In this week’s blog linked to The Rubbish Collection Curator Sarah Harvey follows the route of the Science Museum’s recycled rubbish.
Joshua Sofaer’s art installation The Rubbish Collection showcases the sometimes surprising materials that are created from the everyday rubbish produced by staff, contractors and visitors at the Science Museum. After documenting all the Museum’s waste for 30 days we have traced where it goes, and how it is recycled and transformed from rubbish back into valuable materials.
For recyclable rubbish put into the Museum’s recycling bins the first port of call in the journey is the Grundon Material Recovery Facility (MRF) at Colnbrook near Heathrow. Here it is separated out into several different recycling streams. First magnets remove the ferrous metals (like steel cans) and non-ferrous metals (such as aluminium cans) then sophisticated infra-red technology identifies and separates the remaining rubbish into paper, card, glass and several different types of plastics. Any rubbish that cannot be recycled, or pieces too small to be captured, are taken to the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant for incineration, so no rubbish goes to landfill. At the end of the sorting process the materials are baled as raw materials for resale to companies who take on the next stage of processing.
For each material the recycling and recovery processes are necessarily very different, but it was interesting to find that there is always a loss of some material which cannot be recovered or usefully reused. For the plastics and the glass that loss comes from paper labels and glues that are soaked off in the washing process, forming an unpleasant sticky mulch which gets sent for incineration. Even for the steel and aluminium cans which can be endlessly recycled, there is still some loss from the paints and pigments used in printing their branded logos and decoration.
As processes improve and new technology is developed, hopefully one day these materials will either be captured for future use, or the waste will be designed out altogether. The model for keeping 100% of the materials in circulation is known as the circular economy. Sometimes only a small change is needed. In the exhibition we have the plastic label and mixed flake that is retained from PET plastic recycling. By using plastic labels instead of paper the material can be more easily collected and recycled to make new products like plastic bags.
In this week’s blog linked to The Rubbish Collection, Curator Sarah Harvey looks at some of the materials that are on display in the exhibition.
The second phase of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection art installation has involved tracing the journeys of the Science Museum’s rubbish, to find out where it goes, and how it is processed. This has enabled us to work out what materials to bring back for display, and in what quantities, to represent 30 days’ worth of Science Museum waste.
Rubbish leaves the museum via a variety of different companies but the vast majority is taken by Grundon Waste Management. It goes to their site at Colnbrook, near Heathrow, which holds three centres; a transfer station, a Materials Recovery Facility and the Lakeside Energy from waste plant, co-owned by Viridor Waste Management.
Today I’m going to focus on the materials on display from the Energy from Waste plant. When you think of an incinerator that burns rubbish you might picture a dirty, sooty, very smelly and unpleasant place, but it’s actually an extraordinary, almost clinically clean building (except for the container where the rubbish is held), and it’s surprisingly beautiful with a giant claw grabbing up to six tonnes of rubbish at a time to feed the incinerator fires.
All the Science Museum general (non-recycled) waste goes to Lakeside to be incinerated. Four products come out of that process: energy, incinerator bottom ash, air pollution control residue and clean air. The largest output is energy, with the plant providing enough to power 50,000 homes per year. We have calculated that the energy produced by incinerating one month of Science Museum waste is enough to light one of our gallery bulbs for nearly 24 years.
The energy is produced by burning the rubbish for approximately 3 seconds at 950 degrees centigrade, which is long enough to combust most materials. At the end of the process, incinerator bottom ash is left over. This ash still contains large pieces of metal which are separated and sent to be recycled, and the ash itself is left to ‘mature’ so that chemical reactions can take place that lower its pH value. This aggregate is then used in the construction industry, primarily in road building. You could be driving on your old rubbish.
One of the most remarkable things about the incineration process is that the air that comes out of the plant is actually cleaner than the air that goes in. This is because it is very carefully filtered to contain the toxins released during burning. The filtered ash is known as air pollution control residue (APCr). Historically this toxic ash would have been contained in hazardous waste landfill, but new technologies and research are now finding uses for it. Grundon have invested in a company called Carbon8 who use carbon dioxide to neutralise the toxic heavy metals and materials, making them permanently non-hazardous. This safe ash can then be used as an aggregate and, alongside other recycled materials including wood, makes the ‘Carbon Buster’ carbon-neutral breeze blocks we have on display in The Rubbish Collection.
