In the 1997 movie Fifth Element, Gary Oldman pushes a glass off his desk to prove a point. As a handful of robots stream out of a wall hatch to clean up its shattered pieces, he explains to Ian Holm that the flurry of activity shows how destruction—waste—is at the center of the circle of life. “What a lovely ballet ensues, so full of form and color,” he opines. Oldman, the movie’s antagonist, is both repulsive and intriguing—the latter, not least because of statements like this one.
After all, we intuitively know his claim to have some inkling of truth. Witness the many aphorisms in the English language that use waste to interpret and define our world, from “waste not want not” to “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” They suggest a meaning that extends beyond the literal—beyond the empty candy wrapper—to something moral and organizational.
In this issue we turn to the science of waste. We follow it as it leads us from the complications and trials of physical refuse, through to the new technology and art that we create in response to waste, and finally to waste’s role at the center of some of nature’s broadest narratives, including evolution and black holes. In thinking about waste, we find ourselves thinking about beginnings and endings, in all the corners of our world—a kind of “lovely ballet,” indeed.
Welcome to “Waste.”