Good Dirty Fun

The joy of receiving a plastic-encapsulated trinket from the ubiquitous gumball machines that populate the front of grocery stores is an experience shared by children of several generations. But, two special capsule machines in Washington, D.C., dole out items that bear little resemblance to the plastic prizes of our halcyon youth.

The brainchild of Christopher Goodwin, Trashballs are plastic capsules dispensed from gumball machines that contain small pieces of handpicked trash. Goodwin, an artist who also works as a driver for Chevy Chase, Md.-based Junk in the Trunk, started Trashball two years ago as an art experiment. “As I was keeping my eyes out for material, it occurred to me that a lot of the stuff that I would find is interesting all by itself,” says Goodwin. “I've always like gumball machines, and so I just sort of combined the two.”

Goodwin's interest in trash began during his childhood in Dayton, Ohio, when he tagged along with local trash collectors during their routes. Then, he observed interesting discarded items that the workers would set aside. “I've always had an affinity for things that tend to get overlooked. I tend to find, if not always beauty, things of interest in garbage.”

For just 25 cents, art fans and the randomly curious can purchase Trashballs from machines located at D.C. hangouts Warehouse Café and Busboys and Poets. Pieces of receipts, letters, vacation photos and old coins are a few of the items Goodwin places in the plastic spheres. “If it's a really good Trashball, you can say, ‘Yeah! This is art with a capital A.’ But, generally, it's really just meant to be fun,” Goodwin says.

Signs posted on the Trashball machines warn that no one under the age of 18 should purchase a capsule, as Goodwin has, at times, included broken glass, cigarette butts and other items he says are inappropriate for unsupervised children. Goodwin also includes coupons for free stuff, including prints of his own artwork and actual finds, such as a 1970s “Black Pride” doll. Other interesting items are posted on Goodwin's blog,

With nearly 3,000 Trashballs sold to date, the project has achieved a considerable following. Though Goodwin denies he is trying to generate profound social commentary through Trashball, which he deems “quasi-art,” some finds seem to speak for themselves. “I'm not setting out to make any kind of social statement, although sometimes that happens.”

As an example, Goodwin recalls stumbling upon a receipt from a local upscale organic foods market, listing purchases of asparagus and microbrewed beer, among other items. Within inches of this find was another receipt from a 7-Eleven convenience store. Printed on it were the words “Food Stamp Purchase.” “[It was interesting] just how that pointed up the socio-economic divide in the city — in the nation's capitol no less.”

Despite the apparent simplicity of a Trashball, Goodwin says he often sees complicated subtext at work in these discarded materials. “Even behind the most banal piece of trash, it's all about the unknown history of these items that we throw away,” Goodwin says.