Where It All Goes

March 11, 2014

A few years ago I saw a screening of Manufactured Landscapes.  In the film photographer Edward Burtynsky travels the world observing changes in landscapes due to industrial work and manufacturing.  It was fascinating and scary, and I think it took me a few years to really digest all the information in the film.  It starts in an electronics assembly factory in China, where rows upon rows of workers are creating goods that I assumed would be exported to places like the U.S. He also photographs villages where electronic waste gets dumped for recycling.  The haunting images depict the extremes of massive waste heaps against the minute components the villagers are salvaging. My Final memory of this movie are the images of the Three Gorges Dam, where entire villages, looking like bomb sites, are dismantled since they will eventually be under water.

For Burtynsky, his work proposes that man made landscapes define who we are as people. He sees a certain physical beauty in the order and/or symmetry in some of these landscapes, despite the negative reasons for them or the subsequent degradation they pose to the environment and people around them.

Pittsburgh, 2012


I often felt the same way growing up outside of Pittsburgh.  A city that was polluted by the steel industry then seemingly abandoned because of it’s collapse.  My memories of driving in to the city with my dad are some of my favorite.  We would drive south along the Ohio River, past factories and mills, through small towns with empty shops and dilapidated homes.

There was a beauty in all of this that I somehow knew, though I was to young perhaps to fully understand.  The brick homes and big factories juxtaposed against a beautiful landscape. Green and vibrant in the summer and grey and dreary in the winter.


In his film, Burtynsky doesn’t say weather these landscapes are good or bad.  He doesn’t’ want to influence the viewer either way, but let the decision up to them.  He doesn’t have a solution, but he brings these topics to light.  As an artist, I believe this is our job.  To  bring into focus what is happening in the world around us, hopefully to inspire positive change.

A few days ago I read an article in Popular Science, that immediately reminded me of Burtynsky’s film.  “The Garbage Man” starts with American environmental activist Jim Puckett who traveled to the town of Guiyu in southeast China to look for old computers. He’d learned that electronic waste from the West was finding its way to Guiyu.  A town where,  for centuries, residents had earned a living farming rice along the Lianjiang River. When Puckett arrived, one of the first things he saw was a man riding a bicycle stacked 15-feet high with computer keyboards.  The descriptions of the crude recycling  that happens here brought back the haunting images in Manufactured Landscapes.  In this article, however, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. A man named Mike Biddle discovered how to separate certain mixed plastics completely.  Biddle can take the plastic from laptop, reduce it to its purest form, and sell it back to a computer company to make another laptop. Biddle started out as an engineer making the very plastics he would soon figure out how to recycle.

The article goes on to talk about the lax recycling laws in the U.S., which is the reason Biddle’s first recycling plant opened in England.  The good news is that in  February 2013, China announced a new policy crackdown called Operation Green Fence. This means that shipments of recyclables into the country must truly be recyclables, not contaminants or waste. To read the full article, go here: http://www.popsci.com/article/science/garbage-man

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