How circular is the circular economy?

Illustration: Diego Marmolejo.

by Kris De Decker

The circular economy has become, for many governments, institutions, companies, and environmental organisations, one of the main components of a plan to lower carbon emissions. In the circular economy, resources would be continually re-used, meaning that there would be no more mining activity or waste production. The stress is on recycling, made possible by designing products so that they can easily be taken apart.

Attention is also paid to developing an “alternative consumer culture”. In the circular economy, we would no longer own products, but would loan them. For example, a customer could pay not for lighting devices but for light, while the company remains the owner of the lighting devices and pays the electricity bill. A product thus becomes a service, which is believed to encourage businesses to improve the lifespan and recyclability of their products.

The circular economy is presented as an alternative to the “linear economy” – a term that was coined by the proponents of circularity, and which refers to the fact that industrial societies turn valuable resources into waste. However, while there’s no doubt that the current industrial model is unsustainable, the question is how different to so-called circular economy would be.

Several scientific studies (see references) describe the concept as an “idealised vision”, a “mix of various ideas from different domains”, or a “vague idea based on pseudo-scientific concepts”. There’s three main points of criticism, which we discuss below.

 

Too complex to recycle

The first dent in the credibility of the circular economy is the fact that the recycling process of modern products is far from 100% efficient. A circular economy is nothing new. In the middle ages, old clothes were turned into paper, food waste was fed to chickens or pigs, and new buildings were made from the remains of old buildings. The difference between then and now is the resources used.

Before industrialisation, almost everything was made from materials that were either decomposable – like wood, reeds, or hemp – or easy to recycle or re-use – like iron and bricks. Modern products are composed of a much wider diversity of (new) materials, which are mostly not decomposable and are also not easily recycled.

For example, a recent study of the modular Fairphone 2 – a smartphone designed to be recyclable and have a longer lifespan – shows that the use of synthetic materials, microchips, and batteries makes closing the circle impossible. Only 30% of the materials used in the Fairphone 2 can be recuperated. A study of LED lights had a similar result.

The large-scale use of synthetic materials, microchips, and batteries makes closing the circle impossible.

The more complex a product, the more steps and processes it takes to recycle. In each step of this process, resources and energy are lost. Furthermore, in the case of electronic products, the production process itself is much more resource-intensive than the extraction of the raw materials, meaning that recycling the end product can only recuperate a fraction of the input. And while some plastics are indeed being recycled, this process only produces inferior materials (“downcycling”) that enter the waste stream soon afterwards.

The low efficiency of the recycling process is, on its own, enough to take the ground from under the concept of the circular economy: the loss of resources during the recycling process always needs to be compensated with more over-extraction of the planet’s resources. Recycling processes will improve, but recycling is always a trade-off between maximum material recovery and minimum energy use. And that brings us to the next point.

 

How can you recycle energy sources?

The second dent in the credibility of the circular economy is the fact that 20% of total resources used worldwide are fossil fuels. More than 98% of that is burnt as a source of energy and can’t be re-used or recycled. At best, the excess heat from, for example, the generation of electricity, can be used to replace other heat sources.

As energy is transferred or transformed, its quality diminishes (second law of thermodynamics). For example, it’s impossible to operate one car or one power plant with the excess heat from another. Consequently, there will always be a need to mine new fossil fuels. Besides, recycling materials also requires energy, both through the recycling process and the transportation of recycled and to-be-recycled materials.

To this, the supporters of the circular economy have a response: we will shift to 100% renewable energy. But this doesn’t make the circle round: to build and maintain renewable energy plants and accompanied infrastructures, we also need resources (both energy and materials). What’s more, technology to harvest and store renewable energy relies on difficult-to-recycle materials. That’s why solar panels, wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries are not recycled, but landfilled or incinerated.

 

Input exceeds output

The third dent in the credibility of the circular economy is the biggest: the global resource use – both energetic and material – keeps increasing year by year. The use of resources grew by 1400% in the last century: from 7 gigatonnes (Gt) in 1900 to 62 Gt in 2005 and 78 Gt in 2010. That’s an average growth of about 3% per year – more than double the rate of population growth.

Growth makes a circular economy impossible, even if all raw materials were recycled and all recycling was 100% efficient. The amount of used material that can be recycled will always be smaller than the material needed for growth. To compensate for that, we have to continuously extract more resources.

 Growth makes a circular economy impossible, even if all raw materials were recycled and all recycling was 100% efficient. 

The difference between demand and supply is bigger than you might think. If we look at the whole life cycle of resources, then it becomes clear that proponents for a circular economy only focus on a very small part of the whole system, and thereby misunderstand the way it operates.

 

Accumulation of resources

A considerable segment of all resources – about a third of the total – are neither recycled, nor incinerated or dumped: they are accumulated in buildings, infrastructure, and consumer goods. In 2005, 62 Gt of resources were used globally. After subtracting energy sources (fossil fuels and biomass) and waste from the mining sector, the remaining 30 Gt were used to make material goods. Of these, 4 Gt was used to make products that last for less than one year (disposable products).

Circular-economy-diego
Illustration: Diego Marmolejo.

The other 26 Gt was accumulated in buildings, infrastructure, and consumer goods that last for more than a year. In the same year, 9 Gt of all surplus resources were disposed of, meaning that the “stocks” of material capital grew by 17 Gt in 2005. In comparison: the total waste that could be recycled in 2005 was only 13 Gt (4 Gt disposable products and 9 Gt surplus resources), of which only a third (4 Gt) can be effectively recycled.

About a third of all resources are neither recycled, nor incinerated or dumped: they are accumulated in buildings, infrastructure, and consumer goods. 

Only 9 Gt is then put in a landfill, incinerated, or dumped – and it is this 9 Gt that the circular economy focuses on. But even if that was all recycled, and if the recycling processes were 100% efficient, the circle would still not be closed: 63 Gt in raw materials and 30 Gt in material products would still be needed.

As long as we keep accumulating raw materials, the closing of the material life cycle remains an illusion, even for materials that are, in principle, recyclable. For example, recycled metals can only supply 36% of the yearly demand for new metal, even if metal has relatively high recycling capacity, at about 70%. We still use more raw materials in the system than can be made available through recycling – and so there are simply not enough recyclable raw materials to put a stop to the continuously expanding extractive economy.

 

The true face of the circular economy

A more responsible use of resources is of course an excellent idea. But to achieve that, recycling and re-use alone aren’t enough. Since 71% of all resources cannot be recycled or re-used (44% of which are energy sources and 27% of which are added to existing stocks), you can only really get better numbers by reducing total use.

A circular economy would therefore demand that we use less fossil fuels (which isn’t the same as using more renewable energy), and that we accumulate less raw materials in commodities. Most importantly, we need to make less stuff: fewer cars, fewer microchips, fewer buildings. This would result in a double profit: we would need less resources, while the supply of discarded materials available for re-use and recycling would keep growing for many years to come.

It seems unlikely that the proponents of the circular economy would accept these additional conditions. The concept of the circular economy is intended to align sustainability with economic growth – in other words, more cars, more microchips, more buildings. For example, the European Union states that the circular economy will “foster sustainable economic growth”.

Even the limited goals of the circular economy – total recycling of a fraction of resources – demands an extra condition that proponents probably won’t agree with: that everything is once again made with wood and simple metals, without using synthetic materials, semi-conductors, lithium-ion batteries or composite materials.

This article first appeared on Low-tech Magazine.

Kris De Decker is editor of Low-Tech Magazine and lives in Barcelona, Spain.

 

References:

Haas, Willi, et al. “How circular is the global economy?: An assessment of material flows, waste production, and recycling in the European Union and the world in 2005.” Journal of Industrial Ecology 19.5 (2015): 765-777.

Murray, Alan, Keith Skene, and Kathryn Haynes. “The circular economy: An interdisciplinary exploration of the concept and application in a global context.” Journal of Business Ethics 140.3 (2017): 369-380.

