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Mottainai!

With three days left of our residency, our two main tasks are to process the waste we have gleaned in the best way we can, and to finish making the short creative documentary of our time here.

Here is a sneak peak from the film so far:

This afternoon, journalist Greg Ray and photographer Jonathan Carroll, from the Newcastle Herald came to the Lock-Up to interview us and photograph our expanding waste line. In the beginning of our stay, two and a half weeks in Newcastle seemed like a long time. Seeing all the rubbish we have collected through Jonathan’s and Ray’s eyes, we were able to see how much we had collected in a slightly objective way and we were filled with an aching regret that our culture’s consumption leaves us with so much waste that can’t be reused.

The Japanese call this mottainai, a term that Wikipedia defines as:

“…a sense of regret concerning waste when the intrinsic value of an object or resource is not properly utilised.” The expression Mottainai! can be uttered alone as an exclamation when something useful, such as food or time, is wasted.

Going Backwards

From today’s Age:

State’s rubbish heap becoming a mountain

Recycling has gone backwards in Victoria for the first time this century, with an increase in organic waste being dumped into landfill, and mountains of glass sitting unprocessed at recycling plants.

While households are becoming more recycling conscious, the amount of some types of commercial and construction waste being re-processed has fallen sharply.

Recycling of organic rubbish – forestry waste, garden clippings and food – fell 20 per cent in 2007-08, according to a Victorian Recycling Industries survey. The drop was 14 per cent for glass and 4 per cent for construction and demolition waste.

The drop ends a decade of rapid growth for the recycling industry.

More organic waste in landfill poses a second problem – boosting greenhouse gas emissions. When massed in landfill it emits methane, a greenhouse gas about 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Environment Victoria campaigner Fraser Brindley said recycling had been hit by two events: the financial crisis affecting demand for recycled goods and State Government policies not supplying the incentive to boost recycling.

The rest here.

Never Mind

Our camera stopped working yesterday, a terrible thing to happen to a family of bloggers. This image is one of the last shots we took of our pile before it flipped out.

This morning we biked to a service centre from where we are hoping to hear good news. The technician we spoke to said she would do her best, though she was hesitant to say she could fix it, because it is six years old.

“Why spend money fixing an old camera when you can spend less getting a brand new model?” She asked. A valid question. If you are talking about the cost of things in dollars.

“Because we subscribe to the Repair Manifesto,” we told her.

“I’m glad there are people like you,” she smiled. “Otherwise I’d be out of a job.”

As we left the service centre and pedalled towards the beach, we all agreed that that Repair should be added to the Reduce. Reuse. Recycle trinity. We can definitely see the merit of the first two actions, but the third? It’s no wonder it features so far down the waste hierarchy:

When people choose to buy bottled water instead of soft drinks, the individual health benefits may be high, but the energy spent and pollution created to drink (or eat) anything from disposables has a great societal toll, regardless of what the vessel holds.

Every day as we bend to pick up forlorn plastic bottles on whichever beautiful beach we are on, we marvel at the complete lack of care exhibited by those who litter. But today on the beach, as we collected we talked about people, ourselves included, who buy packaged drink or food and then put the waste in a recycling or regular bin, thinking we’ve done the right thing.

Lest we feel too hopeful that we can properly process the waste we have collected over the last 12 days, here’s Donovan Hohn to set us straight:

Never mind that only 5 percent of plastics actually end up getting recycled. Never mind that the plastics industry stamps those little triangles of chasing arrows into plastics for which no viable recycling method exists. Never mind that plastics consume about 400 million tons of oil and gas every year and that oil and gas may very well run out in the not too distant future. Never mind that so-called green plastics made of biochemicals require fossil fuels to produce and release greenhouse gases when they break down…

The Aesthetics of Waste

Spending this past week gleaning waste has made us realise that we are a society happy to dispose of rubbish readily because we have little relationship to it. At home we don’t have a relationship with this sort of waste – we simply don’t buy these kinds of products. We grow food, compost and bulk buy as much as we can. We haven’t yet worked out how to do without plastic and other disposables altogether, but we’re working on it.

Did you know that humans are the only land mammals who defecate in their drinking water? Instead of seeing our bodily waste as compost to be used to help fertilise our food and environment, we avoid dealing with it at all costs. Surely if we have no relationship to our own waste, we will find it difficult to have a relationship to any other.

As we pick up rubbish each day, we are trying to build a relationship with it. One of the best ways we do this is through narrative: we make up stories about the situation that led to the discarding of that broken sunglasses arm, the split boogie board, the rolled up nappy, the beer bottle.

There are other ways to tell stories with waste too. The local primary school where Zeph has been in attendance for the last four days had a Marble Run competition, where students constructed courses made from waste for marbles to travel along.

Here are some of the entries:

Aren’t they great? The Marble Run is definitely one of the activities Zeph is excited to take back to his classmates at home.

Here is another example of creative recycling we have come across in Newcastle, from a shop of local designers called Make Space:

And then there are artists such as US-based David Edgar who uses recycled plastic to raise awareness about the ill health of our natural habitats.

Of course recycling our waste is better than just dumping it, but one of the potential problems of aestheticising it is glorifying its existence in the world. In the same way carbon offsetting has become just another way to justify a lack of environmental conscientiousness.

But we are guilty of that too. We flew to Newcastle because we figured the work we would do here justified our air travel. We are artists, therefore we are natural mediators. We have to remain aware of this. When we take a photo of our mounting waste at the end of each day, we are specific with our lighting and our camera angles, wanting to make the shot look as good as it can. Perhaps this is just another form of disconnection too? We are creating representations here. You can’t smell the stench that is beginning to emanate from the exercise yard, online.

Open Cycle Ecology

After our first night, we woke early, left the Lock-Up and headed out into the morning’s sun.

Before we left Victoria we had a stamp made up to help us publicise our project. This morning we found some old boxes which we set about cutting into small squares. One of us cut, one stamped and one affixed some double-sided tape to the back.

Another thing we did before we left home was to contact Dan the Bike Man from the Newcastle Bike Ecology Centre to organise three bikes for us to use while we are here. So with our advertising propaganda ready we headed off to Dan’s house, the helmets that we brought with us from home, tied to our belts and banging against our legs while we adventured.

We walked and we walked. We filled our backpacks with as much plastic waste as we could carry, and we took turns putting our cards in all the many pockets of this city.

We walked and we walked (it was further than we thought). We sang and we sweated and we practiced social warming with all the locals that we met, some of whom outstretched their arms to embrace us when we told them about our project.

Dan the Bike Man established the bike library three years ago. It is made up of recycled and reclaimed bikes, collected and donated by volunteers and community people. A bike library! Isn’t that just the coolest?!

After we selected our bikes, we were handed spanners and instructions so we could modify them to our individual heights.

That’s James, one of the many generous volunteers on the left, and Dan on the right. (When Dan signs off his emails, he writes, Bike hugs, Dan.)

When you open up the newspaper to see it filled with ads for expensive watches and cars and flat screen TVs, it can make you wonder what on Earth we human beings are saying to convince ourselves that business is OK to carry on as usual.

When you visit a place like the bike library and meet some of the people whose energy goes in to its survival, you really come to understand the full capacity of social warming.