Book Review Essay: The Waste of the World

Writing almost 20 years ago, Nicky Gregson and her research partners claimed that “…(W)aste’s capacity as a theoretical vehicle is immense; like food it is good to think with and through” (Gregson et al., 2005, page 2). In her new book, The Waste of the World, Gregson’s starting point has shifted. Waste remains central, but valuation is the jumping off point this time.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Nicky over a couple of online calls for some conversation about her new book, the ideas in it, and how her thinking about the global waste problem has changed.

Cover of Gregson, Nicky. 2023. The Waste of the World: Consumption, Economies and the Making of the Global Waste Problem. Bristol: Bristol University Press.The Waste of the World tackles its complex topic by addressing readers who might be outside the academy or technical waste engineering worlds. At the same time, the book is in conversation with academic debates and with technical waste management specialists. Writing for these multiple audiences was one of Gregson’s explicit goals, and the book accomplishes it beautifully. The writing in The Waste of the World is clear, crisp, and concise; it speaks conversationally with readers while referring more technical matters to chapter notes.

Gregson suggests three analytical premises for approaching the global waste problem. First, to understand consumer generated waste, it’s important to better understand consumption as a set of practices fundamental to the ordering of everyday life. As such, waste is not an automatic result of consumption. Indeed, much of the book explores how finance capital has been busy converting post-consumer waste into an asset from which to extract interest and rent. Second, consumption is not just about the mindless acquisition of “stuff.” It is bound up in the ordering and coordination of all facets of people’s everyday lives. The context in which these practices are exercised make some ways of being a consumer easier while making other ways of being a consumer more difficult.

An example from my own research comes to mind: if I want to buy a new phone, I could go to an electronics store and be presented with a wide array of makes and models. Yet the underlying chemical compositions, design decisions, and labour conditions in the factories that made them are so similar that the idea of exercising consumer choice to solve problems of  waste, pollution, or poor labour conditions becomes basically meaningless. I may act as an ambulatory voting wallet, but those votes don’t make much difference in how the broader systems are arranged. I still might need a phone, though, so that I can participate in the ongoing ordering of my day-to-day life.

Which brings us to the book’s third premise: if consumer waste really ever was an externality, that time is over. Different forms of capital are intensely engaged in converting what consumers and households toss in their bins back into money. That conversion happens in ways that guarantee throughputs of materials, and energy in the status quo industrial system will increase even as it has become glaringly obvious that we need to be moving in the opposite direction.

This third premise points to an important reason for the shift in Gregson’s thinking. Confronting the empirical question of how and why municipal solid waste gets turned into a commodity or asset in the UK, Gregson had a classic “Ah ha!” moment. She realized that what she had been seeing as waste and its management was actually a fundamental process of broader webs of financialization as well. The moment came when Gregson and colleagues encountered the contracts that municipalities in the UK were inking with major international firms. These were firms increasingly tapped by public entities to provide services that in the past had been managed by government (e.g., everything from municipal water provision to waste management). Gregson and others noticed the length of these contracts (often 25 to 30 years, not unlike a mortgage on a house), and realized, well, what is a mortgage if not a financial instrument held by a financial institution (i.e., a bank) whose primary purpose is to extract interest?

One consequence of Gregson’s “ah ha” moment was to recognize that studying the waste industry is a useful way to understand 21st-century capitalism. The waste management-financialization nexus is an important theme in The Waste of the World. Transnational firms that provide waste management services are comparable to those of mid-size car manufacturers, yet economic geography has typically focused far more on the automobile sector as an industry emblematic of contemporary capitalism’s workings. Part of Gregson’s argument is that the waste management industry is, in important ways, an index of how capitalism is evolving in the 21st century. Her book makes clear, for example, that the shift in waste management practices from landfilling to waste-to-energy is not a coincidence or a choice that just so happens to be made in jurisdiction after jurisdiction. Finance capital is continually on the hunt for long-term returns with as little risk as possible. “Waste,” under these conditions, becomes a resource flow, rather than a jumble of things-in-bins that have to be buried somewhere. The move to incineration is tightly coupled to the financialization of waste: finance capital is increasingly interested in incineration because of the large capital outlays that such facilities require, and thus the opportunities for debt-financed profit extraction solidified in contracts that last decades.

Once we recognize the webs of financialization connecting waste-to-energy facilities, municipal waste management contracts, and the finance sector, additional key insights emerge in Gregson’s new book. “Waste,” for example, does not automatically arise even in the otherwise linear take/make/throw economies that we might think characterize typical households in the UK or in similar places. As municipalities increasingly partner with the finance sector to invest in waste-to-energy facilities, materials coming out of households are valued for their ability to burn and thus to generate the steam that drives turbines that generate electricity, for example. Securing “optimum burn” means securing the “calorific value” of household discards flowing to waste-to-energy plants — and one of the best materials for this purpose is plastics.

Increasing quantities of plastic production worldwide. Data from PlasticsEurope.

