Thank you to our readers, authors, and supporters for a great 2016! We had over 136, 600 views from nearly 70,000 visitors this year! The majority of these visitors were from the English speaking world, particularly the United States and Canada, though our readers hail from around the world. What were you reading? In reverse order, here are our top ten posts of 2016:
10: Against Awareness, For Scale: Garbage is Infrastructure, Not Behavior
Views: 1,322 views
Author: Max Liboiron
Post date: January, 2014
This post from 2014 has been featured on syllabi in the United States, Canada, and the UK. The post is about the often misplaced faith in awareness in campaigns to deal with waste: “Despite its ubiquity as a campaign goal, awareness does very little to create change. It is possibly one of the most resource-intensive modes of action with the least payoff. Awareness is usually linked to individual behavior change as its mechanism for change: if the poster above manages to motivate you to go to foodshift.net, you’ll be asked to make a grocery list before you go to the store, become “storage savvy,” and get creative with your leftovers. Sociologists have been studying the relationship of awareness to behavior change for decades, and the results are in: the journey from awareness to behavior change is a long and arduous one, and few make it. Even for those who change their behavior, the scale of the change is often too small to impact the problem at hand.” Instead, the post advocates for thinking about waste as an infrastructural issue, and making interventions at that scale.
9. Ethnographic Refusal: A How to Guide
Author: Alex Zahara
Post date: August 2016
This post was a follow up to the very popular post Refusal as Research Method in Discard Studies. Readers asked how to go about using refusal in their own work. Alex Zahara provided some methodological starting points in this post. “Activist researchers have the potential to uncover particularly sensitive information that, when revealed, may have very real social and material consequences for research participants and their communities. Examples of this could include the presence of contamination (in places, bodies or animals), access to knowledge that is considered sacred, or interview responses that are political and potentially identifying. Additionally, we might be given access to potentially painful community events and experiences. As researchers interested in social justice, how do we proceed helpfully and ethically in our research in such situations?”
The post outlines Identifying what to refuse, How to refuse, ethical considerations of refusal, and a list of further readings.
8. A history of New York City’s solid waste management in photographs
Author: Max Liboiron
Post date: October 2013
This post has staying power! Originally posted in 2013, this archival photo collection covers the main periods and major events in New York City’s waste history, starting in the early 19th century. It follows the founding of the Department of Sanitation in 1881, has images of the various dumping groups around New York City, from Barren Island to Fresh Kills, documents the garbage strikes of 1911 and 1968, as well as the central place of sanitation in events such as 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy.
7. The Discard Studies Compendium
Post Date: 2015
The Discard Studies Compendium is a list of critical key terms for Discard Studies: Abjection, Environmentality, Hoarding, Humans-as-waste, and Nuclear wastelands, among many others. Because of the resurgence of approaches to studying waste and wasting as well as an interest in the potential of waste to build interdisciplinary bridges of relevance to pressing questions of our time, The Compendium is designed as a common starting place for critical terms. This list is critical in the sense that it comes out of methods in the humanities and social sciences that contextualize the problems and systems that are not readily apparent to the invested but casual observer. Over the next few years, we’ll be adding to the collection of words.
6. San Francisco’s Famous 80% Waste Diversion Rate: Anatomy of an Exemplar
Author: Samantha MacBride
Post Date: December 2013
You may have heard that San Francisco diverts 80% of its discards from landfills. We are fortunate to have Samantha MacBride, author of Recycling Reconsidered, take a close look at that number. She finds that, “San Francisco’s diversion rate is so high because the city includes large quantities of very heavy construction materials (such as excavated fill and rubble, which are reused as infill and road base ) and biosolids (applied to agricultural land) as ‘diversion’. ” These are not usually counted in other cities, and if they were, they would result in similar rates. It’s a problem of counting and categorizing more than a reflection of waste management strategies. Lately, similar stories have been coming out of Sweden’s numbers, which count incineration as a form of recycling. A small but important genre of discard studies is looking at how bureaucratic, scientific, accounting, and other quantitive measures come to define waste and waste management.
