SEEMONSTER and the circular economy

A trip around the circular economy, inspired by the SEEMONSTER installation at Weston-Super-Mare
25 October 2022
Presented by James Tytko
Production by Will Tingle, James Tytko.


See Monster


A trip to the British seaside to see a See Monster - that’s the title for the decommissioned gas platform turned art installation attempting to fuel new discussions around reuse and renewable energy in Weston super Mare.

In this episode

See Monster

00:49 - Welcome to See Monster!

The oil platform turned art installation at Weston-Super-Mare

Welcome to See Monster!
Patrick O'Mahony, NEWSUBSTANCE

The rig, which once harvested the natural resources buried deep under the North Sea, has been turned into an art installation that goes by the name of See Monster...

James - Hopefully the mic's picking me up here at a very windy Western-Super-Mare. Will, why have you dragged us down here? What are we doing here?

Will - I'm glad you asked. We're here at the new installation called See Monster at Western-Super-Mare. A decommissioned oil platform has been pulled into the coastal side of the town. It's a remarkable sort of visage on the landscape. It's this huge platform, it's one hell of a statement.

James - Well. What are we waiting for?

Patrick - My name's Patrick O'Mahony. I'm creative director and founder at NewSubstance, the studio that led the development of See Monster. So what we're looking at today is the 36 meter high gas platform that we reclaim from the North Sea. And for the first time in the world, reimagined it into a large-scale installation, looking at conversations around reuse, around renewable energy and the great British weather.

James - A gas platform you say from the North Sea. We're in Weston-Super-Mare, here in the west of England. How the hell did you get it here?

Patrick - The rig was originally sited, once we were taken out the North Sea, in the Netherlands. We had the joy of then bringing it into Western-Super-Mare. Western-Super-Mare having, I think, the second highest tidal range in the whole world or something ridiculous. So we sailed it here, had to wait for a very specific tidal window, in each month, which is around the 11th, so we could bring the barge as far up the beach as possible. The whole thing, we did it over four days in the end. So, a huge piece of theater, I suppose in my mind, in itself. In the same way we're reusing the rig and that had a previous life. It was quite a nice parallel since the way the 'Trop' (Tropicana) had this big previous life as the Lido and we were having an opportunity to reimagine it as a kind of a new arts destination in itself.

Maya - My name is Maya and I thought the See Monster was just magnificent. It's so tall and like the waterfall is just crazy.

James - Is that your favorite bit? The waterfall?

Maya - I love it. Well the slide was very cool.

Mary - Hi, my name is Mary. It just wows me because of the solar tree that's in the garden lab I think. It produces almost all of the solar power that's up there. It's so fun to come on a school trip and just see it in person. Cause I've never been to it before. And then the scales, there's so many. They said that the original thing came from the Northern Sea, I think it was.

James - Yeah, the North Sea

Mary - And then the light bulbs, it looks really mythical in the Garden lab area and at the top. I think it's called the Heli Deck. Yeah, I think it is. Yeah. You could see it as Western from a different perspective.

Leslie - Hello, my name's Leslie Pattington. I'm one of the hosts on the See Monster

Walter - And I work with Leslie. And my name's Walter Byron, again in the host role.

Leslie - So this is my favorite deck. And because you have the most magnificent, spectacular view of Western that you haven't really got any other way. This is our space that was designed for contemplation. So the scales, there are 6,000 of them and they're anodized aluminum and they're hexagonal in shape. And the idea behind that was that they are the scales of the monster.

James - People might just be able to pick up our listeners on the dulcet tones coming out of the speakers dotted around this top deck.

Leslie - So the shipping forecast was designed by Admiral Fitzroy and it was really to protect the ships from being marooned on rocks. And it's had several iterations ever since. And they are broadcast on radio and then they go through in a particular manner with a speed and a rhythm of the words, which is really very soothing.

James - On our way up here, we got a bit of a shower from something that resembled a sprinkler system. What's the message behind that?

