Christian Unverzagt

The Garbage Mirror

 in: The Politics of the Impure. Rotterdam 2010

Waste can be replaced, but not destroyed. That was one of the main rules that Christian Unverzagt described in his 1991 classic with Volker Grassmuck, Das Müll-System. Eine metarealistische Bestandsaufnahme (The Waste System. A Metarealistic Record). Because of its durability waste is no longer only a troublesome and ecological impurifying flip-side of modernity, but has become in the mean time a new resource to build industries on. This asks for a new politics to ensure future imports of waste from the Third World to the First World.


Live now, pay later!

The Beginning


As soon as humans learned to walk upright and thus had both hands free, they began to throw things away: banana peels, gnawed bones, worn-out hand axes, broken arrowheads. But garbage followed humanity like a faithful companion. Wherever people camped and made fires, they left behind refuse. In the long run, however, there was no escape from it. 

Some things rotted away, while others were preserved for years, even millennia. And so archaeologists, gazing through the soil back at the past, discovered the first traces of humanity in the form of its garbage. People were producing refuse even before they were painting on cave walls, digging graves or feeling compelled to build great palaces. Garbage is as old as humanity, but it will outlast us. First, things outlive their use; then they outlive their users.


The Accumulation


Even in ancient times, garbage had a dual nature: it encompassed the unusable and the impure. Religions issued commandments about purity and purification. But it was never possible to satisfy these once and for all, because garbage is something that is constantly being created. And it likewise constantly needs to be cleared away, in a cycle as rhythmic as breathing in and out. 

When people started gathering in settlements and ultimately towns, garbage - like humanity's double - also showed a propensity to gather (as we can still see today with every illegal refuse dump). Corresponding technology became necessary, too: garbage heaps were given separate locations, sorted, composted, deposited, burned; streets were paved and regularly cleaned; cesspools were dug... Garbage required its own infrastructure, which grew along with the towns and cities. It accompanied humanity like an ever-lengthening shadow.


Catastrophic Appearances


Yet the history of garbage has not taken a linear course. Garbage tends to be forgotten - it is the ultimate non-theme. It needs to be returned to our consciousness again and again, catapulted there by scandal. One constant factor in the history of waste is its catastrophic reappearance. It was in the twentieth century, in the 1960s, that industrial society's faith in progress was shaken for the first time by the realization that its resources were limited. Even before people considered the possibility that petroleum could one day be exhausted, they were running out of space for refuse. Landfills were overflowed, and illegal dumps were created, presenting a danger to public health and quality of life. The press reported on the "waste crisis." Mass production and consumption driven by a growth-at-any-cost philosophy had taken their toll. But the growth of the garbage mountain was accompanied by another danger: industrial society had changed the composition of waste as well. Whereas in preindustrial times garbage could be treated as something that would naturally disappear in the course of time, it had now turned into a problematic substance. Garbage suddenly appeared as an untamable monster that threatened the human living environment, a poisonous hydra that would grow two new heads if one were cut off.


Humanity took up the struggle. People started developing strategies against garbage, which they regarded as an enemy. These strategies were not really new, but they were rediscovered, reformulated and reapplied. In the 1970s, laws were passed to regulate the disposal of refuse. Then the commercial sector got involved and looked for ways of exploiting the waste.


Parallel to the interest in making money from trash, a new idea arose, although it proved to be as unrealistic as it was grand: to avoid creating garbage. This idea, which ultimately implied an avoidance of industrial society itself, led to the sudden realization that the trash that had only recently been identified as humanity's enemy could also be seen as its alter ego. Imagining a life without garbage led people to realize that garbage had to do with human dignity. After all, isn't it true to say that more garbage = more human? The Australian Aborigines possessed hardly anything apart from simple digging sticks and boomerangs, and they created correspondingly little refuse. They believed that sooner or later things would take possession of people; industrial society takes a different view.


