The history of a modern crisis
18 FEBRUARY 2023 - 14 JANUARY 2024
Rubbish. Perhaps the most visible and physical aspect of the looming environmental crisis.
‘’Throwaway’’ is a project that unearths the hidden history of waste in Europe while simultaneously highlighting its significance as a marker of social change. Starting with the industrial revolution, ‘’Throwaway’’ brings us on a journey through wartime scarcity, the surge in post-war consumerism, and finishes with today’s insurmountable waste crisis. It displays the profound changes in how we have dealt with rubbish in bygone years, and the way we think, or don’t think about waste. By looking at the past, it makes current criticisms and the resounding calls for change relevant and meaningful.
The ’’Throwaway’’ project includes:
- an exhibition in Brussels
- a digital platform
- a publication
- a programme of activities
Exhibition section 1: Did you say rubbish?
The “Throwaway’’ exhibition explores the issue of waste in Europe from a historical perspective in four sections. First up: Did you say rubbish?
Waste is of a changing and surprising nature. Why do we throw things out? Rubbish serves as valuable historical evidence, because it is a mirror of society and of ourselves.
Archaeologists excavated this seemingly ordinary bottle in camps close by the Valle de los Caídos in Spain. It contained ‘Glefina’, a syrup used to fight malnutrition. It is believed to have belonged to the construction workers of the monument honouring dictator Francisco Franco. This bottle is proof of the hard circumstances the workers and their families had to endure, a story rarely told before.
Exhibition section 2: From resource to refuse (1800–1945)
At the beginning of the 19th century, Europe experienced rapid population growth and as a result a much higher production of goods. This also meant higher quantities of waste, which were often creatively used to produce new goods, sometimes, even with the incentive to sell them.
In the 19th century, sorting through rubbish to find valuable materials was a common way to make a living. Even children became so-called ‘ragpickers’, collecting textiles and other materials for sale. This was risky work, as the rag pickers would get in contact with dirty items that posed serious health risks.
The 19th century was defined by a tremendous shift in industrial culture. Still, reusing and reprocessing every item was standard practice. Even excrement was a valuable resource. This ‘dry toilet’ was conceived as an alternative to the increasingly popular water closet, with earth or ashes covering the excrement in the bucket after use. It aimed to save water, avoid polluting rivers and preserve human excrement for use as agricultural fertiliser.
At the end of the century, new production processes, an increased amount of waste and the hygiene movement led to rubbish being considered as something dirty that should be disposed of.
Rubbish can be dangerous.
At the turn of the century, attitudes towards waste changed. Trash was now considered dirty and harmful, rather than a useful resource. Municipal waste management became a pressing issue in the 20th century.
Repurposing in times of need
Yet earlier habits of reuse and reprocessing materials came back in times of scarcity, such as wars. This could lead to some unusual creations. This helmet was abandoned by a German soldier during the Second World War. Italian locals salvaged and welded a handle onto it, transforming the helmet into a bed warmer, a little piece of luxury in trying times.
Exhibition section 3: Throwaway Europe (1945–today)
After the Second World War, a much larger part of the population could afford consumer goods.
Mass production made goods cheaper, more easily available and consequently, disposable. Waste had become a problem of global scale.
Have you ever wondered why things do not last as long as they used to? Some items may break earlier than expected because the manufacturer intended it to. Whether this concept of planned obsolescence is actually real, has been a subject of discussion for quite some time.
Plastic has become one of the worst environmental problems we face today. This work shows a suspended array of plastic collected off the coast of a Yorkshire nature reserve. Encompassing toys, medical waste and straws, this sea junk is the logical conclusion of the habits of throwaway living.
The rubbish Europe is producing has to go some place and this place is usually the Global South. Artist Takadiwa reassembles discarded computer keyboard keys and PET bottle tops to form the Zimbabwean flag. The work criticises the disposal practices of capitalist economies.
Exhibition section 4: Living with(out) rubbish
The final section of the exhibition explores what is today called the ‘4Rs’: reduce, reuse, recycle and repair, confronting them with practices that were common sense through time.
How can we, as individuals and as a society, challenge the never-ending accumulation of waste?
In the past, many goods were passed down through generations. Repairing was essential. Things would be used until the last possible moment, until no holes could be fixed, cracks sealed or machines tinkered with anymore.
Managing waste does not mean to just getting rid of it. In order to stop the constant accumulation of rubbish, reusing our possessions might be a solution. If a drum of an old washing machine can be reused as a grill, then anything can find a second life – you just have to be creative.
Waste is a witness of our imprint on earth
Even when it is disposed of, rubbish shapes our environment. Sometimes in a small way, sometimes in a big way. This disposal site for radioactive waste in Spain shows how much attention society has to pay to waste, if it wants to treat it properly.
Local Participatory Process
This exhibition is about rubbish - perhaps the most material and the most palpable aspect of the environmental crisis. Therefore, those who handle it have something to say! The exhibition research was broadened beyond archives or academic sources, to go into the field and learn from the experts.
Learn from those women and men who repair or find a new use for things that would otherwise be thrown away. They are volunteers or professionals who, by sharing their experience, help us look at objects and materials from another angle – or even give them a second life.
Be inspired by the women and men who limit the amount of waste they produce, sometimes to the point of zero waste. They are ordinary people who decide to bring their personal, individual contribution to the reduction of global waste production.
Get to know who they are, read some of their stories or find out more about the objects they made us discover:
- in the temporary exhibition where objects are displayed, accompanied by quotes, audio and video testimonies.
- in an article illustrated with a mosaic of their portraits.
- in the "biographies" of objects published on www.throwaway-project.eu and in the publication.
And meet some of them come to the events organised at the House of European History!
Over 60 digitised objects tell a story through photos and texts, encouraging the reader to reflect on everything around them. Are the objects disposable and valueless, or transitory and reusable? Is it rubbish or a resource? Creativity, everyday life and the environment are just some of the topics users can select to navigate the platform.
Learn about local realities and communities related to waste, through short videos filmed in the museums’ surroundings or premises. The engaging content from around Europe shares valuable knowledge and raises awareness about the impact of waste on our surroundings while also providing a kaleidoscopic view on the significance of our rubbish today.
Meaningful audience engagement is encouraged through their interaction in the exhibition and via the online platform. The creation of a varied programme helps to create purposeful interactions with the audience while also allowing for accessibility of the content, and drawing on people’s need to resolve questions about the world they live in.
The programme includes guided tours, school workshops, and festive and academic events around the topic of waste. It is a space for audiences in Brussels and across Europe to utilise their preferred format of learning styles while giving people agency to question and ultimately influence society through critical thinking and informed action.
Waste is revealing. Waste is hidden. Waste is everywhere! Who are the Europeans from today and in the past who raised their voices to ask their contemporaries to change their habits related to the production of waste? What are the triggers that pushed people to raise public opinion on trash? From the industrial revolution until today, this workshop will encourage students to discover and discuss the profound changes in how Europeans have dealt with rubbish throughout history.
What will save us from the waste crisis? Ground-breaking scientific solutions, enforced legislation, anti-consumerism grass-roots movements, or viral individual activism? Or all of these together? We want to hear your opinion At the end of the exhibition, visitors will be asked to give their opinion on this interactive related to the 4 Rs: Reuse, Repair, Recycle and Reduce.