It’s been very encouraging to find that the Science Museum rubbish is producing some useful and valuable products through incineration. However, one of the big findings from our documentation of the Museum’s waste was that there is still a lot of recyclable material ending up at the incinerator. Those materials retain much more value when they are recycled so by continuing to improve and refine our recycling systems, and through new initiatives like separating our food waste, we hope in the future to decrease our general waste further.
Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection is now open at the Science Museum and runs until 14 September 2014.
In the latest of our series of blogs linked to The Rubbish Collection Science Museum Inventor-in-Residence Mark Champkins looks back at Phase 1, while Project Curator Sarah Harvey gives us a sneak preview of Phase 2 before it opens on 25 July.
Phase 1 – Mark Champkins, Science Museum Inventor-in-Residence
Tuesday 15 July was the last day of sorting through Museum waste for The Rubbish Collection project, and my last chance to put in a shift filtering through discarded drinks bottles and leftover lunches.
The project is fascinating. It aims to examine what constitutes the waste that passes through the Museum, where it would normally go, and what might be usefully recycled.
The exhibition is split into two parts. The first involves the collection of every piece of waste generated by the Museum over a month. A team of volunteers has been sorting and photographing the contents of the Museum’s rubbish bags, and pulling out items of particular interest. The second part will start on 25 July, and will be an exhibition of cleaned and collated rubbish materials.
As I began my shift, what struck me first was the smell of the gallery. It’s a sweet, fruity smell, not unlike over-ripe apples. It comes from the vast amount of sugary drinks and half eaten fruit thrown into the bins, the likely source being the hundreds of packed lunches eaten in the Museum every day. Throughout the Museum, the usual bins have been replaced with ‘General Waste’ and ‘Recycling’ bins. It soon became clear to me that in order to avoid the worst of the smell, the bags to pick out to sort through are the ones marked ‘Recycling’. This avoids the majority of the decomposing foodstuffs.
The task is to open up the bags, lay out the contents on a large white table, sort the contents as you see fit, and then snap a photo of the arranged items on an overhead camera. The opportunity to arrange the rubbish in whatever way you want has brought out the creativity of the volunteers. To this end, within a few days, a tumblr account was opened to show off some of the most imaginative of the layouts. Amongst my favourites are the seascape, composed of blue plastic bags and fruit, and blazing sun in the sky, made from bread sticks, paper towels and what looks like parsley. You can look here.
After half a dozen bags, a disheartening pattern starts to emerge. Much of what is being thrown away is perfectly good. Lots of the food is unopened or untouched. Leaflets and flyers are almost always pristine. It’s as though the bins are being used to de-clutter, rather than being a place to put things when they have reached the end of their useful lives. It seems inexplicable how many of the items have ended up in the bins. Three wheelchairs have been collected, over a dozen shoes, two fridges, a bra and a giant toothbrush.
Spurred by the some of the weird and wonderful items collected I have set myself a challenge. Like a Science Museum Womble, I aim to filter through the items left behind to put together some items that can be repurposed and redesigned to make a one-off product, that we can sell in the Museum shop. Watch this space…
Phase 2 – Sarah Harvey, Project Curator, The Rubbish Collection
After 30 frenzied days of documenting all the Science Museum waste, you might have expected artist Joshua Sofaer to take a well-earned break. No such luck. Since the documentation finished on 15 July, The Rubbish Collection has remained a hive of activity and an almost miraculous transformation has taken place. Gone are the sorting tables, bin bags and faint whiff of old packed lunch; in their place Joshua has created an intriguing and magical exhibition showcasing 30 days of Science Museum rubbish.
The exhibition is comprised of some of the bizarre and surprising items that were retained from the bins in the documentation phase of the project, displayed alongside almost 18 tonnes of materials processed and recycled from the Science Museum rubbish. Both the scale and the beauty of these materials and objects is quite unexpected, and I don’t want to ruin the surprise, so I’m just going to give you some teaser images (below). The exhibition opens to the public at 11am on Friday 25 July, so please come down and experience the wonder of ‘rubbish’ for yourself.
In the next in our series of blogs about The Rubbish Collection, Project Curator Sarah Harvey looks back at what we have collected and reflects on what Phase 1 of the exhibition has taught us about our relationship with waste.
Thirty days of sorting and documenting all the Science Museum‘s rubbish have come to a close. It’s been surprising, sometimes shocking and certainly thought-provoking, fun, hard work and, at times, a little bit smelly!
We’ve documented all the rubbish produced by the Museum’s 281,647 visitors, 500+ staff and contractors, five cafés, two building sites, three shops, two Science Nights, one Lates event and several storage cupboard clearances. We’re still waiting to see the figures but, it’s safe to say, it was a lot of rubbish.
Over the thirty days, artist Joshua Sofaer, his assistants and the Science Museum volunteers, along with hundreds of brave visitors eager to take up this unique opportunity to get up-close and personal with the trash, have rummaged tirelessly through approximately 250 bags of rubbish per day.
Along with the expected items like crisp packets, drinks cans and the remains of thousands of kids’ lunch boxes, we’ve also found some more unexpected objects hidden amongst the detritus of everyday museum life. 16.5 pairs of shoes, two two-piece suits, a bra, three fridges, one dishwasher, a box of old floppy disks (visiting school children didn’t know what they were), piles of discarded over-the-counter medicines, three wheelchairs and a staggering volume of disposable cutlery.
So, what have we learnt from all this investigating and documenting? Aside from the revelation that kids don’t eat the fruit in their packed lunch (one day I’ll count the number of untouched apples we documented), the most obvious thing is that we don’t recycle as much as we could.
Over the last few months the Science Museum has been working hard to put new systems in place for separating our rubbish both in public spaces and offices. The addition of recycling bins in public areas is a long overdue step forward for the museum but we found that almost all recycling bags in public areas were contaminated with non-recyclable rubbish, so we need to do more to encourage and help visitors to recycle while they are here.
The amount of recyclable material lost to incineration because we are not yet separating café waste is a lot more than we would like but there are plans in place to roll out new segregation systems to all the museum’s cafés in the near future. Just separating out the café food waste could reduce the museum’s general waste tonnage by around a third.
Whilst the documentation was taking place in the museum, behind the scenes we’ve been doing some detective work to find out where and how those materials are processed and what they go on to become. These days, very little is lost to landfill so most of the rubbish that left the museum has been transformed into some other physical form, either through recycling or through incineration.
That transformed rubbish is now travelling back to the Science Museum, to be reunited with some of the most interesting items we retained from the bins. Over the next 10 days, Joshua Sofaer will be creating an exhibition showcasing what is produced from our rubbish, examining the beauty and value of the materials but also looking at the sheer volume that was produced over one month. The exhibition will open on 25 July but if you want a sneak preview before then, make sure to watch this space…
The Rubbish Collection continues with Phase 2 from 25 July to 14 September 2014.
In the next of a series of posts linked to The Rubbish Collection, Sarah Harvey, Project Curator, talks to Neil Grundon, Deputy Chairman of Grundon Waste Management.
Grundon is the Science Museum’s main waste contractor, handling all our general and recyclable waste – approximately 30 tonnes per month in total! The Museum’s waste either goes to their Colnbrook Materials Recovery Facility and transfer station, or if non-recyclable, to the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant. Lakeside produces around 37 Megawatts of electricity each year – enough to power 50,000 homes.
I spoke to Neil Grundon, the company’s Deputy Chairman, about the future of recycling and waste management, and what we can all do to help.
Sarah: What does Grundon do?
Neil: Grundon is one of the UK’s leading suppliers of waste management and environmental services. We partner with our customers to help them reduce the financial and environmental impacts of their waste.
Sarah: What are the strangest or most difficult things to deal with that people throw away?
Neil: The strangest thing I’ve seen is a stuffed European Bear holding a lampstand. We’ve also taken a variety of wooden spacecraft used on film sets.