Walter - Well that's on our seller deck. You've got to ask the principal ‘why is a monster here?’ As an educational platform, we're looking at sustainability, we're looking at repurposing of old industry and also the British weather. So we are trying to regenerate clouds. Now, the problem we have at Western-Super-Mare, the clouds get blown away. It's quite windy here on our seafront, but we're still using it to teach, especially the school kids when they're coming in on tours, about the different types of clouds, how they shape our environment. Again, if you've gotta have a monster and the monster's moving, it needs to spit on people too. So I hope that you had it in mind when you got wet there. <laugh>

Patrick - The principle of reuse and the rig itself. No one looks at disused rigs and things, Oh that will make a great art installation. We've got to where we are because of structures like that. And to position that in a provocative way, you start conversations about be it big industrial structures like this, be it barges, be it power stations, be it rigs themselves. These structures all exist as a part of our history. I want people to smile at people to be inspired by the scale of it, the ambition of it. And another big core was around renewable energy. So we've got the garden lab, which is the second to top deck, a new piece in solar and a new piece in wind power generation. And we worked with consultants originally who were suggesting your usual big white wind turbines and new solar sheets. Because right now they're by far the most efficient way of any generation. And that's great, but if you want to look at bigger placemaking pieces in city centers, we need arts and design to come and meet the engineers in the middle. So what we wanted to do here again is provoke that conversation in a sculptural form so people actually stop and look and ask those questions about could this be in our city? Could this be in our playground? I suppose trying to provoke that conversation. If we'd just gone for usual solar sheets and a white wind turbine, people would just walk past it and that conversation would never have started.

James - It's quite interesting you used the word provocative I think, because that's not necessarily the word I was going to go with. I definitely see what you mean. I don't know if you saw over the weekend what happened at the National Gallery with the tomato soup flung over the sunflowers and I think in the end there wasn't any damage actually done to the painting. So that was more of the provocative way of getting that message across because these topics that you're trying to get people to think about renewables, circular economy, I feel like it's been quite a different approach. Maybe am I on the right lines there?

Patrick - You know, we wanted people to love the project. Obviously, we didn't do this to try and be divisive in that process. But we had it in the town itself. We had great support, but we also had people saying, why on earth are they bringing a big structure like this? And then when we opened, I think people had a very different reaction once they went on it. You could see the big wild garden at the top, you know? So I think that was always our intention. We always wanted to become part of Western-Super-Mare and, you know, part of the community and loved in that process. But we knew it was going to be a little bit bumpy along the way.

James - And Patrick finally we'd be remiss not to ask, given the conversations you're trying to start with this project, what's going to happen at the end of the exhibition?

Patrick - We were always commissioned for a certain period of time. So we close on the 5th of November at the moment, and then we basically analyze the rig. There's kind of a number of different aspects of legacy. So the garden, all the trees and the plants and the planters all go to a new home. Same with the solar and all the sculptural pieces. And then at the moment, the entire rig is fully recycled. It goes back into a decommissioning cycle and recycles all the steel. What we always intended was this was like blueprint number one as See Monster number one. And now we're starting to see the benefit of that. You know, we had a conversation last week. Somebody wants to use one as a bird sanctuary and somebody wants to use it as an art gallery and start to help them, give them the tools from our blueprints, kind of go forward and then do their own version of this.

Pile of used plastic bottles

09:03 - What is the circular economy?

How can science and policy making combine to form a circular economy?

What is the circular economy?
Prof. Richard Herrington, Natural History Museum

The circular economy is a way of designing our societies and infrastructure that places sustainability at the centre of our plans for growth. To give us an overview of this rapidly expanding field, Risa Bagwandin spoke with Professor Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum...

Richard - Well, the circular economy actually is we should be keeping all the products and materials that we use, we should keep them in use so that effectively we don't throw anything away that we create, we find a use for it. Either we use, upcycle, or we recycle it back and turn it into a new product.

