Photographer Sarah Filipi spotted a heap of metal clothes hangers littering the street when she was out running errands last Tuesday morning.

Despite some funny looks from passersby, Filipi didn't hesitate to pull her car over to get an up-close shot of the unusual assemblage.

Then she grabbed an armful of hangers to recycle at home.

"I didn't even get half of them. I feel guilty, like I'm driving away from a crime scene," she said.

Filipi is artfully documenting the trash she comes across every day as part of a yearlong photo project that she began in September.

She dubbed the project "R-365" — the R stands for recycling, something she hopes people will take to heart. She tries to recycle, reuse or properly dispose of her finds.

A smashed-up soda can that Filipi picked up during a run last summer triggered the project. At the time, she had just quit a paralegal job to concentrate on her fine-art photography business, Sarah Grace Photography.

Filipi wanted to take on a project that would get her creativity flowing. The environmental aspect added to its appeal, she said.

R-365 is fun, too, she said. She finds excitement in the mundane, and she loves to score an interesting piece of garbage, even if she wishes it hadn't gone astray in the first place.

Art and message

Filipi might be drawn to an object for the way it's situated in the snow or grass, or it may be that a label jumps out at her. For example, a can that was in a snowbank and bore the word "happiness" stuck out to her one day.

Occasionally, she hangs onto pieces to incorporate them into staged photos. A cardboard box filled with these "treasures" includes a plastic figurine she found on a beach in Mexico; an old garden spade; a moldy baby bottle; a deflated graduation balloon; a bundle of blue fabric reminiscent of a hospital gown, and a chewed-up plastic ball.

"You wonder, why was this just flying around? How come nobody has picked it up?" she said.

Sometimes, she complements the items in her staged photos with a human element. Taking a fragment of red and white wrapping paper, for instance, she composed a shot with her own hand in the picture frame. She was wearing red nail polish, which played off of the wrapping paper's design.

Common but not normal

Although litter is an everyday sight, a photo emphasizes that it "looks so abnormal. It doesn't belong there. That's the point I'm trying to make with the images," Filipi said.

The project has made her more conscious of "everything that passes through my hands," she said.

Now, when she buys something, she considers whether it's recyclable and how long it will take to decompose. She carries reusable bags. She ponders possible reuses for things and more eco-friendly alternatives to materials that don't disintegrate.

That also spurs her to research possible solutions to issues she sees in her daily life.

Recently, she was thinking about how garbage container lids blow off on windy days, sending the contents all over the place. "I said, 'What if there was a clasp on the container so it doesn't just blow open?' " she said.

When she sees trash lying around in a parking lot, "It makes me think, why doesn't the facility have more trash and recycling receptacles? Maybe more people would be inclined to throw things away or recycle if they did," she said, adding that she has written to businesses advocating that idea.

Making a difference

Filipi's passion is starting to rub off on others. Some friends have told her they think more about how many napkins they're using, or that they've started recycling programs at home or work.

The initial hands-on part of the project is a good conversation starter, too. "My neighbors have commented that they see me walking the dog with a bunch of trash in my arms," Filipi said.

Jennifer O'Hara, a friend who lives in Minneapolis, says that Filipi's project has prompted her to pick up trash while she's out running. "I feel like I'm getting healthy and, at the same time, doing something for the environment. It's cool to be a part of that," she said.

Meanwhile, Filipi is connecting with other artists with similar sensibilities.

St. Paul resident Heather Cole, who does her art under the name of Design HMC, met Filipi at an art show in the fall. Right away they bonded "over the whole idea of recycling stuff," she said.

Cole fashions light fixtures out of used milk jugs that she cuts up or shreds. "There's always one little scrap that makes me think of the next piece. I get inspired by it," she said.

It's a transformation on more than one level. "You're taking it out of the waste stream and making something useful that was discarded, and making it aesthetically pleasing," she said.

The two talked about possibly collaborating on a project, maybe even making something out of the recycled pieces she's held onto at the end. Filipi "has a beautiful eye. It's fun trading ideas with her."

For Filipi, it's satisfying to know that the message is getting out.

She has lots of ideas about developing an educational book about recycling for children, a separate photo essay about the R-365 experience and an exhibit that she said will "also allow others to see trash in a whole new light — as art."

To learn more about Sarah Filipi's project, go to

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.