The realization that garbage could not be avoided because it was part of the human condition led to major new insights. Was the struggle against garbage not actually a fight between brothers, with the hope of establishing peace? After all, we all inhabit the same world, and we all - living and nonliving things - originate from the same planet. This thought also lay behind the epoch's favorite idea: recycling. The dream was that everything could be reused, that with the help of technology it would be up to us to define material as garbage or resource, that the process of provision and disposal could become a closed loop. Glass and paper were the first materials to fuel this hope.
But recycling involves costs and creates new waste, while producing slightly degenerated products. So perhaps objects could escape the curse of entropy through a variant of the recycling concept. A used-up product need not be transformed into the same, reusable product; it would be sufficient if it returned to the great cycle of nature without harming the human environment. Known as "cradle to cradle" this idea has led to edible snack plates and compostable aircraft seat covers. However, there is as yet little prospect of biologically degradable cockpits and landing gear.

Waste Management

And so the garbage mounts up. In the industrial country of Germany, it amounted to some 385 million metric tons in 2007. Almost none of this was edible snack plates or compostable seat covers. If all those tons of waste were packed in large barrels, they would stretch several times around the equator. But that is not what the equator is there for. This huge amount needs to be reduced, and suitable places must be found for what is left. Waste incineration plants and landfills are used together in a strategic approach to garbage, in a pincerlike movement.


Incinerating waste can reduce its volume by up to 90 percent. But the 10 percent left over, compressed into dust, slag and filter ash, is even more hazardous and must be disposed of carefully, in part as toxic waste. So the problem is shifted to the hazardous waste disposal site. Garbage stubbornly continues to adhere to its own law of displacement.
This law of displacement comes into effect during incineration. A waste incineration plant (WIP) is a chemical reactor that does not simply destroy substances but converts them. More than 400,000 new substances, some of them highly toxic, are created worldwide every year. Though not all of them are then used to produce commercial goods, the proportion of substances in garbage that do not occur naturally is steadily growing. Substances are released during incineration, and new compounds are created. The industrial production of goods itself directly generates waste through exhaust fumes, wastewater and other byproducts, and waste treatment too always involves the production of new substances. Filter systems trap some things and let others through. The front can be moved but not dissolved. Once one discovers that adding amidosulfuric acid (like that found in old automobile tires) reduces dioxin production during incineration (meaning trash could now be removed with trash, assuming a strictly controlled waste economy ensured the appropriate proportions), other substances (such as mercury) appear at the top of the list of hazards. Domestic garbage, though, is always an unknown mix of hundreds of thousands of chemical substances whose precise composition is never entirely known, and new methods of analysis provide new results. A WIP is an interface between the laboratory and the general environment. Substances created under controlled conditions are transposed into an uncontrolled field experiment, with unknown consequences.
Waste incineration initially seems like a metaphor for hope: the hope that trash will go up in smoke. But it is a metaphor that reveals something of both garbage's and our own collective fates: the elements become permeated by garbage. The transforming element of fire converts garbage into the transporting element of air. So the waste's supposed removal contaminates the elements. Garbage itself becomes elemental, permeating everything.

Dump Sites

The condensed residue from incineration must be sent to a hazardous-waste storage site. But how can enough disposal space be found now that even regular domestic trash has become a problem? In Germany, for example, dumping untreated domestic waste has been banned since 2005. The country's environmental ministry is discussing a general ban on the aboveground disposal of municipal waste from 2020. Space for refuse dumps is becoming ever scarcer, with public acceptance for them shrinking. Moreover, the concept of disposal sites or dumps is no longer valid in view of the actual waste situation. Dumps were originally conceived as places where garbage was made to disappear. For thousands of years, the fact that it actually at least partially stayed there was not a real problem. But suddenly, even the idea of the dump as a place for waste to stay has become unrealistic and utopian. Like WIPs, disposal sites are also always starting points for the elementization of garbage. Nothing disappears in the storage process; nothing remains permanently separated from its surroundings. The substances contained in garbage can be neither destroyed at disposal sites nor permanently stored. They escape into the air as gases and seep down into the groundwater.
One supposed solution to this process - similar to filtering in WIPs - is sheathing or encasing the garbage. Yet since every sheath is made of a material that decays over time, the problem is merely pushed into the future. The concept ultimately leads to the dream of the "permanent repository": the remaining residue is placed in an underground high-security disposal site, permanently exiled from the human world and supposedly isolated from all influence on earthly life. In fact, since the planet has no isolated spaces, such spaces always remain temporary storage facilities, sexed up by verbal garbage. In January 2010, it was announced that more than 120,000 containers of radioactive waste would need to be removed from the "permanent repository" in Asse, Germany, which is in danger of collapse. It was fewer than 45 years ago that the first containers were brought to this former salt mine, where waste was to be stored for eternity, or at least a million years. The removal of the waste will be complicated by the already damaged state of some of the containers. The estimated costs of € 2.5 billion for extraction and re-storage could quickly rise even higher, because the law of displacement does not limit restitution payments for culpable naivety.

