The Shocking Aftermath: What It's Like To Visit A Landfill

BY Céline Semaan / Jan 13 2020 / 15:24 PM

Sustainability advocate and founder of Slow Factory, Céline Semaan reports on its transformative power, and how it can hold the key to future-proofing the world of design…

The Shocking Aftermath: What It's Like To Visit A Landfill

A society’s trash is a system’s treasure. When we throw something away, it’s hard to truly grasp its final destination. Where does it actually go to rest?

Growing up in post-war Lebanon, waste or trash has always been a very visible part of our landscape. We live in close proximity to it. As a designer, knowing this has completely shaped the way I create things, not only by incorporating versatility into products, but also thinking about the end of the life of an item, first. When a piece of clothing becomes a disposable item, one that comes in and out of one’s closet as fast as it came in, we run with systemic issues of textile waste. And this needs to change – fast.

According to the EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency), about half of our annual waste ends up in landfills. That’s 127 million tonnes of trash that can never be recycled. New York City alone trashes 200,000 tonnes of textile waste per year – that’s shoes, clothes and linens straight to – you guessed it – landfills. But this is still abstract, right?

The company I started seven years ago, Slow Factory, is a lab where we spend a lot of our time thinking about where our waste goes and the ways we can produce less of it by developing circular systems. There’s no pretending to comprehend – and I’m speaking for myself too, here – what 14,000 tonnes of waste a day means, besides that it is, quite frankly, a lot.

But in order to really, truly fathom the scale and the system beyond the gargantuan statistics we read and acknowledge, we took a trip that some might find unthinkable. We went to actually experience a landfill…

If you’ve never seen one in real life, it’s difficult to imagine anything other than a terrifyingly post-apocalyptic mountain of Flaming Hot Garbage. Maybe it’s a vision of Wall-e bumpily cruising over horizons of junk, or maybe it’s Atari looking for Spots in Isle of Dogs’ Trash Island. If you have seen one, it may well have looked exactly like that – but it’s important to note the existence of those that don’t.

Regardless of what it looks like, a landfill is fundamentally a living, breathing organism. This is what Scott Perin, who guided us on our recent trip to landfills in Pennsylvania, explained to us once we got out of our truck and started to make our way by foot to an active one; home of all things we blithely discard every single day.

What was most fascinating was to walk over piles and piles of everyday objects that make up the landscape of our lived experience. A bra, a shoe, a coffee cup… a strawberry container, a plastic bag, a toothbrush, plenty of McDonald’s fries cases, as well as a proliferation of the most recognisable packaging that we’ve all used at least once recently, all laying on the ground in this dystopian otherworld that becomes their final resting place.

But why are there quite so many items making up this avalanche that haven’t – as promised – actually been recycled? By ending up here instead, does it prove that we’re all just wish-cycling? Throwing something in the recycling bin, and understandably assuming that it will actually be recycled?

In an attempt to better understand the way that we consume fashion and the manner it is being sold to us, we wanted to get to the bottom of what is genuinely recycled in this complex system, and to unpick how we can stop adding to these gigantic mountains of garbage that act like tumours in our eco-system.

Tracing back through the process, we discovered that often the issue is that even when well-meaning, concerned citizens are throwing away items to be recycled, if those items are contaminated – for example, if there’s food in a container thrown into the bin – this becomes a recycling roadblock.

The idea behind our latest initiative – Landfills as Museums – was to be able to explore waste from another angle; one deprived of shame or guilt. In order to explore solutions at scale, it is imperative that we begin to destigmatise waste, and approach it not from the angle of austerity but rather with an open mind instead.

Founder of Slow Factory, Céline Semaan visits a landfill in Pennsylvania

Innovations are often generated by a mind that is inspired, and design shouldn’t only be about making more objects… especially ones that will most likely become waste after the first few months, or sometimes even minutes, of their lifespan. Design should be utilised to explore and create solutions. Ingenuity is the new sexy, especially when it is applied to solving the issue of climate change.

When designing with the end in mind, we end up using design not only as a medium to create beautiful and useful products, but also expanding the systems around them. It’s almost like adding a new vision mode to our eyes; one where we can see a product’s future and, hopefully, design it in a way that we can return it to the earth as food, rather than poison.

From Harper's BAZAAR Arabia's December 2019 Issue