Gregson, Nicky, et al. “Interrogating the circular economy: the moral economy of resource recovery in the EU.” Economy and Society 44.2 (2015): 218-243.

Krausmann, Fridolin, et al. “Global socioeconomic material stocks rise 23-fold over the 20th century and require half of annual resource use.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2017): 201613773.

Korhonen, Jouni, Antero Honkasalo, and Jyri Seppälä. “Circular economy: the concept and its limitations.” Ecological economics 143 (2018): 37-46.

Fellner, Johann, et al. “Present potentials and limitations of a circular economy with respect to primary raw material demand.” Journal of Industrial Ecology 21.3 (2017): 494-496.

Reuter, Markus A., Antoinette van Schaik, and Miquel Ballester. “Limits of the Circular Economy: Fairphone Modular Design Pushing the Limits.” 2018

Reuter, M. A., and A. Van Schaik. “Product-Centric Simulation-based design for recycling: case of LED lamp recycling.” Journal of Sustainable Metallurgy 1.1 (2015): 4-28.

Reuter, Markus A., Antoinette van Schaik, and Johannes Gediga. “Simulation-based design for resource efficiency of metal production and recycling systems: Cases-copper production and recycling, e-waste (LED lamps) and nickel pig iron.” The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 20.5 (2015): 671-693.

October readings

Art by Jocine Velasco. Source: Commune Mag

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

Yet again, we’ve collected a wealth of news and worthwhile readings from last month. October brought us material on the situation in Brazil, responses to the apocalyptic IPCC report, and Sveriges Riksbank’s prize in economics (what some call the ‘Nobel Prize in Economics’) won by Paul Romer and William Nordhaus; and as usual you’ll find articles on degrowth, radical municipalism, and new technologies and false solutions.

 

Uneven Earth updates

Meet catabolic capitalism: globalization’s gruesome twin | Link | We’ll soon discover that capitalism without globalization is much, much worse.

Dark municipalism | Link | The dangers of local politics

 

Top 5 articles to read

A subaltern perspective on China’s ecological crisis. The path of modernization has left China deeply mired in the mud of ecological and socioeconomic injustice.

Beyond the Green New Deal. One of the issues is not so much producing solutions as it is one of institutionalizing the capacity to listen and learn from those who already have good solutions, but whose solutions are almost always ignored. It is time to start listening. Not before it is too late. But precisely because it is already very late.

The freedom of real apologies

The automation charade. The rise of the robots has been greatly exaggerated. Whose interests does that serve?

Eco-pioneers in the 1970s: how aerospace workers tried to save their jobs – and the planet

 

News you might’ve missed

Mexico is on the verge of a major human disaster. Mexico City’s controversial new airport promises growth at the expense of human progress and the environment.

White House drops scheme to bail out coal, nukes

Surprise acquittal in Enbridge pipeline protesters’ case

New outlook on global warming: Best prepare for social collapse, and soon

‘Adults in the room’: Greens surge across Europe as centre-left flounders

Cuba embarks on a 100-year plan to protect itself from climate change

Changing climate forces desperate Guatemalans to migrate

Rise of the ‘megafarms’: how UK agriculture is being sold off and consolidated

World Bank and IMF guilty of promoting land grabs, increasing inequality

Europe’s dirty air kills 400,000 people every year

Mining crisis in Kiruna, Sápmi/Northern Sweden. The world’s largest underground iron ore mine and a cornerstone in the Swedish capitalist economy will soon be depleted. “The ore deposit in Kiruna has a more complex geometry at depth than was previously assumed. … This has to do with LKAB’s future, with mining beyond the life expectancy of the current main level, which extends to about year 2035. One could say that LKAB is now a mining company like any other and must search diligently for new ore volumes in order to survive.”

Google abandons Berlin base after two years of resistance. Kreuzberg residents were concerned about tech giant’s unethical practices and gentrification driving up rents

A 14-year-long oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico verges on becoming one of the worst in U.S. history

Indigenous suicide in Canada. This article provides some context, analysis, and profiles of initiatives working to address the severe ongoing crises of Indigenous suicide in the country.

“Catastrophic” effect of climate change on mental health found in new study

 

We’ve got 12 years: responses to the IPCC

There’s no time for gradualism. The urgency of climate change has never been clearer. We need a bold vision of a good and livable future — and a political program to match.

The uses of disaster. Climate change is here. In the midst of the storm, an opportunity arises to break with capitalism and its vicious inequality. Let’s seize it while we can. The alternatives are unthinkable.

The hope at the heart of the apocalyptic climate change report. Along with their latest dire predictions, the world’s leading climate scientists offered a new path forward—but will anyone take it?

To fix the climate crisis, we must face up to our imperial past.

Why catastrophic climate change is probably inevitable now. How capitalism torched the planet by imploding into fascism.

IPCC report: First thoughts on next steps by Sydney Azari

Who is the we in “We are causing climate change”?

Climate breakdown, capitalism and democracy

Fossil fuels are a threat to civilization, new U.N. report concludes

Billionaires are the leading cause of climate change

The case for climate pessimism. A frightening report on climate change has some experts pondering the perils of optimism about the future.

It’s already here. Left-wing climate realism and the Trump climate change memo

Burnout: Arguing the case against addressing Climate Change purely on Leftist terms

 

Sveriges Riksbank’s prize in economics

Why call it the Nobel prize in economics? Anyway, this year, William Nordhaus and Paul Romer won it for their work on the costs of climate change, which stirred quite a bit of controversy. We’ve collected a bunch of articles, blogs, and essays that lay out the dispute.

A Nobel Prize in honor of economic growth. William Nordhaus and Paul Romer have spent their careers studying ways to make and keep economies strong.

Nobel Prize for the economics of innovation and climate change stirs controversy. “I would say [this prize] is the last hurrah of a certain old guard of the economics profession that want to preserve the idea of growth at all costs,” says Julia Steinberger, an ecological economist at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.

Nobel Prizes in economics, awarded and withheld

The Nordhaus Nobel. Perhaps that is the greatest irony here – that even the most Neoclassical view of climate that economics has to offer still recommends action.

Climate change and growth – Nordhaus and Romer

Why economists can’t understand complex systems

The Secret of Eternal Growth. The physics behind pro-growth environmentalism. “The award of the Nobel Prize in Economics to Paul Romer and William Nordhaus (i), in the same week as the IPCC report, can only be interpreted as a huge slap in the face for the champions of “degrowth”.

 

Bolsonaro in Brazil

Why Bolsonaro won: beyond the cliches. If  mind-stopping cliches of violence and corruption do not correspond with voting patterns or Bolsonaro’s governmental plan why did he win the election? It was not a free or fair process.

Glenn Greenwald on Bolsonaro: Brazil has elected “most extremist leader in the democratic world”

“The proletariat of Brazil was defeated by democracy, not dictatorship.”

Neo-fascist Bolsonaro followers attack people throughout Brazil

Crisis in Brazil. An older analysis by Perry Anderson laying out what got Brazilians where they are now.

Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil is a disaster for the Amazon and global climate change

Understanding the global rise of the extreme right, by Walden Bello

 

Radical municipalism

Anatomy of a rent strike in Los Angeles. “It was amazing,” Camero recalled. “It felt like God was in our favor.”

LATU rent strikes and the geography of extraction in LA’s housing market

The EU’s obstacle course for municipalism. Radical democratic programmes face obstacles from both EU and national neoliberal legislation. Despite this, cities can and are finding ways to bypass these obstacles.

The mayors and the movements. In 2015, a wave of social movements lifted left-wing mayors to power in Spain. Their experience in office shows the importance of linking institutional power to bottom-up mobilization.

Spain to close most coalmines in €250m transition deal

Václav Havel’s lessons on how to create a “parallel polis”

Organizing the suburbs. The electoral success of the right is the result of decades of disengagement by the left and sophisticated politicking by right-wing politicians.

