Thursday, March 8, 2012

Entropy, Consumerism, Value:

The Problem (and potential) of Waste
(A paper written for Prof. Joyce Hwang's 'Questions of Sustainability' seminar - Fall 2011)

This paper focuses primarily on material waste: not how to avoid it, but how to format it in a way that can be fed back into other natural or technical processes. Under the right conditions, we’ll see how drawing from waste is not only practical but often culturally enriching. Although material waste will be focused on (the sort which we all deal with on a regular basis), other forms of waste will be briefly drawn upon and discussed, as they can only be separated so much. Moving through these types, their sources, and the current practices of capitalist countries like the U.S. which maintain the problem, a greater question of “value” will be raised; What role do societal shifts have in potential solutions to the problems of waste? Typical and atypical responses to waste will then be referenced and evaluated, from recycling to the culturally and politically charged work of Teddy Cruz and Antoni Eckmair. Finally, postulation will be made for how to continue and evolve these various techniques, as well as what role the architect is to play amongst it all.

A Perpetual Process
The time of industrialization is over. Mass production and urban expansion – children of the factories – are now fading, leaving a consumerist society helpless. Within this post-industrial era, society is beginning to choke on the very residues that commercialism creates. The production of waste, whether a result of manufacturing practices, neglect, or basic biological processes, is a unifying element that pervades even the most rigid social, political, and geographical structures. It is a part of a natural process of deterioration, and necessary for life. Architecture then, as a major contributor to material (and spatial) waste, needs to begin to address this condition. Rather than trying to figure out how to consume less – that is, go directly against instinctual behavior – perhaps it is best that architects dive into the belly of the beast; how can we consume more? Everything, including ourselves, is on its way to becoming something else. By accepting this and moving past our self-created inhibitions, we might better guide those transformations to achieve a healthier existence for ourselves and our surroundings.
Every biological system we’re aware of depends on waste. The natural cyclical processes which environmentalists so vigorously aspire to are driven by the production and re-consumption of waste organic matter and energy. And whereas most living systems are “regulated by such limiting factors as seasons, weather, sun, soil, and temperature, all of which are governed by feedback loops,”[1] humans may be the only species that takes from the soil and Earth such high quantities of nutrients without returning them in a useful form.[2] Consumption is okay; When done in a way that can feed back into these loops it’s infinitely productive even through deeper ecologies. But when most of the materials we now produce cannot be easily integrated back into the environment or even back into modern production – when only 1% of household material is still in use after six months[3] – when humans far exceeded their ecological niche – we may need to consider alternative forms of production and consumption.
Efficiency vs. Effectiveness
Much of the detriment can be linked to the Industrial Revolution, in all its rapidity and recklessness. As the technosphere finally emerges as a separate entity (from that of the biosphere), we see billions of pounds of toxic material put into the air, gigantic amounts of waste, an erosion of diversity in species and cultural practices, a measure of productivity by how few people are working, and the condemnation of valuable materials into holes all over the planet – never to be recovered.[4] Henry Ford’s innovative linear assembly line makes tremendous leaps in efficiency by “bringing the materials to the man,”[5] but ultimately disconnects man from product. Overspecialization is the first step in people’s inability to reuse their things, and is quickly complicated further by hybridous products: fusions of metal, plastic, toxic chemicals, and more plastic. In the consumerist economy, ability to reintegrate takes a back seat to ease of production. The denaturalization of so many of our products completely undermines the cyclical processes that we should be aspiring to.
Efficiency, indeed, is at an all-time high. Never before have we been able to produce motorized ice cream cones so quickly and cheaply (yes, these exist). But somewhere in this relentless strive for material goods we’ve lost sight of effectiveness; that is, a more qualitative analysis of what we’re producing. That disconnection between production and consumption only brings more thoughtlessness. Automation numbs sensibility; the only hope is to cognicize the act.

