Discard Studies Compendium

The Discard Studies Compendium is a list of critical key terms. In the past few years there has been both a resurgence of approaches to studying waste and wasting as well as an interest in the potential of waste to build interdisciplinary bridges of relevance to pressing questions of our time.

This list is critical in the sense that it comes out of methods in the humanities and social sciences that contextualize the problems and systems that are not readily apparent to the invested but casual observer. Our task is to trouble the assumptions, premises and popular mythologies of waste. Waste and pollution are the material externalities of complex cultural, economic, and political systems, and solutions need to address these wider systems rather than fall to technological or moral fixes that deal with symptoms rather than origins of problems.

This online version of the Compendium is the initial step of a larger project that aims to create a print version with a comprehensive list of terms. The greyed out terms in the chart are a small sample of an expanded future list.

The Discard Studies Compendium is a project by Max Liboiron, Michele Acuto, and Robin Nagle. This project is currenlty on hold.

Core Concepts Core Concepts Core Concepts Core Concepts Methodologies Critical Histories
Abjection Humans-as-waste Segregation Industrial ecosystem Actor-Network Theory Disposables
Camp Legal issues in waste Solid waste management Materiality Follow-the-thing Incinerators
Cottage-Industrial pollution Neoliberalism Waste flows Nuisance Life-cycle Analysis Landfills
E-waste Nuclear wastelands Waste-to-energy Ruins Media Archaeology Pollution
Environmentality Nutrient rifts Body burden Sacrifice zones Participatory Action Research (PAR) Recycling
Garbage Patch Recycling Cooperatives Dirt Throwaway society Science and Technology Studies Scrapyards
Hoarding Sacred waste Freeganism Waste regime Visual Art Wastelands



Mohammed Rafi Arefin

Abjection describes a social and psychological process by which things like garbage, sewage, corpses and rotting food elicit powerful emotional responses like horror and disgust. While abjection theory has been used in various ways across the social sciences and humanities, it emerges from the psychoanalytic work of Julia Kristeva.

Drawing on a seminal text in Discard Studies, Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger (1966), Julia Kristeva’s foundational book The Powers of Horror (1982) develops the theory of abjection through literary, psychoanalytic, and anthropological works. Furthering the insight of Douglas that dirt is not an essential characteristic of objects but is produced through its ambiguity and its subsequent inability to be assimilated into existing socio-cultural categories and systems, Kristeva explains how the constant process of keeping the unclassifiable at bay is a productive act. Abjection is therefore caught in up in the production of the boundaries of peoples’ bodies, societal norms, and the self. In that way, abjection is set in motion whenever we try to make meaning of the world and ourselves. Thus, the abject resides in the liminal space between that which is expressible through language and that which radically resists expression. Studying waste through abjection means beingcognizant of the ways in which something beyond meaning (the extra discursive) is continually influential in how we make meaning. This uneasy relationship often causes meaning to break down; in this break down, the fragility of normative orders are exposed.

As such, while abject objects, populations, and practices are commonly thought of as absolutely excluded from normative and sanitized orderings of the body, the household, the city, and the nation, theorists of abjection point to the impossibility of permanently excluding the abject (Sibley 2005; McClintock 1995; Moore 2009; Popke 2001). Abjection theorists ask how that which we attempt to radically exclude constantly returns. This continual insistence of the abject is not just about negation but comes to be a productive process through which prohibitions, taboos, and boundaries are established or contested: it defines the contours of the body and the body politic. The defining quality of the abject, then, is not an essential trait that elicits feelings of disgust or horror, but rather anything that muddles normative borders and divisions and thus threatens a breakdown in conventional or dichotomous ways of making meaning of the world.

Geographers and other social scientists studying waste and its relation to issues of social and environmental justice have used abjection to consider how objects, people, and practices are tagged as dirty and subsequently marginalized (Moore 2009). In studies of garbage, discards, or any kind of material waste, abjection is often used to understand how these things become the mediators of socio-cultural and spatial inclusions, exclusions, and difference. For example, in a study of waste in Oaxaca, Mexico, geographer, Sarah Moore shows how residents of a neglected neighborhood blocked flows of trash to draw attention to their socio-spatial exclusions and resulting inequality (Moore 2008).

The abject, though, is not limited to objects. Other studies have shown how people and practices can also be understood through abjection (Valentine 1998). Populations that deal with waste are tagged as dirty through their material association with trash (scavengers, trash collectors, recycler) (Gidwani and Reddy 2011). Populations can be marked as abject through their metonymic, metaphorical or other symbolic associations with dirt or filth (the poor, sex workers, queer populations; ethnic, religious or racial minorities). This shows how abjection functions through existing symbolic structures like imagined vectors of contagion (Moore 2009; McClintock 1995).

Social scientists and humanities scholars examining questions of inequality and social justice find a productive focus on the tenuous in-betweens and breakdowns of meaning, but abjection is, again, not limited to these realms (Miller 1997). Kristeva also shows how abjection functions in literature and art; through what she labels as “abject art”, Kristeva specifically highlights how some art forms relying on disgust and horror in the face of wasted objects, exposed bodies, and filthy practices work with a deep understanding of how abjection functions. While the abject art movement (encompassing the works of Andre Serrano, Valie Export, and Hannah Wilke) exhibits marked differences with contemporary trash art and trash artists, they share the aim of muddling the boundaries between art and trash, the sublime and the disgusting.

Abjection allows those who work closely with trash, whatever their field, to understand it as an object that exists in liminal spaces of utmost importance, namely, the body, the household, the city, and the nation. Whether mediating questions of social justice and marginalization (Moore 2009) or questions of aesthetics (in the case of abject art), abjection has centered trash as a mediator, instigator and threat to traditional ways of understanding the world.
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Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concept of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Routledge.

Gidwani, V. and Reddy, R.N. (2011). The Afterlives of “Waste”: Notes from India for a Minor History of Capitalist Surplus. Antipode 43: 1625-1658.

Kristeva, J. and Roudiez, L. (1982). Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York:  Columbia University Press.

McClintock, A. (1995). Imperial Leather: Race, gender, and sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York: Routledge.

Miller, W.I. (1997). The Anatomy of Disgust. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Moore, S.A. (2009). The Excess of Modernity: Garbage Politics in Oaxaca, Mexico. The Professional Geographer 61: 426-437.

Moore, S.A. (2008). The politics of garbage in Oaxaca, Mexico. Society and Natural Resources: An International Journal 21: 597-610.

Popke, E.J. (2001). The African Mirror: Geography, Identity and the Epistemology of Modernity. African Geographical Review 21: 5-27.

Sibley, D. (1995). Geographies of Exclusion: Society and Difference in the West. New York: Routledge.

Valentine, G. (1998). “Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones”: A Personal Geography of Harassment. Antipode 30: 305-332.
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Guy Schaffer

Toilet Glitter. Photo by author.

Toilet Glitter. Photo by author.

Like queer theory, discard studies is interested in uneven remainders, things that don’t fit neatly into categories. Both concern themselves with the strange and imperfect construction of divisions (in discard studies, that between waste and not-waste; in queer theory, those between hetero/homosexual, between male and female) that do violence to humans, cultures, and environments, while still attending to the fact that these divisions have meaning for people, that they are strategic, and that they structure our thought in ways that are almost impossible to escape.

As a mode of thinking through and beyond and before binaries, or perhaps of thinking binaries promiscuously, queer theory is indispensable to the study of disposal. In particular, the merits of camp as a queer mode of reading trash can blur and transgress and cover in glitter those boundaries between waste and not-waste that are central analytics in discard studies. While camp is a useful mode of reading for any field of study marked by questionable binaries, it is particularly relevant with regards to waste because camp is all about the reevaluation of a culture’s trash. Camp offers a mode of celebrating, reappropriating, and rendering waste visible, without pretending that waste has stopped being waste.

“Celebrating waste” performs a useful corrective to the ascendant politics of “zero waste,” which embraces a concept of control and suggests that waste is possible to manage. Zero waste ideologies take on the (admirable) goal of designing systems that minimize material inputs and outputs by making materials and products continually reusable. These systems treat waste as a resource, which allows the framing of “zero waste”—nothing in a zero waste system is waste if it can feed back into the system (e.g. McDonough and Braungart 2002). While these efforts are laudable, recycling systems generally tend to sprout leaks and create wastes that are discursively hidden by the waste-reduction missions of recycling (Alexander and Reno 2012; MacBride 2012); at the same time they are capable of taking advantage of workers, and unevenly distributing the environmental harms of waste management (Pellow 2002). Furthermore, in engineering a solution to resource problems, zero-waste systems tend to be imagined as centrally designed and controlled, a design choice that can easily lend itself to systems that resist change or outside input (Winner 1986; Vaughan 1996).

Camp can work as a complement to “zero waste,” performing the impossibility of a world without trash. In the mindset of zero waste, waste is possible to manage; all outputs are knowable. Following Myra Hird, our relationship with wastes can be reframed to remain open to its profound unknowability (2012). Camp is one possible mode of making the unaccountable stuff that escapes management into something visible. Camp does not hide the wastes that cause real environmental, social, and personal harm. Rather, it makes them susceptible to new readings and alternative framings. In moving beyond moralism to an aesthetics of trash, camp offers a chance for a different kind of waste politics: a politics of visibility, of risibility, and of spectacle.

Camp as a Relationship to Waste

Camp is a mode of aestheticism devoted to excess, to failure, to ironic detachment and wide-eyed sincerity. It is hard to put a finger on just what camp is, and it is unclear whether the authors who have tried to define camp make it more or less identifiable in doing so. Perhaps this is strategic. Lists of things that are or are not camp exist, and might prove edifying (see Isherton (1999), Sontag (1999), or the Simpsons episode “Homer’s Phobia” (1997)). One theme that emerges from all these authors, artists, and taste-makers is a framing of camp as a certain form of relating to trash, broadly defined.

Camp, in this sense, is a mode of reappropriating and revaluing “trash” while simultaneously broadcasting the “trashiness” of the things it glamorizes. Rather than granting a new life to cultural waste, a camp reading reminds us of its old life while still putting it to some new use. Mark Booth’s definition is instructive: “to be camp is to present oneself as being committed to the marginal with a commitment greater than the marginal merits” (1999: 69). “Trash,” in the sense of low-brow cultural products, is certainly open for camp interpretation (though, of course, not all trash is camp). But the “trash” of John Waters’ “Mondo Trasho” (1969) or Morrissey’s “Trash” (1970) bears material differences from the other forms of waste of interest to discard studies.

Susan Sontag implicitly characterizes camp as a relationship with waste when she suggests that “the process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary detachment” (60) for the thing being appropriated as camp—when a thing becomes waste, it loses its moral connection and becomes primed for camp appropriation by cognoscenti. The New Kids on the Block shirt, which meant so much to an adolescent in 1991, gains a new camp meaning once the earnest love of “Step by Step” has faded from memory. Andrew Ross describes camp as “a rediscovery of history’s waste” (1988: 151). Waste in this sense refers to those cultural products—ranging from coke bottles to movie stars—whose value has been lost, and which can be re-evaluated by a campy cognoscenti for the purpose of producing new forms of value. This understanding of camp is often described as a form of “cultural recycling” (Hamilton 1997: 237).

But waste can also refer to literal excrement. Christopher Schmidt, writing about the poems of James Schuyler, examines the scatological side of camp (2009). Schuyler’s camp poetics treat the marginality of his and other’s bodily wastes, sidewalk trash, and daily excesses with a languorous tenderness. In Schmidt’s reading of Schuyler, the poet’s taste for waste is not merely a taste for those things that have been passed over by history, nor for the disposable products of capitalist production, but rather a taste for the materiality of waste: human excrement, used tissues, household trash. The dog shit scene in John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos” (1972) might serve as another emblem of excrement-as-camp.

No matter the form of the trash, waste, or ordure, camp requires a certain form of relationship with the stuff it appropriates. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s understanding of camp is useful here; unlike kitsch-attribution, camp-recognition doesn’t ask, “What kind of debased creature could possibly be the right audience for this spectacle?” Instead, it says what if: What if the right audience for this were exactly me? (1990: 156) Camp, for Sedgwick, is a queer way of knowing, one that emphasizes reader relations over any inherent meaning of a cultural object.

Camp as Social Critique

What of the hermeneutical frivolity of suggesting that fracking fluid or nuclear fallout might be rendered palatable through camp interpretation? As Sontag explains, “camp doesn’t reverse things. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good” (61). What a camp lens can do is animate the ways in which the disposal of waste is never complete, that the boundaries created between waste and the social worlds that produce it are always partial. The following three examples illustrate the ways that camp works as a mode of social critique and potential form of political activism: Amy Sedaris’s trashy crafts, Nuclia Waste’s drag critique of nuclear infrastructure, and SPURSE’s trash-based meals.

Amy Sedaris has become a contemporary camp icon; her craft book Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People might be a first introduction to a camp attitude toward trash (2011). Appropriating both the wide-eyed stylelessness of “Hints from Heloise” and the less savory bits of her own waste stream, Sedaris remakes the world around her with a guileless glee. These projects appropriate trash for an exercise in bad homemaking; Sedaris does not encourage her readers to act like the trash-made objects are now valuable. Rather, she asks them to revel in putting their own valueless stuff on display: take the wig from an unloved doll and sew it onto a doorknob (30); inside an old shoebox, arrange “tatters of things” and leftover coffee grounds into a depressing home for a dying mouse (83); tape the hair from your hairbrush onto your chin for a makeshift fake beard (165). Sedaris encourages an attitude toward valuation that tosses glitter on unusable things in a serious but altogether tasteless way.

While appropriating waste is relatively simple with the household trash Sedaris manipulates, it becomes more difficult when we think about the kinds of waste that discard studies struggles with: toxic waste, ocean-floating plastic, frac fluid. In these contexts, appropriation on its own is never an adequate solution; no amount of idiosyncratic fashion sense can render fallout chic, or take the violent intrusions of waste into people’s homes and lives and turn it into an outré interior design element. However, camp opens up waste to creative, performative, and intensely personal interpretation. Here the sentiment that waste was created for “exactly me” does an interesting kind of work: what if we assume that the destructive spread of waste is not just the work of callous industry, or even that it is simply dumped disproportionately on the economically or politically disadvantaged, but that the wastes we live with are loaded with personal significance? This is the approach taken by the Denver-based drag queen Nuclia Waste, who Shiloh Krupar takes as emblematic of a queer ecology of waste in her work on transnatural ethics (2012). Nuclia presents herself as a mutant en-gendered by the ambient radiation of her post-nuclear hometown—Rocky Mountain Flats—embracing the fallout that has suffused her environment in order to point to the permeation of radiation throughout her lived environment. Nuclia poses her act as a counterpoint to the work of federal cleanup efforts, which serve to discursively and technologically contain the contamination of the site and return the surrounding environment to its natural state, failing to acknowledge that nuclear cleanup can never be complete.

Similar modes of performing waste might be found outside of the obviously-campy. The ecological activist artist group SPURSE, for instance, stages elaborate meals out of foraged and scavenged food, highlighting the trashiness of their meals using discarded wine glasses, and a table obviously manufactured from urban detritus (Ava 2012). As food performance, this work makes a show of its waste origins. Rather than the framework of “rescue” employed by food reclamation projects like City Harvest or Food Not Bombs, which returns food waste to the realm of food unscathed, SPURSE makes waste food into something beyond food by performing its food identity alongside its waste identity.

A camp attitude toward trash is capable of reveling in waste without forgetting its real environmental, social, and personal impacts. Camp might seem too much like play to have a politics—it thrives on ambivalence, after all—but camp has the power to imagine radically different modes of interacting with the world of trash, and shaping power in new and potentially beneficial ways. By nurturing an attitude that pays attention to waste, that sees waste as something beautiful, vibrant, and personal (even when it is simultaneously dangerous, disgusting, or industrial), camp enables new modes of waste politics that move beyond moralism into the realm of the aesthetic. Moralism regarding waste often fails precisely at the cusp of visibility; once the producers of waste can deny that they perceive waste, whether through incomplete burial, dilution in air or water, or the creation of distance, an opening emerges for irresponsibility. Camp, on the other hand, forces perception, displaying the horrible, wonderful wastes our world is made of.
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Alexander, Catherine, and Joshua Reno, eds. 2012. Economies of Recycling: Global Transformations of Materials, Values and Social Relations. London: Zed Books.

Anderson, Mike B. 1997. “Homer’s Phobia”. Television. The Simpsons. USA: FOX.

Ava. 2012. “Stories of Space: Issue Project Room’s Foraging Feast”. Blog. Socially Superlative. http://sociallysuperlative.com/2012/02/07/species-of-space-issue-project-rooms-foraging-feast/.

Booth, Mark. 1999. “Campe-Toi! On the Origns and Definitions of Camp.” In Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: a Reader, edited by Fabio Cleto, 66–79. Triangulations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Hamilton, Marybeth. 1997. When I’m Bad, I’m Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hird, Myra J. 2012. “Knowing Waste: Towards an Inhuman Epistemology.” Social Epistemology 26 (3-4): 453–69.

Isherton, Christopher. 1999. “The World in the Evening (Selection).” In Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: a Reader, edited by Fabio Cleto, 49–52. Triangulations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Jenkins, Joseph. 2005. The Humanure Handbook. Grove City, PA: Joseph Jenkins, Inc.

McDonough, William. 2002. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. 1st ed. New York: North Point Press.

Morrissey, Paul. 1970. Trash. Filmfactory.

Pellow, David Naguib. 2002. Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Schmidt, Christopher. 2009. “‘Baby, I Am the Garbage’: James Schuyler’s Taste for Waste.” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, no. 10/11.

Sedaris, Amy. 2010. Simple Times. 1st ed. New York: Grand Central Pub.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1990. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sontag, Susan. 1999. “Notes on Camp.” In Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: a Reader, edited by Fabio Cleto, 53–65. Triangulations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Vaughan, Diane. 1996. The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Waters, John. 1969. Mondo Trasho. DVD. Dreamland.

———. 1972. Pink Flamingos. DVD. Saliva Films.

Winner, Langdon. 1986. The Whale and the Reactor: a Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Further Reading:

Krupar, Shiloh. 2012. “Transnatural Ethics: Revisiting the Nuclear Cleanup of Rocky Flats, CO, through the Queer Ecology of Nuclia Waste.” Cultural Geographies 19 (3): 303–27.

Ross, Andrew. 1989. No Respect: Intellectuals & Popular Culture. New York: Routledge.