5. Bibliography on Noise Pollution
Author: Max Liboiron
Post Date: October 2013
Every year, this post from 2013 makes our top five list. There is very little scholarship on noise pollution from a critical or social sciences perspective. Noise remains a generally neglected source for the theorization of waste, pollution, and harm, so we update this list every year to keep it current and useful. It’s popularity has inspired other posts on unique bibliographies in discard studies for researchers, students, and professors.
4. How the Ocean Cleanup Array Fundamentally Misunderstands Marine Plastics and Causes Harm
Author: Max Liboiron
Post Date: May 2015
One of the main tasks of Discard Studies is to apply our critical research frameworks based in the social sciences and humanities to waste issues usually dominated by other disciplines. Our number four post is exactly that. The post argues that “Technological fixes like the Array do harm to the larger project of ending plastic pollution, which is a complex social, environmental, and economic problem. It is also going to damage and kill marine life.” After going through various technical and ecological arguments, it ends with social and materialist issues central to our field: “‘clean up’ is impossible for many wastes, including marine plastics. First, the extreme longevity of plastics mean that cleaning up is just moving the particles around in space as they endure in geologic time– they do not go away, and this temporality means than any containment is temporary. This is as true of plastics as it is of nuclear waste, orbital debris, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and is a defining feature of waste issues in the 21st century.”
3. The Politics of Recycling vs. Reusing
Author: Max Liboiron
Post Date: March 2016
In common conversations, reuse and recycling are used interchangeably. But they are fundamentally different processes, and as such, have very different politics: “Recycling is an industrial process that collects used or abandoned materials, and smashes, melts, shreds or otherwise transforms them into their constituent raw materials. […] Reuse, on the other hand, is an act that challenges the institutionalization of easy disposal and the politics of industry-supported “environmentalism” and consumption.” The post argues that, the slippage between terms, “signals a political failure to differentiate between ideologically diverse environmental actions, not a mere slip in vocabulary.”
2. Map of 40 most influential environmental justice conflicts in the US
Author: Environmental Justice Organizations, Liabilities and Trade (EJOLT)
Date: January 2015
In the United States, decades of research have documented a strong correlation between the location of environmental burdens and the racial/ethnic background of the most impacted residents. In an effort to choose landmark cases in the U.S. the team from University of Michigan elicited feedback from more than 200 environmental justice leaders, activists, and scholars in identifying these case studies, resulting in a map and entries in the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice. Unlike most environmental justice maps that seek to locate hot spots via density of disputes, this is a political map: it looks to where conflicts over waste, pollution, and health resulted in significant changes in the environmental justice movement in the past and present.
1. Refusal as Research Method in Discard Studies
Author: Alex Zahara
Date: March 2016
Our number one post is nearly three times as popular as our number two post, receiving 14,533 unique views in nine months! The author is a PhD student at the Memorial University of Newfoundland who worked on dump fires in the arctic for his master’s degree. Based on his experience working with mis- and under-represented groups, he writes:
Researchers examining waste issues have the potential to uncover particularly sensitive information—that specific places, people or animals might be contaminated— that has very real social and material consequences for communities being studied. We also might be given access to report on potentially painful community events and experiences. As researchers interested in social justice, how do we proceed helpfully in our research?
The concept of ‘ethnographic refusal’ is one way forward. Ethnographic refusal is a practice by which researchers and research participants together decide not to make particular information available for use within the academy. Its purpose is not to bury information, but to ensure that communities are able to respond to issues on their own terms. An ethnographic refusal is intended to redirect academic analysis away from harmful pain-based narratives that obscure slow violence, and towards the structures and institutions that engender those narratives. It is a method centrally concerned with a community’s right to self-representation.
We think this is one of our most popular posts because it speaks to a serious methodological problem not only in discard studies, but in any discipline that works with communities. This method comes out of an ethical commitment to decolonize research, and to revitalize research ethics: “Engaging in ethnographic refusal as method, then, is intended as an ethical intervention that provides research participants the opportunity to dictate whether knowledge is to be made available within the academy (among other places), how environmental and human health issues are responded to, and by whom.” We look forward to this new generation of researchers whose work on ethics resonates with so many readers.