Event: International Solid Waste Association World Congress: Sao Paulo, Brazil

Date: 8th – 11th September 2014

Research Objectives / Reason for Travel:  

•To contribute as a panel member for Session 1: ‘Paradigm shift : Changing Lifestyles, Re-defining Responsibilities of Stakeholders and Communication Strategies’

•To deepen my understanding of cutting-edge industrial processes within the recycling and reprocessing arena so that I may inform my environmentally driven Fine Art practice.

•To broker relationships between organisations and decision-makers with a view to creating further ‘content’ that challenges material use and open-loop processes across cultural platforms.

•To develop business to business conversations and as well as public facing initiatives.

•To blog/report upon conference findings within social media and a dedicated series of blog posts as well as across print media.

‘This event will provide a great opportunity for the international community to exchange ideas, integrate solutions and develop a common vision for the future of a sustainable and healthy world.’

Carlos RV Silva Filho Chairman ISWA World Congress 2014

As a UK based artist and filmmaker working at the intersection of creativity and ecology it provides a unique opportunity to contribute to the worldwide conversation regarding strategy and legislation.

Q: Can you tell us a little about the ethos or thinking behind your work? ‘I play with the symbols and products that a culture uses to create its meanings. My sculptural interventions comment on the co-dependent relationship between consumption and power, identity and autonomy, and the documentation and harvesting of processes within the socio-psycho geography of our collective experience.   We are fundamentally disconnected from the ‘waste’ that is generated by the commercialised systems that service, and profit from, our basic needs. I’m talking specifically here about the large-scale waste that is, in turn, creating large scale impacts upon the planet and our quality of life. Many corporate processes are fundamentally, and structurally, orientated to benefit their shareholders rather than the larger community. Thereby putting profit before people.’





Residencies are as diverse as the practitioners, organisations and environments that host them. From fee paying to sponsored, rural to urban and global to local. They provide a matrix for investigation, invention and exploration (at best) and at worst they can be disorganised, confusing and an utter shambles (so I’ve heard and witnessed). Their diversity spans the Designed and Emergent in terms of structure and their formation, and success, can be as reliant upon the attendee as the initiator. 

Since returning last week to the UK from São Paulo I’ve had time to ponder on many of these parameters and more. But before touching upon some conclusions I’d like to sketch out the ‘how’ of the ‘why’ and ‘what’. Back in March 2014 I received an invitation to speak at the International Solid Waste Association World Congress on Solid Waste Management in Brazil from an NGO based in Vienna ( http://iswa2014.org & http://www.iswa.org ). They wanted to exhibit my photography, alongside a panel discussion, in order to illuminate ‘a deeper level of understanding and awareness-raising’ in terms of environmental issues. The offer provided the opportunity for cross-sector conversations and collaborations as well as access to three days of conference talks and a fourth day of Technical Visits not to mention an international perspective on waste management. And so, from that point onwards, in fact that very day, I decided to accept the offer. Payment for the project came in the form of a free ticket to the event itself and equalled 1100 euros that I knew could ‘match-fund’ with an official letter in hand. Printing costs would be covered by the organisation and I would be included in a print publication that advertised my work. Whilst I would have expected that my flight, accommodation and Artists Fee were covered by the professional invitation, it wasn’t, due to the funding constraints of the panel that requested my presence. Although I did raise a request for such support on two occasions. What followed was a professional (and personal) choice that I knew wouldn’t have been everybody’s but if I risked the possibility of being able to generate enough funding to make the residency ‘work’ then the rewards could last me for many months and years ahead in terms of the investment in my practice.

At the initial stage I was confident that the international invitation could attract some financial backing and some collaborative partners. What followed over the next 6 months was a roller-coaster where my hopes were dashed on multiple occasions but my vision and approach remained clear, some might say persistent. It was challenging, and one of my close mentors vocalised disbelief as to whether it was even worth me going. Yet, despite my detractors, there were others who believed in the project and its inherent opportunities. Their advice, support and links to funding bodies proved vital. Friends, family and industry insiders supported the fact that my ‘cross-sector’ output, between waste and wonder and at the intersection of Ecology and Fine Art, would benefit from the opportunity to convene with such a confluence of souls. And, ultimately, I managed to create a package that a) didn’t cost me financially and b) allowed me to operate professionally (amongst many a ‘suit’ and corporate mind) without worrying about food, transfers, and whether the tools of my trade (computer, laptop, phone) were insured. It also allowed for an Artists Fee so that I may develop a new body of work out of the 1396 photographs and films captured whilst working away.