How real estate segregated America. Real-estate interests have long wielded an outsized influence over national housing policy—to the detriment of African Americans.

The housing revolution we need. A decade after the crash of 2008, a growing movement has thrust our prolonged housing crisis to the center of the national agenda. Could this generation finally make the right to housing a reality?

 

Degrowth

Beyond visions and projects: the need for a debate on strategy in the degrowth movement

Degrowth in the suburbs

Economic growth: The party’s over, says IMF

Degrowth: A call for radical abundance. One of the core claims of degrowth economics is that by restoring public services and expanding the commons, people will be able to access the goods that they need to live well without needing high levels of income.  

Gathering degrowth in the American pluriverse. A report on the 2018 DegrowUS Gathering

Degrowth: closing the global wealth divide

What’s the point of growth if it creates so much misery?

 

New technologies and false solutions

Half-Earth: A biodiversity ‘solution’ that solves nothing

Against geoengineering. Geoengineering is a risky business. It is so risky, in fact, that it should be banned. Avoiding climate imperialism: A leftist vision of geoengineering

We need to talk about technology: Now is the time for experts, activists and workers to collaborate on well-designed, affordable and energy-positive buildings.

“What lasted for 3000 years has been destroyed in 30”: the struggle for food sovereignty in Tunisia. Today is the International Day of Action for Peoples’ Food Sovereignty, organised by La Via Campesina. In this article, Max Ajl reports from Tunisia on the struggles for food sovereignty there, and on what it means for the Global South.

Farms race. Advocates of “open-source agriculture” say they can build a better food system. Should we believe them?

Universal basic income Is Silicon Valley’s latest scam. The plan is no gift to the masses, but a tool for our further enslavement

Jacques Ellul: A prophet for our tech-saturated times

 

Plastics and waste

Are the days of recycling with a clear conscience over? Our whole recycling culture is an illusion masking a growing problem of unsustainable manufacturing and consumerism.

Microplastics are turning up everywhere, even in human excrement

Japan bursting with plastic garbage in the wake of China’s 2017 waste import ban.

 

New politics

Taiwan is revolutionizing democracy

Rojava: Between city and village, between war and ecology

Communism might last a million years. Two giants of revolutionary thought passed from this world in 2018. Through them, we can glimpse the distant shores of a classless society.

Aggressive advertising is bad for us – we must fight back like Sydney. The decision to project a horse-race ad on the Sydney Opera House has triggered a huge backlash. It’s a reminder of why we should all be protesting against the effects of late capitalism

The communes of Rojava: A model in societal self direction. This amazing video and documentary, produced by Neighbor Democracy, details the evolving communal organs within the Rojava Revolution, from security to health care.

Land and labour. When we understand that settler-colonialism and capitalism are inextricable, we might begin to see that workers and Indigenous land defenders have more affinity in struggle than we previously thought.

Baby steps on the road to basic income. Seven Dutch towns and cities are beginning experiments with versions of a ‘basic income light’.

 

Where we’re at: analysis

A people’s rebellion is the only way to fight climate breakdown

How to restore Florida’s dammed waterways

A critical look at China’s One Belt, One Road initiative

Landgrabbing, illicit finance and corporate crime: an update. Land grabbing is now considered a crime against humanity, but few land grabbers end up in jail. Instead, if you search the specialised website farmlandgrab.org for news about law suits, court proceedings, convictions or imprisonment related to land deals, what you will largely find are reports of local communities being accused of wrongdoing for defending their own territories against powerful companies! Yet the links between crime, corruption and those engaging in agricultural land deals are real.

Flipping the corruption myth. Corruption is by far not the main factor behind persisting poverty in the Global South.

Fracking democracy, criminalising dissent

I was jailed for my fracking protest. But others face much worse

Colonialism can’t be forgotten – it’s still destroying peoples and our planet

The rise of border imperialism

Tribalism isn’t our democracy’s main problem. The conservative movement is. In the real world, the conservative movement — and the economic elites that it serves — have an interest in perpetuating both social polarization, and the unresponsive governance that it produces.

A Greek tragedy: how the EU is destroying a country. The problem could be solved tomorrow through the usual remedy of significant debt write-offs

Why the distribution of wealth has more to do with power than productivity

 

Just think about it…

Welcome to Jurassic Art. That’s where we were in the early 1960s — dinosaurs were sad, cold blooded, dead ends in the history of life… But paleontology was about to go through a spectacular shift.

Why do we feel so busy? It’s all our hidden ‘shadow work’

Can’t sleep? Perhaps you’re overtired

Far right, misogynist, humourless? Why Nietzsche is misunderstood. The German philosopher has been adopted by the alt-right, but he hated antisemitism. He has been misappropriated and misread, argues his biographer.

If you’re suffering from climate grief, you’re not alone

The real seeds producers: Small-scale farmers save, use, share and enhance the seed diversity of the crops that feed Africa.

How to write about a vanishing world. Scientists chronicling ecological destruction must confront the loss of their life’s work and our planet’s riches.

Racial purity is “scientifically meaningless,” say 8,000 geneticists

No future: From punk to zapatismo and connected multitudes

Endgame: how Australian preppers are bugging out and hunkering down. “We all have different skills and, in a real-life situation, how much better to talk to each other and pool our resources. Society would have to rearrange. We couldn’t all just lock ourselves away and, if we did, we wouldn’t last for very long.” 

 

Resources

An interactive map of China’s wildcat strikes

UNDER WATER: How rising waters cost us all

A gorgeous visualization of commutes around the world

America is warming fast. See how your city’s weather will be different in just one generation.

A podcast and blog dealing with the anti-capitalist permaculture movement.

 

This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Want to receive this as a newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

Encyclopedia of the mad gardener

by Marcus Yee

“Encyclopedia of the Mad Gardener” takes place in a fictional future where the equatorial line has thickened to become a zone, forcing mass migrations to the ends of the planet. This equatorial zone is the dampscape, where things are irremediably hybrid and contaminated (human/nonhuman, virtual/real, organic/inorganic) and the boundary-edges of solids are fuzzy, mushy, and moist. The zone undecipherable of the equator stands in contrast to the Garden, which is an inhabitable heterotopia, a site of purification, albeit precarious. Desperate for resources in this hollowed-out planet, the Department’s priority is to create a new classification system to determine ‘pure rubbish’, elements from which no further value can be extracted. The narrative focus is on “this Clarice”, who is tasked to draft this taxonomy, but reaches a point of saturation where she herself melts into the humid dampscape.

This piece was developed in a writing workshop, Post Super Future Asia, organized by Jason Wee, founder of Grey Projects in Singapore, and Esther Lu, director of Taiwan Contemporary Art Centre.

.UNTITLED_ORDER_DRAFT2
Things that provide humans with energy
Things that provide humans with energy that are not edible
Construction materials with a five-year life-span
Construction materials with a ten-year life-span
Organic matter
Inert matter
Plastics with origins in inorganic compounds
Plastics with origins in organometallic compounds
Plastics with origins in organic compounds
Solids that look like solids
Solids that look like solids but are actually
Gases
Bio-aggregates
Things with bio-traces
Ambivalent things that could be considered human with further research
Sluices and foams
Databytes
Incomprehensible databytes
Things that appear to be useful (but are not)
Things that appear to be useless (but are not)
Things that are very useful
Things that are very useless
Etcetera.

They need to hear its airless breathing, ozone skin and metal spines heaving in and out.

Words weigh on this Clarice with their inclusions and exclusions, non-sequiturs and false dichotomies, mistakes lodge themselves into their windpipe, air thinning out. Walking out into the labyrinth has turned into a nightly habit. They need to hear its airless breathing, ozone skin and metal spines heaving in and out. Under the genteel face of the pink moon, the orchids appear to droop slightly, providing no compensation. They are no longer the verdant and beautiful, immortal stalks standing erect and sitting out of time. Only the sweet smell of smouldering plastic and aircon refrigerant, perhaps, already leaking through the pores of the triple-layered glass.

