Trash is a Wicked Problem

By Max Liboiron

One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Waste is inherently ambivalent. It is both worthless and the basis for a billion dollar, recession-proof industry, complete with cartels and multinational companies. Disgust with filth both reaffirms our identities and troubles us. But a plethora of contradictory terms and values is not what makes trash wicked. Waste is wicked because of its inextricable mix of social, economic, environmental, infrastructural, political and cultural factors at a variety of scales.

In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, two urban planners, wrote about a shift in urban planning from an ethos of efficiency to one that recognizes the complexity of problems that arise from open systems, particularly when these systems are both material and social in nature:

By now we are all beginning to realize that one of the most intractable problems is that of defining problems (of knowing what distinguishes an observed condition from a desired condition) and of locating problems (finding where in the complex causal networks the trouble really lies). In turn, and equally intractable, is the problem of identifying the actions that might effectively narrow the gap between what-is and what-ought-to-be.[1]

Because open systems are made of and are part of other open systems, defining, locating, and intervening in a problem is not only difficult, but also impossible to do with complete acuity. Efforts to solve them are likely to lead to other problems, or at least affect other parts of related systems in unanticipated ways.

Rittel and Webber call these wicked problems: “We use the term ‘wicked’ in a meaning akin to that of ‘malignant’ (in contrast to “benign”) or ‘vicious’ (like a circle) or ‘tricky’ (like a leprechaun) or ‘aggressive’ (like a lion, in contrast to the docility of a lamb).”[2] There is no way to draw a boundary around the edges of a wicked problem where the effects and causes of the problem, and the influence of proposed solutions, stops. Contradictory, shifting, complex, and ever-expanding circumstances in wicked problems often exceed both current knowledge and consensus, particularly because a “plurality of objectives [are] held by pluralities of politics” by different stakeholders, each with a different set of knowledges, standards, needs, and desires.[3]  The information needed to describe and solve a wicked problem is not available in advance because each wicked problem is essentially unique in its complexity and so has never been solved before.

Trash is one such problem. Waste is often defined as an personal shortcoming, a vice of individuals or of a class of people, which means that solutions are individual as well. Some even say that there has been waste since there has been humans, and it is natural/a necessary evil. In this case, solutions are always already mitigation. Others, like Vance Packard, see contemporary waste as a planned aspect of industrial capitalism, placing solutions in economic and regulatory realms. How a problem is defined directly affects which solutions are deemed possible, viable, and feasible. These are the stakes of defining wicked problems.

This semester, as part of my Environmental Communication class at NYU, my students and I wrote a pamphlet called “Best Practices of Defining Wicked Problems.” We hope it is of great use to those in discard studies, either as a framework for applied policy work, or as a reflexive tool that is “good to think with” for academics in critical studies.

We wrote the document by consensus. After an open discussion of what we wanted to write about, individuals could propose a sentence or paragraph. We then discussed any issues we had with the proposal, such as particular word choices and their implications, or what kind of work the writing did. Finally, we used hand signals to indicate that we were happy with the sentence, unhappy with it, or had a smaller issue with it.  If any one person indicated either of the last two situations, we returned to the discussion phase and started over. This does not mean that everyone agreed to the same degree on every part of this pamphlet, but that we all agreed that we could move forward with the writing at every point. We used the first or last fifteen minutes of many classes to write this document, and spent an entire class period consensing on its final form. Feedback, forwarding, and questions welcome.

Have a wicked day.

Debris in Long Branch, NJ, following Hurricane Sandy. (Allison Joyce, Getty Images)

Debris in Long Branch, NJ, following Hurricane Sandy. (Allison Joyce, Getty Images)

[1] Rittel, H. W. J. and M. M. Webber (1973). “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sciences 4: 159.

[2] Rittel 1973: 160.

[3] Rittel 1973: 160.


Max Liboiron is a postdoctoral researcher with the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing and the Superstorm Research Lab.