With regards to the most difficult things to deal with, my personal dislikes are garden hoses, inflatable rubber dinghies and beach balls. They always come in as one-offs and are impossible to segregate and recycle. I am sure that somebody will correct me on this, but by the time they reach us the only thing that we can do is to incinerate them for energy. Oh, I would also add those fluorescent glow necklaces that people wear at festivals – I dislike those too.
Sarah: What do you see as being the main challenges that the industry faces?
Neil: The main challenge for the industry is one of perception. Believe it or not, it is the leaders of waste management companies who lay awake at night wondering how to recycle composite plastics, not the manufacturers, the pressure groups or the public.
Sarah: What can consumers and organisations do better?
Neil: All consumers and organisations can do better – companies like Grundon only take away waste and treat it. We trust you to do the right things – and put it in the right bin!
My top 3 things that people could do differently would be:
1. Where possible to separate food waste. It contaminates recyclables and it is heavy and too expensive to dispose of in landfill.
2. Choose what you buy wisely, as ‘recycled’ does not always mean recyclable.
3. Simply – use recycling bins.
Sarah: How can we encourage the public to recycle more?
Neil: The public need incentives to recycle. People see no benefit from separating their waste and are often conflicted when they hear various scare stories in the media.
Grundon have invested in a company called Greenredeem to correct this disconnect between us and the consumer. Greenredeem combines ‘reverse vending’ kiosk technology with a web-based membership and reward scheme. It aims to encourage people to recycle at home and ‘on the go’ and to help cut the vast number of cans and bottles which end up in landfill from litter bins or simply thrown away on the street.
Sarah: What do you think the industry will be like in 50 years’ time? What are the new innovations and technologies that you are exploring at the moment?
Neil: If the industry changes as much in the next 50 years as it has in the last 20 years it will be unrecognisable. At present we have two initiatives that we are very excited about. The first uses carbon dioxide to fix heavy metals within incinerator fly ash (a by-product of the Energy from Waste process) to create a carbon negative aggregate, which is used to create building blocks.
‘Carbon Buster’ breeze block, www.c8s.co.uk
The second is a large facility that has been designed to extract the propellant gases and liquid content from aerosols and capture it for reuse. The added bonus is that we can then also recycle the aluminium and steel cans.
Grundon Waste Management new Hazpak 600 creates recycled aerosol blocks
I am very excited about 3D printing, as I think it will revolutionise the supply chain and hopefully eliminate much of our packaging. However, there is a question mark over what we do with redundant printed material. One of the greatest challenges for the industry will be what to do with the recycled products of today when they become the waste products of tomorrow.
Many of these materials will happily go round time and time again, however that garden hose… …well who knows!
Sarah: What did you think when you first heard about Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection project?
Neil: What did I think? Well, it’s great that Joshua and the exhibition is raising awareness of the value of waste. Thank you Joshua, we need all the help we can get!
Visitors can take part in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection until 15 July 2014. Phase 2 is open from 25 July to 14 September 2014.
In the next of a series of posts linked to The Rubbish Collection, Matt Moore, Head of Sustainable Development for the Science Museum Group, looks at how the Science Museum measures and minimises the environmental impact of its exhibitions and galleries.
The Science Museum Group places sustainability at the heart of its work. In 2010 we created a sustainability policy that would sit at the heart of all our official work practices, but well before that we were developing ideas and projects that would pave the way for the innovative work we do today.
In 2005 we became the first national museum to install solar panels on the roof – awarded for innovation by the Department for Trade and Industry – which have so far produced over half-a-million kW of energy for the museum. It’s amazing how quickly technology is developing; those original panels produced 80W, our soon-to-be-installed new panels generate 280W and newer designs will be even more energy efficient.
While it’s easy to get carried away with whizz-bang new kit, we need to be conscious that our buildings, subject to changing building techniques over the last 100 or so years, are complicated to heat, light and make suitable for our visitors and irreplaceable objects.
