On the Heels of Litterbugs: An Interview with Justin Gignac

Justin Gignac goes out of his way to find garbage. Right off the street—from back alleys, from uptown, from downtown—he collects it late at night after his day job at an advertising firm. He boxes it up, labels it, then sells it for up to $100 via his company, NYC Garbarge. Gignac has made trash trendy through a package design and marketing plan developed while he was a still a student at the School of Visual Arts.

Liz Danzico: Garbage isn’t the first thing people think of when brainstorming new product ideas. How did this all start?

Justin Gignac: I started selling New York City garbage when I was in college at the School of Visual Arts—I came up with the idea one day during my summer internship. A group of us were having a discussion about the importance of packaging, and someone claimed that package design wasn't important. I disagreed. I figured the only way to really know if your package design is successful is to try to package something nobody would ever want. Garbage made perfect sense.

Danzico: But you not only did it, but you made it successful. How? Is it the product itself, the design of the packaging, or the delivery?

Gignac: The main thing that seems to resonate with buyers is simply the idea of buying trash. The details of the design and the aesthetic appeal of the trash in the cube helps push it over the top, but the purity of the idea is what people seem to appreciate most.

Danzico: New York City produces 26 million pounds of trash per day. With such a potentially overwhelming selection, how do you go about collecting it?

Gignac: I usually collect trash late at night. The streets are always filthy, so people stare a lot less. I wear thick construction gloves and only pick up dry trash. Wet trash would rot in the cubes and, besides, I'm a bit squeamish.

Danzico: I would imagine. What other kinds of trash are off limits?

Gignac: Any trash that is wet automatically gets ruled out. I've made the mistake of putting soda cans that still had moisture in them in a few cubes, making all the type on the front label bleed. Not pretty. There's plenty of trash to pick from on the streets, so I stay out of trashcans and dumpsters. Plus, there are people that already handle those so I wouldn't want to cut in on their action.

Danzico: Have you ever had to compete for good trash?

Gignac: Trying to find trash around Madison Square Garden during the Republican Convention was really tough. The city had an army of sanitation workers out. I think they wanted to act as if we were really a clean city. Also, I sometimes run into situations with street sweepers. They tend to take all the good stuff and I get sprayed with that crap that comes off the brushes in the process.

Danzico: How important is location to the price of the item? Is trash from Manhattan more valuable than other boroughs, for example?

Gignac: Well, original New York City garbage goes for $50, and limited edition garbage goes for $100. I've done limited editions from New Year's Eve in Times Square, the Republican National Convention and most recently from Opening Day at Yankee Stadium. Yankee Stadium Garbage is $100 and due to unfavorable approval ratings I've lowered the price of Republican trash to 50 bucks.

Danzico: Let’s talk about the packaging itself. How important was package design to your marketing plan?

Gignac: When I first came up with the idea, Beanie Babies was the hugest thing on the planet. I never got it and thought it was stupid. People went nuts over certain dolls just because the company decided they were "limited editions." It seemed like such a ridiculous idea. So I figured, “Why not do that?” If I'm going to sell garbage I have to make it as “collectible” as possible, so the label reads, "Garbage of New York City 100% authentic Hand-picked from the fertile streets of NY, NY." To reinforce the authenticity, I put a sticker on the top edge of each cube as a faux seal that has the date the garbage was picked, and I sign and number each cube on the bottom. I'm not sure if all of these details made the difference between selling five and 900 cubes, but I'm pretty sure it helped.

Danzico: Are the pieces in each package related?

Gignac: Usually the items each box are not related. But sometimes I find a way to work in a narrative. Like the time I put in a torn piece of the yellow pages from the "Escort" section with a pamphlet on "How to find Jesus."

Danzico: You brought your art to MoMA—rather, outside MoMA. Do people seem to naturally associate your work with art?

Gignac: For the most part I think they do. Or at least they associate it enough with art to debate whether or not it is art. It's funny how price influences perspective though. When I first started, it seemed the majority of people viewed the garbage as souvenirs since they were only $10. But now that they are $50 and $100, they are getting much more consideration as art.

"I figured the only way to really know if your package design is successful is to try to package something nobody would ever want. Garbage made perfect sense."

Danzico: Then can anything be marketed? What’s your secret?

Gignac: Of course anything can be marketed. It’s most important to have an idea, product or strategy that connects with people. For me, the unexpectedness and humor of packaging garbage has done all the work.

Danzico: I’ve read that these cubes are in 41 states and 20 different countries. Would this marketing plan work in other cities?

Gignac: Selling garbage works best in New York since we are notorious for being a filthy city, but I think it could work in other cities. I'm working on expanding the New York City garbage empire globally; I'm looking to franchise the idea to different cities around the world. There are already people interested in London, Berlin, Jerusalem, Tokyo, Dublin, Rome, Johannesburg, Stockholm, Barcelona and about a dozen other cities.

Danzico: You do garbage on the side. Does your day job in advertising benefit from your side business? Do you recommend having a side business to other designers?

Gignac: The garbage business has helped me get all of my jobs in advertising. People were impressed that I actually followed through with the idea. It's really tough to balance both, but it's important to have another creative outlet. Having a complete sense of ownership over something is very empowering.

Danzico: How do you balance work and things “on the side?”

Gignac: Right now being an art director at Toy is my focus. As long as you don't try to make both your full-time job, then it's manageable.

Danzico: You’ve had special projects focused on visible events such as the Republic National Convention and opening day at Yankee Stadium in 2006. Do you have any other special projects in mind?

Gignac: Well if the Mets had made it to the World Series they would have gotten their own limited edition. I have a couple of other things currently in the works—I'm looking into creating garbage wall hangings, and on a smaller scale, I'm working on a line of nycgarbage.com t-shirts that will be posted to the website soon.

Danzico: Will you eventually move on from garbage?

Gignac: As long as people keep buying garbage, I'll keep selling it. My girlfriend and I constantly come up with other non-garbage ideas that could be cool. It's just a matter of having the time.

About the Author:

Liz is chair and co-founder of the MFA in Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts She is creative director for NPR in digital media, overseeing and guiding both the visual and user experience across NPR-branded digital platforms and content. She is advisor to startups, nonprofits, global companies, and lecturer. She has written for design-minded publications and writes part of her time at bobulate.com.
Previously, Liz was an independent consultant, working with businesses on design, planning, and execution of short- and long-term digital programs for global companies and nonprofit organizations. Liz is proud to be on the advisory boards for NEA Studio, Thiel Fellowship, and the Austin Center for Design.