Learning to waste

April 18, 2023

Undergoing a rapid expansion of solar energy installation, India is being confronted with the parallel growth of landfill volume. To address the waste, the Indian government has ordered manufacturers, producers, importers and sellers to store waste until India’s recycling industry reaches commercial scale – that is, approximately until 2035.

All around the world, panels, blades and batteries will soon reach their retirement age. Researchers estimate there will be 43 million metric tonnes of global blade waste by 2050. Without appropriate waste management, this will end up either in landfill or burnt. Can we get out of this waste crisis? Can we really speak of solutions when it comes to managing waste? What if we’re stuck with waste – How can we learn to live with it?

Most efforts to curb clean energy waste products have gone into recycling. But this doesn’t come without difficulties: Wind turbine blades, for instance, are made of epoxy and glass or carbon fiber, making blades as tough and durable as they are difficult to recycle. Some initiatives reuse blades in bridges, or in pellets for flooring, but engineers have not been able to escape the downgrading of the material quality of the blades. What’s more, downcycling only delays – that is, does not prevent – a certain technology reaching the end of its life cycle. Solar panels are similarly hard to recycle, containing elements which make their waste toxic (e.g. cadmium and lead), making the process relatively costly. Companies are investing in bringing down the cost of recycling, but cost effective recycling has actually been shown to have a rebound effect, increasing consumption and therefore, waste.

One strategy in dealing with these issues is ensuring these technologies never become “waste” by “designing for recyclability” : Design a product that upon reaching its end-of-life-cycle feeds into the next consumption cycle, recycle indefinitely, and “close the loop”. Such is the promise of some circular economy models. And although recycling by design is less wasteful than end-of-life recycling, cyclical systems also extract resources, create waste, dissipate energy, and wear down.

Zero-waste is, in practice, an illusion. More than a technical solution, recycling is more of a social construct that hardly targets our consumerist culture and efficiency-obsessed economic growth models. In other words, recycling merely optimizes rather than transforms our current system.

We can’t solve waste. But that shouldn’t mean we can look away from waste. Rather, we must face waste. The ethical (and practical) debate amongst governments, businesses, communities, institutions and individuals revolves not around whether we should waste or not, but around how we waste.

Burning questions
  • Could waste be an example of Timothy Morton’s “hyperobjects”? These are objects are widely dispersed throughout space and time, their origins and endpoints unknown to us. We are unable to separate ourselves from them as we are entangled with them, and the more we try to escape them, the more we encounter them.
  • European countries are known for exporting their “e-waste” to the global South (e.g.: Ghana or Pakistan). As the South increasingly generates its own e-waste, will it demand that Europe take its trash elsewhere?

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The Tool
Category: Objects
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The Machine
Category: Objects
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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About the author(s)

With a background in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and a Master’s in History, Martine Dirkzwager Wu is intrigued by researching what the new conditions for the Humanities are in the age of the Anthropocene. In trying to understand a fundamentally unintelligible world, her thought process aims to be as critical as creative. She celebrates an era of post-truth in which knowledge can be traced through academic, but also natural and artistic networks.

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