The Alchemy of Waste

“Our dark night of the soul seems endless. Yet it’s something that must be faced. It’s the duty of each of us to look into our bins, follow the garbage trucks to their destinations, behold the alchemy of waste.”

From Lorna Smithers


‘Alchemy… the medieval forerunner of chemistry, concerned with the transmutation of matter, in particular with attempts to convert base metals into gold or find a universal elixir.’
Oxford English Dictionary

I. Prima Materia

Waste. Billions of tonnes of plastic in our oceans and many more billions of industrial, commercial, and household materials filling landfills trawled by rag pickers rescuing the best of our excesses. It’s our dirty not-so-secret, a source of guilt and shame, one of the primary banes of the 21st century.

It’s what remains when the golden profits have been siphoned off. As end and beginning it is the khmi, ‘black earth’, at the root of khēmia which gives us alchemy, the prima materia. Its slow decomposition, the nigredo, ‘blackening’, is our shadow made real, our long dark night of the soul. It’s the domain of Afagddu, ‘Utter Darkness’, Ceridwen’s ugly son, who did not taste the universal elixir.

Long before there were human alchemists the earth was dealing with waste through alchemical processes. The oil from which we make the plastics which plague us today was formed from the burial of dead animals and plants on the bottom of the sea through diagenesis (chemical reaction, compaction, microbial action) and catagenesis (thermal degradation) during the Carboniferous period.

Humanity’s manipulation of alchemy by fractionating and cracking the hydrocarbons in crude oil to make petroleum for fuel and produce plastics by polymerisation has birthed ingenious creations which are useful whilst in use but dangerous when discarded because they take so long to decay.

Because plastics are not biodegradable plastic bags can take 1000 years to decompose, sanitary towels and nappies 500 – 800 years, and plastic bottles 450 years. Out at sea, plastics are photograded by the sun’s UV rays breaking down the polymeric chains turning big pieces into lots of tiny pieces.

Microplastics: ‘rayon, lyocell, ramie, nylon, polyethylene, polyamide, and polyvinyls such as polyvinyl chloride or PVC’ have been found 11 kilometres down in the guts of crustaceans who are eaten by fish who are eaten by sea birds (and humans) contaminating the food chain with deadly consequences.

Our dark night of the soul seems endless. Yet it’s something that must be faced. It’s the duty of each of us to look into our bins, follow the garbage trucks to their destinations, behold the alchemy of waste.

II. My Waste – An Account

I live in Penwortham, Lancashire, in North West England, where the average person produces 412kg of waste a year. In 2016/2017 Lancashire’s recycling and composting rate was 45.6% (England’s average was 44.9%). 37.4% of general waste went to landfill and 12% to energy from waste.


Lancashire’s recycling is taken to the Global Renewables Recycling Centre in Farington where it is ‘weighed, checked for contamination and is then processed through GRL’s sophisticated sorting equipment’. It is then sent to a variety of ‘alchemists’ to be transmuted into recycled materials.

Glass greater than 25mm goes to Refresco in Cheshire who send it to manufacturers to be melted down in a furnace and made into glass bottles and jars. Mixed glass smaller than 25mm is taken by Greener Futures in Blackpool to be made into aggregate or used in filtration systems. The smallest pieces go to JA Jackson Recycling in Preston to be processed into filler for roads and stone.

Textiles are delivered to I & G Cohen Ltd in Salford or Wilcox Textile Reclaimers in Bilston who sort and grade it. Used clothing is exported to Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia to be sold. I was shocked but not surprised to hear that the ‘crème grade’ items are sent to Eastern Europe and ‘a Tropical mix grade’ to Africa, demonstrating a distinctive social hierarchy with the Western Europeans who discard the clothes at the top, Eastern Europeans in the middle, and Africans at the bottom. Ripped or blemished items are baled up and sent to recycling centres to be made into cloths.

