A table of contents for recent publications in the field of discard studies:

A radioactive sign hangs on barbed wire outside a café in Pripyat, Chernobyl.

A radioactive sign hangs on barbed wire outside a café in Pripyat, Chernobyl.

Shannon Cram. (2015). Wild and Scenic Wasteland: Conservation Politics in the Nuclear Wilderness, Environmental Humanities, 7.
Nuclear weapons production has created a unique geography of irradiated open space in the United States. In recent years, many of these landscapes have been re-classified as national wildlife refuges in an attempt to transform the nation’s atomic sacrifice zones into spaces of environmental salvation. However, these areas are also home to contaminated biota that migrate beyond refuge boundaries, inspiring biological vector control campaigns that frame nuclear nature as a threat that must be contained. How can these environments simultaneously embody ruin and redemption, and what work does this constitutive contradiction do? In this article, I explore the slippery subjectivities of nuclear waste and nature at Washington State’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Beginning with the Hanford Reach National Monument, I examine how this space is framed as both pristine habitat and waste frontier. Next, I consider how Hanford’s biological vector control program addresses the spread of radioactive flora and fauna. Looking specifically at one of the site’s most notorious offenders (the fruit fly), I discuss how vector control uses instances of nuclear trespass to articulate the boundary between contaminated and uncontaminated. Finally, by examining the dual production of nature as both untouched wilderness and biological vector, I consider how this slippage between pure and polluted has been employed in the service of nuclear industry. I argue that in its doubling, nature is being recruited to do what the U.S. Department of Energy cannot: to solve Hanford’s nuclear waste problem.

Federico Demaria and Seth Schindler. (2015). Contesting Urban Metabolism: Struggles Over Waste-to-Energy in Delhi, India. Antipode. Early View.
Recent scholarship on the materiality of cities has been criticized by critical urban scholars for being overly descriptive and failing to account for political economy. We argue that through the conceptualization of urban metabolisms advanced by ecological economists and industrial ecologists, materialist and critical perspectives can be mutually enriching. We focus on conflict that has erupted in Delhi, India. Authorities have embraced waste-to-energy incinerators, and wastepickers fear that these changes threaten their access to waste, while middle class residents oppose them because of their deleterious impact on ambient air quality. We narrate the emergence of an unlikely alliance between these groups, whose politics opposes the production of a waste-based commodity frontier within the city. We conclude that the materiality and political economy of cities are co-constituted, and contestations over the (re)configuration of urban metabolisms span these spheres as people struggle to realize situated urban political ecologies.

Nicky Gregson and Mike Crang. (2015). From Waste to Resource: The Trade in Wastes and Global Recycling EconomiesAnnual Review of Environment and Resources 40.1 (2015).
We outline the frameworks that shape and hold apart waste debates in and about the Global North and Global South and that hinder analysis of flows between them. Typically, waste is addressed as municipal waste, resulting in a focus on domestic consumption and urban governance and an emphasis on cities and the national scale. The prevailing ways of addressing the increasingly global flows of wastes between the North and South are those of global environmental justice and are underpinned by the geographical imagination encoded in the Basel Convention. New research on the trades in used goods and recycling in lower income countries challenges these accounts. It shows that arguments about dumping on the South need revision. Wastes are secondary resources for lower income countries, harvesting them is a significant economic activity, and consequent resource recovery is a key part of the global economy. Four areas for future research are identified: (a) changing patterns of global harvesting, (b) attempts to rescale resource recovery and the challenges faced, (c) the geopolitics of resource recovery, and (d) changes in resource recovery in lower income countries.

Jutta Gutberlet. (2015). More inclusive and cleaner cities with waste management co-production: Insights from participatory epistemologies and methods. Habitat International, 46, 234-253.
With over half of the world’s population living in cities, and with rising consumption, the generation of solid waste has become a ubiquitous and serious problem in urban agglomerations. City administrations are facing social, cultural, environmental, and economic challenges when planning solid waste solutions. The paper discusses the participatory epistemology and methodology experience resulting from inclusive solid waste management in Brazil. In the global South countless informal and organized solid waste collectors are engaged in resource recovery, classification of discarded waste, and redirection of recyclables towards the recycling sector. Their work is mostly unrecognized and the service is not remunerated. Governmental support to include recycling cooperatives in selective waste collection varies significantly in scope and quality. In theory, the Brazilian solid waste management legislation supports recycling cooperatives and promotes avoidance, reuse, and recycling as a primary solution tackling waste. In praxis, however, many challenges towards inclusive resource recovery and awareness building about waste avoidance and diversion are yet to be overcome. Action-oriented, participatory qualitative research, conducted with recycling cooperatives and local governments in the metropolitan region of São Paulo, has revealed some of the environmental and social contributions, as well as challenges arising in planning, policy design, and implementation of waste management. The research applies a feminist and post-colonial theoretical lense and demonstrates a wealth of knowledge co-generation on waste management. The participatory method underlines important social aspects to consider in planning and policy design for inclusive waste management. The final conclusion of this paper is that selective household waste collection with recycling cooperatives creates unique opportunities to build more inclusive and cleaner cities.