Toxic Waste and its Disappearance

Scandalous revelations prompted a debate over garbage and a strategic approach to it. But such revelations also repeatedly generate the opposite effect. Scandal penetrates the protective layers we build up in our everyday consciousness against stimuli, but it also damages the integrity of our memory. And so garbage and its corresponding insights repeatedly disappear from our awareness.
Thus, new scandals revealed that garbage no longer able to find a home was being sent elsewhere. In the 1980s, headlines were made by toxic waste ships (such as the Khian Sea, Karin B and Deep Sea Carrier) navigating the world's seas on a course somewhere between legality and illegality. Laden with toxic waste from metropolises, they tried in vain to land - first in distant countries of the so-called Third World, then in Europe. Instead of a case of pirates threatening foreign cargoes, this was one of transport ships threatening everything along their route. France mobilized warships; in Italy, revolts broke out on land. For the moving garbage, elsewhere turned out to be nowhere. The homeless garbage, rejected by its country of origin, had no chance of gaining asylum anywhere else.
Gradually, the barrels disappeared on the seas, the ships from the headlines, and the people responsible for the transport from the minds of newspaper readers. But garbage had strikingly demonstrated its tendency to cross boundaries (the antithesis of its tendency to accumulate): it not only penetrated the space around disposal sites and WIPs, with help from the elements, but also spread towards other countries. Garbage recognizes no borders or boundaries. It has clearly established its status as a global player. Elsewhere is nowhere is everywhere.


Everywhere means at home, too, and to be more precise, here and now, even in cases when you might think everything was already settled. It is not only worn-out products and the byproducts of manufacture that end up as garbage. Sometimes, the places where things are produced also turn out to be garbage. This is true not only of decommissioned nuclear power stations, which will remain radioactive for a few hundred thousand years, but also of industrial brownfields contaminated with waste oil or dioxin. The garbage remains concealed, like a fifth column in the soil.
Old industrial sites present their own bills in the course of time. As archaeology discovers strata in the earth that tell us about our past, contaminated brownfields tell us of our duty now and in the future: the remediation of polluted sites. This leads us back to disposal sites, if contaminated soil is transported away or sealed on the spot. Or else elemental forces will be mobilized to clean the soil through the use of hydraulic, thermal or soil vapor extraction processes. Certain substances can also be dealt with via biological treatment methods involving microorganisms. The damage limitation achieved through remediation techniques costs billions but is necessary in order to combat garbage's tendency to exceed boundaries and to prevent the dispersal of contamination from polluted sites through water-bearing strata in the ground.
We face the threat of garbage increasingly permeating the elements through WIPs, disposal sites and old industrial locations, leading to a situation that is in fact already - albeit moderately - becoming reality: general environmental pollution. This, too, would mean a removal of garbage: the term would lose its meaning in a completely garbage-saturated, polluted world. The consequences of this are most clearly seen in faraway countries, such as China, where domestic waste from almost a billion people is hardly separated or treated, 500 million people have no access to clean drinking water, deserts are expanding across a third of the country's territory, 90 percent of rivers passing through cities are filthy, and birth defects occur in almost one in ten families. If we make calculations based on the aspects that could be remedied with money, we arrive at figures that retroactively negate the country's entire economic growth. According to calculations by the World Bank and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the annual cost of environmental damage in China (up to 2005) amounted to between 8 and 13 percent of the national income.
The garbage that shadowed humanity even before the dawn of civilization now threatens to become a specter haunting civilization's sacred cow, the gross national income. The production society could turn into a disposal society. The epoch of progress that has placed all its bets on the future could be subjected to a new dominion of the past. Garbage retrospectively reveals the wealth of industrial society as a commodity "borrowed" from the future. Actually, since no one asked the future, there has in fact been a robbery - which paradoxically also consists of a "donation," in the form of the garbage left behind for the future. The garbage that permeates the substance of the world is more than just material. It reveals itself as a relationship of humans with the world, which conceals a shocking self-relationship; more precisely, a relationship between generations. The disposal society acquires its wealth from posterity, from those who come after.