Plastic bottles are sent to Viridor in Skelmersdale where they are sorted into streams of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) then ‘intensively washed and granulated to form new flakes or pellets of polymer which are than sold to be manufactured into new plastic products’. Film and rigid plastics go to Hanbury Plastics Recycling Ltd in Stoke-on-Trent and other plastics to JKN Polymers Ltd in Hull where they are turned into manhole foundations and cable troughs.

EMR in Manchester, Liverpool, and Salford take scrap metal, producing ‘over 100 grades of high quality recycled materials’. Cans go to Recycling Lives in Preston where they are baled and processed for remelt elsewhere in the UK then rolled into sheet material for new cans or steel products.

Paper and card goes to Saicur Natur UK in Manchester who process it into ‘plasterboard and other liners’.


Last year 303,000 tonnes of Lancashire’s waste was disposed of, primarily by landfill. LCC’s only current landfill contract is at Whinney Hill, Altham, in Hyndburn, which is owned by Suez (formerly Sita UK).

Whinney Hill started life as a quarry in the late 1800s and quarrying for sandstone and shale is ongoing. The application for ‘infilling’ ‘the existent and emergent void’ with ‘household, industrial, and commercial waste over a period of approximately forty years’ was put forward in 2005 (it had been used as landfill for inert waste prior to this). It covers 70 hectares of land and will be full by 2050.

Disposal in landfills is the least preferable form of management due to the waste of materials, loss of land, the risks of explosions and groundwater and air pollution, and generation of greenhouse gases.

Nevertheless, the alchemy of landfilling is fascinating by virtue of the ingenuity of both its human and non-human participants. Firstly a liner, usually of engineered clay plus a synthetic geomembrane, is laid down and covered with sand or gravel. Pipes are set in place to collect the leachate.

After trucks have dumped their load, track-type tractors spread the waste and landfill compactors with impressive steel teeth on huge metal wheels drive over it in a fourfold pass to compact it down. The ‘working face’ is covered each night with a layer of soil to control odours and deter ‘vectors’ (ie. rats).


Within days aerobic bacteria get to work breaking down the organic material by glycolysis, the citric acid cycle, and oxidative phosphorylation. Once the oxygen is used up anaerobic bacteria take over using hydrolysis, acidification, and acetogenesis. Methanogenic archaea complete the process by methanogenesis.

These activities release carbon dioxide, methane, and small amounts of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere. The latter were, no doubt, the source of ‘a horrible sour smell’ so bad local residents could not open their windows or put their washing out, resulting in legal action in 2012.

Methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times as strong as carbon dioxide in global warming potential and potentially explosive, is collected by gas wells and either flared off or used as a renewable energy source. The Whinney Hill site generated 3,686.00 MWh from landfill gas in October 2017 making £293,341.78.

Once a section of landfill is full it is capped with a liner and approximately 24 inches of soil and vegetation is planted. By 2050 Whinney Hill will have been landscaped and will probably become a nature reserve like many of the former landfill sites in my locality such as Carr Wood and Fishwick Bottoms.

Energy From Waste

In 2016/2017, Lancashire sent 36,000 tonnes of general waste to Viridor’s energy from waste facility at Runcorn. The plant was constructed in 2010 as a joint venture with INOVYN and burns up to 850,000 tonnes of Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) per year.

Like landfill, energy to waste possesses its own alchemy. Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) is processed into RDF through the separation and removal of metals, glass, and stones, and by shredding. It is delivered by HGVs and freight trains, weighed, then unloaded down chutes into the main fuel bunker. The RDF is then fed into one of four combustion chambers and heated at 850°C. The heat is used to create steam, driving turbines to produce electricity.

The waste gases are treated by hydrated lime injection, activated carbon injection, and a bag filtration system. Viridor go to great lengths to show their facilities meet the Environment Agency standards for emissions of total organic carbon, hydrogen chloride, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and oxides of nitrogen.

Oddly nothing is mentioned on the Viridor website about carbon dioxide emissions. The incineration of one tonne of MSW produces approximately one tonne of CO2. I haven’t been able to find any figures for RDF, but assuming the amounts are similar, Runcorn could emit up to 850,000 tonnes of CO2 a year. (In 2017, the UK emitted 381 million tonnes of CO2).

Friends of the Earth note ‘electricity-only incinerators emit 33 percent more fossil CO2 than gas power stations’ and Combined Heat and Power (CHP) facilities like Runcorn ‘have similar efficiency to gas-fired plants’. Whilst superior to landfilling because methane emissions have a higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide, they are not, as claimed, a form of ‘green energy’ or environmentally friendly.

Runcorn ‘generates up to 70MW of electricity and up to 51MW of heat for exclusive use by INOVYN’, a ‘premier chemical company’ belonging to the petrochemical firm INEOS. INEOS is the UK’s largest holder of fracking exploration licences and intends to use shale gas as feedstock in the manufacture of plastic and to power its plants.

INOVYN Chlorvinyls produce chlorine, chlorine derivatives, chlor alkali, general purpose vinyls (these include PVCs) and speciality vinyls. Some of their chlorine products, which include pesticides such as Dichlopropene, a chemical currently being phased out by the EU, are harmful to the environment. The manufacture of more plastic can only add to our problem.

It seems counter intuitive for Viridor to be fuelling this chemical giant until we see through their green guise to the centrality of capital. The government’s aim to divert waste from landfill to energy from waste is less rooted in concern about climate change than the potential to use our waste to fuel the economic growth of the industries increasing pollution. Another example is the VPI Immingham CHP plant, which generates up to 1,240 MW of electricity and 900t of steam per hour for the Humber and Lindsey oil refineries.

Not only do we pay local authorities to take our waste away, but polluting industries are profiting from it!

III. Gold or Black Earth?

My investigations have led to a deeper understanding of where my waste goes and the alchemical processes by which it is treated. Establishing an awareness of where each item I put into my green, blue, brown, and grey bins ends up, exactly what happens to it, and who profits from it, provides a much firmer foundation for ethical living and resisting exploitation than simply following instructions to refuse, reuse and recycle, and being bombarded with photos of dead sea creatures.

On a personal level I can make a small difference by composting most of my organic waste, recycling glass and some plastics, and using as few non-recyclable plastics as possible (not always easy when the only shops within walking distance still use plastic wrappers for meat and on some veg).

On a national level we are paralysed by a hypocritical government who make a big show of encouraging plastic free aisles in supermarkets and ending the exemption on small shops charging 5 pence per carrier bag, whilst pledging unprecedented support for the fossil fuel industry and making no effort to stop chemical plants manufacturing the non-recyclable plastics they claim to be concerned about.

The aim of alchemy is the transmutation of the prima materia into the universal elixir or, more tellingly, gold. The primacy of golden profits has led to the exploitation of the black earth – dug up, drilled out, transmuted. What cannot be made into gold has been discarded and become a legacy of poison.

Our long dark night of the soul can only get darker as the Gwions of thisworld continue to drink up the awen from the cauldrons of our modern alchemists and the rest of us are left with Afagddu in utter darkness with the poisoned fumes, slow leakage of leachate, and suffocation of our sea waters.

paula-may-566498-unsplash.Photo by Paula May on Unsplash

Yet, if we set aside the notion that life should be a progression from black earth to gold, our dark night might be seen as a revelation in itself and not a step on the way to the profits of the shiny-browed.

This I learnt when I sat with Afagddu and watched the RV Ocean Starr and her seventeen sister vessels trawling from east to west with their tow nets gathering data with bottles, buoys, fishing nets.

This I learn whenever I pick up litter from my local valley and walk on landfills. It might be learnt from any litter picker, rag picker, garbage man, driver of landfill compactors; gulls, rats, fungi, aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, methanogenic archaea; any guide to the alchemy of waste.


