A Green Patch on a Wasteland


Nnenna Okore

My typical day starts with a bowl of organic fruit. Oranges. Pears. Apples. Strawberries. Grapes. Bananas. I slide the peels into a recycled Ziplock bag and store them in the fridge awaiting a critical mass. Listening to the morning news, I savor the succulence of my breakfast while sipping coffee. The new batch of coffee grounds joins the rest on the porch where they are thinly spread on a mat to dry. Even though I don’t know what is in store for them, I know that I am viscerally entangled with their potentiality and they will find a place in my work. At the hint of some afternoon warmth, I fetch the contents of my mailbox. I discover more junk mail. Beckoning to longing consumers, the fliers plead, Discard, and Replace! As I put the junk mail in the recycling bin, I think of millions like me who have to recycle unwanted mail as part of a feel-better contribution to an ecologically aware community (Whiteley 2011, 12). My hunch is that most of the junk mail and fliers will end up as landfill matter.

Following one of the numerous eco blogs out there, I prepare a healthy breakfast of baked mushrooms and eggs for my kids. The meal checks all the boxes—chemically-free, better for the environment, and sustainably produced. I take this with “a pinch of salt,” though it is somewhat comforting to know that my “ethical” behavior is enabling a healthier planet. I may not be vegan, but I support my local grocers, and purchase eco-friendly, naturally sourced, organic produce. Yet as I clean the oven tray, crumpling up the “green” nonstick baking paper and tossing it into my waste receptacle, I am again conflicted and consumed with an unanswered question. Is my ethical consumption capable of offsetting capitalism’s many ills, especially given the low percentage of current ethical consumers? I agree with eco-activist Olive Pape, who agitates for holding global marketers and big corporations responsible for the environmental downturn instead of placing the burden of righting the wrongs of capitalism on the individual consumer. Pape maintains that the greenwashing of products not only takes a toll on the consumer’s pocket but fails to address the root cause of capitalist exploitation and environmental destruction. Without addressing capitalism and its ills, going green will make little difference in the grand scheme of things (Pape 2018).

By the end of the day, my bin is filled with random waste—swept-up dirt, food scraps, packaging, non-recyclable bits and pieces of plastic and craft materials, used tissues, pieces of wires, disposable eco-wipes—you name it. I gather them and send them off to the bins outside. Trash collection is next Wednesday. Not once has sending my garbage away to build a wasteland elicited joy (McDonough and Braungart 2002, 27). Instead, I am haunted by the thought of adding to the endless stratum of indestructible material. The act of wasting has been tamed and sold to the masses as a recycling project, as a way to pass the environmental guilt and responsibility to citizens (Whiteley 2011, 12). Meanwhile, in all this, capitalism remains insatiable, always demanding more. Yet, I keep buying green. I keep reclaiming, transforming, calling, and responding. Why this impulse?

I dispel despairing thoughts and brainstorm about ways of creating my art more sustainably through experimenting with bioplastic, a.k.a quasi-plastic made from DIY recipes with food scraps and plant-based matter. Deciding to turn my food waste into bioplastic, as opposed to composting it, is a no brainer for me considering that my goal is to lower my carbon footprint and reduce toxic art waste by replacing petrochemical plastic and synthetic paint in my creative practice. Moreover, using food waste in this manner spares it the hopeless comingling with the non-compostable in the landfill. Between sorting, blending, layering, and sorting again, a new body of work emerges (Fig 1).

Working with waste in this manner powerfully inspires me to “stay with the trouble” (Haraway 2016, 2). After transforming the waste, it is no longer abject, rather it becomes precious objects deserving of care and meaning. Scholar and curator Gillian Whiteley in her book Junk Art and the Politics of Trash, underscores the vitality that discarded objects bring to scores of dependents, from parasites to scavengers, artists, archeologists, and academics, not to mention waste disposers and waste producers. The complex ecology of waste offers humans and nonhumans ways of being in, knowing, and engaging in the world. To my mind, the fact that waste can be perceived as having a positive value to so many means that there is something generative that we can learn from it.


In his book Wasted Lives, sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman retells a vivid and distasteful narrative (originally told by Italo Calvino) of a wasteland sitting next to a wealthy neighborhood in the imagined city of Leonia. He describes a fortress of imperishable waste consuming the city, dominating it like a chain of mountains (Bauman 2004, 3). His poetic juxtaposition of a discomfortingly massive dump with the city’s affluent residents, who continue to purchase shiny luxuries and hi-tech toys despite passionately hating their leftovers, is evocative. Bauman insists that the issue begins with the unprecedented numbness of the townspeople to this grueling problem.

Fig 1: Works resulting from bioplastic experiments. © Nnenna Okore. Courtesy of the artist. Click to enlarge.


