Tag Archives: recycling

Living in a materials world – the human story of rubbish

In this week’s blog linked to The Rubbish Collection, Curator Sarah Harvey follows some of the unexpected stories and personal objects that were found in the Museum’s bins. As the exhibition nears its end, what will happen to all this ‘rubbish’ afterwards?

Much of the feedback I have received about Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection, from both visitors and staff, has been about the surprising personal items and stories that have come out of the bins. When we were first carrying out trials for the project it was one of the unexpected outcomes of the documentation process. This revelation, that sorting through waste was like a form of contemporary archaeology, inspired Joshua to invite the public to take part in the documentation process so that visitors also had the chance to experience the wonder of piecing together those narratives.

Lunchbox notes on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Lunchbox notes on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

The stories we found in the bins ranged from the very general (like what the favourite crisp brand amongst visiting schoolchildren was) to more Museum-specific (like which new galleries were under development and which events had taken place). Even the volume told us how busy the Museum had been on a given day. There were also very personal stories such as notes put into someone’s lunchbox by their partner, a surprising number of medicines, and children’s drawings of their day out. In a painfully frank teenage love note, the author proclaims that they are not worth the attention of their crush and recommends they should go out with someone else. We even found a pregnancy test (negative; was its user disappointed, happy or relieved by that result? We’ll never know).

Pregnancy test on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Pregnancy test on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

We don’t often think about our rubbish, full stop, let alone consider it as a personal document of our lives. Archaeologists have long been aware of this when piecing together a picture of the lifestyles and living conditions of people’s past, as have the paparazzi in finding out private information about celebrities and public figures. Looking at the landfill of the last few decades, I imagine, will tell a story of the rise of plastics and packaging, the dominance of certain supermarkets and brands, the affordability of electrical goods, our increasingly global markets and the enormous growth in waste generally. Hopefully, as with the Science Museum’s bins, an examination of more recent landfill should document a more positive change, that of recycling and our increased awareness of the value that materials still hold. The next step may be mining our municipal dumps to try to recover some of those precious materials that are now scarce in the natural world, such as the rare earth metals that are so important in the manufacture of electronic goods.

Electrical goods on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Electrical goods on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

And what will become of all the rubbish and materials on display in The Rubbish Collection? Well, the materials, like the paper reels, plastic pellets, metals and fertilizer, will be returned to the companies that lent them to us, to continue on their recycling journey to become new products.  Electrical goods will be sent to specialist recycling companies to separate any reusable parts and recycle what cannot be salvaged. The items that we retained from the rubbish bags, though many would have originally gone to incineration if we had not intervened in their journey, will be recycled wherever possible. Medicines will be taken to a pharmacy for safe disposal, usable stationary will be returned to offices and the 16.5 pairs of shoes, 2 suits and other items of clothing will be taken to charity shops.

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection runs at the Science Museum until 14 September 2014.

A WEEE waste recycling challenge?

Sarah Harvey, Project Curator of The Rubbish Collection, talks to Dr Philip Morton, Chief Executive of REPIC about the challenges of dealing with growing volumes of electrical and electronic waste.

REPIC is the largest not-for-profit WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) recycling scheme in the UK. Instead of letting valuable or harmful waste and scarce raw materials go to landfill, REPIC’s job is to recover and transport used electrical goods and batteries to specialist treatment plants. Upon arrival at the plant, the WEEE waste can be safely handled and recycled into new usable raw materials.

What is WEEE waste?

Every year, people in the UK buy around 1.5 million tonnes of electrical and electronic equipment, like toasters, TVs, washing machines and computers. We throw away about one million tonnes of equipment, so WEEE waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the UK and in the EU. It’s important that we take action now to stop it from piling up.

Some of the components used to make electronic goods can be hazardous and harmful to the environment, while others can be recycled and reused. Some are even precious and contain gold, silver, indium or palladium. It’s amazing to think that WEEE contains 40 times more gold than gold ore!

WEEE waste in The Rubbish Collection exhibition. © Katherine Leedale

WEEE waste in The Rubbish Collection exhibition. © Katherine Leedale

What are the biggest challenges faced by the industry in recycling and recovering these materials?

A big problem is the difficulty in separating the complex scarce trace metals using the technology currently available. Different proportions of trace materials are present in different bits of WEEE and some materials bind together, making separation a challenge.  At present, only a tiny percentage of these metals is captured in the recycling process, so it isn’t sustainable. 

What can people do to help?

Just as we separate our plastic bottles and tins from paper and compostables, we need to separate our old electrical appliances and take them to a local recycling centre.

As with electricals, it’s easy for batteries to end up in landfills if the proper recycling channels are not used. Batteries contain chemicals that can be hazardous if released into our soil, water and air.

Batteries in The Rubbish Collection exhibition. © Katherine Leedale

Batteries in The Rubbish Collection exhibition. © Katherine Leedale

But there is an alternative. You could save your batteries and take them to special battery bins at shops, schools and recycling centres. This ensures the batteries are recycled responsibly.

Our top three tips are:

  • Repair or re-use used electricals if possible
  • Recycle, but don’t make a special trip (check our website www.responsible-recycling.co.uk).
  • Choose energy and eco-efficient products where possible when buying replacements

What do you think the industry will be like in 50 years time? 

