Joshua Sofaer


281,647 visitors

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.

Two pairs of shoes appear in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Two pairs of shoes appear in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

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.

Uneaten fruit in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Uneaten fruit in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

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.

Food waste from the Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Food waste from the Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

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.

Managing our waste

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.

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

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,

‘Carbon Buster’ breeze block,

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

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.

A sustainable future

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.

The Hempcrete store at Wroughton © Science Museum

The Hempcrete store at Wroughton © Science Museum

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!

The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

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.

Plants adorn the new terrace at the Science Museum © Science Museum

Plants adorn the new terrace at the Science Museum © Science Museum

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.

Every receipt, every teabag…

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

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

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

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.

The art of rubbish

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 © Science Museum

The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

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.

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

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.

Introducing The Rubbish Collection

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.

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

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.

Cooking Pot Bomber

Collecting aluminium pots and pans to make aeroplanes, Harold Tomlin, 1940 © National Media Museum, Bradford

Collecting aluminium pots and pans to make aeroplanes, Harold Tomlin, 1940 © National Media Museum, Bradford

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.

The Rubbish Collection opens at the Science Museum on 16th June.

Paper Mill

Yesterday I visited Kemsley Mill, the largest paper mill in the UK, as part of the research for The Rubbish Collection at the Science Museum.

DS Smith 1

Kemsley Mill was originally built in 1924 to produce newsprint. At the time its four paper machines were the largest in the world. Now it is part of the DS Smith group and the total annual production capacity is around 800,000 tonnes, making it the second biggest recovered fibre based paper operation in Europe. The 150 acre site (the size of a small town)  is almost entirely self-sufficient, with its own energy from waste plant that provides electricity to run the place and then extra which it sells back to the grid. It also has its own water purification systems. Making paper requires an enormous amount of water. At stage 1 of the process, the pulp is 99.5% water!

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The operation is massive. Just take a look at some of the cabling alone!

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The main raw materials are waste paper, water, and a small percentage of ‘virgin pulp’ to keep the quality high.

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On the truck in the picture below you can see some ‘wet lap’, which is actually 47% water. As Kemsley produce most of their own pulp, this is probably some of the virgin pulp that they buy in.

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There is almost no wastage. On this truck you can see a sludge of paper fibres that are no longer of use to the paper making business. This sludge is high in nitrates and is sold to the farming industry to improve soil quality.

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The waste paper is pulped and cleaned and spun and sorted into fibre length.

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It is then mixed in the correct quantities depending on what product they are making.

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And it passes around this giant felt band.

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And along an innumerable  series of rollers.

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Before being wound onto a giant spindle.

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Kemsley Mill makes five main products:
– White Top Testliners (which is a brown paper on one side and a white paper on the other, used for printed packaging and boxing)
– Brown Testliners (which is used to make the outside of cardboard boxes)
– Dual purpose liner / fluting (which is used to make the corrugated bit of corrugated cardboard)
– Standard fluting including lightweight (also used to make corrugated cardboard)
– Plasterboard liners (which comes in various colours and forms the sandwich of plasterboard with a gypsum filling)

There is a laboratory where they test the quality of the paper that they are producing. This piece of scary looking equipment tests the strength, density, tear capacity etc., of a piece of paper.

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Once the giant reels of paper have been made, they are transported on conveyer belts to be stored in vast hangers until they are required by customers.

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Colossal paper towers rise above you. There is something extremely satisfying and full of awe, about walking through these corridors of paper, all of which are living a second, third, forth, fifth or even sixth life. What, you may well wonder, were the fibres of these paper turrets doing in days gone by?

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Back to the Bins

I have worked with rubbish before. I have had teams racing around London gathering rubbish for Scavengers at Tate Modern, built a Rubbish Library for ARCUS in Japan, and spent 3 months in Brazil working with ‘catadores’ – human scavengers of rubbish – presenting my findings at Centro Cultural São Paulo. In all of these works I have been interested in pressing questions about the value we ascribe to objects in a world of increasing material suffocation. This June will see my most ambitious project of this kind as The Rubbish Collection comes to the Science Museum in London.


There are two phases. In the first, for 30 days every piece of Science Museum waste – from the cafes, the offices, the workshops and construction sites – will be diverted through The Rubbish Collection to be publicly documented, forming a growing visual archive of the things thrown away.

In the second, following the documentation process, individual items of rubbish will be either retained for display, or sent on their usual journey towards material recovery, recycling, or energy from waste incineration. At various stages in these processes, 30 days of Science Museum waste will be invited back to be displayed in an exhibition.


The amount of rubbish the Science Museum throws out in an average month is, err, huge. 24 tonnes in skips and bins. I must say that I think it is incredibly brave of them to use their own institution as a case study like this and to tackle head-on, the amount of stuff that we dispose of.

The process of learning about all the different waste streams and what happens to waste once it leaves the building, has been fascinating. There are many many different routes a piece of rubbish could take and there are a lot of ‘good news’ stories. So what happens to Thomas’ school trip lunch bag once it has been thrown away in a Science Museum bin?

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Well that depends a bit on whether it was thrown in the right bin. If it was put in a recycling bin, it will be collected by Grundon, the contractor that deals with most of the Science Museum waste. It will be taken to their Materials Recovery Facility, where it will be sorted, baled, and sent onto a paper mill for recycling.




The Materials Recovery Facility (or MRF as it is known in the trade) is an amazing place. Something like Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory only for rubbish. The recyclables arrive into the plant and are tipped. They are then scooped up by a digger before commencing their process on a series of conveyor belts, spinning drums, and infrared sorting machines.



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It is very loud! Although there are ‘pickers’ sorting through the rubbish as it comes into the plant to check that what gets through is in fact recyclable, most of the work is machine operated from a central control room.



At the end of the conveyor belts, machines bundle up whatever happens to be coming out at that time. Here we see bales of mixed paper.



But it could be a number of different materials that are sorted: metals, plastics, or as in the photograph below, glass.


If Thomas’ lunch bag was put in with the general waste, it will still be picked up by Grundon but this time it will be sent to the Lakeside Energy From Waste plant, a state of the art facility which produces electricity from an incineration process and sells it back to the grid.

Garbage trucks tip directly into a giant concrete bunker, and a massive claw picks it up and feeds the furnace. It’s all very high tech and about as far removed from the ‘smelly bins’ scenario as you can imagine.




Watching the claw is extremely hypnotic. It’s difficult to tear yourself away!


The building itself is amazing. The floors are made out of a wire mesh and so you can see the stories above and below you at any one time. It’s like being inside an architectural drawing.




The rubbish is incinerated at a temperature of at least 950 degrees for a minimum of 2 seconds and the heat given off is used to run a high pressure turbine which in turn runs an electricity generator.



The only things to survive this process are metals and ash. The metals are extracted by magnets and reprocessed.





There are two types of ash: Incinerator Bottom Ash (IBA) is used as an aggregate in the building industry, for example in road surfacing. Air Pollution Control (APC) is the residual ash which remains after the filtering of the flue gases. This is now being transformed into breeze blocks. So it is really quite possible that you are driving along a road, or visiting a building, which is made of your rubbish. An extraordinary thought. And it goes to show that when we throw something away, even if it has left our consciousness, it doesn’t just disappear.

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[Photographs in this blog post were taken by Jennie Hills, Science Museum, London. Copyright reserved.]

O kaeri nasai

I never seem to get bored of revisiting Japan. It’s as if the airport terminal itself calls ‘O kaeri nasai’ (‘welcome back’) as I step off the plane and into immigration. Even after the long flight, arriving at the unreasonable hour of 4.30 a.m. into Haneda, I feel childishly excited about the fortnight ahead. After dumping my bag at the hotel it is still only 5.45 a.m. What should I do for the eight-and-a-half hours before I can check-in? Well there is one thing that you can only do very early in the morning and that is to visit the largest wholesale market in Japan – Tsukiji – where the ocean has deposited its contents into polystyrene containers on markets stalls, down a labyrinth of small alleyways. I had been here once before, in 2008, and I was a bit nervous at ruining what was a marvellous memory with a less good experience. On top of that, I had heard that the authorities were much more strict about letting tourists into what is a vital trading area for restaurants and shops across Tokyo. But with nothing else to do, I decided to risk it.

Tsukiji is the size of a small town. It is separated into two main areas: the Inner Market (Jonai Shijo) and the Outer Market (Jogai Shijo). The Inner Market is the wholesale market for the professionals, and that is where the fish auction takes place. The Outer Market retails some of the produce sold in the Inner Market. Trying to make myself invisible, I tiptoed into the Inner Market as modestly as I could.

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I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way but I was keen to see for myself, once more, the amazing variety of sea creatures. Stacked high were boxes of sea urchins, which have to be eaten very soon after harvesting. They are terribly expensive.

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These look to be freshwater eel (one of my favourites) but I’m not 100% sure. There are so many varieties ands sub-species on display, you realise very quickly how little you know.

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After they have been auctioned, prize tuna are transported on trollies to waiting vans of restaurants, shops and hotels.

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Some of the tuna are cut on a bandsaw before transportation. This is not a job for the careless!

Tsukiji is not laid back at all. It is very busy and fast-paced. Little transportation trucks zoom around the place at top speed and you really have to watch out that you don’t get run over.

After about 20 minutes walking around the inner sanctum, I was (very politely and with repeated apologies) shown a sign by a security guard which read in English: “No general admittance until 9 a.m.”. Apologising in return, I left for the outer market where there are several restaurants. There I had my first Japanese food of the trip. A sushi breakfast with chawanmushi (a savoury egg custard – delicious!) and miso soup with prawns.

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Food is a very important part of any visit to Japan and I was craving the tastes for which I have become somewhat familiar. On leaving Tsukiji, I saw a market holder selling Japanese chestnuts. ‘Kuri’ as they are called in Japan, flavour all sorts of different dishes, both savoury and sweet. Perhaps above all else, this is the thing I miss most.

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In Nikko, just by the Kegon waterfall (see below) I tasted huge chestnuts that were prepared in a giant pressure cooker that looked a bit like a torpedo.

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I also tried ‘kuri monaka’ for the first time: sweet chestnut and chestnut paste sandwiched between layers of crispy rice cake. It is almost as if the rice becomes a kind of pastry.

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It would take too long to give a full breakdown of all the delicious things I tasted in Japan but here are a few highlights. One place that I always try and visit in Tokyo is Daikokuya Tempura in Asakusa. I have only ever had one thing here: tendon, which is tempura over rice with a special ‘house’ sauce. The batter is somehow crispy and chewy at the same time.

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I also ordered a plate of Japanese pickles.

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No problems finishing that.

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Daikokuya also have possibly the best phone number in the world:

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After a couple of days in Tokyo I headed south-west for the island of Kyushu. I then slowly worked my way back up north-east. The train journey from Tokyo to Nagasaki was extremely fast and extremely efficient but nevertheless took the best part of a day, with two changes. I needed to store up on provisions. One of the ‘ekiben’ (eki = station / ben = bento, or lunch box) that I took with me was this herring on rice. It was delicious. Very lightly marinated in a kind of vinegar with an extraordinary melty skin.

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Once in Nagasaki I had to try the famous regional dish ‘champon’. Nagasaki was for a long time the only trading point between Japan and the rest of the world and it has soaked up international influences. Champon is a kind of Japanese version of a Chinese noodle dish. Unlike Japanese ramen, the noodles are cooked in the soup, so they are very flavoursome.

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Other Nagasaki treats are the famous steamed dishes served at Yossou, which has been making chawanmushi (yes it’s that savoury egg custard again) since 1866. The present building dates from 1927 and is lovely.

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The classic menu is the ‘twin steamed dishes’, one chawanmushi (on the right) and another of shredded omelette, ground beef and tiny shrimp over rice.

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Another bowl cleaned.

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In Fukuoka the thing to have is Tonkotsu or ‘Hakata’ ramen. (Hakata was once an independent town and is now a district of Fukuoka.) Tonkotsu ramen usually has a thick, cloudy white coloured broth made from boiling pork bones, fat, and collagen over high heat for many hours, which suffuses the broth with a hearty pork flavour and a creamy consistency.

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In Kyoto, right next to my hotel, was a taiyaki stall. While there are some shops in Europe that sell taiyaki (frozen, or oven baked) there is nothing like the real thing. I had been craving this taste and I had 4 taiyaki from this stall in 2 days. Delicious. Taiyaki literally means ‘baked sea bream’ but that only describes the traditional fish shape and not the taste. They are basically sweet waffles filled with various fillings. The only ones I am interested in are the ‘original’ ones that have red bean paste inside, made from sweetened adzuki beans.

