Why “Discard Studies”? Why not “Waste Studies”?

Why call this sub-genre of research into waste “discard studies?” Why not call it “waste studies?” This is a question that comes up a lot. It’s a question Robin Nagle, who coined the term, and I have spoken about at length.

The crux of the argument is that most people already have an idea of what “waste” is, yet the main thrust of this genre of research is to denaturalize and offer critical alternatives to popular and normative notions of waste. Thus, we use the “discard studies” instead of “waste studies” to ensure that the categories of what is systematically left out, devalued, left behind, ruined, and externalized are left open.

While discard studies is absolutely about the material and especially the materiality of what is thrown away, it is more about the mass of social, political, cultural, technical and economic systems around the object that premises or supports its status as waste or wasted. Discard studies is a social science or question for the humanities, rather than topic for physical, biological or engineering sciences. Discard Studies is united by a critical framework that questions premises of what seems normal or given, and analyzes the wider role of society, culture, and other complex systems in making it so. “Discard,” rather than “waste” is one step in the project of opening up and questioning what seems given.

Image by Triborough.