The what and the why of Discard Studies

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We tend to think that we are familiar with waste because we deal with it every day. Yet, this is not the case–most aspects of waste are entirely hidden from view and understanding. Waste and wasting includes social, economic, political, cultural, and material systems that shape materials, practices, infrastructures, and norms. As more attention is being focused on waste, it becomes crucial for the humanities and social sciences to contextualize the problems, materialities, and systems that are not readily apparent to the invested but casual observer. Otherwise, waste seems like a technical problem rather than a social, cultural, economic, and political problem.

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Figure 1. The scale of municipal solid waste versus industrial solid waste. Based on figures from Royt 2007, Leonard 2010, EPA 1987, MacBride 2011. Chart by Max Liboiron.

For instance, our familiarity with everyday waste usually leads environmental activist campaigns to focus on household waste. Yet, household waste is a tiny fraction of waste generally. The vast majority of waste–some 97%– is industrial waste. Because our personal experiences with waste are a limited (though not un-true!) perspective, research is central to thinking through, nuancing, and countering familiar aspects of waste.

What is discard studies?

Unlike studies that take waste and trash as their primary objects of study, discard studies looks at wider systems, structures, and cultures of waste and wasting. Discard studies is an interdisciplinary area of research based in case studies of waste and wasting, broadly defined. While we include anthropologists, geographers, sociologists, historians, lawyers, architects, engineers, artists, urban planners, activists, and many others, we are united by a similar approach to understanding waste and wasting: we question the premises–the assumptions of what seems natural, normal, logical, and inevitable–of waste to investigate the wider systems that allow things to seem natural, normal, logical, and inevitable in the first place.

Discard studies is theoretically and methodologically capacious, but it is critical. Being critical means discard studies denaturalizes and denormalizes the taken-for-grantedness of discards. It does so by examining histories, geographies, and politics of discards. It shows how what is measured matters and how.

Discard studies researchers are like archeologists in that we peel back layers to expose what lies beneath the ground we stand on. As such, discard studies is similar to other fields such as science and technology studies, gender studies, and media studies that uncover how things we take for granted–technology, gender, modes of communication–are “produced through social, technical and institutional practices” rather than things that pop into the world unattached and neutral.

flow chart of an expansive network (right) versus a small keyhole view of that network (left)

Figure 2: A focus on what we know about waste from our everyday experiences and population narratives results in a focus outlined in the diagram on the left. Discard studies, depicted on the right, looks at wider relationships and systems of waste and wasting, paying special attention to power and infrastructures. Image by Max Liboiron. Icon credits below.

We use the term “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. Waste studies tend to focus on trash, rubbish, and recyclables. But discards can include people, landscapes, futures, ways of life, and more. Discard studies leaves our objects of study open, because we are committed to a mode of inquiry (critical investigation of case studies) for a genre of things that are systematically devalued, cast out, erased, ignored, killed, removed, ruined, and otherwise cast in the negative. Yet this framing does not predetermine the types of objects we study. For example, some objects such as valuable jewelry might seem far outside the jurisdiction of discard studies. But when conducting a study on electronic waste that followed the waste from its origins to its reclamation in Bangladesh, Lepawsky and Mather found some of the metals were being melted down to make jewelry. Likewise, researchers have found connections between mining precious metals, ores, and stones, the resulting pollution that turns mining areas into social and environmental “sacrifice zones,” and colonialism on the continent of  Africa and in countries like Canada. In both cases, precious metals and stones are not obvious as waste materials, but they are firmly within the realm of discards.

What does discard studies argue?

The research legacies and trajectories that are represented on this blog, Discard Studies, is only one flavour of what the wider field of discard studies has to offer. These are some of the broad theories and arguments Discard Studies has been making since its creation in 2010.

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Figure 3: Overflowing waste bins– the right behaviour, but inadequate infrastructure. Image by Albertyanks Albert Jankowski, 2009.

Structures, not behaviours, uphold norms and practices of waste and wasting. In sociology and other fields, there is a constant tension between agency–what individuals and groups of people are able and want to do– and structure, the cultural norms and values, institutions, infrastructures, and power relations that constrain and even determine that agency. Because of this, we’ve argued against awareness as an ideal method for creating changes around waste and wasting, instead arguing for changes in infrastructure and other scaled up systems. To help understand this tension, we use concepts of scale and scalar mismatch to argue that waste occurs differently within different structures at different scales, and that action must match up with these scales. For example, if we want to address pollution and waste, then focusing 90% of our activist efforts on household waste that makes up less than 3% of a nation’s waste is not going to be effective. Consumer and citizen behaviour cannot impact 97% of the waste that’s out there.