Broken fuel connector. CC

Broken fuel connector. CC

Mónica Salas Landa. (2015). Crude residues: The workings of failing oil infrastructure in Poza Rica, Veracruz, MexicoEnvironment and Planning A (2015): 0308518X15594618.
Drawing on 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork in and around Poza Rica—an emblematic oil town that flourished in the aftermath of the nationalization of the Mexican oil industry in 1938—this article looks at how the material and social visibility and invisibility of failing infrastructure is constantly being renegotiated and achieved by those living amid it. Rather than a given physical quality, I demonstrate how (in)visibility is the outcome of everyday corporate practices, toxic mundane encounters, air technologies, as well as affective attachments that illuminate or obscure the harmful presence of oil and its infrastructure in this industrial town. I suggest that the ways in which different contours of perceptions and imperceptions are negotiated are central to understanding how people living in and on oil endure risk, precariousness, and suffering.

Josh Lepawsky. (2015). Are We Living in a Post-Basel World? Area,  doi:10.1111/area.12144.
The Basel Convention (the Convention) is a key piece of law governing the international waste trade. The spirit of the Convention is to prohibit the dumping of hazardous waste from ‘developed’ countries to ‘developing’ countries. Yet, a careful consideration of the Convention suggests a problematic geographical imaginary at work in it. It imagines a bi-modal world comprised of what it calls Annex VII countries (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the European Community (EC) and Lichtenstein) and non-Annex VII countries (all other signatories) and seeks to prohibit the shipment of hazardous waste from the former to the latter. In effect, what this geographical imaginary attempts to institute is a world of trade in which all non-Annex VII territories are equally vulnerable to hazardous waste dumping from Annex VII territories, but not vulnerable to such dumping amongst themselves. Yet, the non-Annex VII grouping contains a hugely diverse set of countries, including the two largest non-Annex VII economies, China and India. Drawing on textual analysis of Convention documents and trade data available for China and India, the paper engages with recent research into the growing role of ‘South–South’ trade to critically engage with the geographical imaginary of the Basel Convention. It suggests that as the global patterns of hazardous waste trade shift, the relevance of the Basel Convention’s geographical imaginary declines.

Cartoon of a woman horrified by a microscopic view of drinking water from the Thames.” Courtesy of the World Digital Library.

Cartoon of a woman horrified by a microscopic view of drinking water from the Thames.” Courtesy of the World Digital Library.

Kathleen H. Pine and Max Liboiron. (2015). The Politics of Measurement and ActionProceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM.
Contemporary decisions about the management of populations, public services, security, and the environment are increasingly made through knowledge gleaned from ‘big data’ and its attendant infrastructures and algorithms. Though often described as ‘raw,’ this data is produced by techniques of measurement that are imbued with judgments and values that dictate what is counted and what is not, what is considered the best unit of measurement, and how different things are grouped together and “made” into a measureable entity. In this paper, we analyze these politics of measurement and how they relate to action through two case studies involving high stake public health measurements where experts intentionally leverage measurement to change definitions of harm and health. That is, they use measurement for activism. The case studies–one from maternal morbidity and one from sewage treatment–offer a framework for thinking about of how the politics of measurement are present in user interfaces. It is usually assumed that the human element has been scrubbed from the database and that significant political and subjective interventions come from the analysis or use of data after the fact. Instead, we argue that human-computer interactions start before the data reaches the computer because various measurement interfaces are the invisible premise of data and databases, and these measurements are political.

Josh Reno. (2015). Waste and Waste Management. Annual Review of Anthropology, 44(1).
Discard studies have demonstrated that waste is more than just a symptom of an all-too-human demand for meaning or a merely technical problem for sanitary engineers and public health officials. The afterlife of waste materials and processes of waste management reveal the centrality of transient and discarded things for questions of materiality and ontology and marginal and polluting labor and environmental justice movements, as well as for critiques of the exploitation and deferred promises of modernity and imperial formations. There is yet more waste will tell us, especially as more studies continue to document the many ways that our wastes are not only our problem, but become entangled with the lives of nonhuman creatures and the future of the planet we share.