To meet the new EU directive we need to recycle 85 percent of WEEE generated in the UK by 2018. The value of WEEE will be higher as there will be less rare metals and raw materials to extract from the Earth.  Advances in technology will mean that electrical goods will be even lighter, more compact and flexible. Think projected keyboards, flatter TV screens – we’re already seeing roll up TV screens – so expect more to come.

 

 

Shedding light on the matter of rubbish

In the latest of our blog series linked to The Rubbish Collection, the Science Museum’s Inventor in Residence Mark Champkins finds an ingenious use for our discarded materials.

The second phase of The Rubbish Collection exhibition is open at the Museum until 14 September. Having documented every piece of waste that passed through the Museum for a month, this second phase is a chance to see what would have been thrown away.

Of the material that hasn’t been selected for display, I collected a small box of bits that I hoped to turn into a product that we might sell in the shop. I like the idea that with a little bit of effort and imagination, items that would otherwise be chucked, can be turned into something desirable. Unfortunately the collection of items in the box that I had gathered didn’t look at all desirable. A couple of umbrellas, some bits from a light fitting, an old copper funnel, an ash tray, some plastic cutlery, some glass cups and a selection of ball bearings didn’t look very promising.

A box of bits © Mark Champkins

A box of bits © Mark Champkins

The germ of my idea came from digging out the copper funnel and investigating it further. It was heavily corroded and covered in green verdigris, but underneath was structurally solid, and a beautiful shape.

I read somewhere that vinegar could be used to clean copper, so I popped down to the café, to get a couple of sachets to try out. It turns out it does a reasonable job on lightly tarnished areas, but can’t handle the extent of corrosion on the funnel. However, it did encourage me that the funnel could be saved.

An old copper funnel © Mark Champkins

An old copper funnel © Mark Champkins

Next I pulled apart the umbrellas, lined up everything from the box and had a think what I might make. A happy coincidence was that the handle from the umbrella fitted exactly into the top of the funnel.

 

An umbrella handle © Mark Champkins

An umbrella handle © Mark Champkins

My first thought was to make some sort of loudspeaker people could shout through. Next, I thought the umbrella handle might plug the funnel to make a water-tight vase or container of some sort. Finally, looking at the shining clean patch of copper I thought, coupled with a 1950s-style squirrel cage bulb, it might make a really nice light fitting.

The next step was to recondition the copper funnel. In the basement, the Museum has metal and wood workshops responsible for building, installing and maintaining the structures for new exhibitions. Amongst their equipment is a sandblasting machine, which I used to blast the corrosion from the funnel.

Sandblasting the copper funnel © Mark Champkins

Sandblasting the copper funnel © Mark Champkins

I decided to leave the matt finish left from the sand blasting on the inside surface, and polish up the outside. Using Brasso and eventually a buffing wheel I polished up the outer surface.

Polishing © Mark Champkins

Polishing © Mark Champkins

Using a buffing wheel © Mark Champkins

Using a buffing wheel © Mark Champkins

To ensure the lamp remains pristine, I decided to use a polymer based lacquer, applied in the workshop’s spray booth.

In the spray booth © Mark Champkins

Finally I added the umbrella handle, and a lighting flex and fitting. I think the finished light looks rather good. It’ll be available for purchase in the Museum shop from mid August.

The finished light © Mark Champkins

The finished light © Mark Champkins

The lamp made from Museum rubbish © Mark Champkins

The lamp made from Museum rubbish © Mark Champkins

The finished lamp at work © Mark Champkins

The finished lamp at work © Mark Champkins

The light will be on sale in the Museum shop in mid-August © Mark Champkins

The light will be on sale in the Museum shop in mid-August © Mark Champkins

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection runs at the Science Museum until 14 September 2014.

Transforming materials – the recycling journey

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.

Grundon Materials Recovery Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Materials Recovery Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

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.

Artist Joshua Sofaer and Curator Sarah Harvey at Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Artist Joshua Sofaer and Curator Sarah Harvey at Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

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.

Aluminium cans at Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Aluminium cans at Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

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.

PET plastic flakes in The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

PET plastic flakes in The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

There is lots of information on the web about the processing of different materials. Some of the online resources I have found most helpful during this project are:

Glass
Aluminium
Steel
PET plastics
HDPE plastics

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection is now open at the Science Museum and runs until 14 September 2014.

Rubbish that powers homes and builds roads

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.

A giant claw lifting general waste into the incinerator at the Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

A giant claw lifting general waste into the incinerator at the Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

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.

The interior of the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

The interior of the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

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.

Inside the incinerator at the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

Inside the incinerator at the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

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.

Bottom ash aggregate and recyclable metal as it comes out of the Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

Bottom ash aggregate and recyclable metal as it comes out of the Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

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.

Bottom ash aggregate (left) on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Bottom ash aggregate (left) on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

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.

Carbon Buster breeze blocks in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

‘Carbon Buster’ breeze blocks in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

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.

A sustainable future

In the next of our series of posts linked to The Rubbish Collection, Matt Moore, Head of Sustainable Development for the Science Museum Group, looks at how we measure and minimise the environmental impact of our 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.

The 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, every half-eaten potato – getting hands-on at the Science Museum

In this week’s blog from The Rubbish Collection, Corrinne Burns, Content Developer at our 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: Corinne 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: Corinne 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: Corinne 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’.

The newly opened 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, writes artist Joshua Sofaer.

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. For more information, click here.