Thompson, Michael. 1979. Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
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Cottage-Industrial Pollution
Darryl Stellmach

In March 2010, the aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) investigated reports of abnormal child deaths in rural Zamfara state, Nigeria. They found catastrophic mortality in eight remote settlements. An estimated 400 children—a quarter of all village children age five or below—had died within a few months. Investigations traced the cause to lead poisoning from artisanal mining and ore processing. Testing confirmed toxic levels of lead around homes and waterpoints found the highest blood and environmental lead levels ever recorded in domestic settings (MSF 2012:1,3; Dooyema et al. 2011:5-6, 21-22).

For MSF medics, Zamfara was a new species of emergency: epidemic, mass mortality caused by pollution. What was more confounding was a lack of a single source. Rather, the levels of lead toxicity originated from “cottage industry”—people processing ore in their homes. “Cottage-industrial” pollution is distributed, undocumented, low-level toxic emissions from informal industry that carries the risk of chronic or acute exposure. A “cottage industry” in the broadest sense can refer to any informal, loosely organized industrial complex, such as South Asia’s vast and largely unregulated shipbreaking yards. By stricter definition, cottage industries are household-based: industrial work done, not in the factory, but in or near the home. In Zamfara, valuable ore was processed in the privacy of domestic compounds and kitchens. Much e-waste recycling can be household-based as well (Chi et al. 2011:738). This household-centred industry provides economic opportunity, convenience and efficiency, but when toxic substances are involved, it greatly increases exposure for family members, especially children.

Cottage-industrial polluters have other things in common. Workers are among the poorest in their society, yet middlemen—buyers and brokers—may control the flow of materials and profits (Demaria 2010:252-253, Chi 2012:737). Activities happen against a backdrop of limited health infrastructure and token workplace regulation. Employees handle toxic materials with minimal protection, resulting in chronic exposure that causes long-lasting damage to people and local ecologies. Once in the environment, some toxins travel via water, plants, or fish to impact the health of broader populations. Health effects can manifest along a spectrum, from acute intoxication to insipid, sub-clinical effects that impact entire populations. The effects of lead, for example, can be intergenerational, harming the physical and mental development of the unborn (ATSDR 2007:364).

Cottage industry is often associated with the early industrial revolution, which saw home-based craftspeople sub-contact piecework for off-site production. Today, household or family-based production remains a common feature of informal sector economies (Chi et al. 2011:732-733, 738). The notion of cottage-industrial pollution highlights what can happen when contemporary industrial bi-products become part of home, village or neighbourhood economies. It also draws attention to a concerning dynamic: because workshops may occupy domestic spaces or involve multiple members or generations of a collective, children can be more readily and severely exposed; similarly children’s activities and growing bodies can make them more susceptible to toxins (ATSDR 2007:363).

Because cottage economies are small-scale, informal, and sometimes illegal, the impact of cottage-industrial pollution is hard to pinpoint. In absence of large-scale mortality, pollution-pathologies will not be discovered, particularly if health facilities lack tools or techniques for diagnosis. Even if detected, cottage industries encompasses realms of medicine, economics, law and the environment, making response onerous as it shifts between agencies and disciplines. Other imperatives, particularly economic interests, influence institutional and governmental response. This aspect of cottage industrial pollution highlights the relevance of interdisciplinary work in discard studies; the effects—and perhaps the very existence—of cottage industrial pollution can only be determined through collaboration of health, environment, advocacy and policy specialists.

While its effects are global, cottage-industrial pollution impacts most on those who depend upon these industries for their livelihood. Like the miners in Zamfara, workers tend to be socially and economically marginalized. The effects of chronic poisoning debilitate and marginalise these populations further. For most, unlike the Nigerian case, there will be no red-flagged environmental health response. Rather, cottage-industrial pollution is likely to take a silent but pronounced toll on current and future generations.
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Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2007. Toxicological Profile: Lead. Public Health Service: US Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed March 7, 2014.

Chi, X., et al. 2011. Informal Electronic Waste Recycling: A Sector Review with Special Focus on China. Waste Management 31(4): 731–742.

Demaria, F. 2010. Shipbreaking at Alang–Sosiya (India): An Ecological Distribution Conflict. Ecological Economics 70(2): 250–260.

Dooyema, C.A., et al. 2011. Outbreak of Fatal Childhood Lead Poisoning Related to Artisanal Gold Mining in Northwestern Nigeria, 2010. Environmental Health Perspectives 120(4): 601–607.

Médecins sans Frontières 2012. Lead Poisoning Crisis in Zamfara State, Northern Nigeria. Accessed November 1, 2013.

Further Reading:

Plumlee, G.S., et al. 2013. Linking Geological and Health Sciences to Assess Childhood Lead Poisoning from Artisanal Gold Mining in Nigeria. Environmental Health Perspectives 121(6): 744–750.
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Josh Lepawsky

E-waste flows, 2012. Image from Lepawsky 2014.

E-waste flows, 2012. Image from Lepawsky 2014.

Electronic waste (e-waste) is a situationally specific challenge for definition, materials management, and policy. It highlights key themes in discards studies: the mutually generative entanglement of temporality, spatiality, and politics in the making of waste. Waste is an inherently indeterminate ‘thing’ (Wynne 1987), and e-waste qua waste is not an exception.  This inherent indeterminacy is a significant challenge for how we know it and manage it. Specific aspects of indeterminacy of e-waste emerge from several sources. Among them are the inherent arbitrariness with which e-waste is defined. For example, contemporary automobiles have more software code than some jet fighters (Charette 2009), but are not classified as electronic waste in any relevant legislation governing its disposition. Indeterminacy is an inherent characteristic of e-waste as well due to its material heterogeneity, complexity, potential toxicity, and the degree to which it might be reusable or repairable.

Over the last decade a dominant storyline about e-waste has emerged. Based on NGO reports (e.g., Basel Action Network 2002; Schwarzner, De Bono, and Peduzzi 2005), journalism  (e.g., Klein 2009; Höges 2009), and popular entertainment (CBS 2007), e-waste is framed as a post-consumption problem resulting from consumers in rich, ‘developed’ countries discarding their electronic devices that subsequently flow to poor, ‘developing’ countries. Such flows of e-waste do occur. However, there is growing evidence that e-waste is increasingly traded between ‘developing’ countries partly as a consequence of the increasing wealth of urban residents of those same locales (e.g., Amoyaw-Osei et al. 2011; Manhart et al. 2011).

E-waste has not always been what it is today. For example, in the 1970s, discarded electronics in the US were approached as sources of strategic and precious metals, rather than waste (e.g., Kleespies, Bennetts, and Henrie 1970; Dannenberg, Maurice, and Potter 1973). The late 1970s also saw groups of electronics workers and Silicon Valley residents begin to voice concerns about emerging evidence of the toxic effects of chemicals used in electronics manufacturing that were entering workers’ bodies and aquifers beneath production facilities. Yet these discards of the electronics industry are rarely construed as e-waste today and are largely absent from the storyline about it (Gabrys 2011).

The dominant storyline about e-waste has been folded into legislation passed over the last decade in Canada, the US, and Europe to deal with electronic discards. Frequently, the notion of extended producer responsibility (EPR) underpins this legislation. EPR is intended to internalize the costs of product disposal to manufacturers and thus incentive them to modify their products to be more durable, repairable, and/or recyclable. Typically, however,  EPR for electronics is instantiated as a form of extended consumer responsibility by passing costs for eventual recycling to purchasers of new electronic equipment (Lepawsky 2012). The effect of this arrangement is to forgo cost internalization to manufacturers and erase the economic incentive they might have for modifying their products. Such an approach also keeps the economic and environmental problems of e-waste at the “end of the pipe” as post-consumer waste, rather than moving it up the production line to the design and manufacturing process to change how and what kind of waste electronics later become.

The EPR arrangements for electronics glossed above are instructive for understanding broader implications of discard studies as an approach to social research: studying discards is a way into deeper understanding of the patterns and processes that comprise collective life. The specific example of EPR legislation for e-waste illustrates that far more is at stake than the pros and cons of a particular waste management scheme. Indeed, by following the action and the interests that compose EPR legislation for e-waste one finds that they are indexes of broader  settlements about the right and proper organization of, and relationships between, forms of politics and forms of markets, that is, of at least two of the principle ways with which we organize our collective affairs. In EPR legislation for electronics, what may be regulated by public authorities is almost entirely confined to what happens to discarded electronics after consumption. Implicit in that arrangement is the acceptance that it is right and proper for public decision making (i.e., forms of democratic politics) to remain focused solely on what to do with waste already produced, rather than also or instead on how that which will become waste is produced in the first place (Gille, 2007). In so doing, we are also accepting that certain forms of public decision making should not intrude into economic action. Meanwhile, EPR legislation for electronics organizes economic exchange – markets – such that firms enhance their ability to appropriate profit while continuing to externalize costs of disposing the products they manufacture. As such, the challenge of e-waste can be used to trace out taken for granted, and thus contingent, settlements about the possibilities of, and limits to, particular forms of politics and markets that might otherwise be taken for granted. Approaching e-waste as a form of discard studies, then, demonstrates that the current arrangement of our political and economic affairs could always be arranged otherwise and, perhaps, in ways that are more equitable and just.
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Amoyaw-Osei, Yaw, O. Agyekum, Esther Mueller, R. Fasko, and Mathias Schluep. 2011. “Ghana e-Waste Country Assessment.” Secretariat of the Basel Convention.

Basel Action Network. 2002. “Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia.”

Charette, Robert N. 2009. “This Car Runs on Code – IEEE Spectrum.”

CBS. 2007. “The Amazing Race Photos: Season 15 Episode 3 – CBS.com.” October 4.

Dannenberg, R. O., J. M. Maurice, and G. M. Potter. 1973. “Recovery of precious Metals from Electronic Scrap” United States Bureau of Mines, Rep Invest (7683).

Gabrys, Jennifer. 2011. Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Gille, Zsuzsa. 2007. From the Cult of Waste to the Trash Heap of History: The Politics of Waste in Socialist and Postsocialist Hungary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Höges, Clemens. 2009. “The Children of Sodom and Gomorrah: How Europe’s Discarded Computers Are Poisoning Africa’s Kids.” December 4.

Kleespies, E. K., J. P. Bennetts, and T. A. Henrie. 1970. “Gold Recovery from Scrap Electronic Solders by Fused-Salt Electrolysis.” Journal of Metals 22 (1): 42–44.

Klein, Peter. 2009. “FRONTLINE/World Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground | PBS.” June 23.

Lepawsky, Josh. 2012. “Legal Geographies of E-waste Legislation in Canada and the US: Jurisdiction, Responsibility and the Taboo of Production.” Geoforum 43 (6): 1194–1206.

Manhart, Andreas, Oladele Osibanjo, Adeyinka Aderinto, and Siddharth Prakash. 2011. “Informal E-waste Management in Lagos, Nigeria – Socio-economic Impacts and Feasibility of International Recycling Co-operations”. Basel Convention.

Schwarzner, S., A. De Bono, and P. Peduzzi. 2005. “E-waste, the Hidden Side of IT Equipment’s Manufacturing and Use.”

Wynne, Brian. 1987. Risk Management and Hazardous Waste: Implementation and the Dialectics of Credibility. Springer London, Limited.
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Shaunna Barnhart

Environmentality is a term used to describe an approach to understanding complex interplays of power in environmental governance of human-environment interactions. It builds on philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Governmentality argues that a governing body manages a complex web of people and objects with the purported intent to improve the welfare and condition of the population through changing the relationship between the governing body and those it governs, mediated through objects of concern such as waste.  This is achieved through scaled relationships of power, technologies of government, knowledge production, and discourse which results in individuals changing their thoughts and actions such that they then self-regulate and further the goals of the governing body (Foucault 1991).

Since the late 1990s environmentality, also labeled “environmental governmentality,” “eco-governmentality,” and “green governmentality,” has been applied to various environmental contexts, such as forestry and natural resource management (Agrawal 2005).  More recently, environmentality and governmentality have been used in discard studies to explore power dynamics and changing attitudes and actions regarding waste, waste disposal, and waste governance specifically (Leonard 2013; Moore 2012) and as a way to explore changing environmental identities and actions broadly, including those related to waste (Harris 2011).  The use of technologies of government (such as statistics, census data, or agencies that monitor disease), knowledge production and discourse (what is considered a legitimate source of knowledge and how is that knowledge framed in the public sphere), and interplays of power change the relationship between the governing body and the governed population as mediated through waste.  Power does not need to be repressive; it can move throughout all sectors of society and can be a productive force leading to positive outcomes (Foucault 1980).  These combined elements create “subjectivities,” which refers to individuals internalizing new ways of thinking that leads to new identities and actions (Agrawal 2005).  In so doing, they become the type of “subject” that furthers government aims (such as waste management) without necessarily being aware of their complicity in that objective – the individual becomes an instrument of government by self-regulating their behavior to further the objectives of the governing body.  Environmentality is the use of these tools to understand changing environmental actions and thoughts among individuals and communities which in turn serve the interests of a broader scale authority, such as the state or international entities.

Governmentality and environmentality can be applied to understanding how and why waste becomes a medium through which to understand power and changing human-waste interactions (Moore 2012; Leonard, Fagan and Doran 2009; Armiero and D’Alisa 2012).  It can enhance our understanding of how and why individuals and communities adopt certain waste related practices, perceptions, or oppositions.  However, rather than assume that waste begins as a problematic object of governance, approaching the issue through a governmentality perspective calls into question how waste and discard practices become objects of concern.  Waste and its governance involves knowledge production and discourse – who defines what constitutes waste, how is this communicated, and how is waste (and its handling) framed in/for the public sphere.  Technologies of government can be used to frame “waste” issues (disease, disposal management, etc.) and solutions (sanitation, recycling, etc.).  However, the theory of governmentality argues that power moves throughout all sectors of society, which means that grassroots movements can take up, contest, change, or modify those government and industry framings of waste and its accompanying solutions.  For example, environmental justice advocates can exercise non-sovereign power by calling attention to human and environmental health issues caused by exposure to certain wastes.  This can influence the public discourse on waste and its handling which in turn can lead to changing practices locally and in national contexts (Armiero and D’Alisa 2012).  Environmentality and governmentality can inform research in discard studies which seeks to investigate the nexus of scalar impacts of power, knowledge production and discourse, and the creation of discard-related subjectivities.
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Armiero, M., & D’Alisa, G.  2012.  “Rights of resistance: The garbage struggles for environmental justice in Campania, Italy,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, 23(4): 52–68.

Agrawal, A.  2005.  Environmentality: Technologies of government and the making of subjects. Durham:  Duke University Press.

Foucault, M. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977.  New York: Pantheon Books.

———. 1991. “Politics and the study of discourse” and “Governmentality,” in The Foucault effect: Studies in governmentality, edited by G. Burchell, C. Gordon, and P. Miller.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 53-72 and 87-104.

Harris, L. M.  2011.  “Neo(liberal) citizens of Europe:  Politics, scales, and visibilities of environmental citizenship in contemporary Turkey,” Citizenship Studies.  15(6-7): 837-859.

Leonard, L., Fagan, H., & Doran, P.  2009.  “A burning issue? Governance and anti-incinerator campaigns in Ireland, North and South,”  Environmental Politics. 18(6): 896–916.

Leonard, L.  2013.  “Ecomodern discourse and localized narratives:  Waste policy, community mobilization and governmentality in Ireland,” in Organizing waste in the city: International perspectives on narratives and practices, edited by M. J. Zapata Campos and C. M. Hall.  Chicago:  Policy Press.  181-200.

Moore, S. A. 2012.  “Garbage matters:  Concepts in new geographies of waste,” Progress in Human Geography.  36: 780-799.
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Garbage Patch
Kim De Wolff

Marine debris accumulation locations in the North Pacific Ocean. NOAA, Wikimedia Commons.

Marine debris accumulation locations in the North Pacific Ocean. NOAA, Wikimedia Commons.

A garbage patch is an accumulation of floating objects, mainly waste, in the open ocean. Garbage patches form where circular ocean currents called ‘gyres’ gather materials together. Tied to the regular movements of wind, water, and the rotating earth, these gyre patterns concentrate waste and other floating debris in remote areas in each of the world’s five oceans. The densest accumulation zone, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the Eastern North Pacific between Hawaii and California, is the most infamous of these concentration areas. The majority of materials in garbage patches are synthetic plastics, since many types of plastic float and are incredibly durable. Rather than being dumped in the ocean directly, much of this waste flows down rivers and washes off beaches of both developed and developing countries. At sea, objects fragment into pieces, concentrate and leach toxins, are eaten by marine life, and mix deeply into the water column, making garbage patches amorphous–the metaphor of choice for many researchers is a plastic “soup”– and thus difficult to see, and even more difficult to clean up.

The first reports of synthetics in the open ocean date to the late 1960s and early 1970s: observations of tar balls, plastic pellets and small ‘microplastic’ fragments in the Atlantic, and consumer goods in the Pacific (Leichter 2011: 251). Scientific research published at the time does not explicitly link the presence of plastic to ocean current patterns, and some even dismiss the problem as purely aesthetic based on the assumption that plastics are inert. The term “garbage patch” dates to the mid-1990s, when oceanographers Curtis Ebbesmeyer and James Ingraham began modeling the movements of Nike shoes and plastic bath toys (including the infamous duckies) from shipping container spills. Ebbesmeyer used the term ‘garbage patch’ to describe the theoretical place where these floating objects would be expected to concentrate. Though scientists working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had made a similar prediction in the late 1980s, a North Pacific accumulation zone, or garbage patch, remained just that: a prediction based on models.

In 1997, Captain Charles Moore, often credited with ‘discovering’ the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, took a shortcut sailing home to California from Hawaii. Slowed by a lack of wind in a little-travelled area of the North Pacific, he observed countless plastic objects and fragments that seemed to stretch endlessly to the horizon. Moore redirected the nonprofit Algalita Marine Research Institute to ocean plastic pollution research and education, helping to popularize the issue (Monsaingeon 2013: 62). Many other organizations and researchers followed suit in the Pacific and beyond, most notably Project Kaisei, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 5 Gyres, and the Surfrider Foundation.

