Romania: A Turntable, not a Trash Heap
Cinzia Bongino and Versavia Ancușa
The Romanian press has decried the nation’s reputation as a European dumping ground for legal and illegal waste, often involving corruption and political ties. Nonetheless, the actual impact of this waste within the country has largely remained unexplored. The research project ‘Waste Streams—Tracing Romania’s Tangled Trash’ sought to delve into the intricacies of Romania’s waste management system, and how it relates to Europe’s waste production and management system.
The project is the result of a collaboration between designer Cinzia Bongino and computer scientist Versavia Ancușa, who were matched through the Bright Cityscapes open call. Based in Italy, Bongino is a versatile graphic, information, and web designer, with a specialisation in UX/UI design and data visualisation. Ancușa is a computer science lecturer at the Politehnica University of Timișoara. Her specialisation lies in the domains of reliability, complex systems, and interdisciplinary data mining applications.
In this interview Bongino and Ancușa discuss the unexpected insights that emerged from bringing together their design and computer science research disciplines.
The project was a response to the pervasive media characterisation of Romania as ‘Europe’s landfill’. What were the project’s findings regarding this characterisation?
Versavia Ancușa: To answer that question, we need to discuss the data. Upon plotting the waste data according to clusterisation and volume, we discovered that Romania was in the middle of all European countries. This group of countries, which we informally termed the ‘turntable group’, handles the most waste transfers both in Europe and worldwide. However, the data on GDP shows Romania diverging from that middle group economically and aligning more with countries like France, Spain, Portugal, and Poland. This is noteworthy because, economically, Romania is what some might call a ‘new tiger of Europe’. Data from 2020 and 2021 indicates that Romania is advancing on the global stage. So, we’re not really a landfill but rather a turntable. We’re in the centre. However, the media often prefer sensational headlines, which results in a skewed perception.
These conclusions emerged from the visualisation of data. We represented data sourced from Eurostat using a series of network graphs. By altering the graph’s parameters, one can represent the data in various ways. A geographical view, for instance, is based on countries’ actual locations, with flows between them depicted as lines. The money flow visualisation, on the other hand, uses a force-directed graph, arranged by connection quantity rather than geographical location. If one country exports waste to three others, which then export to three more, they’re grouped together, forming a cluster. When discussing money, this viewpoint is more useful than a geographical viewpoint, since waste isn’t always exported to the nearest countries but rather to where it’s most economically advantageous.
Cinzia Bongino: Research by the European Data Journalism Network reveals that in Romania, processing a ton of waste costs 17 euros, while in other EU countries the cost can easily exceed 500 euros¹. That’s a major reason why so much waste is sent to Romania. Additionally, despite its representation in the media, Romania isn’t the worst in Europe for waste management, and many efforts are underway to improve it, such as the shutdown of non-compliant landfills and the launch of numerous new recycling centres. Wealthier European nations are equally or even more responsible for the waste issues in Europe, but this isn’t discussed as frequently. Waste should be a top priority for any country, but it is a challenging issue and not a popular topic politically.
Let’s delve deeper into the topic of visual representation. The topic of waste suggests messiness and chaos, but your project employs a precise, scientific, and technical visual language. The aesthetic decisions are interesting, because they indicate that waste networks are not necessarily messy and chaotic, but actually the result of quite precise protocols and economic policies. It points attention to the fact that this is also a system that has been designed to result in particular forms of dispossession and transfers of responsibility. Could you elaborate on the aesthetic choices for the project?
CB: We started with the idea of bringing actual waste into the exhibition, but eventually decided that we were more interested in talking about the infrastructural system of waste management than the waste material itself. We chose the waste sorting facility as a space to host the research, because it evokes the infrastructural processes of transport and treatment. One conveyor belt is a visual representation of Europe’s waste production, export strategies, and associated directives, while the other belt focuses on Romania’s waste infrastructure, and its environmental impacts. Additionally, four screens consider the topic from different scales, techniques of control, and territorial dimensions—from the scale of waste trade between EU countries and the disposal in Romanian landfills, to garbage image detection, and CCTV cameras monitoring people who don’t sort their waste correctly. The endless rotation of the conveyor belts and videos on the screens represents the waste life-cycle. Always thought of as the end-life of a product, waste is itself a commodity traded in the global market. The correct treatment of it is essential for our planet’s well-being.
It appears that each of you engaged in both the aesthetic decisions and data analysis for the project. How did you negotiate knowledge gaps in the collaboration?
CB: It was a very smooth collaboration for me, because I also have this inclination towards researching and visualising with data. Versavia could access reliable information much faster than I could, given her native Romanian and knowledge of credible sources.