Akshat Rathi, ‘Carbon emissions in the UK have fallen to a 120-year low’, Quartz, May 2017

Ben Chapman, ‘Conservatives pledge ‘unprecedented’ support for fossil fuels after receiving almost £400,000 from oil bosses’, The Independent, May 2017

Daniela Buckroithner, ‘Microbiology of Landfill Sites’, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Masters Thesis, (2015)

Friends of the Earth, ‘Dirty Truths: Incineration and Climate Change,’ 2006

Friends of the Earth, ‘Ineos, fracking and plastic’, 2017

Janice Lund (Waste Management Group, LCC), email communication, March 2017

L. Lebreton et al. ‘Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic’, Nature, March 2017

Russell Hutchinson (Waste & Transport Officer SRBC), email communication, March 2017.

Stephanie Pappas, ‘Plastic found in deepest living creatures’, Live Science, 2017

Tom Goulding, ‘Viridor to begin operations at Runcorn Efw’, Lets Recycle, 2014

‘Alchemy’, Wikipedia

‘Waste to Energy’, Wikipedia

‘Where does all my waste go?’, Preston City Council

‘Whinney Hill landfill smells: Accrington residents take legal action’, BBC News, 2012

‘Whinney Hill Landfill Gas’, Variable Pitch, 2017

Websites of Viridor, INOVYN, INEOS, and VPI Immingham

Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile pic IILorna Smithers is a poet, author, awenydd, and Brythonic polytheist. She is currently exploring how our ancient British myths relate to our environmental and political crises and dreaming new ones. As a devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn, she seeks to reweave the ways between the worlds. She has published two books: Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron, edited and co-edited A Beautiful Resistance, and blogs at ‘Signposts in the Mist’.

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Plotting the Fall of the King

Said Arthur, “Is there any one of the marvels yet unobtained?”

Said one of his men, “There isthe blood of the witch Orddu, the daughter of the witch Orwen, of Penn Nant Govid, on the confines of Hell.”

From Culhwch and Olwen

British colonialism soaks through English-speaking Paganism like fetid morning piss. Glance through the shelves of witch bookstores and, once you get past the how-to’s on crystal communication and appropriative dream-catcher spirituality, you find books full of it: delusions of chivalric murderers, bent-knee begging for noble sovereigns, and bourgeois rituals of lords and ladies playing sex by sticking dull knives into etsy-bought chalices.

This should not surprise us. Wicca—the most prevalent of the Pagan traditions—was started by a British Colonial Administrator (Gerald Gardner) and a one-time member of two British fascist groups (Doreen Valiente; National Front and Northern League). Why wouldn’t modern Paganism find itself stained with the trappings of Empire?

No place is this seen more than the spiritualisation of the Arthurian myths. Equal parts feudal nostalgia and patriarchal obsession, the Pagan longing for the return of Great Sovereigns who might restore the balance of the world is inseparable from the nationalist fictions of fading white dominance.

Along with King Arthur (that giant-killing, witch-slaughtering thief), many traditions, particularly Druidry, find deep alchemical meaning in the form of another problematic figure: Taliesin. Born Gwion Bach, a boy tasked to watch a cauldron for a witch, he stole wisdom from a witch-goddess and went on to serve kings. Whereas Prometheus stole fire from the gods to help humans, Taliesin stole the creative force of the world to serve the imperial ambitions of slaughtering empire.

While Peter Grey challenged Pagan elders for their desire to defang witchcraft, and I have aggressed them for their allegiance with Capital, Lorna Smithers has done something even more dangerous than either of us. In The Broken Cauldron, the awenydd and poet becomes the Old Mother of the Universe herself, rebirthing beheaded giants and slaughtered witches through the starry cauldron of poetry.  In the otherworld halls of the Gatherer of Souls she collects their bones, caresses their withered heads, and speaks their condemnations into our polluted, irradiated present.

Several figures recur in her mythic wanderings, suppressed blackened figures given scant reference in the Welsh lore. One such is the witch, Orddu (Welsh: Very Black), slain by King Arthur to claim a vial of her blood. According to Culhwch and Olwen, the servants of King Arthur volunteered to go fight her first so that his honor would not be stained (what King would want to be seen fighting a common woman?) Servant after servant fought against her and failed, wrestled to the ground by her bare strength alone, until Arthur himself was ‘man enough’ to fight her.