With increased attention, garbage patch pollution has been described with different material forms. The popular media has tended to report a solid trash island twice the size of Texas, a new continent so dense you can walk on it. Those at sea, however, report much more elusive flows of fragmented plastic less than 5 mm in size, fishing gear, raw industrial pellets (or ‘nurdles’), and the occasional recognizable consumer object. The size of the gyre and its concentration of waste fluctuate; only an early research site was described as twice the size of Texas (Moore and Phillips 2011). Publics expect spectacular images that fail to materialize, as garbage patches are invisible to satellites and often even from boats. Marine scientists that study ocean plastics tend to speak of convergence or accumulation zones rather than garbage patches, distancing their work from what many in the scientific community understand as exaggerations and misrepresentations of the issue. More recently, following efforts from marine scientist-activist groups, news coverage has started to move away from trash island towards a ‘plastic soup,’ though some reports conflate the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with the debris field from the March 2011 Japan tsunami as it moves across the Pacific. Tensions between divergent materialities, representations, and commitments to accuracy are a frustration for many researchers and educators.

Overall, the garbage patch concept has taken on a popular bent, helping publics understand connections between everyday consumption, production, disposal, and seemingly distant environments. The resilience of (especially ‘disposable’) plastic at sea exemplifies the contradictions of modern industrial capitalism and human attempts to overcome, or otherwise manage, nature. Circulating in international waters with origins difficult to determine, garbage patch pollution is emblematic of new challenges for communities of scientists, activists and policymakers working to address global problems. Given the difficulty of separating plastic from oceans and marine inhabitants, garbage patches demand new forms of responsibility, forms that many argue must begin on land.
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Leichter, James J. 2011. Investigating the Accumulation of Plastic Debris in the North Pacific Gyre. Interdisciplinary Studies on Environmental Chemistry—Marine Environmental Modeling & Analysis (251-259).

Monsaignon, Baptiste. 2013. Oceans of Plastic: Heterogeneous Narrations of an Ongoing Disaster. Limn 3.

NOAA Marine Debris Program. 2012. De-Mystifying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

UNEP. 2009. Marine Litter: A Global Challenge.
Further Reading:

Ebbesmeyer, Curtis C., & Eric Scigliano (2010). Flotsametrics and the floating world: how one man’s obsession with runaway sneakers and rubber ducks revolutionized ocean science. New York: Harper.

Moore, Charles, & Phillips, Cassandra. (2011). Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans. Penguin.

Leichter, James J. 2011. Investigating the Accumulation of Plastic Debris in the North Pacific Gyre. Interdisciplinary Studies on Environmental Chemistry—Marine Environmental Modeling & Analysis (251-259).

Monsaignon, Baptiste. 2013. Oceans of Plastic: Heterogeneous Narrations of an Ongoing Disaster. Limn 3.

NOAA Marine Debris Program. 2012. De-Mystifying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/patch.html

UNEP. 2009. Marine Litter: A Global Challenge. http://www.unep.org/regionalseas/marinelitter/publications/docs/Marine_Litter_A_Global_Challenge.pdf

Further Reading:

Ebbesmeyer, Curtis C., & Eric Scigliano (2010). Flotsametrics and the floating world: how one man’s obsession with runaway sneakers and rubber ducks revolutionized ocean science. New York: Harper.

Moore, Charles, & Phillips, Cassandra. (2011). Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans. Penguin.
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Rebecca Falkoff

Cartoon by Andy Singer.

Cartoon by Andy Singer.

Since 2008 there has been an overwhelming interest in hoarding, expressed both in medical discourse and in a vast body of cultural production that includes network television series, documentary and narrative films, novels and memoirs, theater, installation art, painting, and photography. This contemporary discourse of hoarding is premised on ties between stigmatized social issues like poverty, mental illness, and addiction; and questions of domestic cleanliness, interior decorating, and consumer choices. Hoarding in its contemporary form—as an individual pathology of little apparent economic relevance—was introduced in the medical community in 1993 with “The Hoarding of Possessions,” by Smith psychology professor Randy O. Frost and his student Rachel Gross. Their article prompted research that would culminate in the inclusion of “Hoarding Disorder” in the 2013 revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) published by the American Psychiatric Association. Concomitant with the development of the diagnosis was a marked increase in cultural production dedicated to hoarding, which gained critical momentum in 2009 with A&E’s mega-hit series Hoarders. The program can be credited with generating enormous popular interest in the disorder, as well as with developing narrative and aesthetic formulas that continue to influence the representation of hoarding in the literary and visual arts.

Photograph by Paula Salischiker from the series "The Art of Keeping."

Photograph by Paula Salischiker from the series “The Art of Keeping.”

The spate of popular articles commenting on and participating in this developing corpus of cultural production tends to be characterized by two contradictory, if often overlapping paradigms. One the one hand, hoarding is framed as a response to material deprivation. On the other, it is understood to result from the excesses of the late capitalist mode of production. This latter paradigm is itself divided: the hoarder appears sometimes as a hapless participant in the excesses of consumerism and sometimes as figure of quiet dissent who refuses to accept the harrowing pace of loss mandated by planned obsolescence. Political theorist Jane Bennett sets out a similarly celebratory image. She understands the hoarder as uniquely able to heed the “call of things,” thus eroding the boundaries between him/herself and the world and challenging the entrenched duality between subject and object. The hoarder, she says, “is bad at subtraction” (246), an idea that is also central to contemporary medical discourse, which defines the “Hoarding Disorder” as follows:

A. Persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value.

B. This difficulty is due to strong urges to save items and/or distress associated with discarding.

C. The symptoms result in the accumulation of a large number of possessions that fill up and clutter active living areas of the home or workplace to the extent that their intended use is no longer possible. […]

D. The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning […].

The primary behavior to define the disorder, then, is not the act of acquiring—which is included in the diagnosis as an additional specification—but a failure to produce (or recognize) waste. It is, most basically, a difficulty discarding.

This difficulty discarding may result from a range of attitudes and/or beliefs, and the DSM-V is vague on the subject of motivation. In The Hoarding Handbook (2011), Bratiotis et al. write: “Those who hoard consider their possessions to have sentimental (emotional), instrumental (useful), or intrinsic (beauty) value” (4). Though they note that most people save objects for the same reasons, hoarders’ exceptional sensitivity to the sentimental, instrumental, and aesthetic qualities of objects results in their valuing material that extends well into the space of a larger cultural rejection. The diagnosis “Hoarding Disorder” thus falls within the theoretical terrain of fetish discourse elaborated by William Pietz insofar as it is most fundamentally a charge of misvaluation (be it economic, sexual, religious, or aesthetic) that is predicated upon a clash of perspectives. That is, inherent to the definition of hoarding above is a distance between the value a hoarder finds in objects and the larger cultural consensus. The hoarder, according to the diagnosis, either fails to recognize the “actual(absence of) value of objects, or fails to act properly in accordance with their value (by discarding them).

Finding some remnant of aesthetic, sentimental, or functional interest, value, or potential, where the larger social consensus finds none, we might describe the hoarder’s difficulty as an aversion to wasting: to parting with an object before its use is fully consumed, its beauty fully appreciated, or its sentimental value exhausted. As such, the split perspective that makes the diagnostic criteria a fetish discourse may echo the nuanced polysemy of the term “waste.” As a verb, “to waste” is to wrongly reject or discard, to consume recklessly. As a noun, “waste” is the substance rejected or discarded. In “Hoarding Disorder,” then, we find a refusal to accept the move from the judgment-laden verb, “to waste,” to the neutralized object of a larger social consent or coercion, “waste.”
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Benjamin, Walter, Hannah Arendt, and Harry Zohn. 1968. Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Bennett, Jane. 2012. “Powers of the Hoard: Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter.” Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, ed. J. Cohen (Washington, DC: Oliphaunt Books) 237-69.

Bratiotis, Christiana, Cristina Sorrentino Schmalisch, and Gail Steketee. 2011. The Hoarding Handbook: a Guide for Human Service Professionals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Frost, Randy, and Rachel Gross. 1993. “The hoarding of possessions.” Behaviour Research and Therapy. 31 (4): 367-382.

Frost, Randy and Gayle Steketee. 2010. Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.

Pietz, William. 1985. “The Problem of the Fetish, I” (Res 9).

American Psychiatric Association. 2013. “Hoarding Disorder.” DSM-V. Washington, DC.

Further Reading:

Frost, Randy and Gail Steketee. 2010. Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. Boston: Haughton Mifflin Harcourt.

Herring, Scott. 2011. “Collyer Curiosa: A Brief History of Hoarding.” Criticism. 53 (2).

Lepselter, Susan. (2011). “The disorder of things: Hoarding narratives in popular media.” Anthropological Quarterly, 84(4), 919-947.
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Hudson McFann

Over the last two decades, scholars have increasingly focused on the production of humans asa form of waste—often as a condition of colonialism, modernity, and capitalism. While the precise formulation “human(s)-as-waste” (with and without hyphens) is sometimes employed (e.g., Mbembe 2011, Yates 2011), a survey of the literature reveals usages of many related formulations, such as “child as waste” (Katz 2008), “discarded people” (Desmond 1971), “disposable people” (Bales 1999), “garbaged” bodies (Scanlan 2005), “wasted humans” (Bauman 2004), and “waste populations” (Beck 2009).

In recent literature on humans-as-waste, at least three (overlapping) analytical approaches and corresponding lineages can be identified: symbolic, biopolitical, and politico-economic. Symbolic approaches to humans-as-waste (e.g., Anderson 1995, Esty 1999, Ryan 2013) often engage the work of Douglas (1966) and Kristeva (1982) to explore how humans have been rendered “matter out of place” (cf. James 1987: 126) or abject. Ferguson (1999) offers a particularly instructive elaboration of Kristeva’s notion of abjection, defining it as a process of being not only “thrown aside, expelled, or discarded,” but also “thrown down—thus expulsion but also debasement and humiliation” (236). Biopolitical approaches to humans-as-waste are generally informed by Foucault’s writings on biopolitics and state racism (2003), Agamben’s on homo sacer and “bare life” (1998; see also 1999). and Mbembe’s on necropolitics (2003). An example is Giroux’s (2006) critique of what he terms the “biopolitics of disposability” (see also Beck 2009). Both symbolic and biopolitical approaches are concerned with the re/production of social order, with how the social is ascribed a corporeality, so that an Other may be cast as polluting or superfluous, dangerous or expendable; violent acts thus become positive means of social purification and protection. However, while symbolic approaches tend to focus on the individual or on particular stigmatized people as waste, biopolitical approaches examine the constitution of humans-as-waste as a threat at the level of the population. The third approach, politico-economic, frequently employs a Marxist critique by examining humans-as-waste as a byproduct of the capitalist mode of production. In Volumes One and Three of Capital, respectively, Marx argues that capitalism perpetually generates human superfluity in the form of a “surplus population” of workers (1976) and, moreover, “squanders human beings, living labour,” resulting in a “waste of the workers’ life and health” (1981: 182). For Marxian politico-economic analyses of humans-as-waste, see Gidwani & Reddy (2011), Mbembe (2011), Wright (2006), and Yates (2011).

In addition to these analytical approaches, there are three major concepts of humans-as-waste, which can be distinguished as heuristic, instrumental, and mnemonic. While many scholars have invoked humans-as-waste as a generative heuristic concept for elucidating ways in which certain people are regarded and treated, much less attention has been paid to waste’s historically, geographically, and culturally specific usages as an instrumental or mnemonic concept—that is, in particular, by “perpetrators” to discursively render humans waste, or by “victims” to convey being regarded and treated as waste. Such inquiry is needed to reveal the different meanings with which waste is imbued, as well as how, or whether, figurative usages of waste engender distinctive effects—compared to, for example, usages of animal or disease metaphors. This poses a key theoretical challenge to scholars of discard studies, for humans-as-waste is not an ontologically fixed concept with a universal essence, but rather indexes a multitude of discursive practices that should be examined critically for their contingency and particularity.
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Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Agamben, Giorgio. 1999. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books.

Anderson, Warwick. 1995. Excremental colonialism: Public health and the poetics of pollution. Critical Inquiry 21(3): 640-669.

Bales, Kevin. 1999. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2004. Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Beck, John. 2009: Dirty Wars: Landscape, Power, and Waste in Western American Literature. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Desmond, Cosmas. 1971. The Discarded People: An Account of African Resettlement in South Africa. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London, UK: Routledge.

Esty, Joshua. 1999. Excremental postcolonialism. Contemporary Literature XL(1): 22-59.

Ferguson, James. 1999. Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Foucault, Michel. 2003. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. New York, NY: Picador.

Gidwani, Vinay & Reddy, Rajyashree N. 2011. The afterlives of “waste”: Notes from India for a minor history of capitalist surplus. Antipode 43(5): 1625-1658.

Giroux, Henry A. 2006. Reading Hurricane Katrina: Race, class and the biopolitics of disposability. College Literature 33(3): 171-196.

James, William. 1987. The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature. In Writings, 1902-1910 (1-477). New York, NY: Library of America.

Katz, Cindi. 2008. Childhood as spectacle: Relays of anxiety and the reconfiguration of the child. Cultural Geographies 15(1): 5-17.

Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1976. Capital, Volume 1. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Marx, Karl. 1981. Capital, Volume 3. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Mbembe, Achille. 2003. Necropolitics. Public Culture 15(1): 11-40.

Mbembe, Achille. 2011. Democracy as a community of life. The Johannesburg Salon 4: 5-10.

Ryan, Connor. 2013. Regimes of waste: Aesthetics, politics, and waste from Kofi Awoonor and Ayi Kwei Armah to Chimamanda Adichie and Zeze Gamboa. Research in African Literatures 44(4): 51-68.

Scanlan, John. 2005. On Garbage. London, UK: Reaktion Books.

Wright, Melissa W. 2006. Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism. New York, NY: Routledge.

Yates, Michelle. 2011. The human-as-waste, the labor theory of value, and disposability in contemporary capitalism. Antipode 43(5): 1679-1695.
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Legal issues in waste
Kate Parizeau and Josh Lepawsky

Photograph by Max Liboiron from UCI campus.

Photograph by Max Liboiron from UCI campus.

Legal definitions of waste are more than codified, static rules. Rather, they are renewals of collective values realized through the continual governance of waste materials and associated behaviours. That is, legal definitions of waste are manifestations of therefore represent social values that emphasise what public life should be like by shaping influence how we understand the ‘public good’ and the ‘public sphere’. The liminal materiality and social marginality of waste and its usual location at the border of public and private spaces–on curbs, in bins, and in landfills–enable its potential as a site for the legal management and creation of public norms and spaces (see also Chappells and Shove 1999; Bulkeley and Askins 1999).

Legal definitions of waste vary widely from place to place. Rather than attempt to catalogue and categorize the huge variety of such definitions, we examine what criminologist Valverde calls the ‘work of jurisdiction’ (2009). Jurisdiction is typically understood in spatial and territorial terms. Valverde, however, shows that by focusing on the action of legal governance and its effects, such as law making or policing, territory is only one of several operations of jurisdiction and may be a secondary effect, rather than a primary foundation for that action. The work of jurisdiction goes beyond the traditional understanding of establishing territory (“where”) and authorities (“who”) associated with the rule of law. In practice, this concept also establishes the objects (“what”) and the capacities / rationalities (“how”) of legal governance. Each of these elements (where, who, what, and how) are connected in a chain reaction whereby the designation of one or two aspects of governance lead seemingly automatically to the determination of the other elements. In the case of waste, the “what” of legal governance has clear implications for the “where, who, and how”.

Municipal bylaws that govern residential waste collection, littering, and informal reclamation of materials from the waste stream are meant to mitigate nuisance, including both pollution and socially undesirable behaviours, to facilitate municipal service provision and to control and capture material flows, particularly in the case of municipal recycling and organics collection programs. In essence, these bylaws establish the civic responsibilities of both residents and municipal authorities (“who”), while determining the places and times that are appropriate for waste (“where”), as well as the consequences for infractions (“how;” usually fines that provide funding for the municipal system). The case of informal recycling demonstrates the flexibility of the constellation of these jurisdictional elements. In some instances, this practice is prohibited by bylaw in order to ensure that the municipal body can capture and benefit from the value remaining in the waste stream, and ostensibly to protect the privacy of residents whose waste is being sorted by informal recyclers. Prohibitions on informal recycling may also be instigated to deter antisocial behaviours and allow for stronger policing of the poor in public spaces (for example, see Berti and Sommers 2010). In contrast, some municipalities choose not to prohibit this activity in order to enable the income-earning opportunities of informal workers and to ensure high waste diversion rates. These divergent approaches indicate different notions of the public good.

Different enactments of fundamental values like ‘public good’ highlight why legal definitions of waste are useful to think with. Indeed, legal disputes involving waste heard in the Supreme Courts of Canada and the United States highlight how legal settlements over discards are central to the realization of particular enactments of core values such as freedom, privacy, and property. For example, a Canadian Supreme Court case from 2009 asserted that even when located on an individual’s private property, waste prepared for disposal can be searched by police without a warrant (R. v. Patrick 2009). In the Canadian case the doctrine of abandonment – what a citizen intended to do with items put out for trash collection – has won the day. In the U.S., the doctrine of curtilage prevails. Instead of deciding the case on what a plaintiff intended to do with trash, curtilage begins with the issue of where trash is placed (e.g., on or off private property) and argues that trash on private land may not be searched without a warrant, but trash on public land can be (California v. Greenwood). These disputes demonstrate the work of jurisdiction in action and highlight how values as fundamental as freedom are negotiated and realized through the apparent ephemera of garbage and acts of taking out the trash. Legal definitions of waste are a way to understand how key ideals of fundamental importance to collective life are brought into being.
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Berti, M. and Sommers J. 2010. “‘The streets belong to the people that pay for them’: The spatial regulation of street poverty in Vancouver, British Columbia”, in Crocker, D. and V.M Johnson (Eds.), Poverty, Regulations, and Social Justice: Readings on the Criminalization of Poverty, Fernwood Publishing, Blackpoint NS, pp. 60-74.

Bulkeley, H. and Askins, K. 2009. “Waste interfaces: biodegradable waste, municipal policy and everyday practice”, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 175 No. 4, pp.251-260.

California v. Greenwood. 1988. 486 U.S. 35.

Chappells, H. and Shove, E. 1999. “The dustbin: A study of domestic waste, household practices and utility services”, International Planning Studies, Vol.4 No.2, pp.267-280.

R. v. Patrick. 2009. SCC 17, 1 SCR 579.

Valverde, M. 2009. “Jurisdiction and scale: legal ‘Technicalities’ as resources for theory.” Social and Legal Studies, 18(2); pp. 139-157.

Further Reading:

Abrahamsson, S. and de Vries, K. 2012. “Dumpsters, Muffins, Waste and Law” (blog post).  Retrieved from: http://discardstudies.com/2012/03/27/dumpsters-muffins-waste-and-law/

Blomley, N. 2001. “Landscapes of property”, in Blomley, N.,  Delaney, D.,  and Ford, R.T.  (Eds.), The Legal Geography Reader: Law, Power and Space, Blackwell Publishers, Malden MA, pp. 118-128.