Many of our posts look at structures, including one that discussed how disposability was invented and normalized through advertising and infrastructure in the United States after WWII, rather than wastefulness being inherent to human nature (also see Strasser 2000). We’ve covered the way that agency is constrained by laws about waste, but how those structures can also be challenged in an effort to create social change. Crucially, we continue to study the wider systems that influence waste, such as economic growth, capitalism, colonialism (also here), and racism and white supremacy.

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Figure 4: Hazardous waste categorization. Image by Jeremy Brooks, 2008.

The measurement of waste makes waste a particular type of thing; waste does not preexist its categorization and measurement. One early text in discard studies is Brian Wynn’s 1987 book Risk Management and Hazardous Waste which is about the promises and perils of attempting to use risk management science to regulate waste. One example he discusses is the different levels at which polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are regulated in the UK and US. The allowable level for PCBs in US landfills is five times higher than those in the UK. Yet, there is nothing inherent about the chemical compound that makes it hazardous waste (or not) at one regulatory limit versus the other. When it comes to wastes, then, “natural processes and human interactions are jumbled together in complex and widely variable ways, making a badly structured and, indeed, indeterminate behavioral-technical-risk-generating system” (Wynne 1987, 1). While we are not invested in defining what is and is not waste, since this varies considerably between cultures, times, and contexts, we are invested in seeing how different definitions and techniques of identifying waste impact the world differently.

One of our most popular posts is by Samantha MacBride, the director of research at the New York City Department of Sanitation. MacBride looked deeply into the numbers that allow San Francisco to claim one of the highest recycling rates in the world, since MacBride was invested into following suit in her own jurisdiction. But instead, she found that:

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Figure 5: The green and black sections of the graph are what are traditionally termed “municipal solid waste” (MSW) by cities and waste agencies the world over. They consist of recycled paper, metal, glass and plastic; and organics collected for composting (green sections). Disposed municipal refuse originating from households and non-industrial businesses is in the black sections.
San Francisco is unusual in calculating and reporting diversion including large tonnages shown in the grey section of the graph (inert construction materials used as fill, and biosolids applied to land). Most discussions of the 80% do not qualify this large addition, which means that people making comparisons to other places without this understanding do so incorrectly.
Data sources: EUROSTAT 2013, US EPA 2013, Waste and Recycling News 2013, Zhang et. al. 2013.

San Francisco’s 80% diversion rate is, in fact, a unique reflection of what the San Francisco Department of Environment counts, and how it calculates and publicizes what it counts. I present details below, but the bottom line is this. 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”.

This matters because San Francisco’s rate is understood “as a beacon, an exemplar, a benchmark, and a vision for the future.” But it is a trick of math, and at the end of the day, the city has a similar rate to recycling in New York City and other locals when they are calculated the same way.

This is not a case of duplicity, but an example of how waste practices, morals, and imaginaries are made through measurement. Other posts on this topic include how per capita measurements (amount of waste generated per person) hamstring environmental justice arguments, while some sewage metrics can spur action (also see Pine and Liboiron, 2015). We have looked at how recorded quantities of waste quantities can become “truthier” when they act as theatres of proof (also here). And we’ve discussed how doing statistics in certain ways and not others can fundamentally change narratives about electronic waste, shifting the narrative about how the wealthy global north is dumping waste in the global south, to one of more nuance where the global south is trading with itself (also see Lepawksy, 2018).

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Figure 5. Microplastics from the Hudson River outside of New York City. These plastics are smaller than a grain of rice, and will exist in geological time because of the strength of their molecular bonds. Photo by Max Liboiron.

Materialities matter. Not all waste is created equal. Samantha MacBride writes that  unlike wastes before the industrial revolution, “modern wastes are synthetic, unpredictable, and above all heterogeneous” (2012: 174). They can be toxic, long lasting, and made of complex, often unknown, components. These materialities matter because they dictate how waste travels through environments and economies, whether and how it is dangerous or causes harm, and the sorts of systems and politics they are entangled in. For example, it can make sense to group disposable plastics with nuclear waste and waste in outer space if we are thinking about longevity, because these materials exist in geological time and will outlast the human species.

Materialities matter, in part, because they dictate the movements of waste. We’re written about how plastics’ lightness, longevity, and leakiness continually places them in ocean environments, but also how their fragmentation into tiny pieces makes clean up impossible. The toxicity of plastics and other materials is also a serious problem for concepts like the circular economy, which assumes all wasted materials can be brought back into economic and consumption cycles (also see Gregson et al. 2015). Researchers have even found that if you literally follow waste objects around, rather than assuming that they circulate in a certain way from an abstract position, you end up in unexpected places where materials transform from, for example, e-waste to jewelry. Finally, paying attention to materiality and material practices is crucial for politics. For example, recycling is a fundamentally different material process than reuse and results in the use of virgin materials, requires energy, and makes pollution, but they two are conflated constantly as the same kind of moral good. Likewise, toxins and toxicants are two very different types of things, each with fundamentally different forms and scales of harm, but they too are often conflated as the same type of immoral thing. In each case, the difference is not merely one of semantics, but of being able to recognize the vastly different politics, stakes, and infrastructures in each. These nuances are crucial to discard studies.

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Figure 6. Beyond NoDAPL March on Washington, DC. 2016. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Waste and pollution are about power. In July 2017, China stopped accepting imports of plastic, paper, and other recyclable wastes. Within weeks, recycling systems in Canada, Europe, the US, and elsewhere were in disarray with nowhere to ship their recyclable discards. This disruption of the global recycling market illustrates how waste is made through relations between centers and peripheries and how the coherence of the center is dependent on the periphery. Recycling is able to be understood as a “green” and morally good recycling practice in Canada, Europe, and the US only through environmental sinks in China. That is, the center is kept clean by externalizing waste to peripheries. Concepts such as sacrifice zones, reproductive injustice (Hoover et al. 2012; Murphy 2017), environmental racism,and similar terms point to the injustices of how many practices of maintaining centers of power also make externalities, outsides/ers, or harm. Writing about pollution, Liboiron, Tironi, and Calvillo write:

“More than just the contravention of an established order within a system, toxic harm can be understood as the contravention of order at one scale and the reproduction of order at another. Chronic low levels of arsenic in water interrupt the reproduction of fish, but maintain the ability of mining companies to store mining tailings in open air mounds. The disruption of order on one scale to consolidate order at another is characteristic of many forms of violence (think of homelessness, gentrification and war). Toxicity is a specific genre of harm that is about ordering living systems, broadly defined to include scales from cells to ways of life” (2018: 335-336).  

Because waste and wasting practices are about allowing centers to remain dominant in what, how, and where they discard, discard studies is dedicated to de-centering those systems to see how they become powerful to begin with. Discard studies asks about what kind of center(s) do wasting and pollution shore up? What does the production of waste and pollution allow to be reproduced and for whom? What are “the uneven relations and infrastructure that shape what forms of life are supported to persist, thrive, and alter, and what forms of life are destroyed, injured, and constrained” (Murphy 2017: 141-142)?

Some of our posts on this topic include The Power Behind Disposability: Why New York City’s ban on polystyrene was vilified, sued, and reversed, Discard by Power: Occupy Wall Street’s People’s Library Dumped, Refugees: Humans-as-Waste?, and Pollution is Colonialism. We’ve also written about how waste discourses that seem morally good, such as battling plastic pollution, can also be moves to further imperialism or increase developing world debt. In another case of methylmercury contamination, we recount how dominant scientific modes of evidence are used to de-center other claims of toxic harm and calls for justice. Science remains centered as the main way to know things, and other ways of knowing are disempowered. Examples of power include overt coercion, but they also include more subtle forms of power, such as what types of knowledge are automatically valid and which are not. It is important to look for these more subtle, often taken for granted modes of power based in what seem normal, natural, and given when it comes to waste and wasting.

What are the stakes of discard studies?

Like all good research, discard studies takes sides. At its best, discard studies announces its version of good and right action. We pay attention to the dynamics between how the world is (wasted, polluted, externalized) and how it ought to be (equitable, just, healthy). In so doing, discard studies helps illuminate how norms with broad social consensus are instituted through specific infrastructures and materials and why that matters. For example, a recent, wide-ranging suite of environmental campaigns to ban plastic straws shows a broad consensus in advocacy groups that straws are unneeded plastic disposables. But the pushback from people with disabilities shows that the infrastructure of a total ban–seen as an ideal environmental action–would not only remove straws from public places where people with disabilities needed them. In an interview with MetroUK, Imani Barbarin explains that,

“Straws were originally used in hospitals and nursing facilities to keep people hydrated and were popularised by shake shops and fast food restaurants. Essentially, abled people gentrified the straw for commercial reasons and are now trying to restrict access to them now that shallow environmentalism has popularised their ban. Able-bodied people are on board with the ban because it has little effect on their everyday lives and leaves them feeling like they’ve done something ethical, argues Imani. But a blanket ban could mean people unable to use their hands will need to rely on being fed by a person or carer. All the alternatives are problematic and create a situation in which disabled people’s independence and determination of disability are in the hands of someone else. By making them available only upon request you’ve put someone’s quality of life in the hands of someone with little knowledge of disability.”

From a discard studies perspective, delving into the technical issues like paper vs plastic straws, requested vs ubiquitously available straws, and similar issues (brilliantly captured by liminalists’s Straw Ban Bingo card), misses the point of power relations that the straw ban is based on. A discard studies analysis asks what allows straws to be a logical target of bans rather than other consumer items or even industrial waste, what allows debates about power to immediately turn towards technical fixes, and what are “the uneven relations and infrastructure that shape what forms of life are supported to persist, thrive, and alter, and what forms of life are destroyed, injured, and constrained” (Murphy 2017: 141-142)?

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Figure 7: Straw ban bingo by Liminal Nest : “It’s the unending WAVE of the same questions when multiple articles and threads and charts have covered these exact points that is what is so exhausting about The Summer of the Straw Ban. This bingo card is intended for levity and to relieve some of the pressure and fatigue of disabled activists.”

One of the important arguments of discard studies is that ideas of what is good and right, normal and natural, are built into infrastructures. Power, privilege, and injustice can occur if things operate normally. Discard studies has a crucial role in pointing this out in debates, policies, crises, and solutions around waste. These critiques have to surface if we want to do waste differently.

If discard is necessary for systems to hold together, to subsist and to persist, then differently organized systems are needed that fundamentally alter discarding. We are not talking about eradicating discards altogether. Fundamentally changing discarding means posing the question: how to discard well? (for example, see Liboiron 2015) Such a question has no absolute or universal answer. Discard studies offers methods for making space for this question. Any response to the question must take into account permanent toxicity, gross inequalities and power differentials, the necessity of dealing with multiple systems simultaneously, a need to offer practices as much as critique, and humble narratives that leave room for open and diverse futures.

Discard Studies 2.0

Discard Studies has been operating since 2007, mainly under the stewardship of one or two people. In the spirit of reflecting on what we, as editors, writers, and researchers in discard studies are including or not including in our posts, we’re looking to expand what the blog covers. We’re interested in posts on the waste the flows from virtual systems, collecting and discarding in archives and museums (including issues of repatriation and colonialism), heritage and building waste, noise and light pollution, but also in wider systems that order waste and wasting, such as the state, economies, legal orders, gender constructs, white supremacy, and models of resurgence, revival, and liberation. All have their discards.

If you think you have knowledge that can add to these conversations on Discard Studies, we’d love to hear a pitch from you.

 

This post was written on the re-launch of Discard Studies after nearly a decade of conversations, posts, and research after its founding in 2010. The content was written and organized by blog editors Max Liboiron and Josh Lepawsky, pulling from past posts on the blog.

 

Works Cited

  • Gregson, N., Crang, M., Fuller, S., & Holmes, H. (2015). Interrogating the circular economy: the moral economy of resource recovery in the EU. Economy and Society, 44(2), 218-243.
  • Hoover, E., Cook, K., Plain, R., Sanchez, K., Waghiyi, V., Miller, P., … & Carpenter, D. O. (2012). Indigenous peoples of North America: environmental exposures and reproductive justice. Environmental Health Perspectives, 120(12), 1645.
  • Lepawsky, J. (2018). Reassembling Rubbish: Worlding Electronic Waste. MIT Press.
  • Liboiron, M., Tironi, M., & Calvillo, N. (2018). Toxic politics: Acting in a permanently polluted world. Social studies of science, 48(3), 331-349.
  • Liboiron, M. (2015). An Ethics of Surplus and the Right to Waste. Society & Space.
  • MacBride, S. (2011). Recycling reconsidered: the present failure and future promise of environmental action in the United States. Mit Press.
  • Murphy, M. (2017). The economization of life. Duke University Press.
  • Pine, K. H., & Liboiron, M. (2015). The politics of measurement and action. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems(pp. 3147-3156). ACM.
  • Strasser, S. (2000). Waste and want: A social history of trash. Macmillan.
  • Wynne, Brian. (1987). Risk Management and Hazardous Waste: Implementation and the Dialectics of Credibility. Springer London, Limited.

Discard Studies posts cited

Image 1 credits:
Wallet by supalerk laipawat from the Noun Project
Crumpled Paper by emilegraphics from the Noun Project
recycling bin by Delwar Hossain from the Noun Project
Cash Register by lipi from the Noun Project
cash by Vectorstall from the Noun Project
Cashier by Gan Khoon Lay from the Noun Project
hand sanitizer by Briand Rabideau from the Noun Project
Patient by LOOK AND FEEL from the Noun Project
Recycle Paper by Raphaël Buquet from the Noun Project
Industry by Chameleon Design from the Noun Project
building by Jonathan Li from the Noun Project
chemicals by Delwar Hossain from the Noun Project
Water Bottles by Made by Made from the Noun Project
glue by ProSymbols from the Noun Project
turbines by Creative Stall from the Noun Project
Air Pollution by Yu luck from the Noun Project
water pollution by Yu luck from the Noun Project
receipt by Lil Squid from the Noun Project