He slayed Orddu, split her in two, and collected her blood. Another trophy for a British king, another relic in the Royal museum, given three paragraphs in the Welsh bardic lore until Orddu’s bones are gathered again by a rogue awenydd:

I cannot abide the story of Orddu’s death. How Arthur came as he always came into every story, every world, every myth, with his hatred of witches, with his living knife, to put an end to wild, recalcitrant women. Now I’ve laid it to rest I’ll share another story instead.

I shall tell what this fatal blow and the blows on the Witches of Caerloyw cost Prydain (“Prydain will fall! Prydain will fall! Prydain will fall!”). Not only the fall of the Old North and the Men of the North. The rise and fall of the British Empire (it had to needed to fall). But the splitting and bottling of magical women for over a thousand years. Draining of our blood. Boiling of our flesh. Testing if we float. Giving us The King James Bible and The Malleus Maleficarum. Taking away our prophecies and visions, gods and goddesses, our fighting strength. Confining us to virginity and chastity belts. Cutting us off from plants and spirits, rocks and rain, rivers and mist, otherworlds.

Over a thousand years on we are but shadows of ourselves. Mirrored pouts tottering on high heels. Watching ourselves on selfie-sticks. Worshipping televisions. Still split in half, bottled, boiling, floating, banging to get out.

Arthur was not just a witch-killer, but a giant-slayer, slaughtering ancient land-god after land-god to gain their cauldrons and their power. Subduing the earth beneath him, sending the old ways under hill into Annwn, even then following after. Accompanied by the sycophantic Taliesin, he stole what the land hid from him. Amongst these otherworldy ‘spoils’ was the cauldron of Annwn, once held by the Welsh giant Brân whose head once protected Britain from invasion. We read in the Welsh triads that Arthur dug that up, too, finding it unseemly that the common people relied upon a land-god, rather than their slaughtering, arrogant king.

It’s in this last fact that we glimpse the reason for Paganism’s Arthurian obsession. Tales of a king who needed no godsonly strength and the magic of his advisorsread in the context of British colonialism suddenly seem less like myth and more like imperial propaganda. The gods of land subdued, the power of witch-women destroyed: For traditions claiming to venerate the earth and the divine feminine, the prominence of Arthurian forms and Taliesin start to seem hypocritical.

Broken Cauldron, Chernobyl

Orddu is not the only dark shadow re-awakened into Lorna’s poetry. Taliesin stole the awen from Ceridwen, who did not brew it for herself. Rather, the draught was boiled and stirred for her malformed son, Afagddu (Welsh: Utter Dark), later also called Morfrân (Welsh: Sea Raven). When first I encountered the story of Taliesin’s birth and Ceridwen’s chase, I took no delight in it. The selfless act of a mother to grant her disfigured child wisdom was sabotaged by the thoughtlessness of a child who later upheld kings and helped kill giants. What is there to love in this story?

And anyway, what happened to Afagddu?

Lorna answers this question delightfully, repeatedly giving Afagddu voice. Most startling is his tale in her piece, Sea Raven:

There’s been another disaster at the chemical plant, three people injured, one missing presumed dead. That young man’s name was Gwion Bach. He was employed in the control room in charge of the 30,000 gallon reactor vessel. His task was to keep the paddle stirring at several thousand revolutions a minute and monitor the changes in heat and pressure.

He was an absentminded sort, so lost in daydreams he didn’t realise the paddle had stuck. The temperature rose over 300°F. By the time he’d filled the cooling jacket it was too late. With a sound like a jet engine and deafening crash, the reactor exploded with a blast that broke every window.

Gwion was seen staggering from the control room like a drunk toward the toxic brew, dipping his finger in and putting it to his lips, his hair standing on end, before my wrathful mother leapt from the offices and he hare-footed it away with her hot on his heels.

