MetroCards Reborn

Stephen Shaheen creates a bench using MetroCards

Artist Stephen Shaheen attaches a sheet of MetroCards to the steel frame of the seating structure he designed. Shaheen used approximately 5,000 discarded MetroCards in the completed bench.

By Sophia Kelley

At EPA, we spend a lot of time thinking about big environmental issues like climate change, clean water, air toxics, etc., but sometimes the little things can be vexing too. (Twist ties, for example. Anyone have creative ideas for what to do with them?) What about the ubiquitous Metropolitan Transit Authority’s MetroCard? Visitors and residents of New York City both recognize the importance of the thin piece of blue and yellow plastic; its magnetic strip has the power to open every turnstile in the city. What happens to MetroCards when they’re used up? What does the afterlife for the typical (and not-so-typical) New York City MetroCard look like?

A quick call to MTA’s service line provided some answers. Many subway stations have metal boxes where you are encouraged to deposit your used cards. According to an MTA press officer, cards dropped into the collection boxes are refurbished and reissued by MTA. However, the magnetic strip has a limited lifespan and once the strips wear out, the cards can no longer be reused.

Swiping the blue and gold card is a NY commuter’s daily routine.

Fortunately, other people are repurposing MetroCards in even more creative ways. Sloan Fine Art, a gallery in the Lower East Side, has held a special exhibit the past two years in which all the submissions had to be created on used MetroCards. The work varied tremendously from delicate, painted portraits to three-dimensional sculptures. This year’s show, “Single Fare 2: Please Swipe Again,” even included a piece of furniture. Artist Stephen  Shaheen came up with the idea of creating a seating element that would incorporate the colors of the MetroCards into the structure. Using a steel armature as a base, Shaheen crafted a bench that he then covered in some 5,000 MetroCards. Shaheen enlisted a team of collectors who gathered discarded cards from the floors of subway stations. The finished piece is a combination of aesthetics and efficacy.

In an unexpected development, Shaheen was recently contacted by an MTA representative who stated that MetroCards are trademarked and using them in any product without a license could be a copyright infringement. It seems to me that with the plethora of cards littering stations, MTA would encourage repurposing of this kind. Furthermore, Shaheen is not the first artist to use recognizable logos in his work.

Any other ideas out there for how to reuse MetroCards that won’t attract the ire of the MTA? And after we solve that problem, what about recycling in subway stations?

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