VA: Yes, the whole collaboration was helped a lot by the fact that both Cinzia and I are highly analytical, so that was our common ground. I think that’s reflected in the installation. It’s analytical: we present the data devoid of emotion, in a way. And, honestly, when I started this project—please don’t laugh too much—I was thinking we’re going to make a big poster. And that’s it. It was going to be a printed poster, and it would mean something. We far exceeded those expectations. This unanticipated outcome has helped me personally a lot, because it shows that design research is not just about the particulars of the data, but also the entire system and its presentation. Aesthetics are not just a visual problem, but a knowledge problem as well. This was new to me.
Can you expand on this relationship between representation and insight? In scientific discourse, are these visualisation techniques used as tools for knowledge production itself, or is visualisation merely a representation done after the fact?
VA: It depends on who you’re talking to. If you talk to computer scientists, we are probably going to be perfectly happy with just raw data in a spreadsheet. But in interdisciplinary research, where bridging knowledge gaps is vital, visualisation techniques are very important. When I collaborate with a doctor, for example, each of us must access the specialised knowledge of the other. When presented visually, we are each able to say “This makes sense because...” Based on that, further research can be conducted and data adjusted.
CB: There are many schools of thought regarding data visualisation. I always prioritise the right chart for the right type of data, and decoration remains secondary. I don’t mean that you just make a basic chart; I also apply my knowledge as a graphic designer to make it as clear and appealing as possible. At other times, a photo or video might be more information-rich than a conventional data visualisation. In the installation, there is a time-lapse showing the expansion of the landfills at the waste depot. This could have been represented through charts or maps, but in this case displaying a sequence of images made the evolution over time much more impactful.
The discipline of complex systems science has developed in tandem with developments in computation. How do you make sense of this entanglement of computation and knowledge production in the field?
VA: It’s obvious that we use computation to advance knowledge, and then that knowledge is used to create new computational model through advanced computation. But I think the ethical and social problems that appear alongside these technical developments are often overlooked. One of these problems is bias: the inherent bias that each of us has whether we want to or not. That bias shapes any computational model or representation we create. ChatGPT, for example, has a bias towards negativity; I think it was measured around 6%. If you play enough with it, you can make it very negative. So that’s the problem with computation and knowledge production: you amplify the bias. When do you stop? And who oversees these restrictions? Who checks on the overseer?
Speaking of biases, something you mentioned regarding the research was striking. You claimed that legacy communist attitudes towards waste, such as ‘we do not throw away’ or ‘everything can be reused’ are actually hindrances to sustainability. Whereas it would seem that these quotes embody exactly the attitude to counter the wasteful disposable attitudes associated with capitalism and consumer culture. Why is this mentality problematic?
VA: Taking my mother as an example, she has many unused radios in her home. One is an antique from my great grandfather, but she also has around five others, all of which are broken. But she does not throw any of them away. These contain very old components, with a lot of rare materials in them. Keeping them is not a good option if you don’t use them, and you’re never going to fix them. These kinds of attitudes, which stem from past hardships, make it difficult for proper recycling and waste management to take place. While on the surface, it seems sustainable—because you’re not ‘wasting’ anything—in reality, it’s preventing efficient and sustainable practices. Why keep them and not recycle them, to create something new? And that’s not just my mother—I love her—but it’s everybody.
These practices might be seen as a distributed temporary landfill, where waste management (or lack thereof) is less a techno-managerial, top-down directive, and more an everyday practice. It would seem then that, although a lot of the project touches on the idea of flows, it is also important to consider when and how those flows stop. To conclude: how did this collaboration make you reflect on your own domain?
CB: The main insight for the project came from the analysis Versavia performed on the network, which used mathematical methods to prove that there was missing data in the Eurostat dataset. And for me, this was fascinating. I always enjoy working with experts more advanced than me in a topic. This gives the opportunity to not only ask questions, but tap into professional knowledge that would otherwise cost me hours of research. I value this a lot because this kind of collaboration can push both parties involved in the process.
VA: For me, honestly, it was super-fun. I thought it was going to be easy, I mean, it’s art (laughs). What is so complicated about art? I turned out to be quite wrong. It was super-fun to see how other people are thinking. Mainly Cinzia, but not only her—all the other fellow designers, they think totally differently. It’s so strange, like a puzzle. But it’s a cool puzzle to unlock.
Text by Connor Cock
1. Mihaela Iordache. ‘Romania: 25,000 deaths from pollution per year.’ European Data Journalism Network, 16 December 2021. https://www.europeandatajournalism.eu/cp_data_news/romania-25-000-deaths-from-pollution-per-year/