Risa - What effect is a lack of circular economy having on the environment?

Richard - Well, the key thing is waste. If we don't have a circular economy, we are allowing things to be called waste and therefore we have to look for a place to dispose of them. The other thing is that because we are effectively throwing potentially useful things away, we're then putting energy into making new products from new materials. And obviously that's very wasteful because if we could just use those old materials again, we would be saving that energy footprint.

Risa - What can we do as individuals to maximize our efficiency or to actively participate in a circular economy?

Richard - When you buy a product, when you use a product, we should always be thinking about what we're gonna do with that product. Once we've finished with it, we ought to think about the product and its packaging and all of those things. So with the packing, are we going to throw that away or is that going to be reused? And the product itself, when it comes to the end of its life, are we just going to take it up to the local tip or are we going to think about what's going to happen to it when it comes to the end of its life.

Risa - Do you think industries should have more initiative to create consumer goods of greater quality? Because right now there is a range of products available. There are also things of lower quality that we know that are cheaper, but will not be lost as long. Do you think that there should be more initiatives by industry to ensure that there are certain quality standards perhaps?

Richard - I think so, and this got to be consumer driven because it is up to us to demand better quality products and products that last longer because it's really annoying to buy a washing machine that after five years no longer works very well. I go back to my childhood when washing machines lasted a lot longer. They were simpler, but we got into a society where we always wanted to get the new product, which meant that manufacturers realized people were only going to have a product for a few years and therefore they designed products that were only for shorter lives. So I think as consumers we should be demanding better quality products that we expect to use.

Risa - What about the use of recycled materials? For example, steel structures can be recycled, although there is a hesitancy to use recycled steel in case its property has changed.

Richard - No, that's a really good point. Something like steel, we recycle that a lot, but we have to be really careful that when we recycle, we create a product that's of equal quality. There has to be much more attention paid to monitoring what is inside the products that we create. When we create steel and it goes into a building, let's say, there should be information kept about what are the other metals that might be in the steel, because that has a bearing on, when we go to recycle it, if it gets too contaminated with other, other metals, for example, the steel might lose its qualities and therefore then we would only be able to use that steel for something that was needed less of a pure steel. So we need to be able to track those materials that are in buildings and so on so that when we get around to recycle them, we don't create products that are of lower quality

Risa - With respect to our carbon emissions. Is it possible to find alternative uses for carbon dioxide?

Richard - It is actually. And so there are people that are, you might have heard of this term, carbon capture. So there are uses for carbon dioxide. I mean it's used industrially. We use it actually in the food industry, so it is used for that. But we can also use carbon dioxide to create materials. And so there is quite a lot of research going into how we can turn carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into either products or we could capture that and put it into deep reservoirs, which then eventually will start to turn back into rocks. So the carbon dioxide will combine with the minerals in those rocks. So it is possible to capture carbon dioxide. Another really good way of capturing carbon dioxide, of course, is using plants. So this is why revegetating forests and so on is so important, and wetlands because those areas capture carbon dioxide and lock it in in the plant matter.

Richard - I mean, it would be lovely in a world if we had zero waste and that's really where we should aspire. But my takeaway for people is let's be less wasteful in our lives and think about all of those things that we use. And remember that we talk about throwing things away, but there is no away really. Because if we're putting things into landfill, that's got to be damaging. So we should get away from thinking about creating waste, minimizing that, and then used the things that we take out of the ground and we harvest from the fields. We should be looking to value those more.

Two wind turbines in a countryside field

15:28 - What to do with decommissioned wind turbines

What do we do with the next generation of renewable energy waste problems?

