Glasgow Science Festival spreads awareness of e-waste with Betty the Basking Shark exhibit

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The striking E-shark sculpture headlined a 10-day event which aimed to engage the general public in all things science.

The festival ended this week after showcasing an array of interactive activities, but it was Betty herself who formed the centrepiece of this year’s ‘Glasgow’s Making Waves’ programme.

Impossible to miss, Betty was on show in the St. Enoch Centre on Argyle Street as she made her way to Glasgow for the first time.

Betty settles at Glasgow Science Festival on her very first visit to the city after spending her lifespan on exhibit in Edinburgh. Source: Sam Ronald

Created to demonstrate the scale of Scotland’s electronic waste problem, Elders spoke about how Betty came to be: “I’m quite on the nose with things so I was just like, well, scale means big, so I’ll do something big.

“I had an experience when I was a small child where I was on a boat by North Berwick and a basking shark that appeared. That just sort of stayed with me, it was just so massive and incredible.

“So, tying it to a native animal was really important.

“But it’s also the nature of the beast.

“It swims along. It’s got a tiny little brain. Its nose is bigger than its brain, and it’s just got this big gaping mouth. It just swims around endlessly consuming without thinking about it. So I thought, well, that’s pretty perfect.”

 

Watch Johnathan Elders speaking about how Betty was born:

 

With a six-foot long frame made up of over 200 keyboards, Betty is an apt depiction of just how serious this problem has become.

The shark is so large that – when fully assembled – she barely fit in the warehouse where she was constructed. Source: Johnathan Elders

But what is e-waste and why is it a concern?

E-waste is where electrical appliances that are broken, unwanted, or approaching the end of their lifespan are discarded and resigned to landfill.

Televisions, computer screens, charging chords, and common household equipment are amongst a litany of products which are far too often thrown away when they could be repaired, reused or recycled.

A spokesperson for SEPA explained that is a major concern: “E-waste is increasing at a rate three times that of average municipal waste growth. It poses a significant risk to human health and the environment as the materials can contain harmful substances such as mercury, lead and cadmium.”

It, therefore, comes as no surprise that the UN consider e-waste the fastest-growing waste stream on the planet, with the latest reports for 2019 deducting that 53.6 million tonnes had been generated worldwide that year – a 21% rise from five years prior.

And it could only get worse, with the exponential trends projecting that electronic waste is on course to reach 74 million tonnes by 2030. For context, this equates to the mass of 13 pyramids.

Worryingly, the UK generated the second largest weight of e-waste of all UN nations with 23.9kg per person, equating to the average weight of three-and-a-half bowling balls.

Meanwhile, two thirds of UK households are hoarding old laptop cables and phone chargers which combined could wrap around the world five times over.

Just have a think about the number of old mobile phones and chargers you have buried in the far corner of a forgotten drawer?

Scotland-based environmental journalist Rachael Revesz highlighted the concerns with e-waste in Scotland:

“Recycling is in dire straits in Scotland and needs massive reform. The majority of e-waste goes to landfill.

“E-waste is shocking given the lack of resources. A culture of planned obsolescence means we want what’s new, rather than be willing to hold on to what we have.”

It was Elder’s own experience of his visit to CCL North recycling company – who supported the artist with the project – that emphasised the scale of the problem:

“They had a mountain of keyboards going up about 15, 20 feet.

“So offices in Scotland just go, right, all these computers and keyboards, they’re not this year’s colour. Chuck them all straight in the bin.

“CCL North do everything they can to work with companies to process what is considered e-waste, interrupting the journey to landfill and ensuring wherever possible it can be reused and if not recycled.”

However, there remains a lot to be done to make this process the norm and unfortunately not enough products have the same fate,  with approximately 80% of global e-waste ending up in landfills.

And so despite the intensive efforts of recycling companies like CCL North, it’s the other practices in electronic waste disposal that are cause for concern and ultimately inspired Elders to add an entrancing digital feature to Betty:

“In the mouth of the e-waste shark, there’s a video of a guy dismantling European e-waste from a couple of years ago, and this is what was happening. It was all getting shipped abroad. It was basically just send it away and forget about it.

“It was insane the amount of stuff getting chucked away. There’s physical waste and there is also the financial waste. It just blows my mind the amount of waste in society in just all aspects.

“It’s like, what are we doing? Why?”

How art can spread the message:

Betty is catching the eye of everyone who floats past her, young and old. Source: Jonathan Elders

The art world and science world are not always mutually considered. But the Glasgow Science Festivals exhibit of Betty has Elder’s –  who has intertwined the two areas for much of his career – considering how art can help science to reach a wider audience:

“To have her on display in a public space where people will just be there anyway, going about doing their business – the reach and impact is massive compared to some other places.

“I think scientists and researchers, with my experience of working with them, they want to tell you everything. Public engagement isn’t necessarily one of the things that they worked on.

“So although they’ve got the vast understanding of stuff, it can be quite useful to have the artists there to be that kind of interface with the public. So, it really works on that level.”

What can be done?

If you have old electronics you no longer need, visit How To Waste Less | Sustainable Living Tips (zerowastescotland.org.uk) for advice on what to do next.

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