Cover Stories: Seeing Waste in a New Light

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Science  10 Aug 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6095, pp. 613
DOI: 10.1126/science.337.6095.613

Cover stories offer a look at the story behind the art on the cover: who made it, how it got made, and why.

Huguette Roe

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See the special section in this issue

For this week’s special issue “Working with Waste,” our cover features a photograph of bales of compressed aluminum cans destined for recycling—aptly titled “Blocks to Go.” It is the work of Washington, DC–based photographer Huguette Roe, who is quick to suggest another creative use for these blocks. “I have a small one I want to keep to make a table," she says. "It would be not reusing for consumption, but for artistic enjoyment.”

This sentiment exemplifies Roe’s general sensitivity toward environmental issues. She maintains that our society encourages the steady consumption of new products, resulting in a massive proliferation of trash and nonbiodegradable waste. Consumers have little incentive to reuse things and to minimize the amount of waste they produce. But the issue runs deeper, Roe says; it has gotten to the point where we are so constantly bombarded with information that we have become desensitized to the underlying problem. We need, she says, a fresh start: “We have to reeducate ourselves.”

This core ethos of looking at something in a new light, be it a discarded soda can or an idea, has influenced her artistic style. “I don’t particularly like traditional photography," Roe explains, "or capturing the obvious.” Instead, influenced by an interest in abstract painting and her background in graphic design, her compositions focus on small chunks of the whole object. “I would never see the outside of a bale. It’s always what’s going on inside.”

The cubes of recyclables in this photo lent themselves particularly well to her artistic sensibilities. “The compressions offer an unusual view of everyday objects,” she says. Aesthetically, the cans caught her attention because of their vibrant colors and peculiar shape.

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Plastic coating from recycled wiring.

CREDIT: Huguette Roe

But it is not always easy to come by her subject matter. To compile her Recycle Series(1), she visited more than 100 recycling companies in the United States and France. With a keen eye for “composition, repetition, color, rhythm, reflection, and pattern,” Roe sought out plants equipped with recycling equipment such as balers that would sort and package waste in visually interesting ways. The series includes images of various castoff goods: plastic shreds from copper cable coating, frayed paper strips, crushed egg cartons that resemble lunar craters. Because of heightened security in the post-9/11 era, visiting the plants has become difficult, and restricted access and enforced supervision allow limited time to judge what’s available. “I had to scan [the material] very quickly in order to find the details that I liked.”

Details that both capture the science and produce an aesthetically arresting image are key criteria for all of our cover images. “Blocks to Go” more than fits the bill. And it expresses this issue’s theme in multiple ways: demonstrating some of the nitty-gritty of recycling and also, literally, working with waste—to create art.

—Yael Fitzpatrick, Art Director, Science

References and Notes

  1. If you are in the DC area, you can see Roe’s work in an exhibition in the first-floor gallery at the headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, through 30 November 2012. The gallery is open to the public from Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information is available at

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