A Throw-away Culture
Italo Calvino’s fictitious city of Leonia poses a similar conundrum: Meticulously cleaned every night to provide its residents the cleanest and most dignified of urban living conditions, mountains of waste emerge at the city’s boundaries. Marco Polo remarks “one can have permanent newness…but it is an illusion. It comes at a price, and that price is the making permanent of rubbish.”[6] The seduction of false progress is only temporary, and we are beginning to approach the threshold of forced reality. Current acceleration in the construction and demolition of neighborhoods, infrastructures, and objects signifies a flux between past and future, altogether avoiding the present.
Our (American) identity of the consumer feeds into an economic and political system structured upon built-in obsolescence, where the definition of “economic growth includes all expenditures, regardless of whether society benefits or loses,” including crime, divorce, cancer treatment, environmental cleanup, dump fees, and liquor sold to the homeless.[7]

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumptions…we need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.[8]
Fifty years ago, the average American used half what they do today; thrift and resourcefulness were highly valued. The U.S., which holds 5% of the world’s population uses 30% of its resources and produces 30% of its waste. And in the past 30 years, 1/3 of our available natural resources have been consumed.[9] Beyond technology advances and new modes of production, a cultural shift in value has occurred.

Notions of Value
To suggest the reuse of wasted material is to associate with that which we yearn to deny the existence of. Trash is, after all, worthless – otherwise it wouldn’t have been discarded. But the psychology behind society’s view of trash is perplexing. If a pair of jeans becomes worn or torn without the owner’s consent, they may very likely be thrown away. Meanwhile, intentionally flawed (ripped, frayed, patched) jeans are manufactured and sold at stores for three times the price of comparable “unflawed” jeans. To study society’s constantly oscillating definition of value, we have to study its waste. In this scenario, architecture “is not defined by its stability but by its potential obsolescence, subject to a process of physical decline and social change.”[10] Waste is only comprehensible in relation to the notion of value: “The value we perceive in things on this account, is not a feature or quality of them, but a residue deposited in them by our activity of valuing them.”[11] Culture, pride, and competitiveness, human nature and conflict create a rift between social responsibility and social acceptance. The Moai of Easter Island are a perfect example. The presence of so many statues, that is – the evidence of so much energy-intensive and impractical constructs – suggests a sort of cultural battle for dominance: Who carries the biggest stick? Lost in that frenzy of pride, it’s no wonder how that society collapsed.  We enjoy thinking of ourselves as powerful and important, and so we desire to buy things that are brand-new, pure, virgin. It’s a “kind of metaphorical defloration: ‘This virgin product is mine, for the very first time. When I am finished with it (special, unique person that I am), everyone is. It is history.’”[12] And within our current socioeconomic place, we’re able to keep to this mindset.

Those things we deem unfit for continued use, which sums up to about 4.5 pounds per person per day most commonly end up in a landfill or incinerator, each object releasing one of the 10,000 synthetic chemicals we now commonly employ in products. These toxins end up in the air, the soil from which we grow our crops, the water from which we drink and fish, and even in mothers’ breast milk.[13] We cast these materials away, and cease to acknowledge their existence. Architect John May comments on the lack of architectural involvement in the largest landfill in the U.S. Fresh Kills: “No matter how sexy and natural it may appear in the various digital rendering, or how compelling its supposed rebirth may sound in the official statements, it is an absolutely horrible place, and it reveals horrible realities about our Modern American Lifestyles – realities that are only growing more pronounced.”[14] Fueling this rampant waste stream are those “monstrous hybrids” – materials which simply cannot be integrated back into the biosphere OR the technosphere: juice boxes which are a layering of paper, plastic, and metal film all in one as an example.
Less than 2% of the total waste stream is actually recycled (primarily paper, glass, plastic, aluminum, and steel).[15] And even of those, many recycling efforts may more accurately be described as downcycling, using materials that were never meant to become fulfill something other than their original purpose. Resultantly, a lengthy and high energy process is sometimes needed to accommodate them.[16] And all said and done, this typically only postpones that material’s ultimate fate in the landfill. Congressman John Tierney states,

 [recycling procedures] offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups – politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations…Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources….The costs of administering household collection programs outweigh the profits to be gained from the reuse of waste and the benefits to nature.[17]
Tierney offers little factual evidence to back this up, but we’re left to consider, what is the “real” cost of recycling? The two approaches of utilitarianism and anti-utilitarian humanism carry similar evaluating methodologies, simply defended and justified by varied interests. But even if net energy or finances after recycling are roughly zero, it does result in the production of less material and therefore less pollution in manufacturing and disposal. We cannot be so na├»ve to think that we shouldn’t be held responsible for expending energy to clean up the messes we create – even if those costs far exceeded that of production. Since waste is an inevitable byproduct of everything we do, we must overcome it socially and rid it of the taboo it has come to possess…a reevaluation of “value.”

A New Social Order
Since the value of objects and architecture are not so much dependent on physical properties as much as they are fluctuating social standards, architects ironically have little direct control over architectural discourse. New ideas of aesthetic and modes of living may be proposed, but without the consent of the public they are ineffective. Conservatism within the architectural realm is a direct result of capitalism. Ever aware of things like resale value, there is a tendency to treat possessions (cars, houses) very cautiously. Matta-Clark observes; “Buildings are fixed entities in the minds of most people. The notion of mutable space is taboo, especially in one’s own house. People live in their space with a temerity that is frightening. Home owners generally do little more than maintain their property.”[18] Thus, when painting a room, off-white trumps lime green. And your new Audi – supposedly a device of material and personal transportation – resists being touched, having anything put in it, or getting wet. There is a level of preciousness that has manifest itself in both product and architecture. Moving from his home, one author recounts:

The old house…seems relieved to be rid of our furniture. The rooms where we lived, where we staged our meals and ceremonies and self-dramatizations and where some of us went from infancy to adolescence, rooms and stairways so imbued with our daily motions that their irregularities were bred into our bones and could be traversed in the dark, do not seem to mourn, as I had thought they would. The house exults in its sudden size, in the reach of its empty corners. Floorboards long muffled by carpets shine as if freshly varnished. Sun pours unobstructed through the curtainless windows. The house is young again. It, too, had a self, a life, which for a time was eclipsed by our lives; now, before its new owners come to burden it, it is free. Now only moonlight makes the floor creak. When, some mornings, I return, to retrieve a few final oddments – andirons, pictures frames – the space of the house greets me with a virginal impudence. Opening the front door is like opening the door to the cat who comes in with the morning milk, who mews in passing on his way to the beds still warm with our night’s sleep, his routine so tenuously attached to ours, by a single mew and a shared roof. Nature is tougher than ecologists admit. Our house forgot us in a day. I feel guilty that we occupied it so thinly…that a trio of movers and a day’s breezes could so completely clean us out.[19]
This fear to act upon one’s space stems from the same desire for that same prefabricated virginity mentioned before. How sterile our spaces are, as architects, or simply as domestic persons. This is a world of abundance and diversity, not of limits and pollution.
In order for architecture to address the concerns of accumulating waste, value needs to be reexamined on a personal level. Without the worries of “what someone else thinks,” new efficiencies and a much richer and more diverse cultural palette arise; the fact that the most inexpensive pressboards are made from the waste scraps of the rarest woods can be embraced.[20] Moving past taboo – sustaining the mindset of “survival of the fitting-est,”[21] where there is an energetic and material engagement with place – will create a richer and more contextual series of spaces which operate which are far more in touch with nature than most.
Activities such as deconstruction/green demolition – or even on a more personal scale, dumpster diving – would quickly lead to manufacturers making minor, quickly realizable changes to their products. It would continue to evolve to higher and higher design intelligence of stuff. These are practices that used to be commonplace only decades ago. Square glass bottles can be used as a sort of masonry unit, and were engineered to do just that during World War II. Even today “some rural households expect dinner guests to “return” nutrients [by using the latrine] before they leave, and it is a common practice for farmers to pay households to fill boxes with their bodily wastes.”[22] In India –particularly Mumbai – human waste is celebrated via toilet festivals. The lack of personal toilet facilities brings about a communal togetherness and openness about it, and so we observe a mode of living far more sustainable and arguably, more pleasant, than our own technologically advanced and privatized one.

Architect as Alchemist
If the responsibility of the architect is then to situate material among context, the challenge is “not to achieve drossless urbanization but to integrate inevitable dross into more flexible aesthetic and design strategies,”[23] even if it means going against societal norms. Artist and designer Antoni Eckmair subsists off such design philosophies, using almost exclusively repurposed objects for his work. Sculptures made from the frames of papasan chairs, rollerblades, glass bottles; structures made from iron bedframes and shower doors; whole toilets used as masonry units and their porcelain caps as paving; these constructs, briefly, manage to look past original intentions. But there is that deep cultural history embedded within – the old resonating with the new, which produces something far more beautiful than any singularly designed object can grasp. Waste is shown under a new light, revealing bits of culture and redefining our understanding of value.
Architect Teddy Cruz challenges more dire problems with his use of waste. Across the most highly trafficked border in North America, in Tijuana, exists a temporal and nomadic urbanism. Improvisational methods of construction arising from the strict but wavering material palette of San Diego’s urban debris make up a large part of the city. Garage doors are used as walls. Rubber tires are cut, folded, and interlocked as retaining walls. Refrigerator doors become table tops. Cruz’ work seeks not to control this, but facilitate that collage which has already been established. Michael Sorkin comments on Cruz:

The work is not about foisting some arcane and incomprehensible aesthetic on unsuspecting subjects but about finding the measure of beauty in the actual circumstances of their lives and situations and in responding with authentic sensitivity to the particulars of site and need. The work is not “popular” in the sense of some phony channeling of the ineffable wisdom of the people but in the sense of offering a genuinely artistic collaboration with no compromise on either side.[24]

The use of reclaimed materials follows spontaneity and functional necessity first and foremost. By releasing objects from those qualities that society has made inherent to them, we are able to realize a new, and perhaps more appropriate or more contextual, understanding of design. For Cruz, the ideal architectural language is one that can be at once deterministic and ambiguous.
We cannot in this country legislate temperance, nor creativity. And unfortunately, the existing social structure does not support the open-mindedness of which I speak. As guilty as the individual in fear of new order and of rejection, architects conform and compromise their designs according to the established social and political order.

Most architects in this highly commercial era, who accept commissions and clients that affect public life, are in fact committed to supporting the existing structure of authority as embodied in institutions of commerce and of its support political systems…[Architects] believe themselves to be creators, or innovators, when in actuality they are nothing more nor less than the executors of a physical and social order designed by those institutions presently holding political authority and power.[25]

It is the responsibility of the architect to address those concerns and push reformulated social structures via the designed environment.  The use of waste, while deforming standard applications of material, may be the perfect medium to negotiate social norms and architectural ideals. There is a familiarity inherent in reuse that creates affection. If demolition became more of a surgical operation - if architects were to move beyond the negativity attached with wreckage and put in as much thought into it as they did construction - a succinct and comfortable relationship might established between society and history. This is not a redefinition of the role of the architect, but an acceptance of place within society and time. Today's vernacular is one of trash.

[1] (Hawken, Lovins and Lovins 2010)
[2] (McDonough and Braungart 2002)
[3] (Leonard 2010)
[4] (McDonough and Braungart 2002)
[5] (Hawken, Lovins and Lovins 2010)
[6] (Till, Architecture Depends 2009, 74)
[7] (Hawken, Lovins and Lovins 2010)
[8] (Lebow 1955)
[9] (Leonard 2010)
[10] (Till, Architecture Depends 2009, 71)
[11] (Hawkins 2003)
[12] (McDonough and Braungart 2002)
[13] (Leonard 2010)
[14] (May 2008)
[15] (Hawken, Lovins and Lovins 2010)
[16] (McDonough and Braungart 2002)
[17] (Hawkins, The Ethics of Waste: How We Relate to Rubbish 2006)
[18] (Lee, Object to be Destroyed 2000)
[19] (Hawkins 2003)
[20] (Grunenberg 2004)
[21] (McDonough and Braungart 2002)
[22] (McDonough and Braungart 2002)
[23] (Kallipoliti 2010)
[24] (Solnit 2006)
[25] (Woods 1992, 8-9)

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