Tag Archives: excess and the city

Waste, Luxury and Excess

This post was contributed by Bryony Merritt of Birkbeck’s External Relations Department.

The final round-table of the Surplus symposium at Birkbeck looked at examples of waste, luxury and excess in London and New York.

Simon Choat (Kingston) began by exploring ideas about capitalism, excess and transgressions. He argued that the way we focus on capitalism often reduces everything to commoditisation. He identified excessive acts of transgression as a way to break out from the constraints of capitalism, noting that a riot is in itself an act of transgression that can’t be recuperated by capitalism, as it can’t be harnessed to the profit motive. The threat to capitalism posed by riots is what led to such an authoritarian backlash after the UK riots of 2011, he argues, but due to the disorganised nature of a riot they cannot be used as an ongoing challenge to capitalism. He posited that if capitalism is going to die it will be through its own excesses, as it is itself transgressive and constantly breaking down limitations.

Joel McKim (Birkbeck) explored with the audience the significance of Freshkills Landfill site in Staten Island. This 22,000 acre site is one of the only man-made structures visible from space, yet remains largely invisible to the majority of New Yorkers, whose rubbish it contains. The site was closed in March 2001, and then briefly reopened in September of that year to house the debris from the Twin Towers, including human remains. The site is now being landscaped to provide a public park and wetlands. A memorial was quickly incorporated into the designs following 9/11. However, this has left New York with no landfill site and no incinerators, so the city now transfers its waste to sorting stations in the poorest areas of the city, before shipping it to poorer states in the south under a largely privatised system. Joel described the park project as ‘redemptive’ – a way for New York to “overcome the limitations of our over-consuming society and change our garbage into parks”.

The project is designed to ‘immunise’ the site against its past, but Joel reminded us that the risk of leakage remains. Leachate and methane gas could break through the engineering of the landscapers, and New York now ‘leaks’ its rubbish into other, poorer states.

Joel then moved on to look at digital waste, the fastest growing waste stream in the developed world. Eighty per cent of digital waste goes to be recycled and ends up in the developed world where it is stripped for valuable metals, while simultaneously exposing the workers to dangerous levels of harmful materials such as mercury. Companies use their multinationality to evade legal restraints and create a “network of invisibility”. Currently these digital products have a structure of obsolescence built into them but Joel said that the notion of Extended Producer Responsiblitity (EPR) is now gaining traction, with the idea that producers need to be responsible from the creation to the destruction of these items, rather than passing responsibility onto consumers.

Emma M. Jones (Queen Mary’s) rounded up the day by looking at a very local issue: the paradox of London’s high-quality, reliable water supply, in contrast to the difficulty of accessing water in public spaces and the thriving bottled water industry in the city. Emma’s forthcoming book, Parched City, is a history of the water industry in London. She explained that she used drinking water as a lens to look at what she sees as an inherently political issue. Although we don’t require vast quantities of drinking water to survive, when we are forced to spend £1.60 to access 500ml, the issue of access becomes very pertinent.

Anna says that there was no significant bottled water industry in London until 1983, when the UK’s first and only water strike took place for one month, disrupting water supplies in Manchester and London and opening the gate for the bottled water industry. Anna showed a picture of an advertisement for Schweppes Abbey Well water: the official water of the Olympic Games 2012, and highlighted a further paradox – that the Thames Water treatment facility is less than one mile away from the Olympic Park and could easily have met the water needs of all the visitors.

The panel brought to an end a day of wide-ranging and pertinent debates about how globally, nationally and locally we are all tied into cultures of excess, and raised many questions about how we can and should respond to this.

Listen to the podcast of this round-table.