The Posterity

No one knows where and how much garbage has been thrown away. This does not only apply to illegally dumped garbage: even legally disposed-of hazardous waste is accompanied by an information problem. Warnings about it need to be passed on to future generations. This begins with neighborhood children who build caves in the mound behind the old multipurpose hall and come upon the remains of a greened-over domestic-waste disposal site: the garbage has endured, while the accompanying knowledge has disappeared. Who will be our contact person thousands of years in the future, when it will still be dangerous to open containers of nuclear waste or well-sealed, highly toxic incineration residue from domestic refuse? Will we be talking to cyborgs, robots, computer systems or perhaps degenerated mutants? And how should we do it? To date there has never been a human culture, a system of signs, that could preserve information over many thousands of years - the length of time in which industrially produced waste will remain active - at least not for another culture. In places where ancient taboos warned about uranium - in the lands of the Australian Aborigines and American Indians - the first thing modern humans did was to dig and extract it.
It is not only looking at the past but equally gazing into the future that shows our garbage outlives us. In fact, it comes closer to the old metaphysical idea of being than do we ourselves, who belong to the realm of mutable phenomena. From the perspective of posterity, the world in which we live, including our issues and concerns might seem out of touch with reality.
Even the first archaeological insight could have taught us that garbage would one day take humanity's place. The reverse is also conceivable, however: that mankind was the evolutionary stooge or slave of garbage, which only needed us temporarily in order to penetrate the elements. Who made whom in the end? If we consider the future, we may see garbage as our avatar in a world abandoned by the human spirit, or perhaps just by our mortal shells. But we could just as well be its avatar in (as we suppose) our own busy world.
Or will it all turn out very differently, and are we just too small-minded to recognize the true greatness of our garbage? Maybe there will one day be a second archaeology that discovers the traces of our culture and recognizes, in our garbage, a priceless witness to a brilliant understanding of nature that was never again to be achieved. Or maybe garbage will in the end simply swallow humankind, only to then give birth to a new generation of skilled garbage exploiters for whom the (as yet) stinking foundation of our world will be a valuable raw material.