Butler, C. 2009. “Critical Legal Studies and the Politics of Space”, Social & Legal Studies, Vol.18, pp.313-335.

Gregson, N., Metcalfe, A., and Crewe, L. 2007. “Identity, mobility, and the throwaway society”, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol.25, pp.682-700.

Lepawsky, J. 2012. “Legal geographies of e-waste legislation in Canada and the US: Jurisdiction, responsibility and the taboo of production”, Geoforum, Vol.43 No.6, pp.1194-1206.

Mitchell, D. 1997. “The annihilation of space by law: The roots and implications of anti-homeless laws in the United States”, Antipode, Vol.29 No.3, pp.303-335.
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Amanda Winter

Neoliberalism, often viewed as a paradigm or ideology, is typified by privatization, deregulation, commodification, competition, and an anthropocentric market focus, all of which are thought to lead to societal well-being by its supporters. The main goal is to increase gross domestic product (GDP) through an ever growing consumption-driven economy. Not simply an economic theory, neoliberalism has spread a certain culture, often referred to as consumer culture, that “associates personal success, happiness, and well-being with the purchasing of material possessions” (Pérez and Esposito 2010: 88). Consumer sovereignty comes to mean the “right” to endless consumption of material goods, and thus, waste. Here, “freedom is synonymous with: (a) the liberty to compete freely, (b) having personal choice as a consumer; and (c) the unconstrained accumulation of wealth and commodities. Therefore, any objectives or mechanisms designed to ensure economic justice or environmental responsibility are deemed as impediments to freedom” (Pérez and Esposito 2010: 93). Through a growing and globalized consumer culture, one upheld by products purposefully designed to have a short lifespan (planned and perceived obsolescence), the capacity to “waste” increases around the world. Many products and their waste span several continents: each part is made in a different country, assembled in another, sold in the ‘west’, and after disposal, sent elsewhere again.

The connection of neoliberal values with consumer culture contradicts efforts for socio-environmental sustainability in two key ways. First, it requires the continuous extraction of finite resources to feed the production that feeds consumption. Secondly, both production and disposal creates a stream of waste that must be stored somewhere, often to great environmental detriment. Many “solutions” today do not tackle these roots; technological efficiency and market responses such as “greening” products allow this system to continue unchecked. The Jevons Paradox claims that efficiency efforts can be detrimental to resource conservation. Foster et al (2010: 9) explain: “an economic system devoted to profits, accumulation, and economic expansion without end will tend to use any efficiency gains or cost reductions to expand the overall scale of production.” Thus, we need solutions based on challenging neoliberal consumer culture that instead emphasize reduction, sharing, and cooperation, as Ernst Schumacher did in the 1970s in his influential book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1970). He, like many others, such as ecological economists (Tim Jackson, Juliet Schor et al for example) and social critics (see Herbert Marcuse and Jean Baudrillard for example), questioned the link between well-being and GDP. While waste cannot be completely eradicated in our society, whether it is neoliberal in origin or not, as Zsuzsa Gille has shown in her history and politics of waste in Hungary, she also writes that, “culture, morality, ideologies, economic interests, social inequalities, and power struggles permeate the very concept of waste and thus its very materiality” (2007: 212). Thus, neoliberal waste is something different than waste produced in other contexts and ideologies.

Scholars in discard studies face the challenge of solving environmental waste problems within neoliberal industrial and consumer culture and embedded cultural notions of well-being and freedom. Crucial to the success of discard studies and its critical engagement with pressing socio-spatial and ecological problems is an understanding of the economic and cultural origins of these problems.
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Baudrillard, Jean. 1998. Consumer society: myths and structures. London: SAGE.

Foster, John Bellamy, Clark, Brett and York, Richard. 2010. Capitalism and the curse of energy efficiency. Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine 62(6): 1-12.

Gille, Zsuzsa. 2007. From the cult of waste to the trash heap of history: the politics of waste in socialist and postsocialist Hungary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Jackson, Tim. 2009. Prosperity without growth: economics for a finite planet. London: Earthscan.

Marcuse, Herbert. 1964. One-dimensional man: studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. Boston: Beacon Press.

Pérez, Fernando and Esposito, Luigi. 2010. The global addiction and human rights: insatiable consumerism, neoliberalism, and harm reduction. Perspectives on Global Development and Technology 9: 84-100.

Schor, Juliet and Taylor, Betsy (eds). 2002. Sustainable planet: solutions for the twenty-first century. Boston: Beacon Press.

Schumacher, Ernst. F. 1973. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. London: Blond and Briggs.

Further Reading

Aguiar, Luis L. M. and Herod, Andrew (eds). 2006. The Dirty Work of Neoliberalism: Cleaners in the Global Economy.Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

Horton, S. 1997.Value, Waste and the Built Environment: Marxian Analysis. Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 8(2): 127-139.

Leonard, Annie. 2010. The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health – and How We Can Make it Better. New York: Free Press.
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Nuclear Wastelands
de la Torre III

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation, located near Richland, WA, was a plutonium production site for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. It is now one of the largest environmental remediation sites in the world, as well as the site of the Hanford Reach National Monument. Photo by Scott Butner (Some rights reserved).

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation, located near Richland, WA, was a plutonium production site for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. It is now one of the largest environmental remediation sites in the world, as well as the site of the Hanford Reach National Monument. Photo by Scott Butner (Some rights reserved).

More than one hundred sites of radioactive waste and contamination are the legacy of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. These sites have become particularly salient places for study because of the properties of radioactive materials, as well as the “uncanny” and novel cultural, political, and ecological “mutations” (Masco 2006) they continue to provoke. The diverse radionuclides embedded in the soils, groundwater, biospheres, and infrastructures of these spaces present special challenges. The extreme temporalities of this waste—particularly in terms of the longevity of substances with half-lives as long as 24,000 years, like Plutonium-239—often brings consideration of the longue durée into political, technical, and policy efforts. This entry will examine some of the implications of the temporality of radioactive waste at sites managed by the U.S. Department of Energy, and review attempts to understand the geographic legacy of the U.S.’s nuclear weapons complex.

The temporality of radioactive contamination and the difficulties inherent in cleaning up contaminated spaces creates a host of double binds in the politics surrounding these sites. There is often a tension, for example, between the extent of remediation activities and the need for some form of long-term stewardship (LTS) at contaminated sites, including restrictions on the future use of the land. Either a “complete” clean up or perpetual stewardship are highly improbable because of technical and economic limitations, or because they rely on the untenable assumption that existing states will maintain territorial control for thousands of years or more (Power 2008).

What this territorial control looks like has been the subject of some of the most interesting work on these spaces by geographers and anthropologists. Valerie Kuletz has argued that the Western dichotomy of “self and nature” allows nation-states to abandon their commitments to particular geographies (1998: 7). This, she argues, is crucial to understanding how many forms of modern power, including military power, rely on the creation of “zones of sacrifice” (ibid.) such as nuclear wastelands. Yet these zones of sacrifice can also become consumable landscapes. As the state restricts access and private development at these sites, many have since been reclassified as national parks devoted to natural and historical preservation, such as the Hanford Reach National Monument and Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Scholars have begun to focus on these discursively purified but materially contaminated spaces as sites to rethink the legacies of militarism and the continual reworking of nature, culture, and landscapes (Masco 2006; Krupar 2013). Masco, for example, argues that they represent a new, post-Cold War “form of state territoriality” that replaces the nuclear weapons complex with biodiversity as the object of security regimes, and suggests that “the border between preserve and wasteland can be effectively patrolled over millennia” (ibid., 313- 314). For Krupar, this kind of regulation is part of the “green war,” which she describes as “a powerful reorganization of social life that occludes the domestic impacts of war through tactical spectacles of nature” (Krupar 2013: 4).

If containment (Kinsella 2001), preservation, and restoration are the keywords of those managing nuclear remains, a great deal of recent literature in the social sciences and related disciplines has focused on undermining the often illusory sense of distance, based in dichotomies of nature and culture, that these discourses and practices elicit. Instead, this literature encourages an acknowledgement of “intimacy” with dangerous non-human materialities like radioactive wastes through an ethic of continual care and attention (Latour 2011; Morton 2013; Gregson 2012; Bennett 2009). Morton (2013), for example, suggests that the retrievable storage of radioactive wastes at or near the surface in ways that safely make this waste aesthetically available to the public is superior to deep geological disposal. The “permanent” geological disposal option, like the biopolitical management of contaminated lands as natural preservation areas, can be understood as moving and hiding waste in order to achieve a spectacle of nature, at least when repositories are made invisible in the “restored” landscape rather than “memorialized” in some way (Gregson 2012).

States and private contractors are not the only ones engaged in these questions, however, and the “stakeholders” surrounding these sites  often work towards quite different visions for the future of these sites, involving a broader understanding of what stewardship should look like, even while participating in DoE efforts. Key questions for further research should include: How are different communities attempting to practice long term stewardship (LTS) though intergenerational programs by building certain kinds of expertise, institutions, and commitments? What are the discursive and imaginative obstacles in advocacy dealing with the cultural and technical problems of longue durée contamination? Is an ethics or policy agenda based on “intimacy” compatible with environmental justice, particularly given the history of these sites as “sacrifice zones” and the involvement of affected communities in advocating for “restoration?”  Science studies scholars should also continue to monitor developments in research into the biological effects of long-term, low-dose radiation exposures, which suffer from a relatively high degree of uncertainty, and its impact on policy, law, and workplaces. Uncertainty on this issue is particularly problematic because the burden of proof for establishing injury around these dangerous sites often falls to the ill or injured, who sometimes become the subject of scrutiny and even surveillance as they attempt to secure compensation (Petryna 2002; Cram 2011).

Finally, the term “nuclear wasteland,” is not unproblematic. Many of the problems discussed here are far from unique. Nuclear waste sites are not alone in being reclassified as zones of natural and historical preservation due to their contamination, and such designations have extended to areas contaminated by chemicals (Krupar 2013). The links between many toxins and illness are also long and uncertain, and some pollutants (e.g., heavy metals and POPs) will never decay into some safer substance, presenting the same temporal problems as nuclear waste. “Wasteland,” which has a longer use signifying wild or barren landscapes, is a strange way to describe places that host large workforces, support regional economies, and are the subject of intense biopolitical regulation and surveillance because of the dangerous waste it contains. Finally, the borders between these “wastelands” and the rest of the Earth’s biosphere are permeable, despite this regulation. While one may, for sensible reasons, understand wastelands as discrete places, Masco (2006) would remind us that fallout from the Manhattan Project, Cold War nuclear tests, and nuclear disasters are dispersed throughout the biosphere, including within virtually every human body, as part of what is now called “natural background radiation.” The biosphere is a post-nuclear formation.
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Cram, Shannon. 2011. “Escaping S-102: Waste, Illness, and the Politics of Not Knowing.” International Journal of Science and Society 2 (1): 243–52.

Bennett, Jane. 2009. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press Books.

Gregson, Nicky. 2012. “Projected Futures: The Political Matter of Uk Higher Activity Radioactive Waste.” Environment and Planning A 44 (8): 2006–22.

Kinsella, William J. 2001. “Nuclear Boundaries: Material and Discursive Containment at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.” Science as Culture 10 (2): 163–94.

Krupar, Shiloh R. 2013. Hot Spotter’s Report: Military Fables of Toxic Waste. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.

Kuletz, Valerie. 1998. The Tainted Desert: Environmental Ruin in the American West. New York: Routledge.

Latour, Bruno. 2011. “Love Your Monsters — Why We Must Care for Our Technologies as We Do Our Children.” Breakthrough Journal 2 (Fall): 21–28.

Masco, Joseph. 2006. The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Morton, Timothy. 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. Posthumanities 27. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Petryna, Adriana. 2002. Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Power, Max Singleton. 2008. America’s Nuclear Wastelands: Politics, Accountability, and Cleanup. Pullman: Washington State University Press.

Further Reading:

Bryan-Wilson, Julia. 2003. “Building a Marker of Nuclear Warning.” In Monuments and Memory, Made and Unmade, edited by Robert S. Nelson and Margaret Olin, 183–204. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gusterson, Hugh. 2000. “How Not to Construct a Radioactive Waste Incinerator.” Science, Technology & Human Values 25 (3): 332–51.

Hecht, Gabrielle. 2012. Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade. Cambridge: MIT press.

Hooks, Gregory, and Chad L. Smith. 2004. “The Treadmill of Destruction: National Sacrifice Areas and Native Americans.” American Sociological Review 69 (4): 558–75.

Taylor, Bryan, ed. 2007. Nuclear Legacies: Communication, Controversy, and the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Macfarlane, Allison, and Rodney C. Ewing, ed. 2006. Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Van Wyck, Peter C. 2005. Signs of Danger: Waste, Trauma, and Nuclear Threat. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.
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Nutrient rifts
Edward D. Melillo

19th century advertisement for guano.

19th century advertisement for guano.

In his 1862 novel, Les Misérables, French writer Victor Hugo bemoaned the squandering of Parisian night soil: “A great city is the most mighty of dung-makers. Certain success would attend the experiment of employing the city to manure the plain. If our goldis manure, our manure, on the other hand, is gold. What is done with this golden manure? It is swept into the abyss” (1915). Hugo’s lamentation was part of a wider nineteenth-century critique of the emerging “metabolic rift” between city sewers and country farms. With the rise of the sanitary metropolis and the emergence of input-intensive agriculture in Europe and North America, products that had formerly connected urban and rural nutrient cycles were reclassified as waste (Miller 2000; Alexander 1993; Murray 1999; Melosi 2000).

During the mid-1800s, imported commodity fertilizers like Peruvian guano (dried bird excrement) and Chilean sodium nitrate (NaNO3) rapidly superseded an array of urban contributions to agricultural fertility, such as poudrette (human excrement, dried and mixed with charcoal and gypsum), furnace ashes, ground bone, and dried blood from slaughterhouses (Wines  1985). In effect, agriculturalists replaced metropolitan detritus, which had formerly supplied farmers with key macronutrients for plant growth (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), with nutrient-rich supplements from distant environments along South America’s Pacific Coast (Melillo 2012; Cushman 2013).

As the Industrial Revolution drew workers from rural land into cities, farmers on either side of the Atlantic came under pressure to produce higher yields with which to feed the expanding urban population (Peterson 1940). Agriculturalists responded by relying upon a newfound array of foreign materials, such as imported fertilizers, seeds, and machinery, to produce surplus meat, grains, fruit, and vegetables for an emerging working class. Karl Marx, who witnessed a concentrated phase of this transformation in both Europe and the United States, summarized the shift in 1857 by writing, “agriculture no longer finds the natural conditions of its own production within itself, naturally, arisen, spontaneous, and ready to hand, but these exist as an independent industry separate from it” (1857–1858).

During the twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries, the “metabolic rift” between cities and farms has only deepened. The advent of industrial nitrogen synthesis, an energy-intensive process that requires high temperatures and high pressures, has increased the global availability of commodity fertilizer (Smil  2001). It has also precipitated an array of new, and often unequal, relations across space. As philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre claimed in The Production of Space, the commodification of natural resources exemplifies one of the central environmental “displacements” of capitalism, namely that “those commodities which were formerly abundant because they occurred ‘naturally,’ which had no value because they were not products, have now become rare, and so acquired value. They have now to be produced, and consequently they come to have not only a use value but also an exchange value. Such commodities are ‘elemental’ not least in the sense that they are indeed ‘elements’” (1991). As a result, small farmers in many developing nations struggle with the financial burdens that accompany dependence upon expensive imported agricultural inputs. Likewise, many societies struggle with the costly disposal of urban sewage and the effluence from sprawling, industrialized animal farms. Challenges remain to the safe recovery of human and animal manures as future fertilizers. Appropriate treatment facilities and regulatory safeguards are crucial to preventing the spread of foodborne illnesses and thwarting the contamination of crops with heavy metals. Even so, innovative policy makers and pioneering non-state actors are hoping to once again recover the fertile matter of “the most mighty of dung-makers” (Chen 2012; Gardner 1997).

The concept of social metabolism that emerged from nineteenth-century political economy has much to offer practitioners of Discard Studies. One of the most crucial innovations of this theory is its departure from culturally contingent, historically variable, and conceptually weak concepts like money and price. Instead, social metabolism analysis adopts more robust and universally equivalent metrics like energy, matter, embodied land (ecological footprints), or embodied labor. These alternative measures of material exchanges and flows reveal processes across time and space that would otherwise remain invisible. The inequalities of global trade, the displacement of environmental burdens onto impoverished populations and places, and the possibilities for recapturing waste streams as sources of renewable energy are among the factors that such a theory illuminates (see: Bellamy and Holleman 2014; Horborg 2009; Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl 2005; Kaïka 2005; Swyngedouw 2004; Gandy 2002; Tarr 2002; Foster 2000).
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Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, trans. Isabel F. Hapgood (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1915), 84.

Marx, Capital, 3 vols. (1867–1894; repr., New York: Random House, 1981), 3:949.

Benjamin Miller, Fat of the Land: Garbage in New York: The Last Two Hundred Years (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000);

Judd H. Alexander, In Defense of Garbage (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993);

Robin Murray, Creating Wealth from Waste (London, Demos, 1999).

Martin V. Melosi, The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

Richard A. Wines, Fertilizer in America: From Waste Recycling to Resource Exploitation (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985), 3.

Edward D. Melillo, “The First Green Revolution: Debt Peonage and the Making of the Nitrogen Fertilizer Trade, 1840-1930,” American Historical Review 117 (October 2012): 1028–1060.

Gregory T. Cushman, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Arthur G. Peterson, “Agriculture in the United States, 1839 and 1939,” Journal of Farm Economics 22 (February 1940): 98–110.

Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft) (1857–1858; repr., London: Penguin Books, 1973), 518.

[8] Vaclav Smil, Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001).

Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1991), 329.

H. Chen, et al., “Utilization of urban sewage sludge: Chinese perspectives,” Environmental Science and Pollution Research 19 (June 2012): 14541463;

Gary Gardner, “Recycling Organic Waste: From Urban Pollutant to Farm Resource,” Worldwatch Paper no. 135 (August 1997), 159.

