Top 10 Discard Studies articles of 2020

Yes, 2020 was a dumpster fire. To celebrate its end, we think back on than a year’s worth of trashy insights. Here are the top ten posts from Discard Studies in 2020 as determined by our readers! Here’s what you all read the most:

#10: A history of New York City’s solid waste management in photographs (2013)

The New York City Department of Sanitation is the largest sanitation department in the world, and the only department with both an artist-in-residence and an anthropologist-in-residence. Not only does the DSNY continue to pick up waste and snow, it is also integral as first responders in urban disasters, such as 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. This is an abbreviated history via archival photographs of NYC’s municipal waste collection history, posted in 2013 but still viewed regularly. We hear there’s a sanitation museum on the way in New York City, so readers rejoice!

One of George Waring’s White Wings cleans NYC streets, 1880s.

#9: There’s no such thing as We by Max Liboiron

The ninth most read article this year was written only two months ago. It’s about how universalism eliminates and controls crucial aspects of difference. Evoking the universal “we” is a technique of discarding through differentiation in a way that upholds dominant power dynamics. If you’ve ever been convinced by claims that “we” are destroying the planet, or “we” have failed to advert environmental catastrophe, or “we” are consuming out of control, this post is for you. 

#8: Ethnographic Refusal: A How To Guide (2016) by Alex Zahara

This article has been in the top ten since its publication in 2016. 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 justice, how do we proceed helpfully and ethically in our research in such situations? Read on. 

This image of a pregnant Inuk woman was taken during a four month long dump fire that occurred in the Arctic community of Iqaluit, Nunavut. During the fire, pregnant women and women of childbearing age were warned not to go outside due to risks of dioxin contamination. The Inuktitut syllabics written on her hand read ‘Taima’ or ‘enough’, referring to decades of government underfunding that contributed to this and many other dump fires. The image is an example of refusal, as the image refuses to depict Inuit as passive victims of slow violence, instead redirecting attention towards government institutions. The image was distributed to media outlets and became the Facebook profile photo of a local ‘Stop the Dump Fires’ protest group. Photo by Shawn Inuksuk, 2014.


#7: Introduction to Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2015) by Anne Dance

A 2015 review with staying power! The central argument in Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor—that there’s a long history of people and their homes being treated as disposable—is worth restating. It’s worth shouting from the rooftops. Slow Violence is also a call to spend more time with literary efforts that stretch our understanding of temporal and spatial violence while evoking empathy without complacency, works that show how communities and individuals have lived with the ongoing legacies of this violence.

#6: The Art of Mould (2012)

It was a slow day in the office in 2012 when we put together this digital gallery of mouldy art. Really, it;s just some beautiful images of artists who use mould as a medium. Something about 2020 brought viewers in. It is beauty in slow destruction, after all.

Daniele Del Nero, After Effects, paper, flour, mould.

#5: Municipal versus Industrial Waste: Questioning the 3-97 ratio (2016) by Max Liboiron

A central framing question in discard studies is about the scale of different type of waste. This article from 2016 remains a touchstone that analyzes (and links to!!) some of the central figures in waste and disard studies: the oft-quoted statistic that municipal solid waste accounts for only three percent of the waste in the United States, and the world. It’s said that the remaining 97 percent is industrial. But how is that number made? Is it reliable? We dig deep.

Chart by the author, based on figures from MacBride 2012, Royt 2007, EPA 1987.


#4: Waste is not matter out of place (2019) by Max Liboiron

If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a zillion times: trash is matter out of place. Waste is dirt. Or is it? Max Liboiron doesn’t think so, for two reasons: first, they find that many, many scholars are using the idea of matter out of place in contradictory ways that have acute implications for theories of power. This is important because many of us who might self identify with the field of discard studies are dedicated to justice and good relations in our work, and conflating different theories of power may actually have effects that scholars are opposed to! That is, scholars and students may be against oppression and would like to intervene into structures of power, but their use of “matter out of place” conflates different theories of power that can actually allow techniques of power to go unnoticed, and may even contribute to naturalizing them. Secondly, when they dug into the work of uncovering the uses and circulations of “matter out of place,” the editors of Discard Studies, three seasoned scholars of discard studies, came across some surprises! In short, while “matter out of place” has been used to talk about both blue bins and concentration camps, our theories should be able to distinguish between them.

#3: Waste Colonialism (2018) by Max Liboiron

Waste colonialism describes how waste and pollution are part of the domination of one group in their homeland by another group. The concept has been gaining traction since the 1990s to explain patterns of power in wasting and pollution. Because all waste and pollution are about power by maintaining structures that designate what is valuable and what is not, understanding the role of colonialism in waste is crucial for understanding waste and power generally. 2020 is a year where new forms of waste colonialism and imperialism have taken shape during the pandemic (particularly in flows of tourism and the class and racialization of essential workers that are both heroes and disposable simultenously), and in the effects of climate change and how the gains and burdens of extreme weather and wildfires are playing out at massive scales.

#2: Toxins or Toxicants? Why the difference matters (2017) by Max Liboiron

This very short article from 2017 has been making the rounds in 2020. Toxins are poisons produced within living cells or organs of plants, animals, and bacteria. Toxicants are synthetic, human-made, toxic chemicals. The article argues that the difference is not merely one of semantics, but of justice.

#1: Map of 40 most influential environmental justice conflicts in the US (2015) by Environmental Justice Organizations, Liabilities and Trade

Our top post this year is, once again, a map. In 2016 and 2019 it was our number two. In 2017 and 2018 it was our number one and it is again this year! What staying power!  It shows the 40 most influential environmental justice conflicts in recent American history  included in a Global Atlas of Environmental Justice. 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.

“The map shows some of the most representative environmental justice conflicts in the United States. In an effort to choose landmark cases we elicited feedback from more than 200 environmental justice leaders, activists, and scholars in identifying these case studies. These cases represent a range of time periods, geographic regions, communities, and environmental challenges. However, they are only a very small subset of the many influential case studies that have contributed to the U.S. environmental justice movement past and present.”