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And while in Kyoto I also revisited the famous soba noodle restaurant Honke Owariya. First opened in 1465, Owariya has preserved and promoted traditional Japanese tastes for 528 years! Soba are thin buckwheat noodles served either chilled with a dipping sauce, or in a hot soup. As it was the end of the season for Kyouyasai seiro (Kyoto vegetables), that is what I opted for.

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And after that very refined and delicate taste something more hearty and meaty. I went to an ox tongue restaurant. Tongue is not for everybody but this is something that my mother used to give us as kids and that we used to love but that nevertheless I never buy or cook.

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A very nice typo in the English menu ‘Lady’s Set’. The meat is not thick or thin but ‘think’.

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Heading north to Nikko one famous local speciality is yuba, which is the skin that develops on top of tofu as the soy been milk is boiling. The skin is taken off and used separately. Here it is rolled up and served in a dish of hot udon.

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I travelled to Nikko with my friend Goh. He arranged for us to stay in two different hot spring resort hotels where the dinner is included as part of the package. These ‘kaiseki’ are multi-course dinners where you have a little bit of lots of different things. The meal in the first hotel was served in our room, ryokan style. As we were relaxing in the hot spring baths our room was prepared, and when we came back the meal was spread out before us. After eating they take everything away and lay out the futons.

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The following night the dinner at the second hotel was even more delicious. Here we went to a small private dining room. This sounds kind of exclusive but actually everyone has their own little room to eat in. The menu went something like this:

Five assorted appetisers (I can’t remember them all but they are on the central tray in the picture below. You can just make out a tiny persimmon (or ‘kaki’) in the middle that is in fact a flavoured egg yolk. You can also see something that looks roughly like a sweet chestnut in its prickly shell but is in fact an entirely edible chestnut flavoured savoury.)
Pungently cooked lotus root
Sashimi of trout, shrimp and yellowtail
Yuba (soy milk skin), taro, aubergine with shrimp and kidney beans
Grilled charr
Nikko local pork shabu-shabu  (thinly sliced meat that you briefly cook in boiling water)
Mizuna ohitashi (Japanese mustard) with sesame
Chawanmushi (it’s the egg custard again!)
Beef stew
Soup with a crab ball, mitsuba (Japanese wild parsley) and yuba
Dessert with wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionary) and fruit

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It looked and tasted beautiful. There were a lot of dishes to clean and it took some time and it was entirely delicious.

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The following morning you return to the same private dining room for breakfast.

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All the dishes were Japanese, apart from the bacon and eggs (!) which you cook on your own private oil burner. Personally I found the inclusion of this western style dish totally unnecessary (as I did the mini beef stew the night before) but it seems to be somehow a nod to foreign guests.

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Of course I did more than just eat. There were a few places that I was particularly keen to visit on this trip. As already mentioned, Nagasaki was once the only trading point for the entirety of Japan. It is a fascinating story. In 1636, in order to prevent the spread of Christianity in Japan, a 15,000 square meter artificial island was constructed by order of the Shogun, on which the Portuguese were interned. In 1639 when Portuguese ships were banned from Japan by the National Isolation Edict, Dejima became uninhabited for a short time. Two years later in 1641 the Dutch East India Company Trading Post in Hirado was moved to Dejima. During the long period of isolation, which only ended 218 years later in 1859, Dejima was the only way in or out of Japan and it was from here that limited imports and exports took place.

Dejima is the setting for the 2011 novel by David Mitchell, ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ which follows the story of one Dutch trader who came to Japan to make his fortune. It is a highly evocative introduction to the history of this tiny island.

Although the surrounding sea has now been reclaimed and forms part of the new Nagasaki harbour, in recent years there has been a drive to restore and recreate the buildings on the island to how they were in the early 19th Century.


The island was heavily fortified and ingress or exit without permission was a capital offence.


The interiors are a mixture of European and Japanese style, that nevertheless somehow hang together.






I was particularly interested in the karakami designs. A technique originally brought over from China during the Heian period, karakami is Japanese paper that has been printed with woodblocks. The beautiful thing about karakami is the imperfections in the repetition. As each section is printed individually, no two are exactly alike. (Although karakami still adorns traditional Japanese buildings there is only one karakami shop left in Japan. It is Karacho in Kyoto, established in 1624. They are still printing from some of the ancient woodblocks.)









Another interesting pattern in Nagasaki was this trompe-l’œil bollard painted directly onto the road. From the driver position it looks real!