They feel the smells seep into their nasal channels, dioxins boiled under the pink moon, flooding neural pathways, gases slowly encrusting, lining the PVC walls of veins and arteries.[1] This Clarice would then become rock, an eternal orchid.

Other projects were lighter, more definite, like the implementation of picture-windows onto every edge of the garden, the first of many ingenious contributions by this Clarice for the Department. The message of the picture-windows were simple: look at what’s outside and look at yourself. The outside would be burnished into the day-to-day lives of the garden’s inhabitants, instilling gratitude, and more importantly, keeping the outside within a frame, as an image, an undesirable horizon, to be viewed from a comfortable distance.[2]

.UNTITLED_ORDER_DRAFT1
Construction materials
Plastics/Non-Plastics
Solid/Liquid/Gas
Metals
Organic compounds/Inorganic compounds
Biomatter
Vibrant/Inert matter
Databytes
Pure Rubbish
Et cetera

This project was like slime, neither fluid nor solid, categories sliding past one another, sticking and mixing like weekday adulterers under warm neon. These were words for contaminated things and the boundaries drawn drew no blood. From past experiences, the Department’s campaigns with compounding, hyphenation and other terminological transplants were unviable options. Surgical as they were, these words quickly dissolved into obsolescence.

The Department, tired from the Babel-like confusion in the administration of the tropics, placed the renovation of existing classification systems as its top priority.

Et cetera was the other problem. The problem was equatorial, a line thickened from a hairline to a stroke to a wet stain: zone undecipherable. Three planets and a fraction already exhausted, causing in a mass migration from the maladies and mercurial weather of the yawning tropics. The Department, tired from the Babel-like confusion in the administration of the tropics, placed the renovation of existing classification systems as its top priority. The most urgent was to delimit pure rubbish, waste for which no value could be extracted. But this Clarice began from nowhere, the agglutinating mush offering neither entry nor exit, fleeing from definition, by definition, this Clarice could not dissect and examine its pieces.[3] It was an admission of defeat.

.UNTITLED_ORDER_DRAFT3
Things that belong to the Department
Things with tentacles

This evening that Clarice, letting their feet navigate the sinews of the labyrinth, find themselves in another pavilion. One could tell that not many have visited the Pavilion of Benevolent Knowledge, with its carbonfibre seats splintered and frayed, the onceluminescent orange of its pillars now off-colour, browned by the moon.[4] Cloaks of dust settled on the miniaturized Banyan. The eyes direct themselves, contouring along the tangents and angles of the pavilion, all lines leading towards the picture window. Towards the outside, an anachronistic dampscape, wetland and swamp. Perhaps from the affliction of the wandering mind, in this sweltering evening, the glass surface of the window saturates itself, as though looking back at this Clarice were the lace of hairline cracks, the undulating light that breaks apart, dappled and dappling layers of dust, rainwater stains, and their reflection onto the uneven glass coming together and torn asunder, one of thousand other countenances sunken into the mush, tangled with gossamer plastic and sewer-lalang floating in deadwater, rafflesian rot blooming with silicon-sand particles of circuitboard, eroded, haunted by the great drift of spectral vibrations from databytes, undeletable. What remains of wet banana leaves, crushed, a halo of flies starving for polyethylene.[5]

.UNTITLED_ORDER_DRAFT3
Things that belong to the Department
Tentacled Ones
Slimes and other aggregates
Pdf. documents
Those that look more human with your eyes squinted
Unnamed names
Et cetera

 

[1] “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober sense his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848)

[2] “The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world. The garden has been a sort of happy, universalizing heterotopia since the beginnings of antiquity (our modern zoological gardens spring from that source).” Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopia, 1967

[3] “The unfinished Chthulucene must collect up the trash of the Anthropocene, the exterminism of the Capitolocene, and chipping and shredding and layering like a mad gardener, make a much hotter compost pile for still possible pasts, presents, and futures.” Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 2016

[4] “I leave to the various futures (not at all) my garden of forking paths.” Ts’ui Pen quoted in Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths, 1941

[5] “What matters is through this daily gesture I confirm the need to separate myself from a part of what was once mine, the slough of chrysalis or squeezed lemon of living, so that its substance might remain, so that tomorrow I can identify completely (without residues) with what I am and have. Only by throwing something away can I be sure that something of myself has not been thrown away and perhaps need not be thrown away now or in the future.” Italo Calvino, La Poubelle Agréée, 1977

Marcus Yee is an artist and writer working at the intersections of waste cultures, infrastructure, and new materialism. He recently presented his first solo exhibition, Altars for Four Silly Planets in soft/WALL/studs, Singapore.

This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.

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“I’m looking through the symbol for all that’s disgusting”

by Aaron Vansintjan

There are people who don’t think twice about throwing something away that others might think very valuable. There are also people who are willing to give society’s discards value once again. Martin is one of those people. Martin collects trash for a living. He also runs the popular blog, Things I Find in the Garbage, which has 1,167,429 hits and 5,940 followers.

One winter night Martin drove me around the super-rich Montréal neighbourhood, Town of Mount Royal (TMR). We talked in the car—Martin shared some (dumpstered) tea from his (found) Thermos—and, once every so often, stopped at a promising pile of trash. We had to be careful to avoid getting in trouble with the security. It was two days before Christmas but there was no snow on the ground, and there was an occasional sprinkle of rain. After rooting through some trash bags and tossing anything we liked in the trunk we would hop back in the car, picking up where we had left off in the conversation. The following are excerpts from that discussion edited for clarity and flow, with some changes suggested by Martin.

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Why did you pass that pile?

Ummm. It just didn’t have a good vibe for some reason. It just seemed like, cardboard, or maybe they’re working on a new bathroom and bought some new shit. Renovation kind of stuff.

So you’re looking for the small things.

Yeah. Small things are good. Well, it’s also just the look of the pile. It’s hard to explain. If you see kind of vintage-ey stuff, that’s good. For sale signs, that’s very good. Because those people are moving, or whatever. There’s a lot of cost-benefit analyses going on my head. Trying to figure out what’s worth the time, you know?

What distinguishes you from others doing this kind of work?

The trash bag. That’s the thing that really makes me a pro, I guess. It’s the fact that I’ve realized that most of the good stuff is in trash bags. A lot of people when I tell them most of the stuff I find is inside bags, are very surprised. And then I’m surprised that they’re surprised. I wouldn’t be able to make a living just picking from open boxes.

I love the bag system. The bags give off a lot of information. You can tell by the shape of them, by the color of them, the quantity of them. But when you have these giant dumpsters, there’s not much information you can glean from that.

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What are some things you’ve learned from doing this?

I feel like I kind of know these people in a weird way. Even though I don’t really but I know parts of their story. Often times they’re passed on or whatever. It’s kind of a strange thing. To develop attachments to garbage or people who provide it. (There’s a long pause.) That’s the most interesting part about it, learning these stories and finding this cool old stuff. Because I’m also interested in history, and the history you find when trash picking is pretty interesting.

I’ve learned a lot about how much privilege rich people have. How much different the lifestyle is between rich and poor. Especially when I’m going through this kind of neighbourhood. The kind of things that rich people casually toss away is unbelievable for someone in my position. I remember when I was growing up we needed this special calculator for this high school class, the TI-83+.

They were so expensive!

Yeah. It was actually a stressful family expense, to buy these calculators. Then at a place in Westmount, I found two. Just thrown out. Just another world. The craziest thing to me might be the guy in Westmount who threw out a jar of change, of 56 bucks. This jar of change. This guy just didn’t have the time to… He worked at the bank, actually. He was a banker. At a certain point that’s just junk change to you. And I just can’t, it’s so hard to imagine a situation, where I would even throw out 50 cents. 50 dollars is just insanity.

