr with the project coming to fruition. “In this moment I’m saying, ‘What was I thinking? Didn’t you learn your lesson?’” he says. “And apparently I didn’t because I’m still passionate about this subject, but the resistance and the twists and turns are unbelievable.”

By March 23, the project was back on, but even as of press time, Horowitz was awaiting communication with the City of Santa Fe over accompanying informational signage for the project. SFR faced similar challenges discerning the status of those efforts, and received no response from City of Santa Fe Outreach Coordinator Peter Olson, with whom Horowitz tried to coordinate.

“There’s nothing for us to do an interview on,” former Environmental Services Director Shirlene Sitton, who left the city for a state job in early April, tells SFR. “Mr. Horowitz had an idea. We have only agreed to help him with the messaging, and he hasn’t really worked with us on that yet.”

Emails Horowitz provided to SFR, however, show he contacted Olson about signage and provided several draft ideas for the accompanying information, including the weight of the blocks and how it correlates with the amount of trash produced by the average American yearly; a brief history of recycling; how recycling is handled in Santa Fe; how individuals can move toward more sustainable practices; how people might convince local stores to reduce the amount of single-use plastics; and—the sticking point—the plastic industry’s role in making the material widely used despite the fact that some is not economical to recycle.

“I’m not sure what’s going on,” Horowitz says of the lack of response. “Their department’s theme is recycling, so help me promote recycling.”

Waste may be Horowitz’s main message in his newest work, but the topic of recycling clearly follows.

Though Sitton left the city at the start of April for a position as the solid waste bureau chief of the New Mexico Environment Department, her influence lives throughout the city’s current recycling practices.

In her eight and a half year tenure, Sitton helped establish the single-stream, or commingled, recycling program. Under that system, residents mix all types of recyclable materials together in one bin, and those items head to a facility for sorting and are then processed by a contracted third party: again, Albuquerque-based Town Recycling. When Sitton first came to the city, she says recycling was done by hand in a “90s curbside recycling model” consisting of various bins for different materials. So her department received money from the state and used the dollars to purchase a new cart for recycling and a new fleet of trucks for the job.

“That was just a large, large project of getting those carts implemented and the outreach and everything to change our recycling to single stream,” Sitton tells SFR. “That would definitely be one of the things that I would put on my list of things I’m really proud of.”

Other organizations have stepped up over the years to offer newer solutions and endorse others, including the New Mexico Recycling Coalition. The nonprofit—founded in 1991—serves as an entity for public or professional development for people working in the field, partnering with the New Mexico Environment Department to lead recycling and compost certification classes. The organization also hosts annual meetings and conferences. Executive Director Sarah Pierpont tells SFR a single-stream recycling system carries both benefits and down sides. While it is more expensive due to the need for sorting, a single-stream system brings convenience and potential for profit, given recycling is “a commodity,” she says.

“You might get some money back for the sale of that material, and the material stays in the environment [and] stays in the economy, so it’s still bringing value to the economy,” Pierpont says, but in contrast, landfills come with large fees to bury something there, “but then that landfill has to be monitored and watched; it’s always an expense…So it’s hard to put a general price tag on recycling, because there’s a lot of avoided cost by recycling.”

However, Pierpont notes the struggles professionals face when sorting through recycling as a result of mingled materials, including “wishful recycling”—placing non-recyclable items into bins—which can cause further issues. She adds she sees a shift in recycling habits—though it used to be about quantity, now the focus should shift to quality. Avoid recycling styrofoam, food waste and garden hoses, for example.

“If you don’t know if it’s recyclable, put it in the garbage, because that’s part of the reason why processing costs are so high,” Pierpont says. “We have to remove the contaminants to be able to make a commodity that somebody else wants.”

Both Pierpont and Sitton agree that among the changes needed in the recycling sphere, a responsibility shift from consumer to producer should be paramount. Sitton’s plans for her new role with the state include training and certification courses; distributing recycling grants to communities with less funds; and establishing extended producer responsibility—or “looking at ways to change the burden of products and packaging.”

“At the end of their lives, the burden is usually on local governments to handle landfills, recycle [and] monitor for the rest of their lives. That’s really a subsidy to the people who sell those products, and so looking at ways to work with the corporate world and the retail world to change product packaging and design so that it’s more easily recycled and less toxic,” Sitton says. “And when there are things that are really problematic at the end of their life, they take more responsibility for that, and that’s something I’m really passionate about.”

Pierpont points out roughly 30 states already have laws on the books regarding this topic in some fashion. Without extended producer responsibility, she adds, “the consumer has to deal with the item at the end of its life,” despite having no control over how the packaging is made, let alone making a profit from its sale. Instead, if producers hold responsibility for paying for the recycling, the landfill or taking back the material, “then their shareholders are going to say, ‘You’d better make this easier to recycle or less wasteful,’” Pierpont says.

Pierpont notes often recycling “gets a bad name because of plastics. We all know about that really horrifying plastic waste crisis…even the plastic industry has known that and they were lying to us and are instead saying, ‘We’re just going to say you can recycle, recycle, recycle,’ but not all recycling is the same.”

All recycling is not the same because of plastic.

A February 2024 report from the Center for Climate Integrity notes “plastic pollution is one of the most serious environmental crises facing the world today. Between 1950 and 2015, over 90 percent of plastics were landfilled, incinerated, or leaked into the environment.” As of 2021, the US recycling rate for plastic is estimated to be five to six percent, the report continues.

Also included are further details that plastics are part of a sector known as “petrochemicals,” or products made from fossil fuels such as oil and gas. Furthermore, around 99 percent of plastics are produced from fossil fuels.

“The vast majority of these plastics cannot be ‘recycled’—meaning they cannot be collected, processed, and remanufactured into new products,” the report reads.

The problem becomes further complicated, the report says, given the lack of affordability of recycled plastics, noting it is “much higher [in cost] than producing virgin plastic, and therefore plastic recycling is not economically viable. The recycling process—from collection to sorting to processing to transport—requires more time, labor, and equipment to achieve a lower quality and less efficient output than the process of making virgin resin from fossil fuels.”

The Center for Climate Integrity report also mentions “advanced recycling” requires many of these same processes, plus additional treatment, making it even more costly. A 2023 study cited in the report estimated that resins recovered through plastic-to-plastic “advanced recycling” are 1.6 times more expensive than virgin resins, and only one to 14 percent of plastic material that is processed through “advanced recycling” can be used to manufacture a new plastic product.

Horowitz’s latest sculpture won’t solve all the issues related to waste and recycling, but the artist says he’s thankful to shine a light on the problems.

“This whole thing, these projects are always a balancing act, and it’s like a high-wire act because recycling is a very contentious and controversial issue now,” Horowitz says.

High-wire acts come with the territory, though, for someone engaged in activist art. Horowitz’s 2011 documentary film Nuclear Savage: The Islands of Secret Project 4.1 tells the story of how Marshall islanders were deliberately used as human guinea pigs to study the effects of nuclear fallout, resulting in many islanders developing cancers or having stillborns or babies with birth defects. The film, which Horowitz produced and directed, features declassified US government documents, survivor testimony and footage as it follows islanders in their fight for justice as a result of the experiments.

Even that work, with its gravely serious topic, has a touch of the macabre aesthetic Horowitz brings to all of its projects, depicting at one point a giant radioactive octopus that wraps around the Golden Gate Bridge.

“It’s kind of a lot of elements that come together in these things, and some of it’s serious and some of it’s silly,” he says. “It’s terrible, but it’s also kind of humorous in a black humor kind of way that we know the environmental havoc we are causing on the Earth, and yet we keep doing it.”

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