How can immersive storytelling and embodied ways of learning help us grapple with the effects of environmental racism? How do urban waste practices reproduce social and racial hierarchies, and how might forms of being with urban waste lead to activist pressure and better policy? Wastescapes is an augmented reality app that guides cyclists through waste sites in Montreal, a city known for its commitment to cycling and zero waste. Like the game Pokéman, an individual has to physically be at the location in order to activate the associated media. When a cyclist arrives at a chosen site, the app “unlocks” audio, text and still images that address the future plans and environmental histories of the communities that live nearby.
With environmental justice as a key critical lens, our objective is to help residents, students and cyclists perceive waste at different scales, from the individual to the communal, from the regional to the global. Our aim is that the app serve as a prompt for people to consider the proximities, practices and unequal distributions of waste and its impacts.
The Interceptor Shaft
There are over 60 unmarked buildings dotting the city of Montreal, with no address, little signage, and distinguished only by graffiti. These inspection shafts are part of a vast network of underground tunnels that make up the public sewer system. You only notice this kind of infrastructure when it breaks down, as in 2015, when the Southeast interceptor was shut down and eight billion litres of raw sewage flowed into the St-Lawrence River. Nearby, a stunning patch of Red Pine trees rims the bike path, its role as infrastructure equally unmarked. Its network of roots manages water flows and filters run-off for the city, its boughs filter the air and cool rising temperatures. At the same time, the trees offer critical shelter to those living in the encampments that rise up along the bike path as it skirts the city’s southern shore; on one side, Mercier and Montreal-Est, neighborhoods of Montreal’s east end; on the other, the industrial waterfront and the Port of Montreal. Subject to recurring eviction and removal by the City, the tents quietly testify to the failings of public infrastructure, as if to say, infrastructure for what or for whom?
Cautionary signage at once marks and normalizes the risk of leaks, contamination, disaster. Once read, the meaning of such notices quickly slips from view. In Parc Hotel-de-Ville, a narrow perch by the St-Lawrence, the signs mark the underground network of pipelines that move gas to the Enbridge transfer station and ships nearby. These pipelines shuttle fuel and chemicals from the refineries just north to the shipping routes in the port. Nearby, seniors sit contemplating the river view. Biking into the park means riding past the retirement home, Résidence les Pléiades, not 10 metres from the transfer station. A Rassemblement sign informs workers where to gather in the event of an unspecified emergency. For a newcomer, it’s a shock to the senses; a reminder of the gas industry’s volatility and the fragility of bodies at play nearby. Whose lives are valued under the sign of petro-capitalism?
Following the bike path into Montreal-Est along the St. Lawrence, what you notice first is the heavy smell of chemical waste: sulphur, mercaptans, hydrocarbons. Bad eggs, dank garages, cabbage gone sour. Downwind from the refinery district, the smell is a reminder that the massive steel containers to our right hold thousands of cubic metres of gas and petro-chemicals. On either side of this narrow concrete path, there are fences, security cameras, and barbed wire. “Do not enter.” “Video surveillance” “Danger.” “Explosives.” Cycling ahead, we see posted notices about soil remediation projects and warnings to stay away, marking a toxic history of waste along this stretch of waterfront. Across the street, and into the neighborhood, sits a small park with empty swings. Another strategy of mitigation and containment? The containers are sites of enormous risk, but considerable effort has gone into minimizing the threat and making us feel comfortable. Yet the park remains empty, over days of biking to and from the containers. Who holds the trauma of life lived or worked alongside the petro-chemical regime? And how might seeing, biking and thinking generate new forms of solidarity and action?
In the spring of 2020, we biked every day, with friends or students, alone or together, through areas of Montreal outside our typical comings and goings. The goal was to follow the waste, to see where it goes and understand more about what being there might mean in terms of understanding the scale and effects of our waste streams. We were planning an undergraduate class at the university where we teach, and the hunch was that the bike offered a particular way of gathering students and inviting them into a challenging issue: close to the ground, fully embodied, exposed to the elements, and often quite fun. Yet bikes aren’t always cheap, and a new bike path can anticipate strategic investments and pending gentrification. It doesn’t have to be that way, especially in neighborhoods marked by waste repositories or heavy industry. As a good alternative to high-energy forms of transportation, the view from a bike is never easy—ephemeral, mobile, requiring considerable effort. You have to work to be there. Your legs are pumping, your heart races. You feel the grit settle on your skin, and your vulnerability is tangible amidst the heavy trucks or the air thick with gas fumes. Less pleasure-cruise, more skin in the game, the bike offers a different mode of attention: a slower, implicated view of a city grappling with capital’s refuse.