John Bellamy Foster and Hannah Holleman, “The Theory of Unequal Ecological Exchange: A Marx-Odum Dialectic,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 41 (March 2014): 199233;

Alf Horborg, “Zero-Sum World: Challenges in Conceptualizing Environmental Load Displacement and Ecologically Unequal Exchange in the World-System,” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 50 (June/August 2009): 237-62;

Marina Fischer-Kowalski and Helmut Haberl, eds., Socioecological Transitions and Global Change: Trajectories of Social Metabolism and Land Use (Northampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar, 2007);

Maria Kaïka, City of Flows: Modernity, Nature, and the City (New York: Routledge, 2005);

Erik Swyngedouw, Social Power and the Ubanization of Water: Flows of Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004);

Matthew Gandy, Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002);

Joel A. Tarr, “The Metabolism of the Industrial City: The Case of Pittsburgh,” Journal of Urban History 28 (July 2002): 511-45;

John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).
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Recycling cooperatives
Jutta Gutberlet

Most of the world’s informal waste collectors are not organized, are extremely poor, and work under hazardous conditions. However, in some countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia and India, informal recyclers have formed cooperatives and associations, sometimes with municipal or non-governmental support (Arroyo et al., 1998; Dias et al., 2008; Gutberlet, 2008; Scheinberg et al., 2010; UN-HABITAT, 2010; Wilson et al., 2006). Distinct characteristics differentiate coops from capitalist enterprises and other centralized frameworks for organizing waste collection, including: the deliberative decision-making processes used in assemblies, where each coop member has a voice and vote; and the aspired values and orientation of many cooperatives are guided by principles of self determination, democracy, solidarity and social responsibility.

The level of organization, the availability of space, and the infrastructure assisting the work process (electric push carts, presses, forklifts, tables, computers, etc.), as well as administrative and business skills vary greatly among the groups, as does the number of cooperative members. There are also large differences in the degree of governmental support (e.g. providing space for the triage center, equipment, trucks, giving ID badges, protective gear, dedicated quarters with lockers, bathroom and material storage facilities, medical check-ups, vaccination, health and security, among others) and the existence of public policies supporting and remunerating organized recycling cooperatives.

The recyclers reclaim different forms of material, ranging from plastics, paper, cardboard, glass, metals, wood, cooking oil, WEEE, oil, other specific packaging, or organic waste. The recovery rate per recycler / cooperative depends on different factors, including the quality of source separation, mode of transportation, local topography, extension of the serviced neighbourhood, equipment, and level of training of the workers. For example, in Brazil, autonomous recyclers often work 12-hour days, pushing on average 200 kg/day at a distance of 20 km/day. In the cooperative, the workday is mostly limited to 8 hours/day, with coffee breaks and lunch intervals (Conceição, 2005). This scenario varies with different geographic locations and national/regional contexts. Nevertheless, informal recyclers usually determine the day or night time of their work and depend on middlemen as buyers for their materials, while in coops, work hours are mostly pre-determined and some coops are able to sell as a network directly to the industry, thus earning better prices.

Recycling groups can provide opportunities for training and education, through programs run by the government, universities, non-governmental organizations, and by the cooperative itself. The collective work and learning experience can contribute to building leadership, empowering the recyclers, and opening avenues for social development, thereby being important in the restoration of their full citizenship (Tremblay et al., 2011). Coop members participate in decision-making and leaders negotiate with government or business and contribute to public events, conferences and exhibitions. Door-to-door selective collection of household recyclables can eventually develop increased environmental and social awareness, with the recyclers acting as hands-on disseminators of information on source separation and waste reduction (Couto, 2012; Gutberlet, 2013).

Globally, there are still few cases outside of Brazil where recycling cooperatives have received concrete government policy support and where funding has been geared towards this sector. In 2002, the Brazilian federal government recognized the occupation of the informal recyclers, the catadores (also known in other languages as cartonero, recuperador, reciclador, zableen, mikhala, etc.) as ‘collector of recyclable materials’, known in Brazil and set parameters for the development of this activity. The recent federal legislation on solid waste management (Law No. 12,305, 07/2010) opens new avenues for the inclusion of recycling cooperatives in selective waste collection and the national program Pró-Catador provides funding for this sector (Dias et al., 2008; Gutberlet, 2012).

Regional cooperative networks are a cutting edge development in Brazil and India. Worldwide, there are many examples where recycling groups add value to the materials by creating new products, like recycled paper goods, washing lines from PET bottles (polyethylene terephthalate), or roof tiles and furniture from TetraPak packaging, among many others (Gunsilius et al., 2011). Furthermore, recycling cooperatives are recently discovering the potential of their work to be classified as a Clean Development Mechanism and thus being able to participate in Carbon Crediting (King & Gutberlet, 2013).

Despite the recent positive developments in coop recycling and their potential to contribute to urban waste management, there still remain numerous challenges. Particularly critical are those related to the persistence in social and economic exclusion, reiterating their situation of poverty, as well as the stigmatization of informal and organized recyclers, which are still mostly seen and treated as less worth. Local governments need to take active steps formalizing the recyclers and including them in municipal solid waste management programmes, targeting the undervalued, unhealthy and risky working conditions, as well as recognizing these workers as potential environmental stewards providing a service which needs to be remunerated. Finally, a recent phenomenon, particularly in large metropolitan areas in developing countries, is the privatization of the solid waste management sector and the introduction of incineration technologies (e.g. waste-to-energy), posing a severe threat to recyclers worldwide, by reducing recycling rates and funding for selective waste collection and recycling (Gutberlet, 2011).
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Arroyo, J., Rivas, F. & Lardinois, I. (eds) (1998) Solid Waste Management in Latin America: The Case of Small and Micro-Enterprises and Cooperatives, WASTE, Gouda, The Netherlands.

Conceição, M.M. (2005) Os empresários do lixo: um paradoxo da modernidade, 2nd Edition, Átomo: Campinas.

Couto, G. A. (2012) Aprendizagem social e formação humana no trabalho cooperativo de catadores(as) em São Paulo, Masters thesis, Faculty of Education, University of São Paulo, Brazil.

Dias, S. M. & Cidrin, F. G. A. (2008) Integration of the informal recycling sector in solid waste management in Brazil. Frankfurt: GIZ. Retrieved on 25.08.2014 http://www.giz.de/en/downloads/gtz2010-waste-experts-conditions-is-integration.pdf.

Gunsilius E., Spies, S., García-Cortés, S., Medina, M., Dias, S., Scheinberg, A., Sabry, W., Abdel-Hady, N., Florisbela dos Santos, A. & Ruiz, S. (2011) Recovering resources, creating opportunities / Integrating the informal sector into solid waste management. Eschborn, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).

Gutberlet, J. (2013) Briefing: Social facets of solid waste: insights from the global south. Waste and Resource Management. 166 (3): 110–113 http://dx.doi.org/10.1680/warm.13.00011.

Gutberlet, J. (2012) Informal and cooperative recycling as a poverty eradication strategy, Geography Compass, 6 (1): 19-34.

Gutberlet, J. (2011) O custo social da incineração de resíduos sólidos: Recuperação de energia em detrimento da sustentabilidade. Revista Geográfica de América Central, Número Especial XIII EGAL, 2011- Costa Rica, Vol. 2 (47E): 1-16.

Gutberlet, J. (2008) Recycling Citizenship, recovering resources: Urban poverty reduction in Latin America Ashgate: Aldershot.

King, M. & Gutberlet, J. (2013) Contribution of cooperative sector recycling to greenhouse gas emissions reduction: a case study of Ribeirão Pires, Brazil. Waste Management, Vol. 33, Issue 12, pp.: 2771-2780. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2013.07.031.

Scheinberg, A., Wilson, D. C. & Rodic, L. (2010) Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities. Third edition in UN-Habitat’s State of Water, UN Human Settlements Programme, ISBN Number: 978-1-84971-169-2.

Tremblay, C. & Gutberlet, J. (2011) Empowerment through participation: assessing the voices of leaders from recycling cooperatives in São Paulo, Brazil, Community Development Journal, 46 (3): 1-21.

UN-HABITAT (2010) Solid waste management in the world’s cities. London, UK: Gutenberg Press.

Wilson, D. C., Velis, C. & Cheeseman, C. (2006) Role of informal sector recycling in waste management in developing countries. Habitat International, 30: 797–808.
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Sacred waste
Sarah A. Riccardi

Sacred waste or holy trash refers to the afterlife of things employed within religious, spiritual, and civil contexts that are then recycled, upcycled, or discarded (Anderson 2010: 35). This vernacular concept is beginning to take root in religious studies and literary studies, both of which are fields that have recently started to encourage research on ecology, environmentalism, and waste in relationship to religion and spirituality. Found within a variety of contexts, examples of sacred waste include leftover communion elements in Christian traditions; the remains of prasad in Hindu devotional activities; Torahs no longer in circulation in Jewish communities; faded icons found in the home shrines of Eastern Orthodox believers; and a wide variety of other items used by practitioners of faith traditions. However, sacred waste is not limited to institutional and vernacular forms of religion. Public items that are associated with forms of national pride, such as flags and emblems, constructed spaces, and land are often imbued with a sense of symbolic identity. Thus the retirement or destruction of such entities can cause public outcry if the items are not removed or disposed of in a manner that acknowledges socio-political, religious, national, or ethnic pride. Sacred waste is made up of more than the composite of its material elements because of its close proximity to and association with holiness or sacredness, the essence of which can become infused within or attached to the items themselves. Often, the spiritual dimension of holy things engenders deep emotional feelings on the part of practitioners, creating complex dilemmas that call into question the boundaries of holiness, sacridity and the agency of both the person and the object being discarded.

What or who defines the sacred items that ultimately become refuse? This question is not new– indeed, it harkens back to Mary Douglas’ work on purity and emic and etic understandings of sacredness (Douglas 1966). The subjective and culturally specific nature of belief means that sacred trash can take many different forms, for even everyday items can be considered sacred or holy by the discarder. In this way, sacred trash becomes a means by which individuals can authenticate their faith, spirituality, or rituals, often challenging institutional, homogeneous understandings of holiness and authority. These negotiations have political implications, highlighting the loci of power within traditional forms of religion and how new, consumer-driven forms of faith and spirituality are destabilizing formal institutions of religious power. This is best seen in the hybrid and “syncretistic” forms of Catholicism that meld together religious and secular things, creating an amalgamated form of waste that possesses a complex religious and emotional nature, such as votive candles, prayer cards, family photos, and incense. For practitioners, the remains of these items are sacred and, thus, should be disposed of or recycled in an appropriate manner that adheres to a personal or collective understanding of what is proper and legitimate theologically, culturally, and historically. However, in institutional religious settings, this type of garbage may not be view as sacred, leading to a fissure between vernacular folk piety and the authoritative hierarchy. In this manner, trashing functions as heresy and subversion, and a catalyst for socio-religious change. An example of the subversive nature of sacred trash outside of institutional religion can be seen at the annual Burning Man event in northern Nevada. There a symbolic effigy is reduced to ash, to sacred waste, and through the creation of holy refuse, attendees express their cultural ideals and desire to move beyond normative understandings of civil engagement.

The very idea of sacred waste also brings up ethical issues that are found in other areas of discard studies; namely, how does one properly dispose of used items in moral and ethical ways that concomitantly address religious obligations and environmental concerns? Implicit within this question are issues of socio-religious identity, the relationship between institutional hierarchy and vernacular practices, and negotiation of spiritual and physical boundaries. These dilemmas take on more salient concerns with the centrality of new technologies, such as the Internet marketplace and digital printers, through which consumers can and do purchase and produce goods that are used in religious rituals, spiritual acts, and, often, everyday life events. This type of mediated consumption is seen in Eastern Orthodoxy in the United States, where practitioners often print out paper icons on their home laser printers. These images become part of the circulation of the material holy in Orthodox economies until such time as they begin to fade and decay. The inevitable disintegration of paper icons means that they must be preserved, burned, or buried in accordance with the religious laws of the group. Digitally produced icons raise ethical questions for practitioners of Orthodoxy. Indeed, the term holy trash has been brought up during fieldwork with Orthodox Christians in the Missouri Ozarks, who are unsure how to discard icons and other religious things they use in domestic devotions. However, ethical dilemmas surrounding sacred waste are not limited to religious groups. Thus, focusing on potential or realized sacred characteristics of waste calls attention to the idea of spirituality, what constitutes sacredness, and the disposability of holiness and items of socio-political importance. By examining sacred trash, a large picture of material spirituality and identity emerges, while concomitantly allowing for the nuancing of the field of discard studies.
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Anderson, Christopher Todd. Winter 2010. Sacred Waste: Ecology, Spirit, and the American Garbage Poem. Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment17 (1), 35-60.

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger:An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge.

Further Reading:

Nagle, R. 2007. To Love a Landfill: The History and Future of Fresh Kills. Handbook of Regenerative Landscape Design, 3.

Roof, Wade Clark. 1996. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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Manisha Anantharaman and Aman Luthra

Segregation, or sorting, refers to the act of separating waste materials into predefined categories such as dry/wet, recyclable/non-recyclable and biodegradable/non-biodegradable. Although segregation of waste is often done by waste management service providers in material recovery facilities run by municipalities, city governments, private waste management contractors, or by informal sector waste workers, this article focuses on the act of segregation of waste by members of the public as part of disposal, an action that is sometimes referred to as segregation-at-source, or source segregation.

While the practice of segregating waste at the source has always been a part of life in many parts of the world, the emergence of the concept’s contemporary use can be traced to the 1970s, when the environmental movement started focusing on recycling as a key strategy to reduce environmental burden (MacBride 2011).  If recycling is understood as the industrial process of materials recovery from waste, then source segregation is often viewed as the domestic companion and pre-condition to recycling, even if its efficacy is questionable (The Economist 2007). Many municipalities around the world now require their residents to separate waste into a number of types. The number of categories varies based on the national and cultural context, the technologies used to handle and process the waste, and expectations of behavior (Lardinois and Furedy 1999). For example, some parts of Europe segregate up to six different categories of household waste, while some areas in Japan require as many as 27 categories.  The most visible symbols of source segregation are the variously colored bins in homes and curbsides, one for each different types of waste and/or recyclable material. For some observers, the many different types of bins have become a marker of virtuous modernization and societal progress. Modernization, often defined as the advancement of a society from traditionalism into industrialization, scientific rationalization and individualization, also includes changes in household practices. These shifts in the domestic sphere both reflect and reinforce broader societal trends. Therefore, just as the presence of bins for segregated waste might mark the degree of modernization of a municipal waste stream, so too does the often invisible act of segregating waste within the household itself.

Although segregating waste might be meaningless if the infrastructure to support collection and transportation of separated waste does not exist, it is considered an act of virtue in and of itself, an act of individual “green-ness”, of caring for the environment and being cognizant of the environmental impact of consumption (Gandy 1994). When source segregation is socially and politically prioritized, waste management — originally the sole domain of sanitation engineering–has increasingly sought the help of social psychology, anthropology, sociology, and behavioral economics to induce desired behavior changes in individuals and the wider public (e.g. Hopper and Nielsen 1991; Hornik et al 1995; Iyer and Kashyap 2007, Schulz 2002; Vining and Ebreo 1990; Werner et al 1995).

While the current avatar of segregation emerged in the environmental movements of the United States and Europe, it has now traveled to developing countries, where it encounters and often contests existing practices of waste separation. In many developing countries where existing municipal systems are inadequate to handle the growing quantities of waste (Guerrero 2013), source segregation is increasingly seen as a precondition for addressing the challenges posed by accelerated waste production. But even here, the practice of segregation is not new. For instance, households have always segregated high-value recyclables to sell to traders. Lower-value recyclables that cannot be sold by residents themselves are segregated by armies of waste pickers in urban centers who make a living from collecting, segregating and transporting these materials (Medina 2007). As municipalities and government agencies in the developing world try to solve waste management problems, they are introducing new systems of managing waste materials, many of which have been imported from developed countries and have failed in new contexts (Campos and Zapata 2014). These wide-ranging initiatives include technology and capital intensive projects such as waste-to-energy facilities, but also decentralized systems that prioritize source segregation, recycling, composting and biogas production. To encourage source segregation for instance, municipalities place separate bins for dry and wet waste and invest money in public awareness campaigns on the importance of waste separation. Unfortunately, these investments have often failed to achieve the results that were hoped for. Nonetheless, the urban middle classes continue to claim environmental citizenship through these practices and embrace them; segregation is increasingly framed as a “green” behavior rather than an economic necessity (Anantharaman 2013). Segregating waste at source is thus doubly viewed as fundamental to extracting “value” from waste, the economic and livelihood value of materials being extracted and resold on the one hand, and an inherently ethical, “green” activity on the other. As a result, the daily, mundane labor of sorting that informal waste pickers engage in to eke out a living is marginalized even further.
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Further reading:

Hershkowitz, Allen. 1998. In defense of recycling. Social Research 65(1): 141-218

Horton, Stephen. 1995. Rethinking recycling: the politics of the waste crisis. Capitalism Nature Socialism 6(1): 1-19

Reid, Louise, Phillip Sutton and Colin Hunter. 2010. Theorizing the meso level: the household as a crucible of pro-environmental behaviour. Progress in Human Geography 34(3): 309-327

Scheinberg, A. 2012. Informal Sector Integration and High Performance Recycling: Evidence from 20 Cities. WIEGO Working Paper No. 23.


Anantharaman, M. 2014. Networked ecological citizenship, the new middle classes and the provisioning of sustainable waste management in Bangalore, India. Journal of Cleaner Production, 63: 173-183.

Campos, M.J.Z. and P. Zapata. 2014. The travel of global ideas of waste management: The case of Managua and its informal settlements. Habitat International 41(1):41-49

Gandy, M. 1994. Recycling and the Politics of Urban Waste. New York: St. Martin’s Press

Guerrero, A.L. et. al. 2013. Solid waste management challenges for cities in developing countries. Waste Management 33(1):220-232

Hopper, J. and J. Nielsen. 1991. Recycling as altruistic behavior: Normative and behavioral strategies to expand participation in a community recycling program. Environment and Behavior 23(2): 195-220

Hornik, J. et al. 1995. Determinants of recycling behavior: A synthesis of research results. Journal of Socio-Economics 24(1): 105-127

Iyer E.S. and R.K. Kashyap. 2007. Consumer recycling: Role of incentives, information, and social class. Journal of Consumer Behavior6(1): 32-47.

Lardinois, I. and C. Furedy. 1999. Source Separation of Household Waste Materials: Analysis of Case Studies from Pakistan, the Philippines, India, Brazil, Argentina and the Netherlands. Urban Waste Series Volume 7. Gouda: WASTE.

