Radical ESSEX




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Current Past




800,000 tonnes: Waste Management and Recycling in Essex

800,000 tonnes: Waste Management and Recycling in Essex  is a programme of displays, site tours, and discussions that will map waste in Essex past and present. This programme is presented by artist Eloise Hawser as part of Focal Point Gallery‘s Radical ESSEX programme.

Historically, Essex has been home to some of the largest landfills in Europe, such as Mucking Marshes and Pitsea, each of which has serviced the millions of tonnes of refuse expelled out of London. In the last ten years, the county has undergone an expansive process of ‘re-wilding’, where former landfill sites are sealed and re-landscaped as nature reserves.

At the same time, this pastoral landscape is criss-crossed with new infrastructure managing our waste. Enormous underground pipes siphon methane gas from landfill’s rotting foodstuff to energy recovery facilities. Material recovery facilities, meanwhile, scrutinise, clean, shred and process discarded material, before Tilbury docks exports this raw material all over the world to be used in manufacture.

How can we capture the movement of this waste? What is the relationship between local spaces and the kinds of waste management available to them? What invisible infrastructures keep it moving and shifting in form? How does Essex manage its household waste, all 800 000 tonnes of it every year?

Eloise Hawser has exhibited extensively in the UK and internationally. Her first UK solo institutional exhibition, Lives on Wire, was presented by the ICA in 2015. Eloise works with an expanded notion of ‘fabrication’ looking at the production of knowledge, networks, and individual objects. She positions the human body as both agent and site in her exploration of the architectural, mechanical and electrical systems that sustain our collective existence.


To start the programme, Focal Point Gallery will host an afternoon of conversation on this important topic.

Talking Rubbish, Saturday 1 February, 1.00pm to 4.30pm, Focal Point Gallery

1.00pm to 1.30pm Eloise Hawser: Introduction of programme and work

1.45pm to 3.00pm Panel Discussion: The Only Grave is Essex

Panellists Tim Burrows and Holly Firmin will discuss how identities of areas from Thurrock to Pitsea to Rainham have been shaped by their historic proximity to waste management and how their residents have contested and re-thought these identities.

Tim Burrows writes about culture and place for publications including the Guardian, Somesuch Stories and the Quietus. A recurring subject in his work is Essex, and he is currently work on a non-fiction book about the county. Tim’s essay on the history of waste management in Essex can be read here.

Holly Firmin is a writer, researcher and member of the Focal Point Gallery team. She has completed two dissertations on the political and social history of Essex at the University of Cambridge. Her research explores the history of left-wing activism in Thurrock during the 1980s, as well as the borough’s relationship to London and its waste.

3.15pm to 4.30pm Talk and Conversation: We Have Buried Waste: Geographies and Materialities of Waste

The second session of the day will begin with a talk from Mark Harling, Area Manager South East of Enovert, one of the UK’s foremost landfill site operators. Mark has overseen the re-wilding of Mucking Marsh for the last ten years. Filled with fifty years’ worth of London’s rubbish, Mucking Marsh was one of the largest landfills in Europe. It is now home to an outstanding nature reserve, officially opened by David Attenborough in 2008. As the final touches to the project are being completed, Mark will share some of the experiences and challenges involved in this enormous restoration of Essex’s incredible landscape.

Following this, Eloise will discuss East Tilbury’s historic landfill site; one of just fifteen coastal landfills identified as ‘high risk’ that are currently eroding and polluting our water with environmental geochemist, Professor Kate Spence, Queen Mary University of London. What’s going on at East Tilbury suggest we are now at the end of a “200-year-old experiment” – what happens when you bury masses of waste underground? And just how does material decompose? We will also discuss landfill as a kind of archaeology, with 1950s pairs of tights and asbestos door handles washing up on beaches up and down the Estuary.

We will also be joined by Peter Hanson, Associate with van Heyningen and Haward architects. Van Heyningen and Haward designed Thameside Nature Park’s visitor centre for the rewilded Mucking Marsh. The centre won the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) ‘East of England Project of the Year’ in 2013. Built on top of historic landfill, Peter will be talking about how the building responds to constantly shifting foundations, making it a kind of ‘movable architecture’.