We increasingly look at the ‘fabric-first’ approach to sustainability as we develop new projects and structures. By being intelligent with the building structures we can use the materials they are made from to help passively maintain good conditions for the objects they contain. The Hempcrete Museum Store at our Wroughton site is a fantastic example of this. It uses a hemp and lime construction medium to balance the humidity within the building according to temperature, decreasing the amount of air-conditioning that is required.
This work is not all big innovation though, there are many small, practical steps that have been taken to make the museum more energy efficient; from reprogramming the building management systems and lighting controllers to turning kit on only when it’s needed and changing our light bulbs to ever more efficient versions. This is important work for buildings of this scale and achieves impressive results – the lighting alone at our sister museum, the National Railway Museum, accounted for 44% of the energy used!
It is important when we develop new exhibitions and galleries that we plan and collaborate on the impacts and benefits that materials, electronic equipment and staff activity all have on a project. When the Atmosphere gallery was conceived, considerable effort was spent on understanding the environmental footprint, from the procurement chain to end of life disposal. This has become a core element of exhibitions being developed today; none more so than The Rubbish Collection!
Waste is an inevitable by-product of the Museum’s operation, and we are becoming more agile at dealing and developing new ways to divert this resource away from pointless burial. Our current system ensures that almost no waste is sent to landfill. What can’t be recycled is sent to Grundon’s highly efficient energy from waste plant, where with the increasing value of some of the raw materials means that our waste can become products that have a second, third or even fourth life after leaving the museum. Keeping waste to a minimum is an important part of the story, and through procurement we encourage suppliers to minimise both the travel distances for their products and the packaging associated with them.
Across our group of Museums, sustainability initiatives over the last year have seen many successes: at Wroughton, biodiversity actions have brought two poor-condition County Wildlife Sites into a land management plan. The cafés at all our sites achieved high levels of recognition from the Sustainable Restaurants Association for sourcing food from local and ethical suppliers, along with good practice within the cafés to minimise food waste and energy use. Café development at the Science Museum over the last few months has included innovatively planted walls and herb gardens in the new terrace area. Our procurement team is working hard to ensure that our suppliers and contractors have a good record and work with us to improve sourcing and energy efficiency.
So, what does the future hold for sustainability in the Science Museum Group? An ever-increasing need to be efficient in energy use will see developments in building fabric performance, energy efficiency technology and energy generation at our sites and when we develop our visitor spaces, new materials, efficient interactives and intelligent systems will add to the Museum experience. We’ll also be trying to put more energy back into the national grid than we take out with a 40MW solar project at our Wroughton site – that’s about four times the electricity that the Science Museum Group consumes!
Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection runs until 15 July 2014. Phase 2 is open from 25 July to 14 September 2014.
In this week’s blog from The Rubbish Collection, Corrinne Burns, Content Developer at the Science Museum’s Antenna Gallery gets a volunteer’s view on the exhibition.
‘Do people just get naked in the Science Museum?’ Katyanna Quach asks me, with a suspicious look in her eyes. Before I have time to give that mental image the thorough probing that it deserves, I’m given a bit of context. “We’ve found a bra, some shoes…”
‘And an entire suit. And money. And a television,’ adds her colleague Hannah Burke. We’re standing in the basement of the Museum, surrounded by the bagged detritus of the previous day – waste from galleries, cafés, offices and kitchens. But they’re here for a good reason: this, friends, is art. Katyanna and Hannah are two of the many volunteers helping artist Joshua Sofaer in his quest to document an entire month’s Museum waste.
Drinks containers in The Rubbish Collection. Image credit: Corrinne Burns
Joshua’s Rubbish Collection is an unusual art installation – over the next few weeks, every single item that goes into a Museum bin will be taken out again and publicly documented. Joshua is building a photographic archive of 21st century Museum waste – every receipt, every teabag, every half-eaten potato (and, it would appear, every bra and every television). For the last few months I’ve been watching my colleagues work with Joshua to draw this idea, this ‘contemporary archaeology’ project, out of Joshua’s head and onto the Museum floor. Today, I’ve come to see the result – and to meet the Museum volunteers at the centre of this unique archive.