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It’s like we live in a world of disposability.

And privilege. I can spend a dollar on something and not worry too much about it. If you’re making $2 million a year, you can spend $100 and not worry about it. It’s just different, a totally different scale. (A pause.) The only difference I guess is that I’m spending a dollar on candy instead of throwing it directly into the garbage.

[We pass by a street sign I recognize.]

That street is called Algonquin.

They used to live around here, didn’t they?

[We both think about the Indigenous people who continue to fight against the colonization of their unceded land, and how strange it is that a street was named after them in this rich neighbourhood.]

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Why do you think there aren’t more people who do this kind of thing?

I think anyone can do what I do, it’s just that there’s a lot of obstacles. A lot of it is social obstacles too. I guess for some people, it’s sort of a social stigma, people don’t want to be seen looking through trash bags at all.

Are you not concerned about that?

I’m not too concerned about it. [But] its pretty much the symbol for undesirable material. The black garbage bag. With some stink lines coming out. Like basically, I’m looking through the actual symbol for all that’s disgusting and filthy and all that. I’m sure there’s more to it, but people definitely get caught up in the symbol.

Are there moments when you do dig through stuff and are just like… oh my god this is the absolute worst.

(Laughs). Oh yeah. Once in a while people decide to mix in the good stuff with just kitchen waste or kitty litter and I’m just like “oh god.” If it looks interesting enough and I can clean it off then I’ll look through pretty much anything. I remember one person dumped a jewelry box into some kitchen waste and chicken bones so for the next half hour I was looking between the chicken bones and all that trying to hopefully find some gold.

Did you?

Ummm. I don’t think I did from that bag. I found some jewelry in a different bag that didn’t have chicken juice in it. That’s why I was so dedicated to that bag. I found some really nice gold cufflinks actually. But that particular bag wasn’t that great. (Long pause). Yeah you have to be willing to get your hands dirty. A lot of people don’t really want to get dirty at all. But I feel connected to it for whatever reason.

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Have you had any narrow escapes with the police or security?

There was this one time. I was checking out some trash and this security guard stopped. He asked me what I was doing. I said, “Well, I’m looking through the trash.” He was like, “I’m going to give you a ticket.” I was like, “Whatever, fuck you.” I just got into my car and drove away but he followed me and I left Hampstead and I’m pretty sure he can’t follow me out of Hampstead. (Laughs). That was my moment of badassery. I didn’t face any repercussions for that. I stopped going to Hampstead during the morning. Then I started going at night. Just to avoid that guy, who most certainly hates me now.

I think that’s the only reason why there’s not many trash pickers in TMR. One time I saw a guy. He was an Indian-looking guy, probably from Parc-Ex, on a bike. I never saw him again. I’m pretty sure TMR security takes care of them. (He laughs.) Anyone who doesn’t look like they belong. You know. You know all about power and all of that stuff.

Do you think doing this has kind of influenced or changed how you see those things?

Not too much. I already had kind of a picture. I think more I’ve just come to see the, uh, differentiation between rich and poor is more vivid in my mind now. Before I knew. But now I feel. I guess that’s the difference. I guess I always knew that authority was a weird thing. (He laughs.)

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What did we find, you ask? In an email, Martin broke down the proceeds from that night’s trash run:

“I didn’t have the cords for the PSPs, and the Gameboy had a pretty dark screen but I sold them ‘as is’ on eBay for a profit of 65$. The Expo 67 pamphlets (from that spot with the old books) sold recently for 50$ + shipping. The old books await yard sale season, though I did barter a few on the Bunz Trading Zone Facebook page for beer / food. All in all, a solid if unspectacular night (I find about 80$ worth of stuff on an “average” night, but sometimes I’ll find much more or nothing at all).”

(He doesn’t mention the electric can-opener, the solid metal vase, and the in-working-order brand-new stereo system I took home that night.)

Aaron Vansintjan is a co-editor at Uneven Earth and is currently pursuing a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London. He writes about gentrification, food politics, environmental justice, and contemporary politics.

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The garbage-loving environmentalist

by Cassandra Kuyvenhoven

I’m an open kind of person and I don’t mind sharing stories. I love stories. I think it’s so interesting to collect stories. Often at an art opening, somebody will read a story in one of my books and they’ll say, “that reminds me of…” and then people tell me more stories—their own stories! I collect stories. I collect stories, I collect garbage, I collect fabrics, I collect art: I am the ultimate collector.

-Lise Melhorn-Boe

Lise sits in her living room and proudly points to a large oil canvas that she traded for two of her handsewn cushions. I am captivated. A soft-spoken woman, Lise becomes extremely animated when reading from her treasure trove of books. Amidst the piles of fabrics and refuse, I lean forward to listen to Lise recount stories about dishwashers and used teabags and shockingly sexist nursery rhymes.

There’s something luxurious about being able to touch her books, feel the fabrics, and immerse yourself in the story. As Lise reads me her stories, I am fingering pieces of her old garbage that she has collected into a series entitled Garbage and More Garbage. Sewing her garbage into small mesh bags, Lise has created tiny time capsules that show her life in 2007 and again in  2010 when she was drinking Rice Dream, cooking chicken (she assures me that the bones were triple washed before being sewn into the book) and applying for a new passport (having decimated her old passport into a makeshift cover for the book).

The tactile experience of touching (but thankfully not smelling) her waste-books feels like you’re breaking a taboo—oftentimes waste is meant to be out of sight and out of mind. But Lise is not the type to keep anything hidden: her art is deeply personal and complex.

Oftentimes waste is meant to be out of sight and out of mind. But Lise is not the type to keep anything hidden: her art is deeply personal and complex.

I first met Lise at an art gallery in Ontario, where I was giving a talk on waste transportation in conjunction with an environmentally-themed art exhibit. As my talk ended, a willowy woman rushed up to me and said she was an artist who loved garbage, and that I should call her sometime to talk trash. She pushed a rather plain-looking card into my hand and quickly scurried off, leaving me in a stunned silence. If she told me her name at the time, I can’t recall.

But I held onto that card for several years, fascinated by the strange encounter. Having thought of Lise after seeing a particularly artful bundle of trash on the street during the winter thaw, I looked her up on her website and was pleased to see that she loved more than just garbage. One of her pieces, There Once Was A Little Boy/Girl, consists of handmade paper outfits for that are rubber-stamped with nursery rhymes about girls and women, and boys and men. The final nursery rhyme for boys says:

Tommy Trot, a man of law

Sold his bed and lay upon straw.

Sold the straw and slept on grass,

To buy his wife a looking glass.

In contrast, the nursery rhyme for girls reads:

See-saw Margery Daw

Sold her bed and lay upon straw

Was she not a dirty slut

To sell her bed and life in the dirt.

I was shocked when Lise read me the rhyme—in part because of the language (they let children read these rhymes?) but also because of the shamefulness of a woman getting dirty in her environment. I asked Lise why she thought it was commonplace or noble (in the context of the rhyme) for a man to lie on the ground and what made the same action unclean for a woman. She said that there is a stark contrast between what is acceptable for a woman to do in her environment—how she is able to relate to nature and her surroundings—and what a man can do in his environment. We sat quietly, pondering this dichotomy. That is what’s so special about Lise’s work—she reveals the complex factors and processes that shape women’s lives and their interactions with the environment, while also challenging the audience to question their opinions and beliefs about how individuals experience nature. In exploring these ideas, Lise tells an accessible and engaging story that you just can’t help but put your hands on.

 

Could you speak a little bit about how your relationship with the environment has influenced your art?

The series about the relationship between environment and human health started when I got breast cancer. I went out to British Columbia to see a naturopath who had a live-in program—I went for 10 days. He did a medical history, a life history and found out that I had grown up in a mining and smelting town in north-western Québec and then attended high school in Copper Cliff1, Ontario—another smelting town which has the Inco Superstack2. As soon as he found this out he said, “I’m going to do a heavy metals test”. And I did indeed have very high levels of lead and mercury and all kinds of heavy metals. So he believed that the heavy metals in my body were quite possibly the cause of my breast cancer.