MacBride, S. 2011. Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States. Cambridge: MIT Press

Medina, M. 2007. The World’s Scavengers: Salvaging for Sustainable Consumption and Production. Plymouth: AltaMira Press

Schulz, W. 2002. Knowledge, Information, and Household Recycling: Examining the Knowledge-Deficit Model of Behavior Change (67-82) in Ed. Stern P. and T. Diez New Tools for Environmental Protection: Education, Information, and Voluntary Measures . Washington D.C.:National Academies Press

The Economist. 2007. The truth about recycling. The Economist.

Vining, J. and A. Ebreo. 1990. What makes a recycler? A comparison of recyclers and nonrecyclers. Environment and Behavior 22(1): 55-73
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Solid waste management
Seth Schindler

Ghazipur Landfill, Delhi, India. Photo by the author.

Ghazipur Landfill, Delhi, India. Photo by the author.

Solid waste management (SWM) systems refer to the institutionalized practices of waste collection, transportation, processing and disposal. Waste management is often the responsibility of municipal governments, and SWM systems vary greatly from city to city as there are many ways in which waste can proceed from collection to disposal. For example, waste can be collected at households or neighborhood depots. It can be interred in landfills, incinerated, or recycled. The differences in cities’ SWM systems can be accounted for by their unique access to resources and technology, the composition and volume of the waste that is produced, and the capacity of municipal governments. Furthermore, the development of SWM systems is often highly politicized as competing interest groups struggle to mitigate their exposure to waste via the location of waste management facilities or strive for economic or political gain.

Since the emergence of the ‘new international division of labor’ in the 1980s it has been possible for municipal governments in many Southern metropolises to attract foreign direct investment and industry (Fröbel et al. 1980; Storper 1990). While international investors have eagerly invested in urban water and electricity systems, they showed little interest in SWM systems until recently. In most metropolises in the global South SWM remained the responsibility of municipal governments, and in most instances they failed to develop comprehensive and effective systems

(see Henry et al. 2006; Imam et al. 2008). As a result, many cities witnessed the emergence of informal SWM systems that operate openly and regularly with at least tacit approval from authorities (Kumar et al. 2009; Troschinetz and Mihelcic 2009; Wilson et al. 2009). In such cases waste is typically collected throughout cities by mobile waste collectors who separate recyclable material from non-recyclable waste. Recyclable material is then sorted into various categories (e.g. types of plastic, metal, paper) and often changes hands multiple times among various intermediate dealers until it is ultimately sold in bulk to small- and medium-scale recyclers. These informal systems can recycle up to 50% of a city’s waste (Wilson et al. 2009). They are typically labor intensive and provide an important source of livelihood for the urban poor, many of whom are migrants from rural areas who cannot find wage labor (Wilson et al. 2006). Furthermore, many informal SWM systems exhibit a complex division of labor that offers a rare avenue of social mobility, as waste collectors can occasionally become intermediate traders (Gill 2010).

The growth of informal SWM systems has often allowed municipal governments in Southern metropolises to abdicate their responsibility of waste management. In some instances municipal authorities have tacitly acknowledged that informal SWM systems provided an essential service (see Imam et al. 2008; Chaturvedi and Gidwani 2011). Though the labor of informal-sector waste workers is not remunerated by municipal authorities, it is nevertheless valuable because it frees up public resources that can be used elsewhere. In recent years many metropolises in the global South, particularly in BRIICS (Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia and South Africa) countries, have witnessed rapid population and economic growth which has led to an increase in the volume of waste produced. This poses a challenge to existing SWM systems and many municipal governments have addressed this challenge by privatizing SWM systems. Since most cities lacked extensive systems to begin with, this has often meant little more than transferring the ownership of waste – or granting the right to collect waste – to private firms (see Gidwani 2013; Fahmi 2005; Bjerkli 2013).

The composition of waste in many Southern cities has also changed and an increasingly significant proportion of waste is recyclable (see Chen et al. 2010; Metin et al. 2003; Kumar et al. 2009). Given the global demand for recyclable materials (e.g. high-quality plastics, aluminum and cardboard) large-scale private waste management firms have begun to show interest in SWM systems in Southern metropolises (Bank of America Merill Lynch 2013). Global and regional institutions such as the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change and the European Union have encouraged investment in SWM systems and facilitated the diffusion of waste management technology from North to South (Forsyth 2007; Ockwell et al. 2008). Such programs are not without controversy, however, as the implementation of capital-intensive SWM processes dramatically reworks flows of waste. Private firms’ legal right to collect valuable recyclable waste is commonly contested by informal-sector recyclers whose livelihoods depend on their uninterrupted access to the same waste (Global Alliance of Waste Pickers 2013).  Conflict over access to waste is particularly dramatic in instances where privatization unfolds in parallel with a shift from a system based on landfills to waste-to-energy plants (Schindler et al. 2013; Gutberlet 2012). These plants require a constant supply of high calorific and recyclable waste, which is  transformed into refuse derived fuel and incinerated. While it is clear that waste-to-energy plants can adversely impact local recycling industries, the informal nature of the latter makes it difficult to determine which system is most efficient or sustainable. Any effort to assess the comparative environmental and social impacts of these systems is hindered by the fact that informal SWM systems are decentralized and there is a paucity of data.

The reworking of waste flows driven by the privatization of waste management and the introduction of technology such as waste-to-energy plants has noticeable everyday material consequences. In contrast to informal systems in which waste collectors typically move through cities on foot and collect waste from doorsteps, large-scale firms tend to use capital-intensive methods such as trucks that collect waste from neighborhood depots and proceed to a materials recovery facility, landfill or waste-to-energy plant. As a result, communities of informal-sector waste collectors and recyclers typically lose access to waste and are forced to find new sources, oftentimes on the urban periphery (Gidwani 2013; Fahmi 2005; Bjerkli 2013). Furthermore, by transferring ownership of waste to large-scale private enterprises value is relocated from the labor of waste workers to waste matter itself. For instance, the Clean Development Mechanism awards certified emissions reductions (CERs) (i.e. ‘carbon credits’) for waste-to-energy plants according to the amount of waste that is incinerated. This provides a financial incentive to incinerate waste, and as a result waste is channeled away from the informal recycling sector. Thus, while the labor of informal-sector waste workers was hitherto valued because it freed up municipal resources, subsidies for waste-to-energy plants augments the value of waste matter vis-à-vis labor.

Informal-sector waste workers whose livelihoods are threatened have contested the privatization of SWM systems and the introduction of capital-intensive technology (Global Alliance of Waste Pickers 2013). Scholarship has begun to focus on the relationship between the reworking of waste flows and the contentious politics it engenders (Fahmi 2005; Gutberlet 2012; Schindler et al. 2013; Gidwani 2013). Future research is needed in order to identify strategic points at which SWM systems can be contested and reconfigured in socially just and environmentally sustainable ways. This requires interdisciplinary research that combines technical modeling of waste flows and environmental science with critical urban theory that is sensitive to power relations in the context of urban transformation. Such interdisciplinary collaboration could potentially inform policymaking which is currently hindered by a lack of knowledge regarding flows of waste and the informal sector. While existing scholarly evidence suggests that alliances among informal-sector waste workers and municipal governments can engender efficient SWM systems (Baud et al. 2001), there is still a preference for capital-intensive SWM among policy makers in many cities. Thus, the challenge facing scholars and policy makers is to develop SWM solutions that incorporate informal waste workers and achieve high waste collection and recycling rates.
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Agarwal, Ankit, Singhmar, Ashish, Kilshrestha, MMukul, and Mittal, Atul K. 2005. Municipal solid waste recycling and associated markets in Delhi, India. Resources, Conservations and Recycling 44(1): 73-90.

Bank of America Merill Lynch. 2013. No Time to Waste: Global Waste Primer.

Baud, Isa, Grafakos, Stelios, Hordijk, Michaela, and Post, Johan. 2001. Quality of life and alliances in solid waste management: contributions to urban sustainable development. Cities 18(1): 3-12.

Bjerkli, Louise C. 2013. Governance on the ground: a study of solid waste management in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37(4): 1273-1287.

Chaturvedi, Bharati and Gidwani, Vinay. 2011 The right to waste: informal sector recyclers and struggles for social justice in post-reform urban India. In Ahmed, Waqar, Kundu, Amitabh and Peet, Richard. (Eds.) India’s New Economic Policy: A Critical Analysis. New York: Routledge.

Chen, Xudong, Geng, Yong, and Fujita, Tsuyoshi. 2010. An overview of municipal solid waste management in China. Waste Management 30(4): 716-724.

Fahmi, Wael Salah. 2005. The impact of privatization of solid waste management in the Zabaleen garbage collectors of Cairo. Environment and Urbanization 17(2): 155-170.

Forsyth, Tim. 2007. Promoting the ‘‘Development Dividend’’ of climate technology transfer: can cross-sector partnerships help? World Development 35(10): 1684-1698.

Fröbel, Folker, Heinrichs, Jurgen, and Kreye, Otto. 1980. The New International Division of Labour: Structural Unemployment in Industrialised Countries and Industrialisation in Developing Countries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gidwani, Vinay. 2013. Value struggles: waste work and urban ecology in Delhi. In Rademacher, Anne and Sivaramakrishnan, K. (Eds.) Ecologies of Urbanism in India: Metropolitan Civility and Sustainability. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Gill, Kaveri. 2010. Of Poverty and Plastic: Scavenging and Scrap Trading Entrepreneurs in India’s Urban Informal Economy. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Global Alliance of Waste Pickers. 2013. Struggles and Victories: Waste Pickers on the Frontline.

Gutberlet, Jutta. 2012. Informal and cooperative recycling as a poverty eradication strategy. Geography Compass 6(1): 19-34.

Henry, Rotich K., Yongsheng, Zhao, and Jun, Dong. 2006. Municipal solid waste management challenges in developing countries – Kenyan case study. Waste Management 26(1): 92-100.

Heynen, Nik, Kaika, Maria, and Swyngedouw, Erik. 2006. In the Nature of Cities: Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism. New York: Routledge.

Imam, A , Mohammed, B., Wilson, David C., and Cheeseman, Christopher R. 2008. Solid waste management in Abuja, Nigeria. Waste Management 28(2): 468-472.

Kumar, Sunil, Bhattacharyya, J.K., Vaidya, A.N., Chakrabarti, Tapan, Devotta, Sukumar, and Akolkar, A.B. 2009. Assessment of the status of municipal solid waste management in metro cities, class I cities, class II towns in India: an insight. Waste Management 29(2): 883-895.

Metin, E., Eröztürk, C., Neyim, C. 2003. Solid waste management practices and review of recovery and recycling operations in Turkey. Waste Management 23(5): 425-432.

Ockwell, David G., Watson, Jim, MacKerron, Gordon, Pal, Prosanto, and Yamin, Farhana. 2008. Key policy considerations for facilitating low carbon technology transfer to developing countries. Energy Policy 36(11): 4104-4115.

Schindler, Seth, Demaria, Federico, Pandit, Shashi B. 2013. Delhi’s waste conflict. Economic and Political Weekly 47(42): 18-21.

Storper, Michael. 1990. Industrialization and the Regional Question in the Third World: Lessons of Postimperialism; Prospects of Post-Fordism. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 14(3): 423-444.

Troschinetz, Alexis M. and Mihelcic, James R. 2009. Sustainable recycling of municipal solid waste in developing countries. Waste Management 29(2): 915-923.

UNEP. 2013. City-Level Decoupling: Urban Resource Flow and the Governance of Infrastructure Transitions. United Nations Environmental Programme.

Wilson, David C., Araba, A debisi O., Chinwah, Kaine, and Cheeseman, Christopher R. 2009. Building recycling rates through the informal sector. Waste Management 29(2): 629-635.

Wilson, David C., Velis, Costas and Cheeseman, Christopher. 2006. Role of informal sector recycling in waste management in developing countries. Habitat International 30(4): 797-808.

Further reading:

Boo, Katherine. 2012. Behind the Beautiful Forevers. New York: Penguin Books.

Gill, Kaveri. 2010. Of Poverty and Plastic: Scavenging and Scrap Trading Entrepreneurs in India’s Urban Informal Economy. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Heynen, Nik, Kaika, Maria, and Swyngedouw, Erik. 2006. In the Nature of Cities: Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism. New York: Routledge.
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Waste flows
Myra J. Hird

Paul Crutzen’s term ‘Anthropocene’ marks an unofficial yet widely accepted geological time scale designating the point at which human activity has intersected, in its significance and magnitude, with planetary geological forces. Crutzen initially located the beginning some two hundred years ago, but now places “the real start of the Anthropocene” on a specific date: July 16, 1945 – with the Trinity detonation and its fallout, radioactive waste. Whether nuclear fallout or carbon dioxide, waste has become the signifier of the Anthropocene, inaugurating the only epoch that centralizes humans.

Mary Douglas’s (1966) influential theorization of waste as “matter out of place” initiated a generation of studies focused on the complex ways in which purification practices – defining certain things and people as waste to be excised – form and stabilize communities. Industrialism, capitalist economies, and neoliberal governance mean that this expurgation is now global in scale and topography (Spaargaren, Mol and Buttel 2006; Dauvergne 2008). One characteristic contemporary waste is its proclivity to move, to transform, to flow (Gille 2010). Critically examining how and why waste flows politically, economically, culturally, symbolically, socially, and materially offers important insights into our past, present, and possible future relationship with waste, the environment, and our species.

These analyses share an appreciation for waste flows as complex networks of socio-cultural and bio-geological processes. For instance, neoliberal governance seeks to manage waste as a techno-scientific concern that leaves circuits of mass production and over-consumption undisturbed (Gregson and Crang 2010). Managing waste suggests it is definable (things count or do not count as waste); relatively stable; and amenable to ‘fixing’ practices (such as landfilling, recycling, dumping, and incineration) that isolate, immobilize, and control waste.

However, waste flows are always contingent, uncertain and temporal. Not only does waste at times exceed its mundane cultural, economic, and symbolic governance (Hird et. al. in press), but waste may physically leak, spill, seep, corrode, slip, collapse or explode, contaminating groundwater, soil, the atmosphere, and organisms (Hird 2013; Gabrys 2009). “Trash may dissemble the truth of its being by presenting itself as [an] immaterial, innocuous substance divorced from the relations to physicality” (Kennedy 2007: 162) but in actuality, bio-geological processes are always already actively involved (Clark and Hird 2014; Hird 2012, 2013). The millions of people who live in and on dumpsites and survive by directly handling waste, or who live downstream from waste’s fallout are acutely aware of waste’s proclivity to materially flow (McGovern 1995; Lepawsky and Mather 2011). According to Ulrich Beck, this is what it means to live in a “risk society” in which complex technological innovations created as solutions “contain the seeds of new, more difficult problems” (2009: 113). Or as Brian Wynne reminds us of waste repositories such as landfills, these are sites where “…natural processes and human interactions are jumbled together in complex and widely variable ways, making a badly structured and, indeed, indeterminate behavioural-technical risk-generating system” (1987: 1).

The Anthropocene marks an epoch of permanently temporary waste deposits left for imagined futures to resolve. Experts estimate landfill longevity in terms less than two hundred years. Incineration fly ash is often landfilled, adding concentrated toxic heavy metals to leachate and clogging landfill pipes; thereby undermining attempts to control leachate flow. Freezing mining waste “in perpetuity” signifies an epoch in which the responsibility for waste is abdicated to future generations. This projection, however, already manifests in the present: global warming is melting the permafrost supposed to keep mining waste frozen in Canada’s north, and bacterial exuberance transforms landfill waste into new entities scientists cannot anticipate (Hird 2012, 2013).

We are not so much leaving behind our waste for some imagined future humanity to decipher our history, as we are bequeathing a particular futurity through a projected responsibility for the toxicity, contamination, and resource depletion our epoch created. Waste, therefore, introduces a paradox: the Anthropocene marks humans’ significant re-assemblage of the planet at the same time that it puts an end to any lingering sense to human exceptionalism.
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Beck, Ulrich. 2009. World at Risk. Oxford: Polity Press.

Clark, Nigel and Hird, Myra J. (2014). “Deep Shit”, O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies, 1: 44-52.

Crang, Michael. et.al. 2012. ‘Death, the Phoenix and Pandora: Transforming Things and Values in Bangladesh’ in C. Alexander and J. Reno (eds.) Economies of Recycling: New York: Zed Books, pp. 59-75.

Douglas, Mary. 2007[1966]. Purity and Danger. New York: Routledge.

Dauvergne, Peter. 2008. The Shadows of Consumption. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Gabrys, Jennifer. 2009. ‘Sink: The Dirt of Systems’ Environment and Planning D, 27: 666-681.

Gille, Zsuzsa. 2010. ‘Actor Networks, Modes of Production, and Waste Regimes: Reassembling the Macro-Social’ Environment and Planning A, 42: 1049–64.

Gregson, Nicky and Crang, Michael. 2010. ‘Guest Editorial. Materiality and Waste: Inorganic Vitality in a Networked World’, Environment and Planning A, 42: 1026-1032.

Hird, Myra J. 2012. “Knowing waste: Towards an inhuman epistemology.” Social Epistemology 26 (3-4): 453-469.

Hird, Myra J. 2013. ‘Waste, Landfills, and an Environmental Ethics of Vulnerability’, Ethics and the Environment, 18(1): 105-124.

Hird, Myra J. Scott Lougheed, R Kerry Rowe, and Cassandra Kuyvenhoven. (2014). ‘Making Waste Management Issues Public’ Social Studies of Science. 44 (3): 441-465.

Kennedy, Greg. 2007. An Ontology of Trash. New York: SUNY Press.

Lepawsky, Joshand Mather, C. 2011. ‘From Beginnings and Endings to Boundaries and Edges: rethinking circulation and exchange through electronic wasteArea, 43(3): 242-249.

Spaargaren, Gert, Mol, Arthur and Buttel Frederick H. (eds.). 2006. Governing Environmental Flows. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Wynne, Brian. 1987. Risk Management and Hazardous Waste: Implementation and Dialectics of Credibility. Berlin: Springer Press

Further reading:

Foote, Stephanie and Mazzolini, Elizabeth. 2012. Histories of the Dustheap. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gille, Zsuzsa. 2007. From the Cult of Waste to the Trash Heap of History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hawkins, Gay. 2006. The Ethics of Waste. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Leonard, Annie. 2010. The Story of Stuff. New York: Free Press.
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Lindsey Dillon

Since the 1990s, waste conversion, or Waste-to-Energy (WTE) has quietly become significant within investment and policy circles in the U.S. and around the world. This growing industrial sector sees an exchange value in municipal solid waste (MSW), and promotes it through contemporary keywords like “renewable resource,” “green energy,” and “sustainable development.” The notion of waste as a resource is not new, yet today’s WTE industry raises questions about the categories and frameworks by which we imagine and relate to garbage in a moment of significant environmental change. What are the social, economic and environmental implications of considering trash as a commodity and source of energy?