Joshua hopes that the Rubbish Collection will make us “… consider what we choose to keep, what we discard, and why.” It’s certainly making the volunteers think.
Hannah Tran at work. Image credit: Corrinne Burns
‘I’ve seen whole uneaten lunches from Waitrose. Not touched at all. You just think, “Why didn’t you take it home?”’ says Hannah Tran. ‘Even Museum cafés create food waste – obviously they can’t keep sandwiches forever, but on the night shift we get a lot of completely unopened paninis.’
Katyanna shares Hannah Tran’s unease at the sheer volume of waste we produce. ‘You see how much of it there is and think, “I shouldn’t waste so much. I should recycle more.” Some stuff that could be recycled is just put in with general waste, and then it’s contaminated so you can’t recycle it.’ Katyanna, like many of the volunteers here, was driven to get involved with The Rubbish Collection because she feels that we need to make ourselves think about waste. ‘So much media attention is devoted to wildlife at risk, to species going extinct … but still, some people don’t really care. So this project is an interesting way to talk to the public and get them to think about rubbish, and recycling, differently.’
So what do visitors make of the whole experience?
‘Well, it looks really factory-like in here. Because we’re dressed in boiler suits, I think people come over and think, “Oh, these guys are working!”’ says Katyanna. ‘So I go, “Hi! Do you want to sort rubbish?”, and explain what we’re doing. Some people do really enjoy it and try their hardest to make something pretty out of it. Some people are disgusted by it, but do it anyway.’
Katyanna Quach and Hannah Tran in The Rubbish Collection. Image credit: Corrinne Burns
Visitors don’t have to get too close for comfort , of course. They’re just as welcome to come and observe the documentation process, and to talk to Joshua and his friendly team of assistants and volunteers. It’s certainly not the sort of gallery you see often. Or, indeed, ever.
‘I don’t think visitors to the Science Museum expect to find an art installation here. Especially this one, because it’s not “done” yet. It’s quite conceptual,’ says Hannah Tran. ‘It’s very different from the other stuff in the Museum. But people are really curious – kids are more interested in the rubbish itself, and older people often want to talk about the kind of stuff we find, but also about just how much waste there is.’
Tempted to take part? Let Hannah Burke convince you. ‘Although it may sound crazy, many of the rubbish bags have their own interesting stories to tell, and that can really make the job of sorting through rubbish worthwhile. It is always exciting to see enthusiastic members of the public become immersed at the task in hand. I can’t wait to see what interesting items the next three weeks have to offer!’
Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection runs until 15 July 2014. Phase 2 is open from 25 July to 14 September 2014.
Project Curator of The Rubbish Collection, Sarah Harvey, considers how art can inspire us to question our everyday relationships with ‘rubbish’.
Newly opened, The Rubbish Collection exhibition is the latest, and arguably the most ambitious, of the Science Museum’s art commissions. Artist Joshua Sofaer’s exploration of what we throw away, both as an institution and as individuals.
The Rubbish Collection continues our series of thought provoking exhibitions, installations and events relating to the Atmosphere gallery and Climate Changing… programme. Art has had a strong presence throughout this programme, for instance within the Climate Changing Stories (2011-May 2014), David Shrigley’s House of Cards (2010) and Tony White’s downloadable novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South (2013).
So, why has art played such an important role in the Science Museum’s exploration of climate science and sustainability? The ability of artists to offer a unique and creative perspective on this challenging subject and to make visible the forgotten or intangible aspects of the world around us is the key.
The Rubbish Collection is an excellent example of this. Sofaer’s concept is deceptively simple: get people to look at what they throw away and consider what happens to it next. It’s certainly not the way a curator would have tackled this topic; it has taken an artist to think the unthinkable and invite Science Museum visitors to help sort piles of rubbish.
Sofaer is cleverly utilising and playing with the recognisable role of the Museum, in collecting, sorting and displaying precious objects, and using them to tell stories. Rather than looking outward, to examine the material production of the world around us, we will be looking at what the Science Museum itself produces in the form of waste and exposing the value of these overlooked materials, both in aesthetic and monetary terms.