The Triumphant Return of Garbage

Is this brilliant new future already with us today? Hopes that the garbage specter can be banished center on the economy, the great redefiner and upgrader. The commercial sector has recognized that the "defensive spending" created by the disposal and remediation of garbage and contaminated sites forms part of the gross national income. Garbage is a commodity. Not only does it contribute to economic growth, it has become essential to it.
By around the time of the Roman emperor Vespasian (9-69 A.D.), attitudes already seem to have been fairly progressive. Vespasian once held a coin gained from the newly introduced latrine tax under his son's nose and spoke the now well-known words "pecunia non olet" (money doesn't stink). If the ecological recycling concept was tainted by the fact that energetic and financial losses were incurred for the sake of the material cycle, the waste disposal business is now finally paying off. It is no more the long shadow cast by economic growth but is itself an economic factor. The fact that the industrial society is inconceivable without garbage is no longer a painful self-insight but joyful news. The world of commerce can once again believe in itself as a sound and healthy continuum - "world without end." In contrast to the times when the world was viewed as a disc, we need not fear a fall into the abyss. While waste supposedly resides safe and sound in permanent repositories under the earth, disconnected from the biological cycle, we on the surface of the planet can dream of an unending cycle of global economic viability. It may have an underside, but everything created on its surface (e.g., road surfacing from domestic waste incineration residue) participates in the eternal process of economic utilization. Life continues on the back of the triumphant return of garbage.
Garbage returns and is received like the prodigal son. In the 20th century, the Camorra reportedly hid huge mountains of toxic waste from all over Europe in southern Italy. But in January 2008, a series of trains transported 1,500 metric tons of domestic waste each from Naples (near which a volcanic crater is already filled with garbage to a depth of 300 meters) to waste incineration plants in the German towns of Leipzig and Bremerhaven. This totaled 160,000 tons, and each ton of the lucrative commodity generated €100 for the private waste disposal companies. In a "sign of increasing European integration" (according to the German Federal Environmental Agency), a total of more than 20 million tons of garbage was imported into Germany, most of it from the neighboring country of the Netherlands.
There is actually an ecological argument for garbage imports: the high technical standard of German WIPs. There, freed from its stigma, garbage is used in "energetic recycling." This is the realization of the recycling concept at its very highest level. In order to close the "combustion cycle" economically, the process is not even subject to limitations on CO2 emissions ("emissions rights"). The argument is that since the garbage would release carbon dioxide anyway, whether it happens through incineration or other processes is irrelevant.
The model is so successful that there are plans to raise the number of WIPs in Germany to at least 100 from the 71 present in 2008. Although garbage has long included not only used-up things but also, to a great extent, things scrapped chiefly for prestige or fiscal reasons (almost-new cars, computers and all kinds of devices), in the future Germany will be unable to meet the capacity of its WIPs by itself. An overcapacity of four to eight million tons is forecast for 2020. Permitting ourselves a little irony, we could point to a new problem: "Germany is running out of garbage!" After the eco-pessimism of the 1980s, this might come as a huge relief.
Garbage's status as a global player is now paying off. In China, a woman who made packaging from American garbage became a multibillionaire. All over the world, people are starting to grasp the wisdom of the great Chinese reformer Deng Xiaoping: it doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice. Soon, once the capacity has been created, Germany will become a garbage magnet not just for Italy and the Netherlands but for China and India too, all thanks to its disposal standards, which are the highest in the world. But by then, Germany will have established a new status for itself (Garbage Champion), and competitors will be imitating it. Politicians who tag along with trade delegations to erstwhile third-world countries will soon be going down on their knees to win supply contracts for garbage imports.

Garbage Art

If the business community seems have found a conjuring trick that will turn tenacious, pernicious garbage into a desirable commodity, artists have long been practicing the magic of transforming the unwanted into unexpected new forms. From Kurt Schwitters via Wolf Vostell and the Mutoid Waste Company to Biruta Kerve, eccentrics and artists have repeatedly and diversely made use of the refuse they come across. Collages created from refuse, stacked compressed cars, gigantic sculptures and vehicles built from scrap, collected and arranged flotsam - time and again, the confusing and startling variety of forms taken by garbage through artistic transformation comes close to the wondrousness of nature itself. Monstrous proportions and overlooked details combine to create new forms. The message, one might say, is: Nothing is ever finished.
Can art solve the garbage problem? It dissolves it like a drop in the ocean of things. Art gives garbage's boundary-overcoming energy a space from which it is not required to disappear. Art allows waste to experience new material and sensory relationships. It lets it permeate other spheres and thus enter society's consciousness. As a counterrhythm to the cycle of scandal and memory repression, garbage art always remains anachronistic. In its sphere, where there is no threat from hazardous substances but only from dangerous viewpoints, it always remains concealed behind a songbird-like innocuousness. As a sweet-voiced mocker, it can hold up the mirror of imagination to society and ask whether humankind can indeed exist as a creator (and not as a producer). In this way, art can utilize garbage, which is actually supposed to disappear under the ministrations of (disposal) technology, in a ritual of rendering-visible. Art lets loose, releases and unchains garbage. In the process, it also unfetters something of our obsession for objects. Through rituals of rendering-visible, we begin to discern a message that is written on the back of things: if humanity cannot let objects be, then they will not let us be either. In some cases, these rituals of rendering-visible also include overtone-like reverberations of other rituals - of healing, banishment, reconciliation and marriage.

