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  • Writer's pictureChris Sciacca

My Experience with WEEE

Updated: Jun 11

This image was taken in Newhaven, across the banks of the Ouse River of the recycling facilities and scrap metal yard next to the Veolia Energy Recovery Facility (ERF). I had been sound recording for several hours, fascinated by the activity of two cranes screeching and clawing through non-recyclable scrap (in stereo if you will) while the low key drone of the Waste to Energy Facility (in former years known as incinerators - a much less friendly word) set the backdrop for the biophony in the park behind me. Before I being to get into this scene, I just want to point out that over the year I had spent time to get in contact with any recycling facility in the hopes that I could possible take sound recordings to create an audio document of the interior of these spaces. My idea has been to create a sonic documentary from the inside of these facilities associated with waste, by using microphones built from household waste materials like pet4 plastic, styrofoam, and used desktop computer speakers. Gaining permission to do this is, as I now understand after the countless rejections, an impossibile task. I will say more on this later. In pitching this project as a PhD researcher via email, I was sure to make it known that I am not a member of the public looking to create a "hit-piece" documentary by pointing fingers at the gross failings of the recycling industry. In fact, I am in part responsible for owning and discarding electronic waste and at the same time I regularly consume electronics. I clean and sort other recyclable materials but equally purchase items that cannot be recycled and wind up with my fair amount of trash. I am complicit in waste production and do not stand above the failures and shortcomings of such facilities. My approach was to get across that my desire was to make art that may help foster the path toward sustainability and the circular economy of sound technology. This is not the entire responsibility of the public or private sector.

I do however, reserve some skepticism and cynicism about making everything appear as though it is under control. Greenwashing is easy to fall prey to since no one wants to be reminded how little power we have to solve the waste crisis, or how culpable we are as individuals within the larger culture. Does recycling even help? There are arguments to how effective it actually is and how it essentially just prolongs the inevitable trip to the landfill or worse, the circulation of unconfined pollution around the globe. As Timothy Morton says, what exactly are we sustaining? Sustainability might not be a good thing in this instance. Recycling plastic is great for a limited solution, but the production of it to no end surely is the greater evil. We may want to believe, out of some inherent form of guilt, that we are in fact doing "good" when the scenario is potentially far more dire and immanent than we are led to believe. Yet I purchase plastic daily. It's easy to be assuaged however. Producing videos that make us feel as though we are doing our part have some sort of numbing effect on me. Hearing the message of environmental responsibility to ambient background music is somehow meant to put us at ease given the immensity and unfathomable dilemma that is the never ending accumulation of waste that will far outlive us as a species. Ecological transformation, contributing to human progress, and slowing down climate change are amongst the top priorities of Veolia and espoused by their videos:

While there are other videos of people getting tours inside plants, I have not been successful in getting granted permission to document them. Usually it boils down to a fear of sound recording as some kind of transgressive practice that will expose someone saying something they shouldn't - or expose some intolerable violation of a noise ordinance. Funnily enough, I have been recording the daily bin collections in my neighborhood and have interacted with the workers operating the trucks. I am always used to the stares from people in the field who assume I am up to something I shouldn't be. While the workers have been friendly, one did immediately begin saying they would be getting electric vehicles to reduce noise, as he assumed I was gathering proof for the council. I explained I actually like to record the "noise" which seemed to put him at ease. As a field recordist I very much make it clear I am recording and always ask them for permission and am up front with what I'm doing. I actually love talking with the workers, and even help out when I can. I've had nothing but positive interactions with them. One gentleman actually offered to give me a ride to come along for a day to record their collecting over 200 bins. This would have been amazing, though they had to pass it on to their boss. Unfortunately, that's when I knew it would never happen. Recently I bumped into the small team of City workers who drive around in a flat bed truck to collect items left in and around the bins that actually belong at the tip. I had a positive talk with one of the workers and she suggested I call their number to see if I could tag along and interview them. This gives me hope.

Even from the Greenwich Sustainability team, I was turned away from participating in an audit of the Suez waste facility in Bristol. After promising emails to accompany the team in April, the offer was rescinded though was not made very clear why. The team was given permission to take photos but when asked if I could record sound, it was somehow considered a higher level of risk. It is my belief that sound is a much more disconcerting prospect partially based on the fact that everyone is familiar with digital images, but no one really understands why anyone would be interested in listening to something. I am not hesitant to say it is part fear and part ignorance. Somehow sound is the more transgressive of the two and I do not have a solid theory on this other than it's a sign of the cultural hegemony of vision, the ubiquity of digital images we have been bombarded with by social media platforms. I have had many instances of recording in public spaces and there is always a mixed bag of paranoia and curiosity from onlookers. I've been met with aggression and disdain before primarily because while eveyone has been accustomed to phone cameras and videos, no one knows exactly what the Zoom H6 I have in my hand with a large furry blimp pointed in their direction really means. This is why the Sennheiser in ear binaural microphones are really great. I used to be very aware of the ethical dilemmas using these, but the inner guerilla artist in me knows I am not big brother or would use anything in a final work that compromised anyone's identity or security. Data and privacy is constantly mined by the powers that be via the internet daily, however, I often feel like people assume I am eavesdropping for the governement. I am listening and I will report them to... someone. In a way, they are partially right. There may be ethical quandries when recording in public spaces since sound travels, but you rarely see people stop what they are doing and confront someone who happens to take a picture with them in the frame.

All of the issues with trust are seemigly impossible to overcome if I explain that all I want to do is record sound with no interest in photography. It seems suspicious I assume. From now on I will embody a person forever kept on the outside of the process of waste, never to really see things (or better yet hear) intimately from an inside perspective. The problem with being on the outside means that I cannot go to such places to obtain WEEE. Sourcing this material would be a challenge to create microphones using 100% scrap material, needing audio wire, piezo elements from common electronic items like alarms and toys, and audio connectors, jacks etc. Where does one begin to collect such things? When I called Veoilia, I was told that by WEEE regulations, I could not have access to any recycled electronic equipment since it would be in violation of the law once in posession of the plant. The only way to get one's hands on broken electronics would be to find it on the street, usually placed aside bins for the taking, (most of this is improperly disposed of anyway). Without scrounging for street scrap, the only option would be to start my own collection group - presumably through gumtree or facebook market, offering to take broken electronics from kind donators. To do this requires housing the junk material in my living space. Outside of that, I have been told to go to second hand shops and purchase used electronics to take apart myself. There are places like Tech Takeback, that I spoke with in person, and Gomi in Brighton who are taking action toward a circular economy for electronics. Though once again, my emails were eventually unanswered and my desire for collaboration waned.

I had also written the Brighton City Council, describing my research project as one involved with sonic ethnography dealing with the sustainability and circular economy surrounding recording technology. It was met positively. The council responded and put me in touch with a point of contact from the Veolia facility back in July of 2023. Soon after I began a correspondence with a Veolia representative and was told I could take a tour of the Hollingdean Material Recoery Facility. Unfortunately I was told I was not permitted to take any sound recordings. These tours are generally open to the public and are mostly PR opportunities for the plant to take photos of the public getting an inside look at the industry at work. Interestingly, upon being ushered in we gathered to get a safety briefing, collect our personal protection equipment (ppe - hard hats, vests etc) and watch a video of what was about to transpire. Immediately following, I had to sign a waiver handing over my rights to be filmed and recorded but was restricted from taking photos or audio recordings.

A strange thought has occurred to me. Not being able to take photos or sound recordings, I wondered, what about my memories and recollection of the things I've seen and heard. Am I allowed to write about them? I did have the experience - I do remember what it was like. My brain has recorded the event. A picture and a sound recording are snapshots of the time and place that might arguably be better than my memory and I do understand some things are restricted for safety purposes of which I'm happy to comply with. For instance my permitted work with the DFDS Ferry, I was not allowed to point my camera in specific directions as a deterrent for any terrorist activity. I couldnt have been more happy to comply. Interestingly, as I was doing some internet research, this group was given permissions to take a few photos to document their trip and write about it. It's now dawned on me to ask them how exactly they were granted the permissions and what they were interested in. For me it was an MC-Escher-esque interior of criss crossing conveyor belts, loud droning frequencies and cascading glass waterfalls of sound. Placing a contact mic on one of the belts would surely have been illuminating. I say illuminating... a visual metaphor for understanding. I wonder what the aural equivalent would be. For me, taking these recordings and prestenting them as a sound art work would surely get at something larger than ourselves, enveloping, visceral and felt, in a way that no photography could convey.

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