To conclude…

The core funding for the residency came from the Arts Council and a ‘Go See’ budget from Hull 2017 (http://2017-hull.co.uk/latest-news/go-see-helps-artist-share-work-at-global-conference-in-brazil) that covered my flights and accommodation. I engaged in a relationship with a private sponsor, who I’d previously sought advice from, in terms of looking after my 132,000 plastic knives and forks that need recycling and he subsequently commissioned 2 photographic pieces. The initiation of a crowd funding campaign provided the rest of the budget (http://www.sponsume.com/project/são-paulo-residency-2014). On this point I’ve a note to the uninitiated: if you are trying to raise funds for a project then contributors like to see a clearly recognisable structure that they can contribute towards with recognised transaction frameworks (ie: a series of rewards and Paypal processing) rather than a vague idea with unclear outcomes. Which brings me to the projects initial raison d’être:

Research Objectives / Reason for Travel:

To contribute as a panel member for Session 1: ‘Paradigm shift : Changing Lifestyles, Re-defining Responsibilities of Stakeholders and Communication Strategies’ YES – I successfully contributed to an illuminating afternoon that included dialogues with the President of the Solid Waste Association and key players within the waste industry alongside representative’s of the Waste Pickers Association.

To deepen my understanding of cutting-edge industrial processes within the recycling and reprocessing arena so that I may inform my environmentally driven Fine Art practice. YES – I visited Latin America’s largest landfill site alongside a cooperative of 30 families of which 90% of the working processors are women.

To broker relationships between organisations and decision-makers with a view to creating further ‘content’ that challenges material use and open-loop processes across cultural platforms. YES – I spoke with a French Technician working in Mali, Africa and a South-African specialist who shared with me the fact that all of her international air flights during 2013 amounted to the same quantity of solid waste as the methane produced by 15 cows (we went on to debate, somewhat passionately, about Economies of Scale and carbon offsetting)

To develop business to business conversations and as well as public facing initiatives. YES – I brokered meetings with a refuse site representative in Buenos Aires and a filmmaker/waste management specialist in Greece.

To blog/report upon conference findings within social media and a dedicated series of blog posts as well as across print media. YES – I have completed a series of blog posts for AN https://www.a-n.co.uk/about/about-a-n reaching a potential audience of over 19,000 members as well as contributing to my own News Tumblr (http://robynwoolston.tumblr.com), Twitter (https://twitter.com/robynwoolston) and Facebook accounts. As the research and development phase moves into production further print copy will be generated that comes as a direct result of the São Paulo residency.


On Thursday 11th September I visited two environments married to the same material yet radically different in scale. The Cooper-Recifavela, Cooperative de Catadores de Materiais Reciclãveis do Favela Vila Prudente de São Paulo, emerged from a union of residents in 1996 from the Vila Prudente & Paraguay Communities who chose to work collecting and selling recyclables. They are waste-pickers:

‘A waste picker is a person who salvages reusable or recyclable materials thrown away by others to sell or for personal consumption. There are millions of waste pickers worldwide, predominantly in developing countries, but increasingly in post-industrial countries as well.

Forms of waste picking have been practiced since antiquity, but modern traditions of waste picking took root during industrialisation in the nineteenth century. Over the past half-century, waste picking has expanded vastly in the developing world due to urbanisation.

In many cities, they provide the only solid waste collection service.’ 


To find out more about the global network: http://globalrec.org

The cooperative began with 50 families under the bridges of Gran São Paulo and Fransico Mesquito. Training & support has enabled them to grow and evolve over the years and today they receive 5 tons of dry waste each day. The cooperative has 30 members of which roughly 90% are women who support their families with the income they receive.

The visit was organised by the International Solid Waste Association, and whilst CEO’s and MD’s of multinational corporations were present and active at the World Congress over the past few days, so were ‘some’ of the waste pickers. In person and via presentations, talks and informal conversations over coffee.

This is important nee vital. The reason being because we are all inextricably linked to the crap we leave behind. To the supply chain of consumption and rejection, ingestion and defecation. As we are present so is it. It doesn’t vanish, disappear or rot away and so someone, somebody, some process has to receive it, whether hand held or mechanised.  The business of dealing with ‘it’ can be dirty and incredibly dangerous as well as highly profitable and cutting edge. And never more starkly can economies of scale be clearly seen than when considering its ‘presence’. (See Royal Mail bag within the waste cooperatives piles)

In the afternoon the delegates returned to their seats on the Technical Tour coaches, departing to three different destinations and away from the realities we had ‘consumed’ in the morning. I was visiting Centro de Tratamento e  Tratamento e Valorização Ambiental de Caieiras, located North West of the Metropolitan Region of São Paulo, it is the largest waste treatment and recovery plant in Latin America, with an area of 3.5 million metres squared.

Nothing could have prepared me for the scale of the enterprise I witnessed, in fact the closest ‘memory’ I had for the physical movement of bodies towards the glass of the coach window, as we turned the corner and viewed the landfill section for the first time, was the movie Jurassic Park. There were audible gasps of amazement (and probably abhorrence on the part of some) and cameras crowded the view in the clammer to ‘capture’ the scale of the operation that surrounded us.