The Fatal Liaison

Humanity cannot be conceived of without garbage, and garbage cannot be conceived of without humanity. The way humanity sometimes tries with all its might to get rid of garbage, only to embrace it warmly on its return home, reminds one of a fatal attraction. Such fateful relationships always include encounters with the self, but without self-insight. As long as the latter element is missing, there will be no loosening of the fatal knot.
Garbage has manifested itself to us as a faithful companion, a surviving witness, and a trace or track left by humanity; as that which is unusable and impure to (and because of) us; as our double, our shadow and our alter ego; as a monster and an enemy; as a fifth column and a tenacious global player; as a ubiquitous all-pervader and a specter haunting humanity's sacred cow; as humanity's representative, enslaver, avatar, perhaps even its user; as a bugbear, an economic commodity and a prodigal son. Finally, garbage's diverse incarnations have even found an echo in its appearance as songbird and mocker.
All these guises should be read as encrypted reflections of humankind. They alternately conceal and reveal humanity's relationship with the world and itself. Two aspects that appear in these various guises point us toward the adjustments that must be made to this relationship:
1. Garbage endures. It oulives the physical existence of its producers. Humanity has long nurtured the idea of something that outlives its physical existence: the soul. This concept demands that people come to terms with themselves, that they strive for a purer state. As garbage teaches us, this cannot be achieved through an attempt to eradicate the impure, through humanity purifying itself by polluting the planet and conducting its business at the expense of the future - and hence subsequent generations. Humanity must learn to live with its waste.
2. Garbage undergoes change. It does so in a double sense: as material and as image. While humanity attempts to correct its relationship with its garbage through ever-new images, the change in the material itself makes it a prisoner of the past. In order to break the power of garbage-as-material, humankind mobilizes technology. But since this technology cannot overcome the law of displacement, garbage merely manifests itself in ever-new guises. Learning not to imbue garbage with power means learning to deal with things before they become garbage, i.e., before they become subject to the law of displacement.
What is really required is a mental turnaround. If art is able to release garbage into fantastical forms, we need to let go of it in another sense too. Humanity needs to relinquish its attachment to objects before they become garbage. If we can free ourselves of our obsession with things, garbage will release its hold on us and no longer overwhelm us. In the 21st century, humanity stands confronted with a Herculean challenge: to let go of things, to let them be.
The misjudgment and denial of the mental dimension of garbage is not only prompted by industrial interests but also has a psychological basis: the compulsion to choose between "optimism" and "pessimism." Those who understand as their own story the story of things and how they become garbage will demand a "good" resolution, an amicable settlement. This may occur through a policy of gradual steps that change everything in the course of time or through one great positive insight that rectifies everything from on high (from Kyoto or Copenhagen). But it's based on the conviction that: "growth is good." As they support economic growth, both schools of thought have to subscribe to the doctrine of the technical resolvability of all problems. They believe there is a technical solution to everything, and they regard this as part of their right to happiness. The objection that the cosmos does not underwrite this belief is branded as pessimism.
The memory of the political utopias of the 20th century, and of the terrible violence resulting from the attempts to realize them, makes us skeptical today of any "good" we are forced to embrace. What is the "good" here? Humanity's garbage is silent on this issue - and ultimately remains as intractable with respect to its purely technical disposal as a koan does with respect to a purely rational solution.

[For Footnotes see print version: in: The Politics of the Impure. Rotterdam 2010]