The concept is surprising – and in some ways utterly absurd – yet the outcome has the potential to shock as Sofaer brings us face to face with the reality of our daily consumption and waste of resources.
The Climate Changing… programme’s aim was to be thought provoking and The Rubbish Collection certainly fulfils this brief. In the run up to the exhibition it has already stimulated conversations within the Science Museum and it is exciting to know this self-reflection will have an impact on the future decisions the institution makes in relation to sustainability and climate change. As Project Curator of The Rubbish Collection, the project has certainly made me think about rubbish in a very different light. I hope it will inspire all those who take part too.
Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection runs until 15 July 2014. Phase 2 is open from 25 July until 14 September 2014.
This summer the Science Museum is doing something crazy. It is allowing members of the public to rummage through its bins.
The Rubbish Collection is a two-part art installation, which will see every single thing thrown out by the Science Museum staff and visitors for 30 days, photographed in a purpose-built temporary archive in the basement of the Wellcome wing. Members of the public will be invited to open the bags of rubbish and layout the contents on an archive table, photograph their arrangement, before repacking the contents in the bag and sending it on its route towards recycling or incineration.
We will then follow the journey that the rubbish takes and will recall it to the Science Museum at various stages in its transformation, for the second part of the project: an exhibition of waste materials. Visitors will be able to see the elements and quantity of stuff thrown out by one institution.
Humans are avid collectors. We are also nosy. We enjoy investigating the things around us and seeing material culture collated, labelled and exhibited. It was this impulse that was the incentive for the first museums. The Rubbish Collection, which will soon fill the exhibition space below, inverts the idea of the museum preserving what is sacred or unique, asking us to consider what we choose to keep, what we discard, and why.
By handling the waste themselves, I hope the public will notice how recycling bins are often contaminated and also how perfectly good resources are sent off needlessly for incineration when they could be reused or recycled.
Mirroring the conventional museum displays that are adjacent, The Rubbish Collection exhibition will confront visitors with a literal representation of one institution’s waste, while focusing attention on the urgent need for waste reduction.
It’s a step into uncharted territory and a courageous thing for the Science Museum to do; allowing the public to rummage through its bins. It shows that their commitment to tackling issues connected to climate change, sustainability and carbon efficiency, starts with themselves.
Rubbish bags are also repositories for stories of our lives. Opening one and laying out the contents is a kind of contemporary archaeology that stimulates the imagination, as we deduce or invent the histories of the materials before us.
Seeing the towers of paper, above, or mountains of glass sand, is similarly not only about recognising the need for more sustainable living, it is also about acknowledging the aesthetic properties and the wonder of the everyday stuff that surrounds us.
The Rubbish Collection runs from 16 June to 14 September 2014.
Photojournalist Harold Tomlin took this photograph in 1940 when he was working for the Daily Herald. The description reads as follows:
‘The men are working on a pile of aluminium pots, pans and other domestic items, given by the public in response to an appeal by the Ministry for Aircraft Production in July 1940. The aluminium was initially required to build fighter planes, though little was actually used for this purpose, the appeal did however act as a morale booster as the public felt they were ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort.’
The idea that the vessel someone’s grandma used to make beef stew became part of a vehicle dropping bombs on someone else’s grandson sends my mind spinning. Even if the majority of the aluminium donated was not actually recycled in this way, the gesture asks us to imagine the life of an object. Think for a second about the meals that will have been cooked in these pots, the families that will have sat together to eat those meals, the arguments about washing up.
In a post-Freudian society where such overwhelming emphasis is placed on psychic motivations and drives, despite the increasing material suffocation of capitalism, to rethink the materiality of the object in terms of the life it has led, is one that may lend us a useful model for thinking about sustainability and diminishing natural resources.
With processes of recycling now more advanced than ever before, we not only need to think about how objects themselves are reused but what happens to the elements of those objects at molecular level. Whether we send something off to landfill, burn it for energy, or separate its components for recycling, the materiality of objects we dispose of does not just disappear. Whether they become fighter planes or are buried underneath golf courses, pots and pans, like everything else are simply transformed. After all, perhaps there is no such thing as rubbish, just wasted resources.