Re-valuing “waste” is an time-worn practice, as is the commodification of trash, or finding market value in discarded objects. Marginalized social groups have historically found opportunities to make a living in the business of waste picking or scavenging (Pellow 2008, Gidwani 2010). The European research institute, CyclOpe – which studies raw material and commodity markets – estimates the market value of the global supply of MSW at $120 billion a year (Challmin and Gaillochet 2009). The notion of waste as a “raw material” and the idea of “global supply” of waste points to growing economic values, and emerging markets, technologies, and social actors invested in waste.

The idea of converting waste into energy became popular in the U.S. during the global energy crisis of the 1970s (SIPA 2011, Gibson 2013). Legislation such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 and the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act of 1978 created market incentives to re-value waste materials, as well as a policy environment that encouraged technological innovations for generating energy. Currently 75 Waste-to-Energy (WTE) facilities operate in the U.S. by incinerating trash and converting it into electricity, a toxic process that produces carcinogens like furans and dioxins (USEIA 2012, Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice 2006, Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives 2009). Today’s renewed interest in WTE stems in part from the use of gasification, a 19th century process most often used to convert coal into electricity, as well as new technologies like pyrolysis and plasma-arc gasification that are ostensibly cleaner than traditional incineration, although all data on this point is self-reported by industry, and few independent studies have been conducted.

Waste-to-Energy conferences, trade journals, firms, and research institutes like Columbia University’s Waste-to-Energy Research Technology Council promote WTE as a sustainable solution to 21st century environmental problems. Issues discussed within these circles are growing volumes of waste (in 2009, the U.S. generated 243 million tons of MSW, up from 88.1 million tons in 1960, see SIPA 2011), a growing population, overflowing landfills, the need for domestic sources of energy, and the attractive, entrepreneurial, and alchemic notion that something so ubiquitous as trash could become a source of profit. In the U.S. today, 31 states and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classify MSW as a renewable resource, adding to its market value through subsidies and tax credits. Cities like Los Angeles are also increasingly interested in WTE and waste “as a potential resource, and conversion [WTE] technologies [as] an innovative way to convert resource into renewable energy” (LADPW 2013).

In Volume 3 of Capital, Marx observes that “as the capitalist mode of production extends, so also does the utilization of the refuse left behind by production and consumption” (1981, p. 195). Still, he cautions “this economy in the reuse of production…should be distinguished from economy in the creation of waste” (p. 197). The contents of a US municipal garbage can is a heterogeneous mixture of food scraps, paper, glass, plastics, metals, and textiles – very little of which was produced through environmentally or socially sustainable practices. Converting waste into energy is no substitute for a different economy in the creation of waste at all. Will trash become the 21st century’s post-natural resource? Or will today’s environmental crisis encourage the more difficult process of reducing waste and toxins in the first place?
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Challmin, Phillippe and Catherine Gaillochet. 2009. “From Waste to Resource: An Abstract of the World Waste Survey.” CyclOpe and Veolia Environmental Services.

Gibson, Lisa. “Witnessing a Waste to Energy Revival.” Biomass Magazine. 

Gidwani, Vinay “Remaindered Things and Remaindered Lives.” In Finding Delhi: Loss and Renewal in the Megacity. 2010. New Delhi: Penguin Viking.

Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives. “An Industry Blowing Smoke: 10 Reasons Why Gasification, Pyrolysis and Plasma Incineration are Not “Green Solutions.” June 2009. Accessed October 4, 2013.

Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. “Incinerators in Disguise: Case Studies of Gasification, Pyrolysis, and Plasma in Europe, Asia, and the United States.” June 2006. Accessed October 4, 2013.

LADPW (Los Angeles Department of Public Works). 2013. Southern California Waste Conversion Technology Project.

Pellow, David. 2002. Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Rogers, Heather. 2005. Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage. New York: The New Press.

SIPA (School for International and Public Affairs, Columbia University). 2011. “The Waste-to-Energy Technology Act of 2011. M.A. of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy, Final Report.

Strasser, Susan. 1999. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

USEIA (U.S. Energy Information Administration). 2012. “Municipal Solid Wastes Convert Garbage to Electricity.”

Further Reading:

Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives. “Incinerators: Myths vs. Facts about “Waste to Energy.” February 2012. Accessed October 5, 2013.

Waste to Energy Research and Technology Council (Columbia University)

Wired Magazine, “High Powered Plasma Turns Energy into Gas”, January 20, 2012.
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Actor-Network Theory
Michael Murphy

Social scientists within the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) tradition challenge a mode of thinking that distinguishes the social realm from natural, geographical, biological, economic, and other “objective” or “scientific” realms. Instead of thinking about “the social” as a stable set of affairs separate from these other domains, Bruno Latour, one of the creators of ANT, argues for “the social” as a type of connection that is made between heterogeneous things within all realms.

Latour refers to this view of the world as a “sociology of associations” (Latour 2005). The task within ANT is to trace these associations, which include humans, objects, institutions, animals and other non-humans. ANT is a relational materialist theory, concerned with the relationships among human and non-human actors, and as such gives agency to non-humans and humans alike (Law and Mol 1995). This is known as super-symmetry and is the direct result of thinking of the social as association and “assemblage,” the sum of relations between human and non-human entities. Human beings are only able to act by forming bonds within a large network of human and non-human actors, or actor-networks. An actant is any of these entities associated (sometimes also called assembled or enrolled) in an actor-network.

There is no one way to do an Actor-Network Theory analysis, but is always a process that seeks to trace and uncover the assemblages between various heterogenous elements. In practice, many scholars working from the ANT frame have used a version presented by Michel Callon (1986). Callon (1986) presents ANT as a means of analyzing conflict, which he calls the sociology of translation, and entails four key steps in the building of actor-networks (or alliances). Problematization is the first step in which an actor identifies a problem and the group of human and non-human actors that must be enrolled to solve that problem. Second is interestment, the process by which the initial actor seeks to stabilize the roles of each actor in the network. If interestment is successful, enrolment follows, which forms a stabilized actor-network to be mobilized, which is the fourth step.

The materialist bent of ANT, along with its principle of super-symmetry, makes it an ideal theory-method for discard studies. The study of waste often requires a methodological orientation that breaks down the division between the social and material, or the human and non-human, and allows us to trace wider patterns and relationships. As early as 1998, geographer Ian Bowler used ANT to analyze the recycling of urban waste in the UK. More recently, scholars have used ANT to study the societal implications and limitations of recycling as environmental management (Lippert 2011), the management of electronic waste (Neyland and Simakova 2012), and conflict over municipal waste incinerators (Magnani 2012).

Magnani (2012) provides an example of how Callon’s ANT framework might be applied in her study of conflict over waste incinerators in Trento, Italy. In her case study, the problem of waste management was identified by a local leader that decided to build a large incinerator to deal with his province’s poor waste management. Problematization was such that a set of four human and non-human actors were necessary for the implantation of the incinerator: the mayor of Trento, the landfill of Trento, the community of Trento, and the waste of Trento. Relationships between of each of these important actors was successful and each actor’s role within the network was clarified and enrollment followed. With all four actors enrolled, mobilization to create the incinerator was the next step, but as Magnani (2012) shows, Actor-Networks are not always so stable. New and counter-problematizations emerged; first, plans were made to downsize the incinerator, but then another network emerged with a different idea for waste management, both of which destabilized the network that had been assembled. New alliances formed in conflict over the incinerator project first proposed by the leadership of Trento. The incinerator was never build. Overall, Magnani’s analysis shows how the ANT relational materialist approach enables one to trace and uncover the way that actors attempt to achieve power through the construction and stabilization of heterogeneous associations in the study of conflict over the building of a new waste management regime.
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Bowler, Ian R. 1998. “Recycling Urban Waste on Farmland: An Actor-Network Interpretation.” Applied Geography 19:29–43.

Callon, Michel. 1986. “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of Scallops and the Fisherman of St. Brieuc Bay.” Pp. 196–223 in Power, Action, and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge?, edited by John Law. London: Routledge.

Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Law, John, and Mol, Annemarie. 1995. Notes on Materiality and Sociality. The Sociological Review, 43.

Lippert, Ingmar. 2011. “Sustaining Waste – Sociological Perspectives on Recycling a Hybrid Object.” Pp. 283–305 in Implementing Environmental and Resource Management, edited by Michael Schmidt, Vincent Onyango, and Dmytro Palekhov. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Magnani, N. 2012. “Nonhuman Actors, Hybrid Networks, and Conflicts Over Municipal Waste Incinerators.” Organization & Environment 25(2):131–45.

Neyland, Daniel, and Elena Simakova. 2012. “Managing Electronic Waste: A Study of Market Failure.” New Technology, Work and Employment 27(1):36–51.

Further Reading:

Gille, Zsuzsa. (2010). Actor Networks, Modes of Production, and Waste Regimes: Reassembling the macrosocial. Environment and Planning, 42(5).
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Shih-yang Kao

The “follow-the-thing” method aims to de-fetishize commodities by revealing their geography of production. It became popular in social sciences during the 1990s when the globalization of capital called for a form of analysis that could connect consumers to unknown producers in often far-away lands via consumer goods. In practice, researchers plot the journey of material objects from one place to another and describe the value-adding (or subtracting) practices that transform the physical or the cultural aspects of the objects as they travel. Researchers also address the institutional arrangements that make these material flows possible. A pioneering practitioner of the method is Ivan Cook (2004), who studied the travel of papaya from Jamaica to London. He shows how people who were potentially unknown to each other were connected through the international trade in papaya, and how these connections are shaped by economic, political and cultural processes.

In the introductory chapter to the edited book The Social Life of Things (1986), Arjun Appadurai argues that commodities can be seen as having “social lives” because they embody values created by a society. He points out that commodities are only one possible phase in the social life of an object. As an object travels within different “regimes of value,” it may exit and re-enter the commodity sphere. This “social life of things” approach has since dominated the study of material culture, inspiring many researchers to examine the significance of the material world in human consciousness. Following-the-thing differs from the “social life of things” in that it highlights space in the study of material worlds. While the “social life of things” research concerns the shifting social and cultural meaning of an object through time, the “follow-the-thing” approach emphasizes the connections between economic practices that take place simultaneously in different places.

In discard studies, the follow-the-thing approach has received increasing interest, particularly from those who study the economies of waste recovery. Earlier research on the economies of waste recovery focused on either a particular group of people (e.g., scavengers or waste dealers) or a particular place (e.g., garbage dumps). The follow-the-thing method encourages researchers to see waste materials as objects in motion and investigate the formation of the networks of waste recovery that connect different groups of people in different places. Nicky Gregson et al’s study (2009), for example, looks at the shipbreaking industry in Bangladesh. The authors describe how retired ships are broken down in Sitakunda and reused to make furniture in Chittagong, and how the furniture helps redefine the aesthetics of middle-class homes in nearby cities like Dhaka. In this case, one actor’s waste practice (e.g., shipbreaking by migrant workers in Sitakunda) is seen as a factor that shapes (and is shaped by) another actor’s relationship to waste (e.g., the consumption of furniture by middle-class households in Dhaka). The scales of the waste recovery networks that scholars examine vary greatly. While authors such as Gregson et al. look at the urban region, many others, particularly those who study the flow of e-waste, examine networks that span across different countries or continents (e.g. Lepawsky 2013). Studies about transnational waste recovery networks reveal much about how waste recovery is intertwined with the geography of uneven development, particularly between the Global North and the Global South.

The follow-the-thing method is certainly not the only approach that places circulation at the center of the problematic of waste. The life-cycle assessment (LCA), for example, examines the energy and material inputs and environmental releases associated with a product’s life from cradle to grave. It sees waste as a cost to the environment that can be carefully managed through better product design and improvement of the production processes. In addition, the use of Actor-Network Theory (ANT) in discard studies in recent years encourages scholars to examine how waste is categorized, studied and represented (particularly by the science community), and how scientific knowledge about waste travels, transforms and creates new social assemblages. Follow-the-thing method is distinct from these two approaches in that theoretically it is grounded upon historical materialism, which places relations of production at the center of the understanding about social and cultural transformations. Compared to LCA, follow-the-thing method is more concerned with the power struggles between social actors. Compared to ANT, it pays less attention to the power of discourse and the process of knowledge production and transformation.
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Appadurai, A. 1988. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge University Press.

Cook, I. et al. 2004. “Following the Thing: Papaya.” Antipode, pp. 642-664.

Gregson et al. 2009. “Following things of rubbish value: End-of-life ships, ‘chock-chocky’ furniture and the Bangladesh middle class consumers.” Geoforum, 41: pp. 846-854.

Lepawsky J. and Mather C. 2011. “From beginnings and endings to boundaries and edges: rethinking circulation and exchange through electronic waste.” AREA, 43(3): 242-249.

Further reading:

Büscher, M., & Urry, J. (2009). Mobile methods and the empirical. European Journal of Social Theory, 12(1), 99-116.

Cook, I., & Harrison, M. (2007). Follow the thing “West Indian hot pepper sauce”. Space and Culture, 10(1), 40-63.
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Media Archaeology
Susanne Pratt

Both media archaeology and discard studies share a desire to emphasize the object-oriented and material aspects of social practices. Media archaeology concentrates on the materiality of media practices while discard studies concentrates on the materiality of waste practices. Although there is a diversity of approaches to media archaeology, a common thread amongst its theorists and practitioners is a desire to problematize canonical histories of technology by critiquing narratives of linear progress (Huhtamo and Parikka 2011). This entry emphasizes the way media archaeology can be used as a lens for thinking through how waste challenges narratives of linear progress. As a method, media archaeology excavates, digs, rebuilds, combines, hacks, remixes, dusts things off, and screws materials and discourses together to generate alternate understandings of (present and past) media cultures. The term “excavation” is frequently used to differentiate this practice from other forms of doing media histories.

Excavation involves an approach that explicitly seeks out and uncovers the forgotten, discarded, hidden, or repressed (Huhtamo and Parikka 2011). The media archaeologist Jussi Parikka (2012) argues that histories do not pre-exist the task of excavating them, making media archaeology a theoretical and political stance as well as a methodology.
The work of Michel Foucault, Friedrick Kittler, Marshal McLuhan and Walter Benjamin have greatly influenced the work of media archaeologists, such as Erkki Huhtamo (1997), Jussi Parikka (2012), Wolfgang Ernst (2005), Siegfried Zielinski (2006), Thomas Elsaesser (2004) and Eric Kluitenberg (2007) (however, it should be noted that some do not refer to themselves as media archaeologists). Siegfried Zielinski (2006), for example, is interested in the temporality of alternate media histories. He develops his position via geology and the cycling of earth systems, such as the process of erosion, to develop the “deep time of the media”  in which “the new” appears in “the old.”  Zielinski also critiques histories of technical progress that imply that media develops in a linear fashion from a simple form to more complex form. Rather than trends, he looks for fluctuations, disruption, or alternate pathways of development. Thomas Elsaesser (2004), on the other hand, specifically addresses cinema histories to transcend the binary of “old-new”. Practitioners and scholars within media archaeology are disparate but united by their investigation of alternate “continuities and ruptures” within media culture and media histories (Huhtamo and Parikka 2011: 3). For this reason Huhtamo’s and Parikka’s seminal edited collection Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (2011) describe media archaeology as a roaming discipline, one that operates across humanities, arts and social sciences.

Media archaeology shares a similarity with methods within discard studies such as garbology and research on ruins/wastelands (Rathje and Murphy 2001; Edensor 2005) in it’s emphasis on archaeological practices of excavating objects that complicate existing, totalizing histories. It shares a close affinity with work exploring the notion of “waste as archive” in which waste becomes a means to highlight alternative disenfranchised histories of current consumer culture (Moore 2012). But it differs in its emphasis on using excavation as a tool to challenge notions of linear progression in specific media-cultural practices and phenomena. Practitioners of media archaeology ask: “what is left behind or excluded from linear narratives of media history?” They search for ruptures, traces and alternate pathways to disrupt and “rewire” existing normative orderings of reality and emphasise that our contemporary media practices could have been otherwise (Parikka and Hertz 2010). Through this problematizing of linear narratives media archaeology articulates possible theoretical tools and methods for investigating the role of waste in forming historical conditions of possibility.
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Edensor, Tim. 2005. “Waste matter – the debris of industrial ruins and the disordering of the material world”. Journal of Material Culture. Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 311–332.

Elsaesser, Thomas. 2004. “The New Film History as Media Archaeology”, Cinémas, Vol. 14, No. 2-3, pp 75-117.

Ernst, Wolfgang. 2005. “Let There Be Irony: Cultural History and Media Archaeology in Parallel Lines”, Art History 28, November, pp 582-603.

Ernst, Wolfgang . 2012. Digital Memory and the Archive,Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Huhtamo, Erkki. 1997. “From Kaleidoscomaniac to Cybernerd: Towards an Archaeology of the Media”, Leonardo, 3, pp 221-224.

Huhtamo, Erkki. 2013. Illusions In Motion: Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Huhtamo, Erkki and Jussi Parikka (eds.), Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, University of California Press, 2011.

Kittler, Friedrich. 1999. Gramophone Film Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz, Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kluitenberg, Eric (ed.). 2007. Book of Imaginary Media: Excavating the Dream of the Ultimate Communication Medium, Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, with Amsterdam: De Balie,

Moore, Sarah. 2012. “Garbage matters: Concepts in new geographies of waste”. Progress in Human Geography. Vol. 36, No. 6, pp. 780–799.

Parikka, Jussi. 2012. What is Media Archaeology?, Cambridge: Polity.

Parikka, Jussi and Garnet Hertz. 2010. “Archaeologies of Media Art – Jussi Parikka in conversation with Garnet Hertz,” Ctheory.

Rathje, William and Cullen Murphy. 2001. Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.

Zielinski, Siegfried. 2006. Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Further Reading:

For an overview of media archaeology see: Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka (eds.), Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, University of California Press, 2011.