What to do with decommissioned wind turbines
Carla De Laurentis, University of the West of England

As we are all now well aware, renewable energy has to be the main source of any future economy’s firepower. As we make our transition to renewables, we have to plan for the structures that produce the energy to have several lives, so we don’t offset the good they do with excessive waste. One of the newly found challenges is what to do with decommissioned wind turbines. The average wind turbine’s lifespan is affected by many different things: its size, how often it gets used, and even the occasional lightning strike. With all that considered, the average lifespan is around 25 years. Currently, most turbine blades end up in landfill, and are set to account for 43 million tonnes of waste by 2050 unless we find a solution. Carla De Laurentis, lecturer in Environmental Management at the University of the West of England, spoke to Will Tingle about the problem…

Carla - There are different options. You can look at three main options. One is life extension. So you know, can you actually extend the design and technical life span? One could be repowering, either partial or a full repowering of your wind farm. And then the last one is decommissioning. Obviously all the three different ones will have some sort of element of decommissioning, because if you think about lifetime span, in order to extend the lifespan, you're gonna have to replace some elements of the wind turbines. So there is going to be some waste generated from life extension repowering. Again, if you're changing the size of the blades, if it's changing the height of it, so you're replacing the old winter turbines, you're gonna be left with some materials that need to be taken into consideration. In terms of what you can do. There are differences. I think one of the main issues that we need to try and avoid is that this waste material ends up in landfill. There is lots of interest from the wind industry to avoid that with 2025 being a year where they want to stop wind farms and the commissioning, waste reaching landfill. The options and opportunities I suppose are what we can do with those, with our waste material and with waste management. Can we look at the opportunities that the circular economy can offer to reuse, repurpose some of those materials? There are challenges, you know, the challenges are due to issues around the recycled recycling material in the market available for the cost that you pay for secondary material. They sometimes are in competition with primary resources, accessibility of the wine farm because obviously some of the sites are gonna be up in the hills,so logistically as well it's gonna be difficult to actually collect and manage that waste. But it is also an emergent market. So what can you do with those materials and those dismissed wind farms? One of the main challenges I suppose is if you look at the commissioning. I was quite interested to see that basically 85% to 90% of the materials of a wind farm can actually be recycled. And that is because I suppose quite a lot of the components are made of steel or concrete. If you think about the base in actual terms, there is no way that we are actually reaching those rates and one of the main challenges due to the blade and the way the material is composed of in the blade. Because it's mostly composite, which is much more complex. So there are different options that we can actually look at, especially if we start looking at circular economy and circular economy approaches to reusing them.

Will - I read something recently about the blades being used to prop up bridges. Now what is the realistic reuse of these blades?

Carla - There are a number of opportunities that can be explored. Some of them, as you mentioned, can be used for, or reused. We call it in circle economy terms is 'repurposing'. So we are using them by using them for a different purpose. They can be used for structure materials, so building bridges, but also we can use them for play parks, so you can look at different ways in which you can use the material. The problem is that, for instance one of the first play parks being constructed in Rotterdam, you use five blades for a children's play park. You know, we are talking about this amount of waste increasing immensely in the next few years. So what can we do once the scale of the problem is gonna become more of a challenge. There are, for instance, we come to Cork Island again and the second, blade bridge is called the Blade Bridge being constructed. There is another one in Poland. Blades can also be used for garden furniture. So I think the possibilities could be endless. There are many, it's just trying to make sure that we move from those niche applications to bigger scales and scaling up those niche applications to become more the norm. And from the wind industry's interest, I think their interest is actually to extend the life of the wind farm. So, that would be the preferred option, but also to look at opportunities for repurposing because those are the main areas of experimentation being looked at.

Ice breaking off a large ice shelf.

20:51 - Why don't people want to talk about waste?

Why convincing people to take climate action is so difficult

Why don't people want to talk about waste?
Ella Gilbert, British Antarctic Survey

Given how integral most scientists expect a circular economy based way of thinking to be in everything we do moving forward, the question then becomes: how do we get this message across beyond the people who are already convinced of the fact?

The collaboration of artists and scientists in Weston-super-Mare is one such way of helping to spread the message of reuse to people without provoking the sort of existential dread that can be conjured up when facing up to the vastness of the difficulties we face in relation to the climate. Will Tingle spoke to Ella Gilbert, climatologist and See Monster collaborator, about how starting these conversations in an approachable way might be key to facing up to the predicament we’ve found ourselves in...