So then I thought that there must be other people who are being affected by the environment too, and I was lucky enough to stumble upon a residency at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario—so I spent four months as an artist in residence at Queen’s through the Principal’s Fund. I didn’t actually make any art; I just did research in the libraries! I found out as much as I could about how our environment is affecting our health. And so one of the things I came across was the garbage. I did garbage first.

 

As a waste researcher, I am absolutely obsessed with waste. I am the person that you’ll see on the sidewalk stooping into people’s trashcans to get the perfect garbage picture. How did you start thinking about integrating garbage into your art?

My garbage series began with a piece that I made in 2007 called Garbage, where I put all of my daily garbage into individual mesh bags. Each bag contains one day’s worth of garbage. Now, this obviously does not include personal wastes with any bodily fluids. And it’s nothing that I could compost or recycle—so this is what is left, what remains. Mostly it is plastics. There are some bones that were washed carefully and bleached—even though that’s maybe not necessarily all that environmentally friendly in itself.  

These purple plastic mesh bags that I used—one of the grocery stores in North Bay had just started carrying organic produce and when I bought the organics, they were putting it in these mesh bags! I didn’t throw any of them out; I saved a whole bunch of them and gave them to my friend who was a weaver because she thought she could try using them to weave grocery bags.

But then I was collecting more and more of these plastic mesh bags, so I thought they would be the perfect vessel for even more plastics. I made these bags—it’s an edition of five. For five weeks in the summer, I had all of these little plastic bags scattered around my studio floor. And then, as you can see, I’ve quilted the waste with a sewing machine to keep the contents together. Then I’ve hand-sewn the text on.

Garbage. Photo: Lise Melhourn-Boe
“Garbage.” Photo: Lise Melhorn-Boe

 

What does the text say?

The text is about what we’re doing with our garbage and how it’s impacting us. One text says that:

Unmixed streams of plastic can actually be refashioned into bottles or containers. But there isn’t much demand from their makers for recycled plastic. Virgin is so much cheaper.

“More Garbage”. Photo: Lise Melhorn-Boe
“More Garbage”. Photo: Lise Melhorn-Boe

I took that text from Elizabeth Royte’s book called Garbageland. Another of the texts says that:

Canadians produce more garbage than anyone else. Each of us generates a staggering 383 kg of solid waste annually, according to Statistics Canada. In 2006, we created 35 million tonnes of trash (up eight per cent in two years).

So those are two examples from some of the text that I sewed into these garbage pieces. The concept of the garbage came first—before/then? the text—and then the collection of the garbage came after. Not that it was very difficult, there’s so much garbage. More Garbage in 2010 was just garbage that I had collected on the sidewalks, in intersections—and mittens. I found this fabulous mitten in the spring; everywhere in North Bay after the snow melts there are mittens.

 

If you were to do this garbage series again, do you think you would have similar things in your mesh bags almost ten years later?

Well, probably not bones and probably not the Rice Dream containers. Here in Kingston we can recycle them—Kingston says “all plastics”. So it would probably be less.

 

You’ve said that your garbage series was inspired by your personal health crisis—finding out you had lead toxins and other hard metals in your system and suspecting that it had caused your breast cancer. Were there any other pieces that came out of your experience with cancer?

The first book I showed to the committee to become an artist in residence at Queen’s—I was doing an art exchange with a gallery in Toronto and somebody had picked the theme of ‘landscapes’. And I thought, “I don’t do landscapes”. But I wanted to be in a show on Queen St. West in Toronto, so I had to come up with something! I ended up doing this book—this is a rock cut because I love the rock cuts along the highways up north. People do often put graffiti on the rock cuts, so my graffiti on this ‘rock cut’ is all the heavy metals that are in my body and the size of the lead and mercury are much bigger because I had a much higher concentration of those than say, tin.

I am part of these rocks, these rocks are a part of me. This is my personal landscape and it’s my body and its intersections with the environment, with nature, with rocks, with metals.

To visualize—this book is cut out in the shape of me lying down on my side, with my leg stretched out. It connects to the quote down at the bottom, which is: “there is no separation. We are the environment. So whatever we do to the environment, we do to ourselves” and that’s David Suzuki. So I am part of these rocks, these rocks are a part of me. This is my personal landscape and it’s my body and its intersections with the environment, with nature, with rocks, with metals. The rest of the garbage series came out of my research.

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“No Safe Levels”. Photo: Lise Melhorn-Boe

There’s another in the series that demonstrates this intersection of environment and bodies. And this one is not environmentally friendly at all because it’s computer printed—although the original was on handmade paper. My then-husband photographed me and then I blew up the photos and cut them out and glued them onto the handmade paper, wrote the text, and then had the whole thing scanned and printed in one piece.

It’s called Body Map. The text on my body discusses specific things about my body or things that I was doing in my life. The text outside of my body is more general environmental information—so, like, the text by my chest shows the environmental factors that might relate to breast cancer. Mercury vapour in the air—mercury is linked to food allergies, impaired immune systems, and thyroid malfunction. Well, I have an underactive thyroid, so I wrote this close to my thyroid. There are connections with the environment and me. Some of them are just funny—like, in 2005 I wrote that I “began to get old lady wrinkles on my knees”. I don’t think I can blame that on the environment!

“Body Map”. Photo: Lise Melhorn-Boe
“Body Map”. Photo: Lise Melhorn-Boe

So this is your gendered experience of the environment. Thinking about environmental contaminants that are impacting bodies, they don’t impact all bodies equally.

Yes, absolutely. Women have more body fat and so the contaminants affect us more because a lot of things go to the fat. There is a difference. And then things affect children differently because they’re so much smaller, so contaminants are more impactful. I grew up in Rouyn-Noranda in Québec with the smelter belching out smoke for my entire childhood. There were days where we weren’t allowed out for recess because… well, we never had snow days or rain days. We had bad air days.

I grew up in Rouyn-Noranda in Québec with the smelter belching out smoke for my entire childhood. There were days where we weren’t allowed out for recess because… well, we never had snow days or rain days. We had bad air days.

Anyways, since I was thinking about the environment, that made me think more about the materials I was using in my art. And so I began to make a conscious effort—at least in some of the pieces—to recycle or use up materials that I already had in my possession or that I could find at charity shops. In some of the pieces, I used materials that were left over from previous art projects.

 

Can you show me an example of one of your recycled projects?

I had been using tablecloths for another project, so I made a meander book [a meander (or maze) book gets its name from the way the paper is cut and folded to make the pages] called What’s For Dinner? It was a tablecloth and it opens up for display into the whole tablecloth in a spiral sort of way. Each place-setting on the napkin, I’ve hand-printed something that concerns me in my environment, in our environments.

Like, this place setting talks about factory farming and antibiotics. This place setting discusses genetically modified crops. This one is about fish farming and this one in the center has to do with colour, fake colour in foods. Another place setting deals with produce that has pesticide residues.

This was really fun to do. I did several copies and they’re all different—they are all tablecloths that I’ve found and reused. Quite a bit of the stuff that I used on the place settings is things that I had around the studio. I didn’t actually have to go out and buy too much material. I’ve been keeping plastic utensils for years. If I’m travelling and I end up eating out, I’ll bring the plastic utensils home.

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“What’s for Dinner?”. Photo credit: Lise Melhorn-Boe

 

You’ve obviously made a conscious effort to recycle and reuse your materials—especially fabrics like the tablecloths. You must be very adept with a sewing machine!

I separated from my husband about five years ago and we had been living in North Bay until that time, it was much cheaper to live up there. We owned our house outright so we didn’t need a lot of money. I just worked as an artist. But once I was on my own, I needed more income so I was searching around for different ways to make a living. And somebody gave me a serger, which is a sewing machine that does a double-stitch.

So I started making these t-shirts—used t-shirts that I was cutting up and repurposing them, rejigging them. I really liked them, but it wasn’t really making money for me. It was pointless. I wasn’t making any art because I was spending all my time repurposing t-shirts and they weren’t making much money anyway, so I thought I might as well make art and not make any money.

Anyway, I gave away any t-shirts that I hadn’t cut up yet. But I had lots of pieces and so I started making The “Re” Books and I’m playing with the idea of reduce, reuse, recycle. All the books have just three words in them and they all start with re. All of the words are made out of recycled t-shirts and they’re so much fun to make—like balloon animals! Except for some of the stiffening in the letters, I didn’t have to buy anything to make these pieces.

I will be having a show at Modern Fuel, a local Kingston gallery, next spring and I hope to have an entire room filled with these books. I also do sewing for homes—I make upcycled cushions. I’ve been making these cushions from leftover pieces of upholstery fabric because I have done some upholstery for people—sewing slipcovers and cushions. I have lots of fabric and it’s all just small pieces. Perfect to reuse! I’ve been having fun with the fabrics. It grew out of thinking about recycling and how recycling has become the medium.

 

Even though there is a range of topics that you tackle in your art, there always seems to be some sort of repurposing and recycling of materials. And the theme of memory is often recurring.  How do you think memory and remembering fits in with the environment, with your environment?

That’s a good question, I’ve never thought about that! I suppose if we remember a bit more we might be more conscious about what we are doing. Of course, it’s also thinking about the future maybe in a way more than the past. Thinking, “if I do this, how is it going to affect someone down the line?”.

 

I always feel that—especially with garbage—there is a conscious forgetting that happens. A reactive forgetting that as soon as you disavow something as ‘garbage’—as soon as you finish with your apple or no longer need your coffee cup, it goes out to the curb and it becomes forgotten. Maybe not for others and maybe not for others who have to deal with the garbage where it ends up—but for you, it’s gone.

It’s gone and it’s wiped away. On the other hand, just looking at someone else’s garbage is a memory right there. Garbage can tell a story. And I love telling stories.

 

Lise Melhorn-Boe has been working with books as an art medium for over forty years. She is especially drawn to women’s political and personal experiences and environmental concerns as they relate to human health. Lise plays with humour and adopts a playful visual aesthetic to explore more serious feminist and environmental issues.

Cassandra Kuyvenhoven is a doctoral candidate in the School of Environmental Studies at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Her interests include waste management, governance, knowledge controversies, and sustainable alternatives to waste transportation.

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Legacy: abandoned mine impacts in Pennsylvania’s Appalachia

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by Gabby Zawacki

Drive through Northeastern Pennsylvania and you may see black hills of coal and orange water flowing near or through towns. What you’re witnessing is the legacy of historic anthracite coal mining, which fueled the USA’s industrial revolution and two world wars, had extremely dangerous labor practices, and lead to the destruction of its landscape. Diverse hardwood forests filled with wildlife were replaced with black mountains of coal waste with acidic soil that can only support birch trees, briar bushes, and scrub vegetation. Thriving cold-water fisheries were replaced with abandoned mine drainage (AMD), orange water devoid of oxygen and all aquatic life.

While mining issues are gaining national attention since the 2015 Gold King mine spill in Colorado, Pennsylvania sometimes seems like the forgotten state despite having more mining issues than any other state in the nation.

Anthracite mining once fueled the region’s economy, but after coal companies began to go bankrupt, once-thriving towns were left with nothing but devastated land & water and the scattered spines of abandoned coal breakers & mine shafts. Land reclamation projects and AMD treatment systems help to alleviate some of these problems, but these solutions are often expensive. While mining issues are gaining national attention since the 2015 Gold King mine spill in Colorado, Pennsylvania sometimes seems like the forgotten state despite having more mining issues than any other state in the nation. Perhaps it’s the fact that our mining heritage is in the past, while many other states continue to have active mineral and hardrock mining, allowing their issues to be more present.

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Coal conveyor at the abandoned Old St. Nicholas Breaker in Mahanoy City, PA. Once the world’s largest coal breaker, Old St. Nick’s produced 12,500 tons of coal per day. It is currently in the process of being demolished and was the last standing complete breaker in all of Northeastern Pennsylvania.

The black hills of coal are more commonly known as culm piles. These piles are created by dumping coal waste, such as rock and shale, after separating it from the valuable anthracite coal. While these piles are large, they represent approximately 50% of what was taken out of the ground, revealing the massive size of mining voids lying beneath Pennsylvania’s valleys.

Land reclamation generally involves bringing the land back to a natural contour, adding a layer of topsoil to encourage vegetation, and seeding the land in order to begin the reclamation process.

Land reclamation projects are mostly funded through state and federal grants, with EPA Brownfield Grants and PA Department of Environmental Protection Growing Greener grants allowing non-profits to help recover devastated landscapes. Land reclamation generally involves bringing the land back to a natural contour, adding a layer of topsoil to encourage vegetation, and seeding the land in order to begin the reclamation process. While this process is straight-forward, mining pits can be incredibly steep, making the reclamation process take longer and be more costly.

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Shamokin, PA is location of one of 80 mine fires burning across Pennsylvania. This photo shows the abandoned Dinky from the Cameron Colliery, which once carried coal cars filled with culm to the top of the pile. This waste pile, which was once the largest man made mountain in the world, overlooks the town and is the site of the mine fire.

AMD, or abandoned mine drainage, is another legacy of past mining. AMD flows from mine openings and drilled boreholes to relieve pressure from the underground mine pools. AMD forms when water reacts with pyrite, or ‘fool’s gold’, deep in the underground abandoned mine workings.

As pyrite is exposed to water and oxygen, the sulfides within the rock react and break down to form sulfuric acid and iron oxide. Other metals and minerals within the rock can also become exposed and pollute the water, with many discharges in PA and other states containing heavy metals such as iron and aluminum, and some discharges containing trace amounts of harmful metals such as lead and arsenic.

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Iron oxide swirls in a polluted stream. The iron removes most oxygen from the water and makes it impossible for most plants, fish, and insects to live in the water. AMD throughout NEPA is essentially rust and can be processed into a safe art pigment.

To put this into perspective, many mines were 500-1000 feet deep, with some mine shafts reaching approximately 2000 feet in depth. Like digging a hole in the sand at the beach, at a certain point water will keep filling the hole no matter how much you try to keep it out. It’s the same with mine water. Once mining companies hit the water table, they would always have to pump water out of the mines, continually increasing the cost to produce anthracite coal. After all of the coal companies went bankrupt, along with historic events such as the Knox Mine Disaster in 1959 and the Historic Agnes Flood of 1972, deep mining ended in most parts of the Coal Region.

The Knox Mine Disaster occurred on January 22, 1959 when the Knox Coal Company drilled within 20 feet of the Susquehanna River bottom. The immense water pressure caused the mine to collapse, creating a whirlpool that filled miles of underground tunnels with water. 12 miners died in the tragedy.

The Knox Mine Disaster occurred on January 22, 1959 when the Knox Coal Company drilled within 20 feet of the Susquehanna River bottom. The immense water pressure caused the mine to collapse, creating a whirlpool that filled miles of underground tunnels with water. 12 miners died in the tragedy. The disaster highlighted the dangers of irresponsible mining practice, with the ultimate consequence being the flooding of honeycombed mine workings throughout the Wyoming Valley causing working mines to be inundated with water, effectively ending the already struggling anthracite coal industry.

By the Agnes Flood of 1972 in which the Susquehanna River rose 40 feet and devastated the Wyoming Valley, most mining companies had claimed bankruptcy and as the pumps removing water were shut off, mine water began to spill out of any available opening leaving streets, basements, and streams filled with polluted mine water.