To the extent that Bauman provokes us to think about the way we dissociate our own waste, it also begs the question: is it really possible to navigate a capitalist world without falling prey to the engulfing lure of novelties? If not, perhaps envisaging ways to mitigate the problem of excess and waste through self-awareness is advisable. For me, regenerating waste and seeking avenues to re-vivify it give me a pathway to engage.

Speaking to the waste upsurge in the last century, Whiteley (2011) points out that the recent problem of excess is not uniquely capitalist, nor are landfills and rubbish tipping novel solutions to garbage. Unlike current landfill practices, she highlights that the pre-industrial “refuse pits, middens, and rubbish bins tended to be organic and relatively benign” (Whiteley 2011, 15). In order to understand our disconnectedness from urban refuse in historic perspective, she delves into the semantic origins of waste. In her view, the etymology of trash from its Scandinavian roots “tros” shifted meaning over time to acquire characteristics associated with particular socio-cultural values and contexts. It is the many cultural, social, and ethical associations with waste that have birthed words like, “bric-a-brac, cast-offs, crap, crud, detritus, discards, dross, dregs, garbage, junk, lumber, mongo, ordure, rammell, refuse, residue, riffraff, rot, rubbish, rubble, schlock, scrannel, scrap, spam, tat” (Whiteley 2011, 24).

In Igbo, the dialect of my culture, the term afifia delineates trash and directly translates as foliage or dried leaves. This word presupposes that the concept of waste in precolonial African dwellings was largely tied to organic litter and unwanted materials from the natural environment. Aligning with Whiteley, who argues that the proliferation and concentration of urban centers have led to unprecedented quantities and new forms of waste in landfill, I contend that urbanization in Africa has resulted in the importation of Western consumerism and industrialized waste culture.

This rings true as I think back to my childhood years in Nigeria, when I would visit my Mma Ukwu (grandmother) hundreds of kilometers away from the small Nsukka town where I lived. There, in the rural settlement with a population of no more than five to six hundred people, traces of natural waste such as fallen leaves, twigs, chicken or goat droppings accumulated in the compound throughout the day. Every morning the compound was swept with a handmade broom—the type created from palm fronds, elephant grass, or straws. The swept-up rejects were collected on banana leaves and then scattered across the back garden as manure. There were no rubbish cans or waste bins, or none that I remember. Sadly, in the last 40 years, “waste as a badge of affluence” has found its way into the landscape (Girling 2005, 2). The tiny mud huts are all but gone, replaced by heavily fenced concrete McMansions and townhouses. Expensive cars litter the horizon even in the face of poorly managed government infrastructure. As might be expected, the appearance of landfills has become mainstream. Residents have become accustomed to dump their waste, out-of-sight and out-of-mind. The West’s material influence across the globe is a perfect synecdoche for how excessive consumption and wasteful practices have permeated twenty-first century societies.

The Green Patch

While landfill is repugnant, our waste is embodied with potentiality (Hawkins and Muecke 2003). Waste is therefore a fertile ground on which to imagine alternative forms of knowledge production, value, political action, and embodiment (Whiteley 2011). This provokes me to examine waste not only as an enduring issue that places humans on the verge of financial and environmental collapse but also as a means to new knowledge about environmental creativity[1] and awareness.

Working within a wasteland is as much about the discovery that derives from engaging with waste as it is about telling, sharing, listening, and responding. It is about turning our enmeshment with waste into something that empowers us to engage critically in conversations about trash. Without doubt, it is the different levels of meaning making, and material engagement that spur my interests in the subject of waste and its creative possibilities. By engaging with waste from a social, cultural, and aesthetic perspective, I position myself to build new knowledge. If minds could be opened, then it might be conceivable to view trash as meaningful matter rather than waste to be landfilled. To recharacterize waste as a repository for knowledge is to unlock an expansive mine of ideas with transformative potential.


Barrett, Estelle, and Barbara Bolt. 2013. Carnal Knowledge: Towards a 'New Materialism' through the Arts. London: I.B. Tauris.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2004. Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts: Cambridge UK: Polity Press.

Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.

Boetzkes, Amanda. 2019. Plastic Capitalism: Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press.

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hawkins, Gay, and Stephen Muecke. 2003. Culture and Waste: The Creation and Destruction of Value. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Holman Jones, Stacy, and Marc Pruyn, eds. 2018. Creative Selves/Creative Cultures: Critical Autoethnography, Performance, and Pedagogy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kaufman, Frederick. 2008. "Wasteland: A Journey through the American Cloaca." Harper's Magazine, February 2008.

McDonough, William and Michael Braungart. 2002. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: North Point Press.

Pape, Olive. 2018. “Why there is no “ethical consumption” under capitalism.” Fightback: The Marxist Voice of Labour and Youth, Jan 23, 2018. https://www.marxist.ca/article/why-there-is-no-ethical-consumption-under-capitalism.

Whiteley, Gillian. 2011. Junk Art and the Politics of Trash. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


[1] Creativism is a word that I coin out of the phrase "creative activism."


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