And on the subject of driving, what about this petrol station for an ingenious solution to the inevitable problems of manoeuvring in small spaces: put the petrol pumps on the ceiling.


And it was in a car that my friend Kyo took me to the top of Mount Inasa to watch the sun set. In the space of 30 minutes we saw the day turn to night in a dramatic diorama below us. This is the famous ‘Issenmandoru no yakei’, the 10 million dollar view.




Then we took a trip to the least aptly named place on the planet: The Supreme Paradise (surely it would be possible to sue for false advertising), one of the big pachinko halls on the outskirts of Nagasaki. When we had met earlier in the evening, I had asked Kyo what he had been doing and he replied that he spent much of the day playing pachinko. Although I had passed many pachinko parlours before, and maybe even stuck my head in the door, I didn’t really understand what it was all about. As far as I was concerned you might as well throw your money into the slots in the drain guards as throw it into a pachinko slot. “It’s my medicine,” Kyo said. “OK then,” I replied, “let’s go and taste your medicine.” Well, I can honestly say that I had all my preconceptions confirmed and then double underlined, in bold, in CAPITALS. The deafening noise of metal balls dropping through the machines is only marginally better than the rancid smell of cigarette smoke that pervades the vast series of aisles of similar looking machines. You put your money in a slot. Metal balls fall through the machine. Sometimes you win more balls. Sometimes you win less balls. Balls can be exchanged for money or prizes. More often than not (of course) you lose. Well, judge for yourself.

One of the highlights of my trip to Nagasaki was the visit to Hashima, more commonly known as Gunkanjima or ‘Battleship Island’. I had heard about this island when I was a resident artist at ARCUS in 2008 and was extremely interested to visit it. Up until very recently trips to the island needed to be arranged in stealth with a local fisherman but since it was put on a list of tentative industrial sites that might be given World Heritage status, limited organised tours now take place.

Hashima lies about 19km from Nagasaki harbour. Coal was discovered there in the early 19th Century but full-scale mining did not begin until 1890. As the amount of coal being excavated grew, so did the population. The island was enlarged with some land reclamation and the first concrete high-rise buildings in Japan were built in 1916 to house the residents. At its peak 5,300 people were living on Hashima, which gave it a population density 9 times greater than that of Tokyo at the time. As the demand for coal fell, so did the population and in January 1974 it was closed for good. In April the island was depopulated and left to the elements.

Hashima was recently featured in the James Bond film ‘Skyfall’ as the hideout of the bad guy. Despite this global audience, I was the only westerner on the tour and the tour-guides scrambled around in a cabin on board the boat to find an English information sheet.

Actually it was touch and go whether or not the tour I had booked would go ahead because of an incoming typhoon. Although we got very wet towards the end of the trip, it went on as planned and I was extremely glad.

Before you land on Hashima you make a brief stop on Takashima, which is the location of Mitsubishi Mining Company’s main coalmine, the extremely tiny but sweet coalmining museum, and a model of the Battleship Island. Unfortunately the entire talk about the island which centred around this model was in Japanese. I caught the odd word and was so impressed with myself for deciphering something (oh, that means ‘school’, and that means ‘hairdresser’, and that means ‘pachinko’, well done Joshua) that any attempt and making sense of them was lost.


Then the boat takes you to Hashima itself. It really does look like a battleship from the distance. I had a very powerful sense of wonder and awe arriving there. It really felt like a point on a pilgrimage and almost certainly somewhere that I was visiting for the first and last time.


Although you can’t wander around the abandoned buildings and your route is severely restricted, you do walk around a bit and have a chance to see up close the magnificence of neglect. It also gives you a strong sense of what it must have been like to live as so many people in such a small place. Whole families lived, worked, studied and were entertained on this tiny rock.







Another skeleton of a building that I saw in Japan was the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, more commonly called the Atomic Bomb Dome. The former Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall has been kept as close as possible to exactly how it was the moment after the impact of ‘Little Boy’ at 08:15 on 6th August 1945. The terrible beauty of this monument serves as a powerful and modest reminder of the horrors of atomic warfare. I visited the Peace Museums in both Nagasaki and Hiroshima and found them both extremely disturbing and important. To be honest I have not given all that much thought to nuclear proliferation but visits to both these museums underlined the absolute necessity to work towards disarmament.


