On waste, still more questions than answers

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“We produce waste. Perhaps even more importantly, we define what is waste and what is not, and we adopt practices for managing (or pushing out of sight) what we have defined. What if one of our practices, recycling, is actually damaging to the overall environmental project we should be pursuing? What if everything we now define as waste was redefined as Untapped Capital, and the concept of waste was banished from our vocabulary?” — from IDEAS CITY, a four day explo­ration of the future of cities, held in Lower Man­hat­tan from May 1 – 4, 2013, orga­nized by the New Museum.

Speaking to the real significance of the issue, IDEAS CITY‘s panel on ‘Waste’ offered more warnings and frustration than it did solutions to our problems. Moderated by Jonathan Rose (of Jonathan Rose Companies LLC), the panel brought together scholars, architects, and artists whose work has focused on waste.

The most interesting moments concerned waste in NYC specifically. Two New York waste scholars, Max Liboiron and Samantha MacBride, offered somber reflections on our city’s efforts to tackle our flawed garbage and recycling systems. Samantha MacBride (Author of Recycling Reconsidered) cites, for example, Mayor Bloomberg’s much lauded push to open recycling to all rigid plastics. The SIMS Recycling facility that actually handles the sorting of NYC’s recycling in New Jersey will still have to find a major market for these plastics. If they don’t, the rigid plastics will just end up back in a landfill, or shipped abroad in mixed bales to be sorted by cheaper labor.

In general, recycling is a field often glossed over with heartening-but-simplified statistics and back-patting, and MacBride specifically cautioned against falling victim to “pseudo-solutions” and tempting statistics. Liboiron (activist, trash artist, and postdoctoral researcher at NYU) similarly referred to recycling as “an industrial process, not an environmental good.” Recycling in NYC is a commodities operation wherein we only sort out and recycle materials for which there is a large secondary market. While it’s certainly better than a land fill, our recycling facilities ultimately are still consumptive industries.

Rose began the panel by warning of the growing “middle class”– forecasting a doubling in the world’s middle class population between 2007 and 2025. This is an increase which he fears may be accompanied by a 10-fold increase in consumption. Though the growth of populations in countries like India and China will put new magnitudes of stress on our garbage and recycling systems, the panel ultimately pointed to the nature of our production rather than our consumption as the place to make a real difference. Liboiron believes that meaningful solutions to our societies waste problems will not be about intervention in consumer choice, which are largely unavoidable, but interventions much higher up on the chain–interventions that challenge a purposefully designed “Throwaway Society” and the structures that keep it functioning.

The panel included:

Mai Iskander: a producer, director, and cinematographer. Her directorial debut, Garbage Dreams, follows a trash-collecting community in Egypt.

Lydia Kallipoliti: a practicing architect, engineer, and theorist, currently teaching at the Cooper Union and at Columbia University in New York.

Max Liboiron: an activist, trash artist, and postdoctoral researcher at New York University’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication.

Samantha MacBride: Assistant Professor of Public Affairs at Baruch College – her most recent book is entitled Recycling Reconsidered.

Jonathan F.P. Rose: founder of real estate development, planning, consulting, and investment firm Jonathan Rose Companies LLC

The recorded talk at IDEAS CITY can be seen on this page.

Image: The New Museum