Trashswag Helps Toronto's Junk Gain New Life Through Art
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Trashswag Helps Toronto’s Junk Gain New Life Through Art

Some of Toronto's trash is being put to creative uses, thanks to eco-minded crowdsourcing.

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Trashswag founder Gavin Cameron with his “doordrobe” made from savaged doors.

A giant moustache, a solid-wood rocking chair, and a colourful checkers table are all lying abandoned on a Toronto street near you. Or at least they were at the time this article was being written.

By now they’ve quite possibly been snatched up by a local artist or designer who spotted the items on Trashswag and raced back to their studio to turn them into something more eye-catching.

Trashswag, a Toronto-based website, has garnered attention for the way it gathers crowdsourced information to alert residents to discarded items left on city sidewalks. But it isn’t attracting droves of dumpster divers or students scavenging for freebie bookshelves. Instead, it’s Toronto’s artistic community that seems to be embracing the site’s green, philanthropic vision.

The site’s founder, a web analyst named Gavin Cameron, got the idea after a summer job at a lumber company, during which he came to appreciate the aesthetic and financial value of reclaimed wood. “I started to notice there was salvageable stuff everywhere,” he says.

Using an open-source mapping platform called Ushahidi, he developed an app that allows people to share and map pictures of wood, bricks, and architectural salvage like doors and windows on Twitter, using the hashtag #Trashswag. Users can also now contribute photos on Instagram. Unlike similar online services—like Craigslist’s “free” section, or Freecycle—Trashswag doesn’t rely on people to advertise their own items. Instead, it enlists anyone with a smartphone and an eye for useful junk.

It isn’t difficult to repurpose quality materials, Cameron says. An enormous wardrobe made of old doors and lathe, which takes pride of place in his bedroom (partly because it’s too heavy to move anywhere else), involved a hand sander, a drill, and some brackets.

But it’s not all about DIY. Creative types are also using Trashswag for purely artistic endeavours. Leslieville-based fine artist Matt Durant used the site to find an old tabletop at Bathurst and Dundas streets. He turned it into a painting he now plans to sell.

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Artist Matt Durant, with his painting made from a wooden tabletop.

He says: “I work a lot with resalvaged wood. With the tabletop, you could see a lot of layers in the wood, and sanding it in a particular way revealed a plethora of colours.”

“It made me think about what stories it could tell. That’s part of the passion for me: the human intervention, the dents, people doing different things with it.”

Ryerson University design student Harry Dieu, along with his classmates, used Trashswag to source pallets and tree stumps, similar to that in the picture below, for their graduation show.

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Ryerson student Harry Dieu sitting on a tree stump in front of his final year design show plan.

“Previous shows have been very wasteful,” he says. “Last year we’d created a wall of paper that just ended up in the garbage. We felt bad about that and wanted to come up with a solution where materials were salvaged or could be [recycled].”

Many of the materials for the show were found near the Ryerson campus; others were lent to the university by Evergreen Brickworks. After the show, some of the pallet boards were given to Habitat for Humanity to use in the construction of affordable housing.

Despite Trashswag’s appeal, it isn’t a money-making scheme—yet—even though Cameron says he’s received supportive emails from as far away as Australia and France.

“I don’t know what form monetization would take. There are a few different options,” he says. “At the moment, it’s not a priority. The site’s implicitly anti-consumerism and anti-corporate, so it would be very difficult to put on an annoying banner ad.”

“Right now, I’m concerned with the role of the community. It’s difficult to get people to contribute to the map as well as take things from it,” he admits.

As for where to find the best swag, he suggests the west end (and particularly Roncesvalles). He also recommends keeping an eye out for renovations on 100-year-old houses.

“It’s about being responsible with waste, but having a bit of fun,” he says. I’ve made connections with people and would like to grow a community of people who work together on projects.”