Retelling ancient myths in modern settings is a tired trope, but Lorna is not writing urban fantasy.  Rather than recycling old stories for new audiences, she expands the (nuclear) core of the broken cauldrons and shows that they are still shattering.

After all, what else is atomic energy but a cauldron of shattered stars? When oil spills pollute the earth and oceans, is this not also the poisoning of the land after Gwion shattered Ceridwen’s cauldron? And the industrialisation of war: does not the giant-forged Cauldron of Annwn still bring forth unspeaking, obedient warriors?

For King and Country, I bore the cauldron whilst Arthur’s advisers listened to wheezing chests and throats of phlegm; counted blisters; bandaged weeping, reddened skin. I fought off green waves of nausea as it buckled my knees and wore a hollow in my spine.

When I heard an old woman’s lament, I repeated my mantra, plugged my ears as she screamed while the soldiers of Prydain unleashed poisonous gases at Loos and the Somme and foreign men drowned in yellow-green seas.

The powerthe magicof the awenyddion is to bend time around them and dance in those re-connected threads. The greater magic still is to pull you into their dance, to weave you into those threads so that, when you have left, you and time are still tangled in knots.

Post-colonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty wrote of these ‘time-knots’ in his introduction to Provincializing Europe, a book whose confrontation of European (and especially British) exceptionalism makes irrelevant most of the stories of kings and empire:

“what allows historians to historicize the medieval or the ancient is precisely the fact that these worlds are never lost. It is because we live in time-knots that we can undertake the task of straightening some part of the knot (which is what chronology is). Subaltern pastsaspects of these time-knotsact as a supplement to the historian’s past and in fact aid our capacity to historicize.”

It’s precisely this that Lorna does. Afagddu, Orrdu, Diwrnachthese are the subaltern pasts Paganism tries to deny. By telling their stories, we hear the cauldrons shatter again not because they are in the past, but they are shattering even now.

Ecological destruction, technological optimism, capitalist exuberance and industrialised warfarethese are the only stories kings can tell. The boy Gwion became the thief Taliesin, and the suppressed blackened ones spill out from oil wells, explode from shattered nuclear reactors, poisoning the world.

And we come to the final horror of our Paganism when we remember that both Capitalism and Industrialisation (and as Lorna points out, the very first nuclear reactor) each started in the same land where Arthur slayed witches and giants, where Taliesin broke the cauldron. And like that broken cauldron, they have all swept like choking black poison out to every part of the world.

“What lies in the cauldron now you have done away with the knowledge of wise women? Split the witches in half? Killed the giants? Driven to the seas the most ancient of boars? You are on the wrong quest, looking for the wrong grail, the cure-all that does not exist.”

If even our Pagan myths are the self-delusions of empire, then what is left for us? Though we who hear the silenced voices might raise the dead so that they might use our lips, will this ever be enough to stop the endless sundering? What good would be the reawakening of that suppressed blackness, the beheaded gods of land?

I do not know; but blackened witches, beheaded giants, and disfigured crows insist we try anyway:

Feathered arches of black wings tore from my shoulders and cracked open. My feet shrunk into claws and my body tightened into bird-form. With a black-beaked scream I flew away from the Court of the King of Suffering and broke the Spell of Nine Maidens.

Yet the death of the dead did not stop the bloodshed. Today corpses are flown in on steel horses, driven down long, wet roads to be laid on slabs in mortuaries. I no longer wish to raise them. I travel the country winged, cawing my truth and plotting the fall of the King.

In such plotting perhaps is a path far less blood-soaked than the shattering of our world.

Lorna Smithers’ book, The Broken Cauldron, is available here.

Rhyd Wildermuth

6tag_221116-215034Rhyd is a co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He was born in Appalachia, lives nomadically, speaks with stars and dead things, and likes tea.

He is an anarchist, theorist, Pagan, Marxist, punk, and really damn good cook.

He writes at Gods&Radicals and on his own blog, Paganarch.