Furthermore, because mining companies were not required to treat abandoned mine drainage or reclaim mining land, once a company went bankrupt, the burden fell on taxpayers and government organizations to clean up the mess. Present-day active companies are required to reclaim land and treat any AMD discharges caused by their mining.

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The Askam AMD discharge before it enters Earth Conservancy’s treatment system. Even in winter, mine water remains at a constant 52-55°F. In the Wyoming & Lackawanna Valleys alone, EPCAMR has calculated that approximately 216 billion gallons of water are contained in the underground mine workings. On average, all people living in the USA use 408 billion gallons of water per day.
These pools of colored water show that this mining company has hit the mine pool. Blue water indicates mine water that has not been oxidized yet. Orange water indicates oxygenated water with iron hydroxide dropping out to the bottom of the pool. In the background of both photos, heavily forested areas can be seen. Before mining, these areas of black waste and orange water were also heavily forested and home to diverse wildlife.
These pools of colored water show that this mining company has hit the mine pool. Blue water indicates mine water that has not been oxidized yet.
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Orange water indicates oxygenated water with iron hydroxide dropping out to the bottom of the pool. In the background of both mine pools photos, heavily forested areas can be seen. Before mining, these areas of black waste and orange water were also heavily forested and home to diverse wildlife.

In Pennsylvania, AMD occurs in the Anthracite Region in the Northeast and the Bituminous Region in Western PA. In the Northern Anthracite fields, most AMD discharges have heavy concentrations of iron with relatively neutral pH’s around 6.5, the same pH as normal rainfall. In the Middle & Southern Fields and the Bituminous Region, discharges tend to be more acidic (4 pH) with heavy concentrations of aluminum. Treatment systems help remove AMD and restore water quality. There are 2 types of treatment, active and passive. Active treatment refers to the use of added components such as chemicals (limestone) and machinery (oxygenation machines and automatic chemical dosers) to treat AMD.

Overall, treatment systems are expensive to install and even after successful installation, long-term upkeep can become difficult to fund and maintain.

In general, active systems are more costly and require electricity and regular maintenance to remain efficient. Passive treatment refers to the use of natural settling in large ponds for oxygenation as well as natural growth of wetland plants to treat AMD. Passive methods include settling ponds and using gravity to move water through a treatment system. These systems are usually more cost effective and don’t have many long term maintenance or operation costs. Overall, treatment systems are expensive to install and even after successful installation, long-term upkeep can become difficult to fund and maintain.

While this pollution problem will take a lot of effort to remediate, dedicated watershed associations, local conservation districts, and environmental non-profits are working to fix this problem by installing treatment systems, restoring streams, and educating the public about this issue through community events such as illegal dump cleanups on minelands and environmental education projects with community organizations and local school districts.

Pennsylvania’s legacy of abandoned minelands and AMD have implications nationally as well as globally. While clean energy is an important goal to achieve in order to help move towards a new era of environmental stewardship, coal mining communities need to be supported in the form of mineland and AMD clean-ups as well as economic stimulation in order to successfully move towards a better future.

Pennsylvania’s mine land issues are a vast, far-reaching, and expensive problem. The effect can be seen nationwide, with other coal states such as Wyoming, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Illinois facing the same issues. Hardrock mining states also face similar issues, as seen with the Gold King Mine disaster in Colorado. Globally, countries like China, India, and Australia are just beginning to produce mass amounts of coal. Pennsylvania’s legacy of abandoned minelands and AMD have implications nationally as well as globally. While clean energy is an important goal to achieve in order to help move towards a new era of environmental stewardship, coal mining communities need to be supported in the form of mineland and AMD clean-ups as well as economic stimulation in order to successfully move towards a better future. Pennsylvania’s struggles can serve as an example for other communities throughout the United States and developing industrial countries.

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A distribution center built on reclaimed mine land is seen from a window of the now demolished Huber Breaker. The breaker was a local landmark that became a local hangout after ceasing coal operations in 1976.

All photos by Gabby Zawacki.

Gabby Zawacki is a Watershed Outreach Specialist for the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation (EPCAMR), an environmental non-profit in Northeastern Pennsylvania. In her free time she enjoys hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, traveling, and photography.

http://epcamr.org/home/ | https://www.facebook.com/EPCAMR | http://www.earthconservancy.org/ | http://www2.datashed.org/ | https://www.epa.gov/polluted-runoff-nonpoint-source-pollution/abandoned-mine-drainage

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An ethics of surplus and the right to waste?

Sign at the UConn Public Surplus Store.

by Max Liboiron

At the most recent Association of American Geographers (AAG) meeting in Chicago last month, Josh Lepawsky and I coordinated a pair of panels on discards, diverse economies, and degrowth. As a concept, degrowth has taken off since the last global recession. At its most basic level, degrowth is about production without economic or material growth, and it encompasses a great diversity of types of economies that might achieve this: steady-states, gift economies,community economies, solidarity economies, and so on. As such, degrowth is also a way to organize social life, including ethics, values, and norms, as well as the systems of worth and circulation at the core of economics. In Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, authors write that: “‘Simplicity’, ‘conviviality’, ‘autonomy’, ‘care’, ‘commons’ and ‘dépense’ are some of the words that express what a degrowth society might look like.”

Lepawsky and I are interested in degrowth because of what it means for waste. Accounting for and with waste will ground-truth new economic imaginaries: how do they deal with left overs, excess, externalities, and by-products? How do they manage toxicity that is already permanently on the planet, and how do they avoid creating new toxicants? At the same time, discussions of new systems of value and circulation can vitalize discussions already underway in discard studies around surplus, valuation, reuse, scale, and the social side of technical systems.

In this post, I want to focus on surplus and dépense in particular. Growth and surplus are two different things: sometimes it is a good idea to have a surplus of food or other materials such as in preparation for winter or drought. Growth is the idea that surplus, whether in the form of profit or production of goods (or both), is the goal of economies, rather than one of many ways of organizing goods in a variety of economies. There can be surplus without accumulation being the main driver of production.

This brings us to dépense. Let’s say you’ve saved up some food for the winter, and the winter was shorter and warmer than expected, leaving you with extra stored food at the end of the season. What do you do with it? Proponents of degrowth might say: “waste it!”

Historic Doukhobor 1895 Arms burning sketch by William Perehudoff, artist from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Historic Doukhobor 1895 Arms burning sketch by William Perehudoff, artist from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Source: Discard Studies

Originally signifying the expenditure of excess energy in the writings of George Bataille, under degrowth the term dépense has come to highlight how some forms of wasting can be celebratory, ethical, and at the very least thought about in terms of what positive social values wasting might engender. Authors of Degrowth mention the practice of potlatch by Indigenous peoples of the Northeast coast, a mix of consuming, gifting, and destroying goods in a celebratory feast. We could also consider the Freedomite Doukhobor‘s practice of burning all possessions, including houses and clothing, every few years as a protest against materialism. In Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Erathe point of thinking about dépense is that “The different patterns of excess energy use [or wasting] characterize and distinguish different types of societies across space and time. Excess can be spent on sacrifice or festival, in war or in peace. … How should we go about the removal of the problem of energy and excess?” (87). How should we waste?

What would happen if we paired an ethics of surplus, where accumulation was always temporary and not the goal of economic production, with processes of wasting that enacted social values? In this situation, we might have a right to waste. If human rights are moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of behaviour, and degrowth has ushered in a new ethics of surplus, then celebratory, ritualistic, generous, thoughtful wasting may very well become a social norm that would gain the status of a right.

Of course, this assumes that wasting doesn’t cause harm to health or environment. It also doesn’t address what to do with the already existing surplus of legacy wastes we have to manage from nuclear waste to plastics. Yet this is precisely the power of the concept of degrowth: it is an economic imaginary, a politics of possibility, that can allow us to look at old questions with new frameworks.

Max Liboiron is an activist, artist, and Assistant Professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland researching plastic pollution.

This piece was originally published on the Discard Studies website.