Documentaries·First Person

A community of people is giving discarded items like planes, ships and phone booths a second beautiful life

A Montreal filmmaker travels the world to find out what happens to things when we don’t need them anymore

A Montreal filmmaker travels the world to find out what happens to things when we don’t need them anymore

A metal horse made out of discarded farm equipment standing against a blue sky.
Artist John Lopez makes life-size sculptures out of discarded farm equipment and bronze castings. (Lisa Ferguson)

About 10 years ago, I happened upon an old photo of an airplane graveyard outside Moscow. There was something ghostly and captivating about this place, which seemed to have been frozen in time. The photo captured my imagination and got me thinking about what happens to things like planes, trains and ships when they are no longer useful.   

A discarded, cut in half airplane covered in spray paint.
An airplane graveyard in Bangkok, Thailand. (Stacey Tenenbaum)

When phone booths disappeared from our streets, no one stopped to ask where they went or what impact their disposal might have on the environment. We're all focused on recycling tin cans in our homes, but what happens to all that metal in an ocean liner or a washing machine? It's a question that is profound and international in scope since a lot of our waste is off-loaded to the developing world. 

When I started working on the documentary Scrap, I knew I didn't want to make a typical environmental film filled with facts, figures and expert opinions. Instead, my goal was to inspire people to start thinking about the life cycle of the objects they use in their daily lives. If I could open people's eyes to the importance of the things around them, then perhaps I could motivate them to hold onto them just a little bit longer. 

I met people from around the world to learn about their unique connection to items that others might consider waste. Like me, they longed for a time when things were built to last and easier to repair and reuse. 

A huge pile of discarded cell phones.
Cell phone e-waste in Delhi, India (Anuj Singh)

Photojournalist Saumya Khandelwal laments the waste created by our throwaway culture and longs for a time when cherished items were passed down through generations. John Lopez, a sculptor from South Dakota, creates sculptures from salvaged farm equipment. He sees his art as a way of preserving history and honouring the lives of the people in his community who worked the land. Tony Inglis lovingly restores iconic British phone booths to give them a new purpose as libraries and garden decorations. The thing that unites all three is their attachment to objects that have reached their end-of-life and the nostalgia they feel over their potential loss. 

It was important for me to show these objects — once filled with purpose, now rusted and reclaimed by nature. There is a stillness and a sadness in the metal graveyards I've seen that's mixed with the happy memories of what once was. An old, rusted car might remind you of a road trip you took with a loved one, or a time in your life when you were carefree and content. There is magic in these items and places that I worked hard to capture. When we see ships and planes repurposed, I hope people will feel joy at their rebirth. 

Discarded British phone booths are scattered around a field.
Tony Inglis and his family are restoring more than 2,000 British phone booths. (Stacey Tenenbaum)

Scrap was made at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, during a time of uncertainty and loss and when the longing to feel connected to our environment and each other became even more acute. I hope my film awakens people to the beauty of abandoned objects and inspires them to hold onto things, and each other, just a little bit tighter. 

Stacey Tenenbaum is the director of the documentary Scrap which is airing on the documentary Channel on November 6 at 9 p.m.