[Image description: Four slightly pixelated images are shown in a looping sequence (gif) consecutively showing words that read ‘return to sender’. The first is a computer animated image of a trash can with a world map on it against a black backdrop. The second is a pixelated image of the top of a container ship showing many multi-coloured shipping containers overlaid on an image of the side of a container ship. The third image is a composite image with one smaller image positioned in the middle of a larger one. The smaller image in the centre is a computer animated image of a white man with red hair dragging a trash can, overlaid on a larger pixelated photo of a curb with leaves strewn on it. The third is an out of focus image looking into a garbage incinerator showing a burning fire.]
[Image description: Six images are shown in a looping sequence (gif), each showing a plastic bag traveling across a cityscape: the first image shows a highway with pieces of garbage falling from a truck. The second is an animated image of a garbage truck overlaid on top of a plastic bag on concrete. The third image is a black and green photo through a night-vision filter that shows the plastic bag in a field. The fourth image is of the plastic bag floating in front of a skyscraper. The fifth shows the plastic bag floating through a grassy green park. The fifth shows a close up of the plastic bag with a smiley face on its cover. The final image shows the plastic bag being punctured by a trash picker.]
We, Hannah, a 4 – 5th generation settler of Norwegian and Irish descent, and Sara, a 5th generation settler of Scottish and Irish descent – created this project together across the shared unceded territory of the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), Lilwat7úl (Lil’wat), Stó:lō and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) Nations, as well as the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples.
We acknowledge these land relations and position/implicate ourselves within them, while also recognizing that settler acknowledgements are just the beginning of a necessary commitment to end the ongoing dispossession and colonial violence.
There is an elemental difference between land and sea. The material of ocean-space—fluidity, expansiveness, and ephemerality—mark its difference from land. “The limit of the land is in air and sea, the limit of the entire sea is only the air.” According to this mythos, the sea is a place where so-called ‘civilization’ ends, and a ‘wild frontier’ begins.
Oceans have been perceived as spaces of ‘freedom,’ yet freedom is often vulnerable to abuse. These fluid spaces act both as containers for the world’s waste, and maritime highways for the transportation, trade, and dumping of hazardous substances from rich nations onto the shores of impoverished communities.
The word waste comes from vastus, having the same Latin root as the word vast. The earliest uses of the term waste were used to describe spaces perceived as large uncultivated spaces uninhabited by humans; ‘remote’ mountain ranges, ‘barren’ deserts, and ‘boundless’ seascapes.
Waste later came to denote something people create, “produced in the order and disorder we manufacture or identify in the world.” But waste is less about what a thing is, than it is about where a thing is. It has been referred to as “matter out of place.”
Waste is a matter of how we categorize, separate, and organize our environments. To think of waste is to reflect “on the relation of order to disorder, being to non-being, form to function, life to death.” Waste poses a problem for modern society: it shows up to tell us that our strategies of containment have failed.
“Project Return to Sender” was variously known as the “Khian Sea waste disposal incident,” the “garbage barge” and the “forgotten waste.” On September 5, 1986, a 466-foot cargo ship left Philadelphia carrying 14,000 tons of incinerator ash, the refuse of burned garbage from the city’s overflowing landfills. The ship traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, looking to dump its contaminated cargo on faraway shores. It first stopped in the Bahamas. When local officials learned of the ash’s toxicity, they refused to let the Khian Sea dock at their port. After being turned away, the ship traveled to eleven nations on four continents: Bermuda, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Borneo, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.
Each refused to accept Philadelphia’s toxic ash. Stateless and unable to dock, the ship, at this point renamed Felicia, covertly dumped 4000 tons of the hazardous material on the shores of Gonaïves, Haiti. In 1988, they illegally disappeared the remaining 10,000 tons into the ocean. When the ship arrived on the shores of Singapore empty, environmentalists around the world were alarmed.
Kenny Bruno, Greenpeace: “So when we got down to Haiti, we went straight to Gonaïves, where the ash ended up, this kind of remote and very unpopulated area. We were able to simply walk up to this huge pile of ash. It was quite wide and long, hundreds of feet long, and no sign around it. No sign, no protection around it, no netting, no security guard, no anything, and you could just walk right up to it. You could see glass, you could see newspaper that hadn’t burned, you could even read newspaper that hadn’t burned.”
In 1997, following pressure from Haitian officials and environmentalists, most, but not all, of the remaining toxic waste was finally removed from Haiti and repatriated to the United States, in an effort dubbed “Project Return to Sender”.
Its 15 year odyssey ended in the spring of 2002, at the place where it began. After docking in Florida, the ash was taken by rail to Hagerstown, Maryland, and trucked to the Mountain View Reclamation landfill in Pennsylvania.
Kenny Bruno: “So the Haiti ash became one of the symbolic cases that demonstrated just how unfair this kind of practice was, and demonstrated that it was going to increase. And eventually there was a ban on dumping hazardous waste onto developing countries [the Basel Convention]. We estimated that about half of the original ash that was dumped, about 4000 tons, only about 2000-2500 tons were actually returned to the Pennsylvania landfill. Nobody knows what happened to the 2000 or so other tons of trash — ash, rather — and whether it caused any harm, and if it did, it’s lost to history and buried under the avalanche of other things that have happened.”