To place this in context:

– the company receives rubbish 24 hours a day

– 7 days a week

– 7000 tons a day

– 600 lorries a day 

– When ‘full’ the site will reach a total capacity of 80 million tons. 

All the while birds of prey circled majestically over head…over rubbish…& over the megalopolis.

“…cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash – all of them – surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered in rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountain of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.”

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America







‘Waste doesn’t come from itself. It is the mirror of our society…it is the mirror of who we are’ Philip Heylen, Antwerp, Belgium. Vice-mayor for Culture and Tourism at Stad Antwerpen

Today marks the end of the official conference talks in Sao Paulo http://iswa2014.org and tomorrow a series of Technical Visits is programmed (http://iswa2014.org/technical-tours-iswa-2014/)
Reviewing the experience at this stage seems like a daunting (and perhaps premature) activity to embark upon yet there are experiences/facts/figures I’d like to share…


‘Rising waste caused by rapid economic growth’ (David Newman, ISWA President)


– over 1000 participants have attended the World Congress on Solid Waste Management originating from over 68 countries


– there are over 200,000 informal waste pickers in Dehli (http://globalrec.org/city/dehli/ )


‘Society is moving faster than governments’ (Rubens Rizek, Deputy Secretary for Environment, Government of São Paulo)


– the traffic never stops in what represents the third largest metropolis on Earth with over 20 million people living within greater São Paulo.


– There are 600,000 informal waste pickers in Brazil (Carlos Silva Filho, Regional Development Network Representative of ISWA and Coordinator of the South America sub-regional secretariat for IPLA.)


– motorcyclists repeatedly beep their horns at a regularity unheard of within the UK. They form a staccato rhythm that penetrates the ear and alerts the stationary traffic in its infamously gridlocked state at peak hours


– by 2050 2/3 of the world will live within cities (http://www.192021.org)


‘There is a global waste emergency out there at the moment and we have to consider the cost of doing nothing’ (Philip Heylen, Antwerp, Belgium. Vice-mayor for Culture and Tourism at Stad Antwerpen)


– 20,000 tonnes of solid waste is created daily within São Paulo


– waste pickers _ legislation to force corporate multi-nationals to maintain Best Practice across every global site they operate from _ informal workers _ detritus _ invisibility _ E-waste _ transparency _ from linear to circular economies _ zero waste _ waste management to resource management 


‘Thinking mathematically we have a lot of exponential curves including population, manufacturing, climate change…zero waste is therefore mandatory’ (Rodrigo Sabatini, Brazil. Renewable Resources and the Environment)


‘Climate change will force us to develop adaptive measures’ (Ney Maranhão, Secretary-General of the Institute of Research and Advanced Studies of the Judiciary and the Ministry of Labor, São Paulo)


– São Paulo has the largest fleet of helicopters in the world, with around 500 registered helicopters and 700 flights per day in the city (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transport_in_São_Paulo)





Over 24hrs into experiencing a new continent (South America), a new environment (the Uber Uber Corporate Conference) and a language that ‘belongs’ to many countries ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_of_Portuguese_Language_Countries ) I am more sure than ever that my practice exists within an intra-silo space.  By this I mean the conversations that support, enrich and facilitate what I ‘do’ are located at the intersection between art and ecology, the environment and our impact upon it. They are as likely to be with a curator and a gallery space as with a plastic recycling expert and their reprocessing facility that covers thousands of square metres.

And so, my attendance at the World Congress on Solid Waste Management has so far required me to be:

– flexible and responsive in terms of my use of language as an Artist. My ‘material’ is an engineers product. My platform for dissemination can represent a tiny fragment of their marketing output (twitter, photographic documentation, an interview)

– to communicate an aesthetic/visually orientated perspective to scientists/economists and suit wearing professionals (yes, we wear suits sometimes too) whose bottom line is often motivated by profit, efficiency and long-term schedules (and yes I know we too are motivated by these factors as practitioners)

– to process, understand & formulate (in real-time) the inter-disciplinary space that merges, seeps and shatters boundaries during collaborative conversations and projects.  At times these ‘spaces’ can seem impenetrable. Whether that’s gaining access to & working with a multinational company or a member of it’s staff.

Where design meets expression… emotional response meets practical action …fiscal/profit orientated strategy meets gut feeling.

These are the spaces and places at the edge of the silo of knowledge that we all call home. The conversations are both interdependent & intra-silo, they occur across sectors, and within differing perspectives of the same material/plastic/product.

Perspectives are ‘situated’ and collaborative practice, as a base-line, requires conversations that build ‘bridges’ between knowledge structures and comprehension. To ‘meet’ the material, person or company on their terms, in a language that is understood, often requires you to step into an unknown territory where the words used are unfamiliar, the environments that surround you may not have a map and the outcome (hopefully) forges a path into a new and emergent space.

“Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.”

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost