Placing discard studies in Australia
By Catherine Phillips, David Boarder Giles, Gay Hawkins and Alex Zahara
We tend to think that we are familiar with waste because we deal with it every day. Yet, most aspects of waste are entirely hidden from view and understanding, including the wider social, economic, political, cultural, and material systems that shape waste and wasting. To help defamiliarize and demythologize aspects of waste, Discard Studies hosts a series of interviews with researchers who are working to show some of the more invisible, less well-known aspects of waste and wasting, collectively called demythologizing waste.
To answer the question of what discard studies looks like in different places, Alex Zahara (Memorial University) of Discard Studies spoke with Australian discard studies scholars Catherine Phillips (University of Melbourne), David Boarder Giles (Deakin University), and Gay Hawkins (University of Western Sydney). In part 1 of this conversation, Catherine and David reflect on the influences of Australian discard studies scholarship, from specific intellectual traditions to Australian settler colonialism to difficulties in justifying non-North American scholarship. After this, Gay discusses the state of waste management in Australia and where she sees the trajectory of the field.
Australian Intellectual Traditions
Catherine Phillips: There’s lots of discard- and waste-related work going on in Australia, and I think it’s hard to answer a question about what Australian discard studies looks like given it’s dispersed character. But, there are two things that relate to my own work that give Australia its own flavor or inspiration. The first one is intellectual traditions. We have work going on here that I find really compelling around more-than-human geographies that I don’t think is given the attention it deserves in other parts of the world. That’s people like Val Plumwood in eco-philosophy, Gay Hawkins (Western Sydney) in cultural sociology, or the emerging work on waste or wasteful practices that relate to nonhumans, such as work by Lesley Instone (University of Newcastle) on dogs and birds in cities or Thom van Dooran (University of New South Wales) talking about vultures. That kind of attention to nonhuman relations has a really strong root in Australia that I find inspiring for my work.
The second part of the intellectual tradition for me would be people doing work around household sustainability. Some of that thinking has bled out into other research and thinking about waste or discard. So particularly people at the University of Wollongong, such as Gordon Waitt, Chantel Carr, Elyse Stanes who have worked on food and energy waste, wasted skills and materials, and clothing discard/recovery. Researchers bringing that forward in ways that are relevant to discard studies include Andrew Gorman-Murray (Western Sydney University) who has worked on disaster and queer theory or Donna Houston (Macquarie University) who has worked on asbestos. So there’s fascinating work happening here that doesn’t necessarily get the attention that one might hope. The Australianness– or the relative isolation of Australia– contains some of that scholarship in a way that I find disheartening. Though for me, engaging with that scholarship has been really inspiring.
That’s the intellectual tradition. The other stuff is more, ‘how do we think about this place called Australia?’ In that sense, it’s got unique geographies, cultures and histories, even though there are broad processes and flows shared with other places. All those things have something really interesting to contribute to thinking about discard studies.
Colonial imaginaries and realities
David Boarder Giles: Would you say that in Australia, the academic tradition inherits some of the larger colonial imaginaries? Not uncritically, but there is a distinct way the landscape holds the academic imaginary differently here than in the US. I think of a friend and colleague of ours, Tim Edensor, who wrote about urban ruination in Manchester. He came to Australia and then his work shifted and he started writing much more about landscape. It’s a shift in emphasis. I feel that some scholars get a sense that this is what sets Australia apart.
Catherine: This is part of what I was suggesting around differences of geography. We have a really concentrated population along the coast in a large area of the country that is lightly populated by a totally different culture, ethics, history. I think there’s certainly a sense of remoteness to Australia and romance for that, which shows up in some scholarship.
There is definitely a denial of colonialism that needs addressing, which is starting to happen with growing academic interrogation of colonialism and growing interest from planners and governments in dealing with colonial ongoing legacies. But there is certainly a lot of work to do. I do think that that influences how people think about this place. This is what I was trying to suggest– going back to that idea that we can ask similar questions in different locations. Researchers might have a similar set of concerns around wanting to decolonize, but the processes or practices of that are place-specific. How that actually shows up here or in a particular place of here, I think, matters. I’m trying to make that distinction between discard studies being based on countries versus being based in particular places or concepts even. A lot of discard studies examine global processes as well, so I’m not sure the nation-state is the right scale to pitch that question at. But it’s worth thinking about because I think discard studies disrupts scale and I think that’s one of the productive things about it.
David: One thing I was asking myself in response to the original prompt, of ‘What makes an Australian discard studies different?’ was whether Indigenous studies scholarship and discards studies scholarship have different things to say to each other in Australia than in the US. There’s a lot of environmental justice stuff from the US that’s about the relationship between the Indigenous expropriation and pollution, but I don’t know if that holds a similar place in Australian discard studies. One person doing this work is Joanne Thurman (Australia National University), who is doing research on landfills in Nyirrpi, a Warlpiri community in the Northern Territory. In her work, she shows that the whole notion of matter out-of-place, and what does and doesn’t constitute waste is built into the kind of prejudices that people have towards remote Aboriginal communities in Australia– to people who may not adhere to the settler models of domesticity, which frequently define what is or is not matter out of place, in the first place. So one thing that comes to mind is the relationship between discard studies in Indigenous studies in Oz, and how that might be different from the way it’s discussed in the U.S.
David: There’s another thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of people who I would consider discard studies scholars here are working overseas. I wonder if there’s a more outward-looking emphasis in Australia. And so people are working in Antarctica and India. It’s not as if discard studies in North America doesn’t also look abroad, but I feel like there’s something there about the way Australian scholars imagine their relationship to the larger global knowledge economy.
Catherine: Yeah I think there might be a tendency within a certain part of the population, culturally, to look abroad. Whether that’s traveling overseas for gap year or for work and then coming back with new insight for your life or your thinking. But I think in academia, there’s an outward-looking tendency as David suggests. There’s something additional going on where I still hear colleagues getting feedback on things that they’ve written and being told that they need to justify why an Australian study is of value, whereas in the US or in the UK, you wouldn’t get that feedback. You have to do that sometimes in Canada as well. There’s a whole bunch of reasons that you justify what it is that you’re looking at in your research, and that’s totally reasonable. But to have to justify it because it’s Australia-based, or because it’s Canada-based or wherever-else-based in order to have some kind of resonance or reaction to those in the more central or recognized-as-central places, I think that’s quite problematic.
Alex: So they’re comparing you to America as if it’s the norm?
Catherine: I think we need to question whatever the norm is! What do people mean by normal? What exactly are we comparing? And what are the implications of that? And is that comparison really the thing that should be deciding why our work, or something else, matters? So, let’s interrogate this concept of normal.
Discards and diverse economies
Alex: From your experiences, what does discard studies look like in Australia? What trajectories have influenced the field?
Gay Hawkins: I don’t know what Catherine and David said, but it’s a very dispersed field here. People have it as their research area but there’s been no actual central organization of it. So it’s relatively underdeveloped here. I think great work comes from here but there is absolutely no national get together or focus. Historically discard studies has been a marginal area of research in Australia, but it’s starting to gather momentum now. There’s certainly lots of discard studies research happening in anthropology. Assa Doron (Australian National University) and Robin Jeffrey (La Trobe University and Australian National University), for example, just wrote a huge new book called Waste of Nation: Garbage and Growth in India.
One thing that is big here is the whole diverse economies area. I work with Katherine Gibson (Western Sydney) who is a leader of this very important and influential field. I am now developing a research project with another leader in the field Stephen Healy where we hope to map some of the new economic practices that are emerging around waste. China refusing to take the world’s recycling has provoked a huge panic in Australian waste policy about what will we do with all this stuff now we cannot dump it in China. The circular economy is seen as the magic solution but it is a policy ideal generating a lot of hype about ‘waste as opportunity’. The reality is much harder. The other issue is what sorts of opportunity: new markets and more growth or different economies that are ethical as well as environmentally sustainable?
Alex: Can you give a couple examples of those?
Gay: My colleagues, Stephen Healy and Katherine Gibson (Western Sydney University), are currently doing a project looking at re-imagining manufacturing in Australia. One company they have studied is a social enterprise that focuses on mattress recycling. It’s called Soft Landing (https://www.socialtraders.com.au/2016-awards-soft-landing-from-waste-to-wages/) It not only very effectively recycles mattresses but also creates jobs for the long term unemployed. Waste economies have real potential for social inclusion as well as environmental benefits. There are plenty of other examples of economic diversity emerging around the problem of waste, where we can see it provoking innovative economic practices and arrangements. In Melbourne there are zero-waste initiatives in various laneways in the city, where an organics recycling co-op goes to every coffee shop, collects the organic waste, and then sends it to an organic waste processing plant just outside of the city. There are hundreds of examples like that of people engaging in waste to generate new values. It’s different from municipal recycling. They’re small alternative economic processes.
Looking ahead at waste
Alex: How do you think the field has changed over the years? Where do you see it heading?
Gay: Since writing The Ethics of Waste, it’s been great to see the field take off. It’s just been really amazing. But it’s also been tragic to see I guess the rise of plastics waste. In a way, that problem is as big as climate change. It’s difficult to tackle because it’s the same global multilateral problem that requires huge coordinated regulation and global policing to make huge corporations responsible for the pollution catastrophe that they’ve created. I tend not to think at that scale because it’s too overwhelming. I zoom in and say, ‘Let’s look at all those different futures without plastic and with less waste that are being enacted now,’ because that’s a way where political optimism can be located. Though it doesn’t stop the shadow reality of huge major problems. But waste is also a major site of creativity. I mean it’s got this creative vitality that demands a generative human response. And that’s that’s why I think thinking with the material can be really provocative– letting the material ask you different questions.
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Catherine Phillips is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Geography at the University of Melbourne. She combines qualitative research on everyday practices with social theory to explore human-environment relations, and their implications for governance. Her recent work focuses on agrifood, discard, and urban natures. Catherine lives and works in Wurundgeri Country.
David Boarder Giles writes about waste, cities, and social movements. His current projects all explore the ways in which discarded surpluses—of people, places, and things—are circulated in “global” cities. These interests draw him into a range of spaces and problems, from the twin crises of food insecurity and food waste that plague so many cities, to the alternative economies established by dumpster divers and other urban scroungers, from the spectacular “world-class” image to which many major cities aspire to the prejudice and exclusion that shape public space and criminalise the existence of the homeless who sleep on their streets. His first book, “A Mass Conspiracy to Feed People”: World Class Waste and the Forbidden Gifts of the Global City, is forthcoming with Duke University Press.
Gay Hawkins is a Professor at Western Sydney University. Professor Hawkins’ work on environments, natures, and cultures has been internationally recognised and important to discard studies. In 2005 she published The Ethics of Waste, a book that examined the materiality of waste and the ways in which it makes ethical claims on us. Between 2008 and 2013 Professor Hawkins worked on a major project investigating the rapid growth of bottled water markets over the last thirty years. This research is published in the book Plastic water: the social and material life of bottled water, co-authored with Emily Potter and Kane Race and published by The MIT Press in 2015. She has also done a project called ‘The Skin of Commerce’ which explored the history and politics of the relationships between plastic and food post WWII.
Alex Zahara is a PhD Candidate at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His current research examines controversies of settler colonialism and wildfire management near his home community in Treaty 6 Territory, northern Saskatchewan. His work on waste has been published in the collections Anthropocene Feminism (University of Minnesota Press), Inevitably Toxic (University of Pittsburgh Press) and Environmental Humanities. He was a 2018 Visiting Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute in Melbourne, Australia.
This interview is part 1 of a 2 part interview with Australian discard studies scholars. See our next piece, ‘Myths of the Circular Economy‘.
To cite this article: Phillips, Catherine., Giles, David Boarder., Hawkins, Gay., and Alex Zahara. (2019). “Placing discard studies in Australia.” Discard Studies.