Waste is central, not peripheral, to everything we design, make and do

By | January 4, 2022

Justin McGuirk writes:

The opposition between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ is problematic for many reasons, but there’s one that we rarely discuss. The ‘nature vs culture’ dualism leaves out an entire domain that properly belongs to neither: the world of waste. The mountains of waste that we produce every year, the torrents of polluting effluent, the billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases, the new cosmos of microplastics expanding through our oceans – none of this has ever been entered into the ledger under ‘culture’. Of all the products of human hands, it’s the oeuvre that no one wants to own, discuss or preferably even see. Yet it can’t be assimilated into ‘nature’ either, at least not in the way that pre-industrial waste has been for millennia. This new, ‘improved’ waste is incompatible with Earth – too chemical, too durable, too noxious and, ultimately, too voluminous.

Waste is precisely what dissolves the distinction between nature and culture. Today, when the very weather is warped by the climate crisis, and plankton thousands of metres deep have intestinal tracts full of microplastics, the idea of a nature that is pristine or untouched is delusional. Nature and waste have fused at both 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. If waste is the mesh that entangles nature and culture, it’s necessarily the defining material of our time. We live in the Waste Age.

If we look at the material ages of human history, from the Stone Age and the Bronze Age through to the Steam Age and the Information Age, we get the illusory sense that hard things are dematerialising. In fact, the opposite is true. The Steam Age launched a great explosion of material goods that has mushroomed exponentially ever since, while statistics about our current rates of waste numb the mind. What does it mean to say that, by 2050, as much as 12 billion tonnes of plastic will have accumulated in landfills or the natural environment? What does it mean to observe that more than a million plastic bags are consumed every minute globally, and that this amounts to between 500 billion and 5 trillion a year? Such numbers present a seemingly precise quantification yet one that’s utterly ungraspable. [Continue reading…]

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