Planté's original lead-acid battery cell. Image: National Institute of Standards and Technology Digital Collections, Gaithersburg, MD 20899.

Planté’s original lead-acid battery cell. Image: National Institute of Standards and Technology Digital Collections, Gaithersburg, MD 20899.

James MortonTurner. (2015). Following the Pb: An Envirotechnical Approach to Lead-Acid Batteries in the United StatesEnvironmental History 20(1): 29-56.
If recycling is a harbinger of a more sustainable society, then the lead-acid battery industry offers an apparent model of success. In the United States, more than 97 percent of lead-acid batteries have been recycled since the early 1990s. But this record of success is not new. The lead industry has been recovering lead from spent batteries on an industrial scale since the 1920s. This article takes a novel approach to explain the historical dynamics of the lead-acid battery industry: instead of narrating a linear commodity chain that begins with raw materials extracted from nature and ends with the disposal (or recycling) of a consumer product, this essay is organized around a systems-based approach that tracks the stocks and flows of lead through the built environment. How has the structure of the lead-acid battery industry changed over time? Where have the threats to human and environmental health emerged in the system? How has the system and its risks been affected by occupational health, environmental, and trade policies? Considering the environmental history of lead-acid batteries reveals a complex and volatile industry shaped by dramatic swings in recycling rates historically. Ironically, the recycling rate dropped sharply as new occupational health and environmental policies came into force in the 1980s. Recycling rates rose in the 1990s as the industry stabilized and consolidated. More recently, trade policies and tightening Environmental Protection Agency regulations have pushed lead-acid recycling activities abroad with consequences for human and environmental health that belie any straightforward claims about environmental sustainability.

Common ravens at a landfill. CC.

Common ravens at a landfill. CC.

Alexander R. D. Zahara and Myra J. Hird. (2015). Raven, Dog, Human: Inhuman Colonialism and Unsettling CosmologiesEnvironmental Humanities, 7.
As capitalism’s unintended, and often unacknowledged, fallout, humans have developed sophisticated technologies to squirrel away our discards: waste is buried, burned, gasified, thrown into the ocean, and otherwise kept out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Some inhuman animals seek out and uncover our wastes. These ‘trash animals’ choke on, eat, defecate, are contaminated with, play games with, have sex on, and otherwise live out their lives on and in our formal and informal dumpsites. In southern Canada’s sanitary landfills, waste management typically adopts a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to trash animals. These culturally sanctioned (and publicly funded) facilities practice diverse methods of ‘vermin control.’ By contrast, within Inuit communities of the Eastern Canadian Arctic, ravens eat, play, and rest on open dumps by the thousands. In this article, we explore the ways in which western and Inuit cosmologies differentially inform particular relationships with the inhuman, and ‘trash animals’ in particular. We argue that waste and wasting exist within a complex set of historically embedded and contemporaneously contested neo-colonial structures and processes. Canada’s North, we argue, is a site where differing cosmologies variously collide, intertwine, operate in parallel, or speak past each other in ways that often marginalize Inuit and other indigenous ways of knowing and being. Inheriting waste is more than just a relay of potentially indestructible waste materials from past to present to future: through waste, we bequeath a set of politically, historically, and materially constituted relations, structures, norms, and practices with which future generations must engage.

Carl Zimring. (2015). The Happiest of Finds: William L. Rathje’s Influence on the Field of Discard Studies. Ethnoarchaeology, 7(2), 173-178.
William L. Rathje, who died in 2012, made a unique and enduring contribution to the interdisciplinary study of waste by focusing on the materiality of discards. Rathje applied his archeological training in unearthing the material culture of prehistoric societies to provide new perspectives on industrial societies, perspectives that have proved influential on the broad field of discard studies.

Also see:
Article Alert! Attuning to the Chemosphere: Domestic Formaldehyde, Bodily Reasoning, and the Chemical Sublime
New Book! Plastic Water: The Social and Material Life of Bottled Water
Special Issue on Discards, Diverse Economies, and Degrowth
Article Alert! Place and Defilement Signposts Toward a New Theory of Purity in Sibley’s Geographies of Exclusion
Article Alert! Collection of Recent Articles on Discard Studies from E-waste to Shoddy