Take it or Leave it

Having spent a year photographing waste, intending to confront my community, in England, with its destructive nature. I wanted to show positive actions of how my community works to reduce the waste we produce. I visited my local recycling centre because the media tells us that recycling is part of a good and “responsible citizen’s contribution to an ecologically aware community”.

As I approached the facility, I felt a stomach-churning fear I remembered from my childhood in Gambia. This was how I felt when I would look out of the car window on my way to school and see young children my age rummaging through the mountain of rubbish in our local open landfill. Occasionally, the car will stop to give way to a garbage truck entering the site. But this only intensified the stench, invading the vehicle through the air vent. 

I again smell this unforgettable stench of rot and decay at this recycling facility. And as I sat with the site manager and showed him my previous work with waste. He tells me the problem is the lack of facilities to process all the rubbish. Most facilities, he says, are specialised and will only accept a limited range of waste. Thus, people often resort to other means of discarding their waste. Which leads to the crucial question - what becomes of rubbish that is twice rejected? 

A popular local solution is to pass these items on to someone else. As such, it is common to come across piles of used items in front of homes and charity shops, sometimes with polite messages, asking someone to take them away. This act, seen as giving, is considered a good deed, especially in the current cost-of-living crisis. 

In this work, I collaborate with Ellie, whose age is similar to mine when I lived in Gambia. She is from a local primary school, and shares concern identical to the nine-year-old me living in one of the world’s poorest countries. She accompanied me on my shoots and responded to what she witnessed with essays that provided context for our work. Our settings may differ, but we see the same rot and decay. 

This work points to the reckless creation of waste in our community, but as Ellie insists, it is also a timely warning and a plea for change. It is also universal because what occurs in our front yards is happening globally. 

The world faces a waste crisis with high environmental, social, and financial costs. We currently produce over 2.24 billion tonnes of waste annually. But this amount is projected to rise to 3.88 billion tonnes by 2050, according to the World Bank. This increase in waste generation is due primarily to prosperity and urbanisation. But such an increase will only worsen all the current problems we face with plastic pollution, climate change and the degradation of our natural environment. 

We must act now to reduce this waste.