Mark Harling is the Area Manager South East of Enovert, one of the UK’s foremost landfill site operators. Mark has overseen the re-wilding of Mucking Marsh for the last ten years.

Kate Spencer is a Professor of Environmental Geochemistry and Queen Mary University. She works closely with geomorphologists, hydrologists and ecologists to provide fundamental science to underpin effective management of fine sediment in estuaries and lowland rivers. Read The Spectator’s article detailing Kate’s walk on the Essex coast here

Walk 1 Tilbury Port: Infrastructure, Saturday 8 February, 11.00 am to 2.00pm

In the first of our four visits, we will be going to the Port of Tilbury, the UK’s largest waste import and export location. Tilbury’s Port receives, processes and exports dozens of different kinds of waste from the UK and overseas alike, including wood, metal, biological, and household waste. Over 1,000,000 tonnes of this waste passes through ports in Essex on its way to Europe, a fifth of this being from Essex alone.

Walk 2 Stanway Quarry: Rewilding Wednesday 19 February, 10.30am to 1.00pm

In this second visit of our series, we will be going to one of the largest active landfill sites in the county. This landfill occupies the void left by the former Stanway Quarry and can hold up to 2.3 million cubic metres of waste. During our walk around the site, we will see rubbish in various stages of decomposition: from an open field of rubbish to a ‘capped’ cell, where the waste has been contained, covered with new soil and seeded with grasses. Here, methane is drained from the waste rubble through enormous pipes, while the toxic leachate is biologically treated in great cylindrical vats.

Walk 3 Rainham: Plastic, Saturday 20 February, 9.30am to 12.30pm

The third visit in our series will look at the work of Veolia Rainham, a Plastics Recovery Facility adjacent to Rainham Marshes along the Thames Estuary, looking at how waste management’s infrastructure mingles with natural landscapes. Veolia Rainham is one of the most technologically advanced PRFs in the country, sat next to the RSPB wildlife reserve a fascinating multi use in the same stretch of land.

Following an introduction to the site, this walk takes a tour of the facility, followed by a Q and A with the site tour guide.

Walk 4 Tilbury: Tilbury Green Power Plant, Tuesday 25 February, 9.00am to 12.00pm

In this visit, we’ll be going to Tilbury’s new biomass plant. This site is the most recent addition to Tilbury’s long history of generating power for the rest of Essex. Until 2019, the area was home to coal and oil power stations whose famous chimneys were visible for miles around. Since the station’s demolition, Tilbury’s biomass plant has been developed as a renewable alternative. The plant runs on regionally sourced waste wood, receiving approximately 270,000 tonnes a year and generating enough renewable energy to power nearly 100,000 homes.

Walk 5 Thurrock: Rewilding, Saturday 29 February, 12.00pm to 3.00pm

In this visit, 800,000 tonnes ventures  to a large landfill site in East Tilbury. A former quarry, this site has been renovated to hold up to 2.1 million cubic metres of waste, specialising accepting soil, rubble, and gravel. Much of this is being used to raise the surrounding land as a flood defence. This initiative follows a serious threat of coastal erosion, which has so far unearthed 50-year-old landfill along the Thames estuary. After visiting the landfill site, we will be walking with Professor Kate Spencer along the estuary, marking the sites where  coastal erosion is releasing historic waste into the Thames.

This tour will involve a large amount of walking (3+ hours)

800,000 tonnes is supported by a National Lottery Grant from Arts Council England.


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Radical Essex is a project re-examining the county in relation to radicalism in thought, lifestyle, politics and architecture. A programme of events will take place across Essex throughout 2016 and 2017, shedding light on the vibrant, pioneering thinking of the late 19th and 20th centuries. The project will celebrate the crucial role Essex has played in the history of British Modernism and its utopian ideologies under the themes ‘The Modernist County’ and ‘Arcadia for All’.

The Radical Essex site is designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio and Alex Rich, developed by Twelve.

Radical Essex is led by Focal Point Gallery in collaboration with Visit Essex and Firstsite. Supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England it forms part of the country wide Cultural Destinations programme, a partnership with VisitEngland, supporting arts organisations to work with the tourism sector to deliver projects that maximise the impact culture has on local economies.

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We gratefully acknowledge the support of our project partners: