A typical photograph designed to showcase trash might show an overflowing landfill, or an e-waste dump in Ghana or China where people pick apart the world’s discarded gadgets by hand. Belgian photographer Paul Bulteel wanted to focus on an aspect of trash that’s gotten less attention–what happens at state-of-the-art recycling centers throughout Europe.
To make a new book called Cycle and Recycle, Bulteel spent a year and a half traveling around Europe, visiting around 50 centers recycling everything from tires and circuit boards to foam.
“The photography of this subject was almost always from a negative point of view,” he says. “Of course, rightfully so, because a lot has happened and is happening that is harmful to people and to the environment. But the recycling angle, as far as I know, there has never been a project to handle that in depth.”
The project began in 2013, when he stumbled on a pile of crushed building materials in Antwerp. “I was intrigued afterwards by the strange beauty of the subject, and also by the social relevance, because it points to the enormous quantities of all kinds of goods that we are just throwing away,” he says.
He was surprised to see how advanced waste processing has become. At one visit, to a refrigerator processing plant, everything was so automated and carefully organized that there was little to see. “When I got there, I asked myself, what can I photograph?” he says. “All the refrigerators arrived in closed containers, and all the pieces that were dismantled left the factory also in closed containers for further processing.”
Some recycling centers still use workers to manually sort trash, providing jobs to people who might not have the skills to work elsewhere. But that may eventually change as well, as recycling equipment continues to become more sophisticated.
Machines can now separate almost anything–different kinds of cardboard, or lightbulbs, or plastic, or metals, or glass. Researchers have even come up with a way to automatically separate all the different materials in a shoe–leather, rubber, textiles, plastic, etc.–to reclaim usable parts. And technology will continue to improve, driven in part by European Union goals to recycle 65% of all waste by 2030.
In his first exhibition of the photographs, Bulteel says visitors were surprised to see where their trash ends up. “They were surprised to discover the industrial complexity of the waste handing and recycling business,” he says. The second reaction was usually about the sheer scale of modern consumption. “If we see what is happening all over the place, this really encourages us to do something about it.”
All Photos: Paul Bulteel