The Color of Transformation

Posted on May 18, 2017 by

A blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

JMM & Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling go to ISRI!

JMM & Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling go to ISRI!

Last month, Marvin and I attended that national conference of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) in New Orleans. JMM is working on an original, national, traveling exhibition about the Scrap industry. Entitled Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling, the exhibit is scheduled to open in the fall of 2018, and we hope to send it on the road to four or more venues. (Regular readers of the JMM blog may remember reading about it here.)  Marvin and I were in New Orleans, along with our contract curator, Jill Vexler, working on collecting stories, canvassing for artifacts, and soliciting financial support.

As a total novice to the industry—I’m not even working directly on the exhibit, but was filling in for a colleague at the conference—I was fascinated by what I found on the exhibit floor at ISRI—but maybe not why you expect.

Gershow Recycling facility. Photo by Jeffrey Katz.

Gershow Recycling facility. Photo by Jeffrey Katz.

I have been seeing images from scrap yards around the JMM office for months now. Most notably from the stunning photography of Board Member Jeff Katz, who provided images for our fundraising and marketing materials for the exhibition. Jeff’s photos are textural and gritty. They are also, at least as we ended up using them, black and white.

The exhibit hall at the ISRI conference in the New Orleans Convention Center was in living color.

An array of sunny equipment.

An array of sunny equipment.

As I wandered the floor, looking for swag to bring back to my 5-year-old daughter, I started to notice how brightly colored many of the pieces of sample equipment were.  There were a number of bright yellow items, which is to be expected, I suppose (my childhood toy crane was also a sunny yellow), but there were also bright orange machines and several blue sorters (that were so cool to see demonstrated).

And then I saw the pink one.

And then I saw the pink one.

And from there I started really paying attention. What goes into the manufacturers’ minds as they consider what color to make their equipment for the scrap yard? Some take a very utilitarian approach with dark gray equipment. That seems straightforward and expected. Tools of all sizes, even super huge ones, tend to be gray or silver or black. Why the bright colors? Why pink? I figured it was so that they were easily seen amidst the mountains of trash-colored scrap.

I guess I don’t need to ask why the airbrushed stars and bald eagle (whoa!).

I guess I don’t need to ask why the airbrushed stars and bald eagle (whoa!).

As I met more and more folks on the exhibit hall floor (we were something of an anomaly in an exhibit hall full of shredders and sorters and welders and other must-have technology for the modern scrap or recycling yard), and I told them the story of the exhibit again and again, something sunk in. The scrap industry and now the recycling industry is fundamentally a story of transformation. It is the story of transforming trash into raw materials even as it transformed unemployable immigrants into business-men and entrepreneurs.

I met several men and women who were in a third or fourth generation in the scrap business. They told me great stories of their grandfathers who built a livelihood out of what others considered trash.

And as I wandered the floor on the final day of the conference with these stories and the idea of transformation on my mind, I suddenly really appreciated the bright, look-at-me colors on the floor. These machines are not just tools. They are magical. They turn trash into raw material. That’s a remarkable thing.

Maybe the bright colors are practical—to make the super-expensive equipment highly visible. But to me, it’s more than that. Magical tools deserve magical colors. Colors that nature creates to showcase its beauty and the power are completely appropriate for machines that perform the transformation of matter.

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