The Age of Waste
Waste is not merely a byproduct of culture: it is culture. We have produced a culture of waste.
How might we transform our waste into materials that can be recycled, repurposed, and reprogrammed by design? What if we choose to create a culture designed to retain and maximize the built environment rather than destroy it? How do we transform waste into something lasting and sustainable?
The consequence of consumption is waste. It is the outcome of everything we build, make, and enjoy beyond our basic need for food, water, security, education, health, and community. If we transcend that need, embellish it with the products of convenience beyond the necessary, we shift our focus of use of the natural resources on earth — the land, air, water — to a scale that has driven a century of growth measured by unrestrained production, gross national finance, and accelerating pollution and exhaustion of those resources without which a globalized, consuming society cannot be sustained. The paradox is that in the name of progress and civilization, driven by the consumption ethos, we corrupted and depleted the very essence on which that progress depends. Demand has exceeded and overwhelmed supply, with all the associated consequence we experience today.
In a fascinating essay that accompanied the exhibition Waste Age: What Can Design Do? at the Design Museum in London through February 2022, waste is characterized as precisely “what dissolves the distinction between nature and culture. Today, when the very weather is warped by the climate crisis, and plankton thousands of meters deep have intestinal tracts full of microplastics, the idea of a nature that is pristine and untouched is delusional. Nature and waste have fused at both the planetary and microbiological scales. Similarly, waste is not merely a byproduct of culture: it is culture. We have produced a culture of waste. To focus our gaze on waste is not an act of morbid negativity; it is an act of cultural realism.”
One of the startling questions posed by the exhibit is “what if we recognized waste as a “great material resource” to be mined, using new technology for recovery, for use? The example given is a settlement called Agbogbloshie, near Accra in Ghana where the world has for years dumped enormous volumes of industrial junk, out of sight, out of mind, as a new form of “colonialism” whereby Third World nations have been co opted by the developed world as a place where, for a pittance, they could hide the residue of consumption. Agbogbloshie became an otherworldly dystopian place, a spontaneous economy based on above-ground mining of copper and gold from discarded computers, automobile parts, and other devices made irrelevant by planned obsolescence and the fickle, faddish, impatient tastes of consumers.
What is so provocative about this is the idea that our waste actually might be transformed into an inventory of materials recycled and reprogrammed by design. An ocean-related example is the salvage beaches of India and other places where ships are run aground ashore where they are picked apart to be reprocessed as steel rebar and plate for export as a building product. I have been to those beaches and watched a few men from the impoverished adjacent village cutting those rusted behemoths apart into pieces to be thrown back into the gaping maw of the consumer economy: the last port of call in a long, debilitating passage.
The forces at work here are technological change and planned obsolescence, two opposing vectors that create the void into which capital for new and replacement production thrives, inevitably to make more waste.
But what if the ethos changed? What if technological invention could be targeted to the retention and re-use of existing resources? What if, by design, we choose, for example, not to destroy the built environment, but to retain and maximize the materials already in use, re-directing and incorporating those resources into something new, but lasting, and sustainable? Why tear down structures, discard them as waste, when they can be revitalized and sustained by adaptation to new or alternative use? Transformation is there, right before our eyes, in the preservation and new iteration of the viable and the good that we have already created.
The ocean is a global resource inventory that can be used again and again to sustain us, unless by overt act and indifference, we destroy its potential for now and forever after. To use it as a place where we deposit and hide our waste, the toxic byproduct of how we live, we choose, yes, by design, to exploit its potential from abundance to depletion as agents of terminal waste. There is no logic there, no future. Why would that be an acceptable strategy for living?
PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. He is also host of World Ocean Radio, upon which this blog is inspired. World Ocean Radio celebrates 12 years this year, with more than 600 episodes produced to date.