The problem of waste is in some sense universal: it is the process of selecting what belongs and what does not. Waste is a categorical phenomenon. It is made in the sorting, created in the decision of whether to keep something or to discard it. Waste is the shadow world of values and objects lying beneath the world of appearances.
Waste is never a unique event or object. Where there is waste, there is a system, a system that decides what is deemed valuable and who is deemed to have value. All forms of life exist in some relation to waste. Humans, among other species, face an immense volume of waste in modern consumer society.
Waste is what is excluded, yet waste always returns. What is discarded does not disappear. Something remains, a residue, a remnant. Often it is simply displaced. Yet its absence is never complete. A letter sent without a valid address, marked “return to sender.”
Lea Guererro, Philippines Country Director for Greenpeace South Asia: “So what is
Vancouver, for example, is considered a green city, and it’s very beautiful, etc. But its beauty and its greenness has come at the cost of poorer countries, where it ships its trash.”
In the week that Canada marked its 152nd birthday, the cargo ship Anna Maersk docked in Tsawwassen, BC with 69 now infamous containers of rotted garbage. The following day, 1500 tons of waste were transported in a truck to Burnaby to be processed in the city’s waste-to-energy incinerator.
The containers of garbage were originally sent as recycling to the Philippines in 2013 and 2014. Upon opening the containers, the Philippine workers found that what was said to be plastic recycling was instead Canada’s contaminated trash. The unwanted garbage set off a dispute—some even said a “diplomatic nightmare”—between the two nations.
Lea Guererro: “When waste from North America and Europe comes here, it is processed in facilities where workers do not wear protective clothing. You see workers shredding Styrofoam without masks, without proper clothes. That’s what happens to the waste when it comes here: it also endangers the lives of people that work to recycle that sort of waste.”
In May 2019, President Rodrigo Duterte then warned Trudeau that he would go to war with Canada and dump the waste in Canadian waters.
Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines: “I will advise Canada that your garbage is on the way. Prepare a grand reception. Eat it if you want to.”
The Canadian Prime Minister repatriated the garbage after much public attention was drawn to the matter by Duterte and local environmental activists. Even so, thirty containers were left behind for the Philippines to process.
Lea Guererro: “That’s the other aspect of toxic colonialism: it’s not just exportation of toxic waste or toxic trash, it’s also the exportation of technology which is equally toxic. Poorer countries are really held hostage by all the toxic waste imports that are coming from richer countries. We’re seeing political will, finally, from leaders in Southeast Asia about not taking any more of the waste that is being sent to our ports. You know, that deluge, because it was so visual, it was so stark, I think was a wake-up call for these countries.”
Kathleen Ruff, Right On Canada: “If you’re not accountable, there are no human rights, there is no social justice, if you’re not accountable. And if you’ve got a double standard, like we did on asbestos and like the export of waste, then we’re betraying everything we say we stand for. Everyone is deserving of respect and protection. We were doing the opposite. We were deliberately and knowingly exporting harm.
It’s clear that with the increase in standard of living, and consumer lifestyle, that the production of waste has massively increased. We go back 20, 30 years, we didn’t produce waste in this manner, but we lived a good life in those days, for the most part.”
The livability of the earth was at stake for many forms of life. But that had been true for some much longer than for others. For some, the end of the world had already come to pass. The deterioration of environmental conditions was taking place on an expanding scale and at an accelerating rate, leading many to emphasize the urgency of rethinking and restructuring planetary relations.
In response, the goal of “zero waste” captured the public consciousness. The myth of the “green steward” pervaded those years, as citizens of the global north traded in their straws and plastic bags, minded their compost and recycling, as shame and guilt were weaponized, shielding corporate power from scrutiny.
We sought a friction-free future: one with no waste, no garbage, a clean environment, and an unburdened earth. To achieve this, we had to forge new relations with matter, fighting against materials’ tendency to transform. We fought against decomposition, rot, rust, and ruin. Useless things were eradicated. We bred stringless beans, boneless chickens, and skinless fruit. We eliminated negative value. Without waste there is no need for reuse, repair, patchwork, or maintenance, because nothing fell apart.
However, we could not design out inequality by doing away with waste. Further efforts of exclusion only increased the divide. We could have adopted a less exclusionary sense of waste, but if we had done that we would have had to have seen that matter always moves in gradations. We would have had to devise ceremonies to celebrate transformation and decay. We would have had to attend to the processes through which materials come together and fall apart. We would have had to rethink the relation of “order to disorder, being to non-being, form to function, and life to death.”
Basel Action Network, and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. “Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia.” Seattle & San Jose, 2002.
Cowen, Deborah. The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London & New York: Routledge, 1966.
Gabrys, Jennifer. Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013.
Grotius, Hugo. Mare Liberum. Brill, 1609.
Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Peters, John Durham. The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Steyerl, Hito. “In Defense of the Poor Image.” e-flux (10), 2009.
Van Loon, Joost. Risk and Technological Culture: Towards a Sociology of Virulence. London & New York: Routledge, 2002.
Viney, William. Waste: A Philosophy of Things. London & New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.