Bon Voyage? Visualizing Where Trash Travels

Being so soon after the New York blizzard melted and revealed mammoth piles of frozen garbage hiding in piles of dirty snow, it seems an inopportune time to talk about visualizing waste. Most city dwellers see plenty of it every day.

But our trash is taking a pretty interesting journey from city to city, continent to continent. The three stories below give us glimpses into the path our garbage takes and the people behind converting it from waste to resources.

First is a weeklong series that ran in The Atlantic, featuring guest blogger Adam Mintner’s posts on the scrap industry in Asia. It’s striking to see people (mostly women) picking through huge piles of metal and plastics, manually shredding, sorting, and deconstructing. But Mintner warns readers not to view workers with pity or as objects of exploitation.  They’re often trained with a specialized skillset – and bring home wages that are comparatively higher than more educated workers. I add my own caution here not to assume this can be taken as a given in the recycling sector. The toxic , exploitative business of American electronic waste shipped to Asia comes to mind.

The image below is from a post on metal sorters in Shanghai, who deconstruct already-shredded American cars into different metals like zinc and aluminum:

This one is from a post on plastics shredders, turning containers that held imported fruit into your cell phone:

At the same time Minter profiled what happens to waste once it gets to Asia, Newsworks ran a feature on waste in Philadelphia that looks at how recycling gets from the curb to export markets. The head of the city’s recycling program, David Biddle, discusses how recyclables are traded as commodities in global markets – partly because recycling is often more cost-effective than exploiting new resources:

“This is a global business, there are no boundaries…Whether that’s in China, France, or just down the road in say, Bethlehem PA, the energy cost is much lower than the energy cost for something made out of what we call virgin material.”

The video below is quirky recycling eye-candy that will be of particular interest to anyone that remembers those hypnotizing old Sesame Street videos of people in factories churning out crayons or saxophones. It follows recyclables from pickup to sorting to baling into giant cubes that might just find their way to China (and back again):

The last bit of news from the world of trash travel is the award-winning Trash|Track project from MIT, which shows the path materials take once they’re discarded.  Researchers had Seattle residents attach little sensors to over 3,000 pieces of their garbage, then tracked where it all went:

The point is to:

Imagine a future where immense amounts of trash didn’t pile up on the peripheries of our cities: a future where we understand the ‘removal-chain’ as we do the ‘supply-chain’, and where we can use this knowledge to not only build more efficient and sustainable infrastructures but to promote behavioral change. In this future city, the invisible infrastructures of trash removal will become visible and the final journey of our trash will no longer be “out of sight, out of mind”.

Sounds like a plan.



One comment

  1. Pingback: Bon Voyage? Visualizing Where Trash Travels (via Encountering Urbanization) | Urban Choreography

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