Pop!Tech Notes: Chris Jordan on Visualizing Waste


Image: Chris Jordan; above: phones; below: diodes

Chris Jordan: Artist (My commentary in parantheses.)

(These lossy JPEGs don't do photographer Chris Jordan's "Intolerable Beauty" series justice—he's the first speaker at Pop!Tech, on right now—but you can see more at his web gallery.)

"What a thrill to be here in this beautiful setting." Jordan looks and speaks like a slightly more confident Jeff Goldblum.

"Intolerable Beauty" was the first project shown. Jordan would go out into industrial yards and photograph piles of trash near Seattle. He wants to show "the other side of consumerism."

"I knew that I couldn't convey the real scale ... because our waste stream is divided into hundreds and thousands of streams."

"The more work I did on this project the darker my experience got."

426k cell phones are thrown away every day. His latest work works to digitally composite all 426k phones into a giant image. (I don't see those images on his website, but the series is called "Running the Numbers.") One image is showing the amount of paper used in the U.S. everyday, just photocopies, and it's a wall that is twice as high as Seattle's Space Needle and many times as wide.

"We can't feel statistics." "If we're first going to make radical changes, we have to feel these issues." Trying to turn data into the "universal digital language of feeling." 2 million plastic bottles used every five minutes. (P.S. I scored some of those potato-starch-based Spudware utensils! It's the little things.)

(All this is making we wonder when people will start mining landfills. Are any companies buying landfills?)

"The individual matters." "If 300 million of us decide we do matter, the revolution happens." (He uses a lot of terms like "consciousness change" that cause me to irrationally bristle, and perhaps others to which the message is aimed outside a conference; maybe we need a new lexicon of change.)

In the Q&A, Jordan talked about making changes based on the discoveries from his own work, such as stopping using plastic bottles. At first he blamed the issue on big companies, then took it on himself to make small, persistent changes. He also is now a vegetarian and only buys clothes from Goodwill.

See also: Ethan Zuckerman; Core77; Renee Blodgett; Rob Katz

Join the Conversation


  1. Interesting that you should mention mining landfills. A cow-orker and I used to talk about building a device that would suck in big chunks of landfill crud, grind them to dust, and sort the dust into convenient cannisters. It would essentially be one of those car-eating garbage disposals that the internet likes watching videos of, followed by a lot of refinery stuff, all on huge wheels. The wheels are so that when one landfill is emptied, you can drive the whole thing to another landfill, unlike conventional refinery buildings.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *