New articles in Discard Studies (July/August)

Since critical discard studies doesn’t (yet!) have its own journal, conference, or department, Discard Studies publishes a regular table of contents alerts for articles, reports, and books in the field. If you are interested in becoming an editor for non-English article alerts on Discard Studies, or know of a recent article for the next article alert, please contact Max Liboiron:

Andersen, A. O. (2016). Purification: Engineering Water and Producing PoliticsScience, Technology, & Human Values, 0162243917723079.
In Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, engineers work hard to control water flows and provide different sectors with clean and sufficient water. In 2011, only 10 percent of the totality of water used daily by Arequipa’s then close to 1 million people—in households, tourism, industry, and mining—was treated before it was returned to the river where it continues its flow downstream towards cultivated fields and, finally, into the Pacific Ocean. It takes specialized knowledge and manifold technologies to manage water and sustain life in Arequipa, and engineers are central actors for making water flow. Examining the ecology of water management, this article asks to what extent we can talk of a way of knowing and enacting water that is particular to engineers. Through engineering practices, a technical domain emerges as separate from and superior to political and social domains. This production of categories can be understood as practices of purification. However, a purely technical grip on water is never possible. Unruly elements, like weather, contamination, urban dwellers, and competing interests, interfere and make processes of intervention unstable. Water is never completely cleaned, and, equally, the continuous processes of purification of categories and domains take place while other processes work to blur their boundaries.

Baka, J. (2016). Making space for energy: wasteland development, enclosures, and energy dispossessionsAntipodeDOI: 10.1111/anti.12219
This paper analyzes why and how wasteland development narratives persist through an evaluation of wasteland development policies in India from 1970 to present. Integrating critical scholarship on environmental narratives and enclosures, I find that narratives of wastelands as “empty” spaces available for “improvement” continue because they are metaphors for entrenched struggles between the government’s shifting visions of “improvement” and communities whose land use practices contradict these logics. Since the 1970s, “improvement” has meant establishing different types of tree plantations on wastelands to ostensibly provide energy security. These projects have dispossessed land users by enclosing common property lands and by providing forms of energy incommensurate with local needs, a trend I term “energy dispossessions”. Factors enabling energy dispossessions include the government’s increased attempts to establish public–private partnerships to carry out “improvement” and a “field of observation” constructed to obscure local livelihoods. Unveiling these logics will help to problematize and contest future iterations of wasteland development.

Dhillon, C. M. (2017). Using citizen science in environmental justice: participation and decision-making in a Southern California waste facility siting conflict. Local Environment, 1-18.
Uses of science by environmental justice (EJ) activists reflect struggles to challenge professional scientific expertise, achieve fair outcomes, and effectively participate in decision-making processes. This qualitative research analyses the relationship between citizen science and EJ in a new waste facility siting conflict in urban Los Angeles, namely connections between citizen science and four dimensions of EJ: fair distributionrespect and recognitionparticipation in decision-making, and community capabilities. Citizen science is one tactic in EJ, yet little research investigates its role in a new facility siting conflict, particularly in relation to multi-faceted EJ goals. The research reveals opportunities for individual empowerment and community capacity building using citizen science, and a small measure of improved respect and recognition for participants who brought their own knowledge, research, and voices to the table. At the same time, the work identifies limitations on citizen science to improve local participatory procedures and decision-making, which also constricted the achievement of outcomes most desired by the EJ group: to prevent approval and construction of the new waste facility. This paper argues that uses of citizen science contributed to partial achievement of EJ goals, while hindered by governance processes that call for public participation yet shield decision-makers from substantive engagement with the volume or content of that participation.

Furniss, J. (2017). What type of problem is waste in Egypt?. Social Anthropology, 25(3), 301-317.
This paper attempts to show that while the production of waste may be universal, the threat it poses is not. In order to explain and justify the question ‘what type of problem is waste’, the paper begins by attempting to, first, provincialise the ‘environmental’ framing of waste by examining the category’s historically changing problematisations in Western Europe and North America, and, second, through a critique of Mary Douglas’s work Purity and danger, to argue that waste should be theorised ethnographically rather than analytically. It then argues that, in Egypt, the materiality of litter and the sociality of waste work are sublimated into a religio-civilisational register based on the central trope of cleanliness rather than environment. It does so by considering various meanings and inflexions of the word ‘cleanliness’ in vernacular usage, the way the terms environment and pollution are used, naming conventions for waste collectors and anti-litter campaigns.
Cet article tente de montrer que si la production de déchets est peut être universelle, la menace qu’ils posent ne l’est pas. Afin d’expliciter et de justifier la question « Quelle sorte de problème représentent les déchets ? », l’article commence en problématisant la façon provinciale d’aborder les déchets d’un point de vue « environnemental ». D’une part, à travers une analyse de la problématisation historique en constant évolution de la catégorie en Europe occidentale et en Amérique du Nord; d’autre part, à travers une critique de l’ouvrage de Mary Douglas Purity and danger, faisant valoir au contraire que les déchets doivent être théorisés de manière ethnographique plutôt que de façon analytique. Il se poursuit en montrant qu’en Égypte la matérialité des ordures et le caractère social des déchets sont sublimés dans un registre religio-civilisationnel basé sur la figure centrale de la propreté plutôt que de l’environnement. En effet, diverses significations et inflexions du terme « propreté » dans la langue vernaculaire sont prises en compte, ainsi que la façon dont les termes environnement et pollution s’emploient, les conventions de dénominations utilisées pour nommer les collecteurs de déchets et les campagnes de ramassage de déchets.


Garnett, E. (2017). Air Pollution in the Making: Multiplicity and Difference in Interdisciplinary Data PracticesScience, Technology, & Human Values, 0162243917699974.
This article traces an emergent tension in an interdisciplinary public health project called Weather Health and Air Pollution (WHAP). The tension centered on two different kinds of data of air pollution: monitored and modeled data. Starting out with monitoring and modeling practices, the different ways in which they enacted air pollution are detailed. This multiplicity was problematic for the WHAP scientists, who were intent on working across disciplines, an initiative driven primarily by the epidemiologists who imbued the project with meaning and value as the protagonists of “health.” To work collaboratively implies a stable, singular, and shared research object, however: one kind of data, one version of air pollution. In detailing two attempts by researchers to address the inadequacies of modeled and monitored data, this article explores the ways in which difference and multiplicity were negotiated and transformed. In doing so, this article suggests that it is the mobility and instability of data that are particularly fruitful for exploring the facilitation and enactment of new realities, while also making explicit the emergent problematics and partialities which inevitably result.

Guitard, E. (2017). The sacred king as a waste heap in northern CameroonJournal of Material Culture, 1359183517725096.
In this article, the author considers waste (bodily excreta, the remains of daily activities, discarded artefacts) as the result of a process whereby material items are disembodied or excorporated. In the ancient kingdom of the Guiziga Bui Marva in northern Cameroon, the waste produced by each subject ended up on a large waste heap accumulated by the king. The bodily conducts of the king and his subjects were such as to identify the monarch with the heap according to the tenets of African sacred kingship. Contemporary ethnographic evidence sheds light on the history of the region and vice versa. It documents enduring bodily practices over the last couple of centuries, and the significant changes that affected them in regard to the production of given religious subjectivities.

KIESMEKiechle, M. A. (2017). Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America. University of Washington Press.
What did nineteenth-century cities smell like? And how did odors matter in the formation of a modern environmental consciousness? Smell Detectives follows the nineteenth-century Americans who used their noses to make sense of the sanitary challenges caused by rapid urban and industrial growth. It recovers how city residents used their sense of smell and their health concerns about foul odors to understand, adjust to, and fight against urban environmental changes.

Lewe, Christiane. Othold, Tim. Oxen, Nicolas (Ed.) (2017). “Müll – Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven auf das Übrig-Gebliebene” (Waste – Interdisciplinary perspectives for the Remaining), Bielefeld: transcript.
Dieser Sammelband geht aus der Tagung »Müll – Perspektiven des Übrigen« hervor, die vom 24. bis 25. September 2015 in Weimar stattfand und überwiegend junge Forschende aus unterschiedlichen geisteswissenschaftlichen Disziplinen in Austausch brachte. Wenn Wissenschaft daran arbeitet, Unterscheidungen, Kategorien und Ordnungen in die Welt zu bringen, ist sie zwangsläufig mit dem Übrigen konfrontiert, das sich dieser Logik widersetzt. ›Müll‹, ›Abfall‹ und ›Übriges‹ sind Felder, die disziplinäre Grenzen überschreiten und sich nicht auf einzelne methodische Zugänge reduzieren lassen. Gerade weil das Übrige als eigenständiger Forschungsgegenstand (nicht nur) in den Geisteswissenschaften meistens ausgeschlossen, übersehen oder unterschätzt wird, ist eine offene und breite Auseinandersetzung mit diesem besonderen Forschungsgegenstand notwendig.
Mit der Tagung und diesem Band haben wir deshalb junge Wissenschaftle-
rinnen und Wissenschaftler versammelt, die sich einschlägig mit Müll, Abfall und Schrott befassen und so zur Vervielfältigung der Perspektiven auf das Übrige beitragen.

Lougheed, S. and Hird, M. (2017). Food security and secure food in the Anthropocene. Crime, Law and Social Change.
Discussions of the Anthropocene often position the human species as acting with such profound force as to have impacted the planet at a material, geological level. While frequently coupled with a view of human control and god-like status, we caution against a reading of the Anthropocene as an epoch of human geo-planetary control, certainty, and ecological interdependence. Instead we argue that the Anthropocene signifies a period of profound uncertainty and asymmetry in which our dependence on inhuman planetary forces is a defining attribute. We argue that food safety – specifically food recalls – effectively demonstrates this reading of the Anthropocene. We address two sides of securing the food system in North America: how food safety is defined, ensured, or compromised; and how unsafe food is subsequently managed as a waste product to be securely destroyed, or as a potential raw material to produce other commodities. We suggest that biopolitics is the primary means by which humans attempt to manage the fundamental uncertainty of the Anthropocene, while also shaping that very future.

Ofrias, Lindsay. (2017): Invisible harms, invisible profits: a theory of the incentive to contaminate, Culture, Theory and Critique, DOI: 10.1080/14735784.2017.1357478
Building on ethnographic research conducted in the Ecuadorian Amazon, this paper seeks to reframe the industrial contamination problem. From critiques of neoliberalism to Marxist-oriented environment theories, industrial contamination is understood as a secondary effect of a larger problem of the capitalist system. There are at least four, often overlapping, ways of understanding the pervasiveness of the problem, via: (1) cost-benefit analyses, which determine it to be cheaper to remediate environmental damages than prevent them; (2) weak regulation, which shapes those cost-benefit analyses; (3) the externalisation of certain costs onto third (usually marginalised) parties; and (4) contradictions inherent to capital accumulation which promote the destruction of the very environmental conditions that capital depends on. Curiously, even where contamination is conceptualised as an inherent and necessary feature of capitalism, it appears as collateral damage, as the ‘unintentional by-product’ of something-other, rather than a ‘conscious imposition of “power over”’ a particular group of people (De Angelis, M. 2004. ‘Separating the Doing and the Deed: Capital and the Continuous Character of Enclosures’. Historical Materialism 12:2, 57–87). This is curious because small farmers and indigenous people affected by a devastating oil-related disaster in Ecuador describe contamination otherwise – as a kind of targeted, chemical warfare against those living ‘in the way of’ extractive operations. Dealing with the narrative gap between those lived experiences of contamination and the expert discourses about it, this paper introduces the concept of an ‘incentive to contaminate’. By critically expanding the prevailing theories, the concept turns greater attention to the productive work that contamination does for the oil industry, thus challenging socio-legal categories of intent that impede environmental justice.


Pollans, L. B. (2017). Trapped in trash:‘Modes of governing’ and barriers to transitioning to sustainable waste management. Environment and Planning A, 0308518X17719461.
The disposal of municipal solid waste can be costly and environmentally destructive. This article asks why, given many alternatives, most waste material is still disposed of in landfills or incinerators. Building upon the ‘modes of governing’ framework proposed by Bulkeley, Watson, and Hudson as a means of identifying and interpreting the relationships among the many actors and artefacts that constitute a municipal solid waste management system, this article explores the barriers to transitioning between modes. The case of solid waste management in Boston, Massachusetts illustrates how key factors – limited enforcement of existing policy, institutional and physical fragmentation, financial incentives, and the vested interests of the private sector – protect the disposal mode of governing. Meanwhile, the actors most interested in moving towards more sustainable waste management techniques lack access to decision-making processes and daily operations, limiting their ability to influence policy and practice. The analysis of barriers suggests an alternative way of classifying modes – dominant, incremental, visionary, and aspirational – that explicitly captures the relative entrenchment of each mode, while also opening up the framework for application in other geographies, and for other systems that may or may not share similar governmental rationalities, technologies, or capacities.


Stanes, E., & Gibson, C. (2017). Materials that linger: An embodied geography of polyester clothes. Geoforum, 85, 27-36.
Narratives of clothing reuse and repurpose have centred on second-hand economies, recycling, upcycling and DIY, fashioning a particular kind of ‘wasted’ aesthetic where stitching, darning and patching become visible. But what of clothes that don’t show signs of wear, because they are made from human-made fabrics that degrade much more slowly than organic materials? Drawing on ethnographic ‘fashion journeys’ with young adults from Sydney, Australia, this paper follows polyester clothes, geographically and temporally, beyond of spaces of production, to their everyday use, storage, divestment, reuse and recirculation. Clothing is theorised as always in-process – materially, temporally and spatially – and understood haptically through relations between agentic component materials and human touch. Reconfiguring concepts of fashion waste questions how clothes become redundant: their material memories instead lingering in wardrobes, in stockpiles of divested objects and hand-me-downs, entering cycles of second-hand trade and ultimately, landfill. Polyester manifests a particular variant of material culture: both mundane and malignant, its feel and slow decay result in clothing that seldom slips from the category of surplus to excess in clear ways. An embodied approach, focused on materials and haptic properties of touch and ‘feel’, reveals the contours of an otherwise opaque everyday geography of clothing waste.

Tonuk, D. (2017). Materials as temporally specific phenomena: Specialization and compromise in bioplastics productionJournal of Material Culture, 1359183517725547.
This article concerns itself with the ‘materials’ – matter, substance – of material culture. More specifically, it explores the making of bioplastics, by taking account of bioplastics’ relationships with the products into which they are made. The author focuses on the processes of bioplastics’ industrial production and manufacturing into bioplastic products, in and through which bioplastics come to be as they are in our daily lives, and as places where material–product relationships are formed. Her analysis of these processes shows that making of bioplastics is a specialization towards products by achieving compromises among the capacity of materials, conventions about the particular product and its production route, and various interests of the stakeholders involved. As such, she conceptualizes materials as temporally specific phenomena and aims to show that attending to material–product relationships points out new sets of relationships in the make-up of materiality and opens up new pathways of enquiry for material culture studies.


De Wolff, K. (2017). Plastic Naturecultures: Multispecies Ethnography and the Dangers of Separating Living from Nonliving BodiesBody & Society, 1357034X17715074.
A jellyfish surrounds a plastic fragment, merging the synthetic material with its body; a water agency poster warns of dangerous plastic bottle ‘fish’ in the Mediterranean; marine organisms take shelter on and under synthetic materials. These are the denizens of a growing realm marine ecologists call the ‘plastisphere’, where sea life and plastics meet. Building upon multispecies ethnography, science and technology studies interrogations of nature/culture divides and the practical work of classification, this article explores the indeterminacy – the very plasticity – of the category of ‘species’ as it is engaged in seriousness and irony, with living and nonliving bodies. First, I draw on participant observation at a nonprofit marine institute laboratory in California to trace the travels of plastic-creatures through attempts to disentangle them in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Here volunteers sort tiny plastic bits from animal ones under the microscope, enacting material boundaries as they decide what gets counted as life (not plastic) and what does not (plastic). Second, I follow movements of plastic-creatures through public education campaigns, paying particular attention to assumptions about belonging and agency enacted with assumptions about whether and when plastic-species should or should not meet. I argue that the ‘danger’ of plastic relationships lurks not in associations but in the very categories used to know and live with forms of plastic and forms of life, in the kinds of belonging that emerge with kinds of materials, and in the failure to recognize the impossibility of their separation.