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At first glance, the latest exhibition at the Science Museum may look like a load of old rubbish – but it aims to be much more than that.  The Rubbish Collection takes a closer look at the dumping grounds of our throw-away society, and highlights the second-hand art of recycling.  This behind-the-scenes guide to what happens to our waste invites visitors to appreciate the impact of everyday things they throw away.

Phase One of the project followed a trail of waste generated by the museum over the course of 30 days, from 16 June to 15 July, as part of its Climate Changing programme of events and exhibitions. Visitors were invited to rummage through the museum’s bins and sort all the different types of rubbish to create a day-to-day archive of unwanted items. Everything from a tin can to a tea bag was photographed and documented. Most people may give little thought to what happens to their litter after they get rid of  it, but this exhibition lifts off the lid to expose the sheer volume and range of rubbish contained in the museum’s bins.

In addition to the inevitable piles of paper, plastic bottles, and half-eaten food, there have been some unexpected items in the unbagging area  – including three wheelchairs, a dozen shoes, two fridges, a bra and a giant toothbrush. Phase Two of the exhibition takes a look at the next stage, when the waste goes through various processes on its way to be recycled or incinerated. Metals like steel and aluminium are washed, shredded and then smelted into new metal sheets and bars. An old aluminium can could be transformed into a new can in as little as six weeks. Even some of the waste destined for incineration can be re-used, for instance to produce bottom ash aggregate, which is used in the construction of roads. Nearly 2.5 tonnes of this material was produced from a month’s worth of general waste.

“We are using the Science Museum as a case study to explore what we throw away and get people thinking about rubbish in a different way,” says artist Joshua Sofaer, who is leading the project. “Once we throw something away, it’s left our consciousness – but these rubbish bags are repositories for the stories of our lives.”

Joshua has worked with this kind of material before: he organised teams of collectors gathering rubbish from across London for Scavengers at Tate Modern, built a Rubbish Library for ARCUS in Japan and spent three months in Brazil working with catadores – human scavengers who sort through rubbish as a way of life.

“Museums generally display items that have some special status, that are rare, or valuable, but in this project, I want to give the ‘museum treatment’ to the stuff it would normally throw away,” says Joshua. “It’s a courageous thing for the Science Museum to do; allowing the public to rummage through its bins. It shows that their commitment to tackling issues connected to climate change, sustainability and carbon efficiency, starts with themselves.”

The exhibition runs until 14 September. Entry is free.

Science Museum, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London, SW7

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