How to picture two tons of waste? Trashy theaters of proof.

Basurama (trash-o-rama), a non profit organization based in Spain, is preparing a public waste audit for MIT’s Media Lab Festival on April 20th. Their unique point of intervention that goes above and beyond a regular waste audit and the goal of quantification and classification of waste,  is how to represent two tons of waste.

Basurama developed the graphic above to think through how they might display the waste after the audit. I’ve posted elsewhere about the logics of a theater of proof, a phrase coined by Bruno Latour in The Pasteurization of France, to describe the sudden manifestation of an otherwise invisible phenomenon legible to lay audiences. In a theater of proof, viewers can see the phenomenon under study in “black and white,” can understand it all at once as it becomes apparent in sensible, indisputable terms. This is the often goal of doing public waste audits (or at least it is for so many of my students who want to do such projects so people can “just see” all the waste they produce in their lives/dining halls/homes, and by doing so magically internalize the severity of the problem and change their behaviours).

Like most information visualizations, the problem Basurama is asking on their blog post about how to visualize two tons of waste is about the best practices of theaters of proof. How do we make such a theater? How can we arrange our raw materials as a sort of information landscape that makes the issue at hand apparent to lay audiences? How do we transform information, via this trash, into affective work for the viewer? How do we make the usually invisible, always heterogeneous, mashed up world of trash legible? How do we use aesthetics for intentional intellectual messages? What sort of things can trash say?

Personally and professionally, I am often concerned that tashy messages will reiterate popular mythologies about waste: that we, as individuals, make too much waste, when we, as individuals, have very little agency in the matter and are rather part of an infrastructure of waste. I would like to see a display of industrial vs. “personal” waste, where all the waste is in the former category and nothing is in the latter. The same could be done with systemic vs. unique waste, or waste generated in the pursuit of capital vs. that which is not (perhaps some community agricultural waste would end up in the latter pile). In short, I’m saying that Basurama’s step number 4, classification, is where the qualitative work of quantitative work comes in. Classification determines what will be proven in the theater of proof.


Max Liboiron is a postdoctoral researcher with the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing and the Superstorm Research Lab.

2 thoughts on “How to picture two tons of waste? Trashy theaters of proof.

  1. My concern is with step 6 – displaying according to shape, size or colour. Sorting could highlight the potential for waste to be a source material, and thus not waste anymore – every town in the UK now has some sort of depot where manufacturers deposit left-over materials to be used as art supplies by community groups, for example. And many artists sort and clean beach plastic to make “pretty pictures” in an attempt to raise awareness of ocean plastic pollution. However, all this does absolutely nothing to stop the manufacturing or use of products that are going to become waste in the first place.

    I agree that people don’t need to be shown the waste they create and I also suspect that too much (2 tons, for example,) can be overwhelming and lead to apathy. But surely the personal and industrial categories overlap? Because manufacturers produce products that don’t last or come in excessive packaging, the individual ends up throwing away a lot of stuff. A classic example is drinks bottles. When drinks manufacturers produced drinks in glass bottles that they owned, and that were returned for re-use, there was little waste. As soon as the bottles became plastic, and non-returnable, the onus was on the consumer to throw them away – or recycle them, which is not a very viable option for plastic, as it turns out.

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