Ella - Waste in our economy, at least in the UK and many developed nations, it's out of sight, out of mind. You put your rubbish and your recycling in a wheelie bin and it gets taken away magically, before you've woken up usually, and then it's gone. You don't think about it. And actually we don't necessarily remember or consciously think about all of the sort of environmental impacts of everything that we use, that we throw away, that we make and we buy and all these kinds of things. I think the other point is that it's about the way our society is structured so that waste is dealt with in the way that it's dealt with. Because individuals can only make so big a difference and we can all do our bit to, you know, recycle our household waste. But ultimately it's a societal scale problem and an international problem. Because carbon emissions are a form of waste. We're just disposing of them in the atmosphere and the oceans and polluting our planet using our waste carbon. And it's ultimately a waste management problem. It's just a very, very big one.

Will - As you say, a lot of it comes down to cognitive dissonance. It's the idea of, if it's not there, it's not your problem. And as you said, it's not truly about what the individual can do. It is, in a way. You can reduce your waste individually. But it's more about convincing corporations, organizations that are responsible for the majority of carbon emissions or plastic waste. So is there, do you think, a different way that we can convince larger corporations who are perhaps not interested in the personal aspect of reducing waste?

Ella - I think many of the corporations are interested in personal actions because it gives them a reason to not tackle their own emissions. But personally, I'm of the opinion that individual actions come second to the kind of large-scale actions that need to happen first and foremost, I mean the climate science is extremely clear that the problem is extremely urgent and we have to act really urgently. That requires whole scale shifts in the way we do things. And that cannot be achieved through individual action alone. It has to be from the scale of governments, from corporations, from large organizations. It has to be all at the same time. And this is why it's such a challenge, because it's a huge problem and it's one that requires really concerted action from a whole cross section of society. And actually coordinating that sort of action is really difficult.

Will - We mentioned this with Patrick, but we'd also like to have your take on it. I'm sure you're aware of the sunflower incident that happened. That was a demonstration for the climate, which is more of a shock value type thing if you take it at face value. Whereas this project, See Monster is more of an inclusive type build. Which do you think is more effective in terms of changing the public's mind?

Ella - I think regardless of what you think about specific methods or tactics around climate protests, I think the fact that we are talking about climate change is objectively a good thing. Um, and I think the other thing that's very clear is that we need a variety of different ways of communicating the urgency of communicating what can be done to tackle the problem. Very importantly, and it looks very different to different people. You know, it could be writing a letter to your mp, it could be redesigning an oil and gas platform into an art science exhibition. It could be making a statement that is a publicity stunt. It could be switching your petrol car to an electric bike. You know, all of these things are ways of tackling the climate crisis. They're all extremely different, but they all have value in the sense that we are talking about climate change and we are taking action on climate change. And I think something about See Monster that I've been so excited by is that it's a positive story. It's showing what needs to be done, what can be done. And it tells it in such a positive way that I'm a firm believer in the power of positive storytelling. Because so often when it comes to climate change, we're told these stories that are very doom and gloom. We hear about how things are really awful, the terrible extreme events that are devastating people's lives, how it's gonna get worse. And it's not to take away from those things because, as a climate scientist, I'm very keenly aware of how terrifying and destructive climate change is already and how much worse it's going to get if we don't take action. But we can't expect people to take action unless we showcase what that action will look like, how we get there and what other benefits it has. You know, you could have a much more beautiful world that is more inclusive and accessible and we can rely on renewable technologies and all of those things that we know, that we hear just showing how it can be done and how it is being done has a really profound impact.

Will - So this project would be something that could potentially invoke a circular mindset into people, is that what we could take away from this?

Ella - Having come full circle <laugh>, I think exactly. We want to inspire those conversations about reuse and redesign and how we can use those principles to transform our society.


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