Sustainability Plus Prefabrication: Art from Construction Waste


Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens (CMBG) has a 323-acre riverside woodland with a special nod to sustainability: a spiky-haired troll sculpture made from discarded scraps of wood, recycled pallets and milling byproducts. Eco-artist Thomas Dambo constructed the sculpture shown below, as well as four others created for CMBG, after prefabricating the heads, feet and hands in his studio in Copenhagen, Denmark and shipping them to Maine.

Troll sculpture built using construction waste; image: Melanie Stetson Freeman

On its website, CMBG refers to Dambo as “the world’s leading recycled-materials artist, famous for his troll sculptures…each sculpture simultaneously invites seekers into the depths of our woodlands while telling a story of conservation.” As CMBG states, reimagining the way we produce and consume not only eliminates waste, it can also eliminate the idea of waste.

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Dambo has been building and creating with wood since the age of five, starting, as many of us in the construction industry did, with treehouses. He scavenged through his neighborhood for discarded wood for his projects and hauled it home on his bicycle.

Troll sculpture built in Denmark using construction waste; photo credit: Thomas Dambo

More than 80 of Dambo’s unique trolls and sculptures can be found around the world, including in Belgium, China, Denmark, Mexico, Puerto Rico, South Korea, and USA. Each is constructed using recycled materials from scrap yards and dumpsters. On his website, a troll map accompanies a story he wrote about the groups of trolls he has built, “The Great Story of the Little People.”

A self-professed “dumpster diver,” Dambo has expressed that he wants his audience to see trash as objects that can be repurposed in practical and artful ways: “I like showing people that trash doesn’t need to be a bad thing. It can be a beautiful thing,” he says. His sentiment is that something doesn’t have to be new to be good.

Troll sculpture made from recycled pallets in Puerto Rico; photo credit: Thomas Dambo

On average, the scrap wood needed to build a troll is the equivalent of 100 pallets. In addition to construction waste, some materials are sourced onsite, such as bark and roots of fallen trees. “Trash has value, and trash doesn’t have to be disgusting,” Dambo has said.

During an artist talk at the Denver Botanic Gardens in 2019, Dambo explained his use of trash and recycled materialsI don’t think my art will save the world, but I hope it will open people’s eyes to see that trash does not need to be what the world is drowning in.” A troll he built on a Breckenridge hiking trail in 2018 generated so much attention and such crowds that it needed to be relocated to White River National Forest, on the edge of the city. The troll now has its own dedicated Trollstigen Trail, a one-mile loop.

Troll sculpture made from construction waste, Breckenridge, CO; image:

As Dambo’s recycled creations have grown in number and gained attention through social media, the sculptures that he and his team of about three dozen erect have transitioned from curiosities to capturing worldwide interest. In addition to wood products, the team also produces recycled plastic sculptures, demonstrating the range of artful possibilities using construction waste.

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