Stephen Kitchener was recently inducted into our Directory as a PhotoAid Photographer, he recently did a reportage on the issue of plastics and in particular recycling. He called it “The Bad and The Good”, deliberately turning the well known phrase on its head to try and showcase the positive actions that at least one recycling company seems to be doing.
Can you tell us about the project?
I chose the project based on micro plastics because it affects me and it affects us all. I initially wanted to show the path that plastics take from their use/creation, though an outdated system (that is in need of re-engineering to deal with newer products), out to where it would be picked up by scavenging and domestic animals.
It’s also something that doesn’t care about borders, it’s someone’s problem that spills over into someone else’s and where they probably cant take care of it.
I felt I could just sit at home and ignore it, but I felt that I couldn’t do that, and so I needed to do something, even if it was just to educate myself. Just how are products are disposed of?
Along the way I thought that the argument was one-sided and needed to present a more balanced view, i.e. what are the good things that companies are doing with respect to recycling plastics, and Biffa were very accommodating with access to their sites.
How did you go about researching the stages of recycling? What are they?
Initially I looked on the web for diagrams that visually described the paths that micro plastics and plastics take on their journey from creation to disposal or reuse/recycling. This informed me on the shots that I needed to take. The diagrams were very useful as I could place the images on them and see where there were gaps.
I also read a couple of books, one called “Turning the Tide on Plastic” by Lucy Siegle, and numerous articles on-line.
Micro plastics have been removed from a lot of traditional products (cotton buds etc), which is good. So, for micro plastics I had to be creative, photographing something that is essentially invisible is difficult. So, I showed the processes and the environments and animals that were affected. Micro plastics are very difficult to detect as they are unaffected by the normal aerobic processes employed by the sewage works and pass unchanged into the fertiliser that is a by-product of these plants. The fertiliser is then used on farms and eventually either the micro plastics or the toxins make their way out to the water course and the sea. Inevitability ending up in sea life. Fishing takes place and we could potentially end up eating the contaminated food.
For the reprocessing, this was much easier, Biffa were very accommodating, I rode along with them on a pick up, I visited their MRF (Major Reprocessing Facility) in Edmonton and saw how detailed their separation process is, 127,000 tonnes per year of dry waste. They separated glass, cardboard, aluminium and plastics. All they can resell for reprocessing at other facilities. It’s because it’s commercially viable that Biffa are involved. However, they are very successful and buy in plastics from outside their own collections to work their process 24 hrs.
Biffa collects plastic milk bottles at Edmonton (amongst other plastics), bundles them up into 1/2 tonne cubs and moves them onto Redcar where they are further processed, mixed with new plastics to make new High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), called rHDPE (r = reprocessed). The “new” plastics contain 40% old plastic. This is a repeatable process, the old plastics being mixed in each time.
What were the challenges and how did you overcome them?
Finding suitable locations to take the required images.
Making an understandable installation that would explain the two processes, eventually creating one that was based on a flow-chart.
Access to reprocessing facilities. Biffa, I was very fortunate (I suspect that they wanted to show off how good they were) as they allowed more access than I could have hoped.
Other locations I had to photograph from outside and imply what was going on. Sewage works for instance were impossible to get into.
What do you hope will be the best outcome from creating the project?
I would like to be able to produce a book that informs users where their disposed of items could potentially end up and how their waste products affects wildlife and us. I would like to create something that would engage with the public. I realise that this might be seen as jumping on an already running bandwagon, but its’ probably the most important thing today along with global warming.
What are you working on next?
I am starting a Masters in Documentary Film at UAL LCC in September 2019. I have chosen this as it seems to me that it provides the other half to documentary making when coupled with still images. This is a follow on from a BA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography that I successfully completed this year (2019) at LCC.
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