The Huntsville Item, Huntsville, TX

Local News

August 8, 2011

Phoenix Commotion's green building techniques applied to Houston recycling facility

Houston —

The first thing you notice is the ceiling.

The entire surface is covered with thousands of CDs, making it gleam like the surfaces of a classic 1950s dining car. On the papier mache floor are dozens of handmade chairs built from bottle caps, tires, glass and woven shopping bags.

On the walls, a massive mural made entirely of recycled materials tells a succinct but important tale. Broken tiles and glass portray a Waste Management sanitation truck dumping its contents out into the landscape, but rather than waste away in a landfill, they begin to take form. Books, cars, houses and more emerge from the chaos, and all this gives way to a green forest scene, a papier mache mural that depicts the benefits of recycling. All this culminates in a whimsical tropical scene: Palm trees made from corks and bottle caps.

This is the latest project from Huntsville’s The Phoenix Commotion, a group dedicated to green building using recycled and reclaimed materials. The method and the results aren’t unusual for Phoenix Commotion’s founder Dan Phillips and his band of dedicated builders and artists. What is unusual is seeing the group’s work in the midst of a corporate endeavor: the new 800 square feet education center at Waste Management’s single stream Houston recycling facility.

Today, Waste Management will host a grand opening for the facility — a massive operation that can process 9,000 tons of commercial and residential recycling materials each month — and highlight the Phoenix Commotion’s yearlong effort to create a literal representation of the center’s purpose. In the fall, schoolchildren from throughout the Houston area will visit the recycling facility and spend time in the education center to learn about the recycling process, how they can help, and how they — like the Phoenix Commotion — can learn to use recycled materials creatively.

The project began last summer, when Phillips and his team began designing and constructing implements for the education center. The ultimate goal, according to Waste Management South Texas Community Relations Manager Lisa Doughty, was to create a room where children and adults alike could see creative recycling in action all around them.

“Being the largest recycler in the United States and Canada, in our hometown where our corporate headquarters are, we wanted to have a facility that was a showcase where we could bring in not only students but adults alike to teach them about recycling and show them an example of what they could do,” Doughty said. “Everyone wants to recycle, but they don’t know where to start.”

For Phillips, who spends much of his time constructing affordable housing in the Huntsville area, the project was a chance to branch his group’s mission out into the corporate world.

“Our primary mission is to keep stuff out of the landfill, and then out of that, drops affordable housing and training unskilled workers,” he said. “But, an education center is easily a corollary of that mission. We don’t do commercial unless the missions are together. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity.”

As the project launched, giving Phillips and his team creative freedom became a priority for Waste Management.

“We told Dan what was important was that we were able to convey Waste Management’s message of sustainability. We showed him our logo, and we sent him off to work,” Doughty said. “Knowing Dan’s integrity and the quality of his work, we did not try to restrain him. He came back with his vision, and his vision was amazing.”

Phillips, who asked for control over the room’s design before taking the project, was both surprised and pleased with the level of freedom Waste Management allowed him to have.

“That doesn’t happen very often, especially in corporate America,” he said. “The fact that they would trust me to make decisions, and I’m in charge, that’s pretty exciting.”

Phillips assembled a crew of nine artists and builders to assemble the many components necessary for the project. Mosaics and murals were constructed at Phoenix Commotion’s Bone House in Huntsville, and then moved to Houston for installation. Thousands of pieces of waste — everything from magazines to old records to aluminum cans – were collected to make the complex assemblages. Phillips himself designed the room’s stage, a platform constructed from broken tile and wood and featuring a prominent mosaic of the Waste Management logo.

“The whole concept was to be a demonstration of what recycled materials could do and could be as a raw material for design,” Phillips said. “The concept was to have great design, but also to have a brick and mortar demonstration of what you can do with stuff.”

Waste Management officials were pleased with Phillips’ efforts in both the design and education components of the room.

“The completion of the project is wonderful. It’s something we’ve been working on for well over a year now,” said Alan Bachrach, Waste Management’s South Texas Recycling Director of Operations. “Any time you culminate a project of this magnitude, it’s wonderful. We’re really looking forward to using this room to educate lots and lots of school children.”

Though his work and the work of his team is on a level of sophistication that most everyday consumers would never aspire to, Phillips said he hopes the education room will serve as an example to anyone looking for ideas on how to reuse materials.

“Everybody knows how to do papier mache. You learn that in the third grade. The world of design is absolutely at your feet with papier mache,” he said.  “So many things are within reach of the average person, and that’s what I’m trying to demonstrate. You can have a magnificent floor covering or wall covering, and have it for 40 bucks plus the time it took to put it in.”

As the project comes to a close, Phillips sees it as much more than a cool room with an educational message. For him, working hand in hand with a company as large as Waste Management was a signal that something bigger is happening, that the recycling movement is gaining traction even in the corporate world.

“What’s really exciting is that on the broad level, it’s really exciting to see the commercial sector start becoming interested in repurposing,” he said. “It’s really exciting for the mission of the Phoenix Commotion to see it bleed into the larger marketplace. When you do that, you’ve really done something.”

For more information on The Phoenix Commotion, visit

For more information Waste Management’s recycling program, visit

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