Although I was glad to have visited this gruesome history I was also pleased that I could leave it behind. From Hiroshima I headed up to Kyoto for a couple of nights. The historical sites in Kyoto are perhaps the most extraordinary cultural places I have ever been to. This city of temples, palaces and gardens, teams with World Heritage sites that surprise and amaze. On this second trip to Japan’s former capital however, I was interested to take a more relaxed approach and to try and get a sense of the modern day city.

As I was walking along the Kamo river I spotted in the distance some movement in a window on the opposite bank. I steadied my camera and zoomed in…




…and closer


…and closer, until I could make out that this was the famous geisha house in Pontocho dori. Five geisha were entertaining just one single man. These places are notoriously expensive even just for a cup of tea so goodness knows how much this was costing him.


It was completely engaging and I stood there watching for nearly 40 minutes. I even walked over the bridge and onto the embankment so that I could pass directly underneath the window for a closer inspection. It all looked very seductive and yet they seemed to spend a long while dancing and singing a kind of party game. Not so much traditional dance or playing the shamisen but more, well, something you might imagine at a children’s birthday. (Perhaps after all this is simply beyond my cultural comprehension.)

For the final days of my trip I headed north to Nikko, Japan’s huge national park that spreads over four prefectures. As well as the incredible scenery there are famous shrines and temples, including Nikko Tosho-gu, the Shinto shrine dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. The main buildings you see today were completed in 1636. Some critics consider the decoration ‘too Chinese’ and gaudy and not really in the traditional Japanese style. It certainly is much more ‘bling’ than any other temple I have seen in Japan.






More typical for the Japanese, perhaps, is the fact that amongst all the gold and ornament, one of the most famous of the myriad of carvings, is this extremely modest life-sized sleepy cat, which rests on a lintel above a gateway.


The shrine to Ieyasu is away from the main temple complex and for many years was only allowed to be visited by the Shogun himself. IMG_2749




Above the former stable, monkeys play, including the three wise monkeys that hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil. They are very cute.




Close by is the Rinno-ji temple complex which includes the Sanbutsudo (Three Buddha Hall). When we first saw this weird prefab building in the temple complex, Goh and I were a bit confused. Then we realised that this new structure was built around the Sanbutsudo while it is being restored. It was extremely interesting to step inside. What we learnt is that on discovering termites in the wood, the authorities had to act swiftly to preserve this ancient monument. You can go inside to see the process. IMG_2778

They have deconstructed the building tile by tile, slat by slat, and pin by pin. They are checking and treating each piece of wood and then laying it all out like the most complex of 3D puzzles. Once the preservation has finished, they will then reassemble  it all. It was incredible to see, and brilliant that they let the pubic in to witness some of what they were doing.





These temple complexes are located in the most beautiful surroundings of picturesque nature.


And at the same time all the sites are extremely popular with tourists. Mostly Japanese tourists. Hoards of them. One of the most famous of nature’s gifts to Nikko is the Kegon waterfall. By far the best way to view it (but at the same time equally irritating) is to queue for the elevator which takes you down to a viewing platform. It felt a bit weird to be queuing for nature but nevertheless it is worth it.


The viewing platform takes you directly in front of the falls. Somehow it is possible to ignore all the people around you and to focus your attention on the sound, smell and site of the water dropping nearly 100 meters as it exits from lake Chuzenji.


Another place of interest in Nikko is the Tamozawa Imperial Villa which was built in 1899 as a country retreat for Emperor Taisho. It is also where the current Emperor Akihito was evacuated as a prince during the Second World War. After the war it was neglected but was restored in 2000 and opened to the public. It is one of the largest remaining wooden buildings in Japan. Although much of it is beautiful it is actually quite an odd mix of Western and Japanese styles; many of the rooms are carpeted in pretty hideous European patterns and there are incongruous chandeliers hanging in simple wooden beamed spaces. The building itself is however, an evocative labyrinth of corridors and rooms and the surrounding gardens make it feel like a very special place.







Part of the pleasure of writing this blog is that I get to remember the sights, sounds, tastes and sensations of the places that I go. It is always also a compromise because so much is left out. I am hungry to remember it all. I know that many of my Japanese friends find their country a difficult place to make the life that they want for themselves. It remains for me, however, one of the most intriguing and enriching places I have been. Simplicity and sophistication coexist.