This point about plastics helps Gregson show readers the importance of paying attention to the role of finance capital as a driver of waste management infrastructure, but also as an important driver of what and how people consume so that certain mixtures of feedstock eventually make their way into those waste-to-energy facilities. Here we start to see finance capital and fossil fuel capital in a vital alliance. They work together to shape individual and household choices to consume in particular ways. Plastics, coupled to packaged and fast-moving goods, are enabled in these conditions and are themselves enabling conditions of busy personal and household lives (think food and beverage containers, clothing, electronics, or personal automobiles, all of which incorporate plastics). It brings to mind the old joke about the Ford motor company: you can have any colour car you want so long as it’s black. Similarly, you can coordinate your busy life—timespace compressed within and between family, work, and leisure—via a wide variety of commodities, so long as they are (increasingly) composed of, and wrapped in, plastics.

The finance-waste-to-energy nexus creates what Gregson calls “a framework” within which everyday consumption practices can move while also insuring a resource flow that guarantees optimum burn. Indeed, the contracts that municipalities enter into promise not just length of time (those 25-30 years), but they also guarantee a specified composition of materials collected in household bins that then flow into waste-to-energy facilities. Where these contracts exist, therefore, the “stuff” coming out of households is not automatically “waste.” It is understood instead as two categories: a constantly renewable resource flow comprised of “residual” materials that can be burned by the waste management industry after all the dry recyclables and organic fractions have been removed—thanks, lest we forget, to large doses of unpaid labour of individual consumers and households who sort their discards into various bins. “Residual” is a useful sleight of hand, as Gregson notes. It diverts attention from where the real money is: in those contracts that finance waste-to-energy infrastructure while extracting guaranteed returns to the contract holders over 25—30 years.

The recognition of a framework within which consumption practices may occur also highlights another important theme that runs throughout Gregson’s book: the importance of the social sciences. All too often, Gregson argues, people concerned about waste issues—be they everyday citizens, activists, or policy makers—bracket the practices people use to order their day-to day-lives within broader conditions. Clothes shopping is an example that Gregson uses to show how everyday social practices are, at least in some discourses, dismissed as mere epiphenomena. Drawing on a rich literature of cultural studies and cultural anthropology as well as her own research, Gregson shows how dressing and clothing choices are not necessarily straightforward examples of extreme, wasteful overconsumption. Instead, people inhabit frameworks of consumption that bear on how they are able practice within them: “Try being taken seriously at an interview, for instance, if you turn up in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Maybe OK in a big tech setting, or in the creative industries, but probably not a good choice in many other settings!” Or consider families with children in daycare where the staff require that the kids arrive with four changes of clothing per day. When the washing machine at home breaks down, replacing dirty clothes by buying clean ones, rather than repairing the machine, may be not only cheaper but a desperately needed strategy to get through the week.

The social sciences are well-suited to offer insight about the often tight space-time choreography of peoples’ lives, and about the parameters in which they provide for themselves and their families. Only so many individual choices exist, and these are exactly the issues that are missed when only partial and particular versions of social sciences, especially economics and psychology, are brought into the realm of policy-making.  No amount of awareness campaigning about the environmental benefits of repairing washing machines is going to overcome the daily pressures faced by many families with children. No tip sheet on how to avoid food waste is going to make it easier for someone to cook with leftovers before their two hour morning commute.

As someone who does a lot of research in related areas, I learned a great deal from The Waste of the World. As the best interventions do, the book takes hold of comfortable assumptions and gives them a good shake. One of those is the book’s insistence on the continuing importance of thinking about waste from the point of view of consumption, something I’ve often treated as a distraction because so much more pollution and waste arise “upstream” in mining and manufacturing. The Waste of the World fully acknowledges the different magnitudes of industrial versus municipal waste, but also convinced me to look again at the latter’s intimate connection with the former. Waste arising from consumption is where many (though not all) people experience waste as an issue or a problem, so that’s where policymakers feel some of the most intense pressure to respond. Equally compelling are the book’s revelations about the nitty-gritty practices of global finance and its investments in particular types of waste management that turn household discards into assets from which rent and interest and energy can be extracted. While the infamous ratio of 97% industrial waste versus 3% municipal waste may hold, municipal solid waste management is increasingly economized into international webs of finance capital. It means that municipal waste is an important flow to follow when thinking about the global economy, and especially when thinking about how these arrangements can become more socially and environmentally just.

The Waste of the World doesn’t end on a recipe for solutions; it does something much more important. It identifies three major future challenges in the form of research questions: how might patterns and practices of consumption be reconfigured so that less discard moves into waste streams? How might mainstream thinking about economic growth, consumer demand, and “the consumer” be reconfigured so that less waste arises? And finally, if the global waste and recycling industries are actually part of the problem because they demand both continual and increasing throughputs of energy and materials, how might that system be disrupted and discards economized differently? Answers (always plural) to these questions will form the beginnings of solutions (again, always plural) that are appropriately scaled to and located in the problems of waste writ large.


Works Cited

Gregson, Nicky. 2023. The Waste of the World: Consumption, Economies and the Making of the Global Waste Problem. Bristol: Bristol University Press.
Gregson, Nicky, Louise Crewe, and Alan Metcalfe. 2005. Disposal, Devaluation and Consumerism: Or How and Why Things Come Not to Matter. Sheffield: University of Sheffield.