To see how media archaeology is applied as an art method see: Hertz, Garnet and Jussi Parikka. 2012. “Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method”, Leonardo, pp 425-430

For an introduction to media archaeology see: Parikka, Jussi. 2012. What is Media Archaeology?, Cambridge: Polity.
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Participatory action research
Jutta Gutberlet

Participatory action research (PAR) works with local people and communities, explores local knowledge and perceptions, and offers opportunities to engage people as active contributors to knowledge and social change. The method enables local people to set their own agendas for research and development and aims to give them ownership over the process, differentiating PAR from traditional academic methodologies. As social scientists Cornwall and Jewkes remark, “changing the relations between researcher and those who participate in research involves political and personal transformations” (1995, p.1674). The visibility of the researcher and the transparency of his or her intentions are much greater than in traditional research, and results in different challenges and findings than traditional methods.

Participatory action research developed in the early 1970s out of Marxist and critical social theory as a reaction to the top-down development practices characterizing modernization. PAR is committed to social transformation and often finds methodological support in consciousness raising practices and liberation theory developed since the 1960’s under the impulses of Paulo Freire (1970) from Brazil and Orlando Fals Borda (1988) from Colombia that address structures that hinder social transformation. PAR is also often grounded in feminist theory, which examines gender inequities and questions on how race, class, ethnicity, and age intersect with gender. Feminist theory seeks to understand unequal gender relations and other hierarchies of power and their effects on the subordination of women and other disempowered people through reflexive knowledge-building (Moss, 2002).

Participatory action research generally engages in knowledge democracy, applying epistemologies of collaborative learning and knowledge generation (Cahill, 2007; Hall, 2005; Strand et al., 2003). The research process combines inquiry with capacity-development strategies to overcome knowledge gaps between researcher and research participants and to empower the participants as agents for social change. This form of research aims to develop skills, knowledge and capacities within communities or groups, and to facilitate the application of research results by the participants themselves (Kesby, 2000). Active participation is the central methodological principle and is essential for the construction of a collective understanding of practices and theories. Research participants are not ‘study objects’, but are valued as full participants in the research. This approach allows for transparency and the acknowledgment of specific local historical, political, economic and environmental contexts. Many authors emphasize constant reflexive concerns, recognizing power relations involving the researcher and the research, particularly when conducting cross-cultural research (Brandão, 1987; Barbier, 2002; Thiollent, 2005).

Research methods can involve interviews, focus groups discussions, workshops, field visits, and participant observation and use tools such as participatory video, photo, voice, community mapping, psychodrama, role-playing, interactive brainstorming, and other creative techniques. Participants become researchers and researchers become participants.

For example, the Participatory Sustainable Waste Management (PSWM) project (www.pswm.uvic.ca), a community-based research initiative involving recycling cooperatives and local governments in the metropolitan region of São Paulo, Brazil, is a good example highlighting the praxis of PAR and CBR. Over the course of six years since 2005, continuous educational and skill building activities in the form of workshops, seminars, field trips, interchanges, meetings and research initiatives; employing a wide range of different techniques, were geared towards generating empowerment, autonomy, and the ability of the informal recyclers to better tackle oppression from hegemonic power that is present in local exploitive production relations.

During regular meetings of the project management committee, composed of recycling cooperative members, government agents and university participants, actions and strategies geared to improve the work and livelihoods of the recyclers were planned and their implementation monitored and evaluated. The meetings represented a learning space, where information was shared, arguments and discourses were probed and where collective data collection, analysis and preparation of texts happened. The example of PSWM demonstrates the importance of respecting the local knowledge of the participants, allowing for democratic co-construction processes of new knowledge and for collective systematizing of the learned, transforming it into shared ownership. These are fundamental prerequisites in PAR and CBR, where not the results per se are the important outcomes of the research, but rather the research process itself (Tremblay & Gutberlet, 2011).

The empowered structure helps the recyclers to push for more adequate public policies that value and remunerate the service of selective household waste collection and recycling. Consequently, some of the participating municipalities (Mauá, Ribeirão Pires, and Diadema) have already increased the commitment towards inclusive solid waste management. During the PSWM experience, the participants co-generated diverse knowledge on occupational health, environmental education, microcredit, collective commercialization, basic computer applications, participatory project management, organic waste collection and composting for urban agriculture, and others. This knowledge has been translated into folders, booklets, banners, presentations, and academic publications for further dissemination. In August 2014, recyclers from eight cooperatives in the project region have participated in a national conference on ‚Knowledge and Technology: Social and Economic Inclusion of Collectors of Recyclable Materials’; an initiative of the federal government, held at the University of Brasilia, sharing knowledge and research results.

Finally, the purpose of participatory action research is to exercise the agency of participants, empowering them to collectivize and mobilize around a common need. Participatory research is also widely used in informing planning and designing strategies, interventions and policies. Yet, there are critical challenges and limitations related to participatory and community driven research. The key questions of who participates and whose voices become empowered should not be neglected. Expressed local needs may, for instance, be shaped by the interactions with the researcher and may not express a true local need. Moss alerts that participatory planning may well be the “acquisition and manipulation of a new ‘planning knowledge’ rather than the incorporation of ‘people’s knowledge’ by research projects” (Moss, 2006, p. 8). There is a possibility that dominant voices may overpower the consensus process and that some may not express their true desires as to not disrupt main opinions (Cooke & Kothari 2001). Finally, there is strong critique about participation becoming a new tyranny in qualitative research (Cooke & Kothari, 2001; Ramirez, 2008). These limitations can only be overcome with a critical and continuously reflexive research attitude.
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Barbier, R. (2002) A pesquisa-ação. Plano: Brasilia, Brazil.

Brandão, C. R. (1987) Repensando a pesquisa participante. Brasiliense: São Paulo, Brazil.

Cahill, C. (2007) Including excluded perspectives in participatory action research. Design Studies, 28, p. 325–340.

Chambers, Robert. (2007) From PRA to PLA and pluralism: practice and theory. IDS working paper 286, Institute of Development Studies: London; University of Sussex.

Cooke, B. & Kothari, U. (2001) Participation: The New Tyranny? New York: Zed Books

Cornwall, A. & Jewkes, R. (1995) What is participatory research? Soc. Scz Med 41(12), pp. 1667- 1676.

Fals Borda, O. (1998). People’s Participation: Challenges Ahead. Bogota: Tercer Mundo.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the oppressed. London, Pinguin books.

Frisby, W., Maguire, P. & Reid, C. (2009) The “f” word has everything to do with it: How feminist theories inform action research. Action Research, 7, pp. 13–29.

Hall, B. (2005) In from the cold? Reflections on participatory research from 1970–2005. Convergence, 38, pp. 5–24.

Kesby, M. (2000) Participatory diagramming: Deploying qualitative methods through an action research epistemology. Area, 32, pp. 423–435.

Langan, D. & Morton, M. (2009) Reflecting on community/academic `collaboration’: The challenge of `doing’ feminist participatory action research. Action Research, 7, pp. 165-184.

Moss, P. (2002) (Ed.) Feminist Geography in Practice: Research and Methods, London: Blackwell.

Moss, P. (2006) Feminisms in Geography. Toronto: Roman & Littlefield.

Ramirez, R. (2008) A ‘Meditation’ on Meaningful Participation. The Journal of Community Informatics, 4(3). Online available at: http://ci-journal.net/index.php/ciej/article/view/390/424

Strand, K., Marullo, S., Cutforth, N., Stoecker, R. & Donohue, P. (2003) Principles of Best Practice for Community-Based Research. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 9 (3), pp. 5-15.

Thiollent, M. (2005) Metodologia da pesquisa-ação, 14th ed.; Cortez: São Paulo, Brazil.

Tremblay, C. & Gutberlet, J. (2011) Empowerment through participation: assessing the voices of leaders from recycling cooperatives in São Paulo, Brazil. Community Development Journal, 46 (3), pp. 282-302.
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Science and Technology Studies
Max Liboiron

Image from Jackson, D. D. (1907). Pollution of New York harbor as a menace to health by the dissemination of intestinal diseases through the agency of the common house fly. The Merchants' Association of New York.

Image from Jackson, D. D. (1907). Pollution of New York harbor as a menace to health by the dissemination of intestinal diseases through the agency of the common house fly. The Merchants’ Association of New York.

One of the theoretical foundations of discard studies is Mary Douglas’ assertion that “dirt is ‘matter out of place.’” Dirt is the material manifestation of disorder: “Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements” (1988: 36). In modern cosmopolitan society, we rely heavily on science to determine the classifications and boundaries that put materials in and out of place, that classify them as dangerous or safe. For example, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates water, air, and soil pollution, determines that 0.002 mg/L is the maximum level of mercury allowed in drinking water. The EPA relies on laboratory toxicology to determine benign versus dangerous quantities of mercury and then uses those measures to mark the legal line between pollution and non-pollution, safety and danger.

The premise of science and technology studies (STS) is that science, including toxicology and risk analysis, is a social endeavor. Meanings of risk, safety, harm, pollution and dirt are all socially determined, as are the usually quantitative scientific methods that support them. STS critically examines the social processes through which scientific and technical knowledge is created, evaluated, challenged, spread, accepted, refuted, transformed, and fit back into social relations and culture. STS and discard studies share the conviction that “waste” is not given in nature, but is created, and thus study processes of waste becoming. Using Douglas’ terms, both disciplines research how “systematic ordering,” “classifications of matter” and “inappropriate elements” are created, codified, naturalized, and contested in socio-technical systems.

An important topic in both disciplines is how scientific and technical objects and forms of “dirt” are open to debate. “Pollution ideas are the product of an ongoing political debate about the ideal society,” notes Douglas “…[P]ollution beliefs uphold conceptual categories dividing the moral from the immoral and so sustain the vision of the good society” (1982: 36-7). Science plays a role in this, sometimes explicitly, as when scientists make the case that “scientists are often asked to contribute to help resolve… policy issues that are unfolding amidst a complex, volatile mix of clashing values, differing preferences, and opposing, often mutually exclusive, societal priorities” (Lackey 2004: 2). In cases of citizen-science, ordinary people enter debates using self-produced scientific findings to argue for their experiences and interpretations of “matter out of place,” such as when a group of high school students in Brooklyn, New York, created a community map of preexisting health hazards to argue against a new waste incinerator (Corburn 2005).

As interdisciplinary fields, STS and discard studies use a variety of methods including but not limited to network analysis, critical history, and case studies. STS’ version of network analysis is Actor-Network Theory (ANT), which maps relations that are simultaneously material (between things) and semiotic (between concepts) (Latour 1996). Some studies of waste have adapted or challenged aspects of ANT—such as follow-the-thing (Gregson et al 2010) and “edges and boundaries” (Lepawsky and Mather2011)— while retaining the premise that the way humans and non-humans are related is foundational to how things circulate, how work gets done, and how meanings are made. For example, Lepawsky and Mather challenge the linear and determinant aspects of ANT while studying e-waste by including not just objects and humans in their networks, but also actions. They follow e-waste as it is smithed in a home and becomes jewelry in a wedding ceremony, noting how parts of the waste become airborne pollution, following not just the object, but also the actions that form materials and give them meaning and value (2011).

Another common method is historical research that denaturalizes the present, showing how the premises and categories of waste develop in response to particular technological and scientific issues at specific moments in time (Boudia and Jas 2013; Murphy 2006; Gille 2007; Zimring 2004; Goldstein 2013). For example, Jesse Goldstein shows that contemporary concepts of “wastelands” as unproductive spaces hinge on the capitalistic and industrial concept of economic use following the Enclosure Act in Britain during the eighteenth century. Before this time, wastelands were lightly and collectively used hinterlands, and after they became wasted space (2013).

As an extension of this methodological commitment to denaturalizing what seems natural and given, STS studies consistently use case studies. An ongoing issue in waste and technology politics is that most people think they know about garbage and technology because they interact with it everyday—and while this knowledge is valid, it does not necessarily scale to other situations, materialities and contexts (Liboiron 2014). Thus, case studies provide nuance and validity to studies, particularly those that challenge popular notions (Broto 2012; Reno 2011; Gille 2007). For example, Zsuzsa Gille uses waste practices in socialist and postsocialist Hungary to weave a complex narrative of thrift, waste, and environmental justice to challenge more monolithic popular notions of prodigal material use and worker’s rights (2007).

Finally, some of the most exciting trends within STS and discard studies are those that engage with pressing problems around waste, pollution, toxics, environmental health, environmental justice, and democratic decision-making (Ottinger 2010; MacBride 2011). STS and discard studies are both fairly normative fields that often have underlying arguments for how things ought to be. Particularly when these works move from critique to recommendation, or even to intervention, they require an extra level of validity to demonstrate that the research is actually useful for the problems they are meant to address. These demands on method are where STS and discard studies are uniquely paired for future collaborations and research.
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Broto, V. C. (2013).“Symbolic Violence and the Politics of Environmental Pollution Science: The Case of Coal Ash Pollution in Bosnia and Herzegovina.Antipode, 45: 621–640.

Corburn, Jason. 2005. Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice. The MIT Press.

Douglas, M. and A. B. Wildavsky. 1982. Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers. Berkeley, University of California Press

Douglas, M. 1998. Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. Routledge.

Gille, Z. 2007. From the cult of waste to the trash heap of history: the politics of waste in socialist and postsocialist Hungary. Indiana University Press.

Goldstein, Jesse. 2013. Terra economica: waste and the production of enclosed nature. Antipode, 45(2), 357-375.

Gregson, N., Crang, M., Ahamed, F., Akhter, N., & Ferdous, R. 2010. Following things of rubbish value: end-of-life ships,‘chock-chocky’furniture and the Bangladeshi middle class consumer. Geoforum, 41(6), 846-854.

Jas, N., & Boudia, S. 2013. Toxicants, Health and Regulation since 1945. Pickering and Chatto.

Lackey, Robert T. 2004. “Normative science.” Fisheries. 29(7): 38-39.

Latour, Bruno. 1996. On actor-network theory. A few clarifications plus more than a few complications. Soziale welt, 47(4), 369-381.

Lepawsky, Josh and Mather, C. 2011. “From Beginnings and Endings to Boundaries and Edges: rethinking circulation and exchange through electronic waste”. Area 43 (3): 242-249.

Liboiron, Max. 2014. “Against Awareness, For Scale: Garbage is Infrastructure, Not Behavior,” Discard Studies Blog, January 23.

MacBride, S. 2011. Recycling reconsidered: the present failure and future promise of environmental action in the United States. MIT Press.

Murphy, Michelle. 2006. Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers. Duke University Press.

Ottinger, G. 2010. “Buckets of resistance: Standards and the effectiveness of citizen science.” Science, technology & human values, 35(2), 244-270.

Reno, Joshua. (2011). “Managing the Experience of Evidence: England’s Experimental Waste Technologies and their Immodest Witnesses.Science, Technology and Human Values, 36(6): 842-863.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1985. “40 CFR Part 191, Environmental standards for the management and disposal of spent nuclear fuel, high-level, and transuranic radioactive wastes” Federal Register 50 FR 38066.

Zimring, Carl. 2004. “Dirty Work: How Hygiene and Xenophobia Marginalized the American Waste Trades 1870-1930,” Environmental History, 9(1): 90-112.
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Jordan P. Howell

Incineration first emerged in the 19th century as an application of industrial technologies to an ages-old strategy for managing solid waste by burning it. Incineration came about in response to the industrialization and urbanization processes that were reshaping the built environments of Europe, but the technology drew attention from the emerging classes of sanitary engineers in North America by the turn of the 20th century. The incinerator, like any technique for solid waste management, brought together technical and social systems in a particular way, opening the doors for a range of contests over incineration’s ecological, political, economic, and cultural issues in the municipalities where there were proposed, debated, and – rarely, in North America – implemented.

Modern incineration in purpose-built facilities dates back to mid-19th century England, and was developed to reduce the volume and variety of solid waste into ash–a more compact and manageable product. These early ‘destructors’ or ‘crematoria were celebrated not only by engineering experts for addressing the spatial and practical problems of waste disposal by reducing rubbish to a minimal volume of ash, but also some public health officials for its ability to ‘disinfect’ the solid waste ‘miasma’ (disease-causing filth) plaguing urban areas (Melosi 1988, 2005). However, when early generations of incinerators were brought from Europe to the United States in the early 20th century, American waste characterized by higher water content meant that incineration performance left much to be desired: low-temperature, batch-fed, slow-burning furnaces produced only incomplete combustion and significant noxious smoke. Although it was largely the physical nature of American garbage that made these English-designed ‘destructors’ ineffective and offensive, the technology as a whole attracted something of a negative reputation. American boosters remained hopeful, maintaining that volume reduction incineration was the most sanitary disposal technique and also could be cost-competitive with dumping and other processes, given advances in boiler design.

By the end of the 19th century, some facilities could convert excess heat from incineration into steam for industrial use and electricity production, adding value to the process. Appearing first in Hamburg, Germany in 1896 (Curlee et al. 1994), incinerators with refractory boilers spread to continental Europe, the UK, and North America. Offsetting collection and disposal costs via electricity and steam sales appealed to many US cities, but the high costs of additional equipment coupled with continued low-quality combustion of wet American garbage meant that early energy recovery boilers in the US required supplemental fuels to produce reliable steam (Melosi 2005: 40). The technology faced challenges from both ends of its existence in the US: alternate waste disposal techniques such as dumping were less expensive, while coal and hydroelectricity provided far less costly power. As a result, many US cities chose to install incinerators without the energy or steam recovery equipment, if they pursued incinerators at all.

The term ‘waste-to-energy;’ (WTE) first emerged alongside the development of waterwall boilers for capturing steam from incineration for energy production in 1954 by the Swiss firm Von Roll. The original Swiss plant in Bern featured two 100 tons-per-day boiler unitsproducing steam for nearby industrial operations and local district heating systems (Battelle Columbus Laboratories 1979). The advantages of waterwall design included more rapid and complete cooling of gases leaving the furnace, resulting in reduced strain on pollution control devices; smaller, easier, and cheaper facility design and construction; and greater recovery of waste heat for transformation into steam and electricity.

These technological improvements resulted in several studies commissioned by the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), which found that waterwall design vastly improved on the process of converting waste heat to steam and electric power (Battelle Columbus Laboratories 1979). By 1979 there were at least 522 facilities in the world using the technology, including some 943 waterwall boilers in Japan alone, making waterwall WTE systems the dominant disposal technology in western Europe and Japan by 1980. Yet only ten facilities had been built in the US and Canada, combined (US EPA 1976, 5; Laboratories 1979).  Some of the hesitation that civic officials felt towards actually deploying the technology has its origins in the actions of the US EPA itself and the advice it offered to public officials during the 1970s (Howell 2013). While the US EPA acknowledged the prevalence and efficiency of waterwall WTE, it also attempted to discredit successful European facilities. The agency maintained that waterwall WTE was neither commercially viable nor readily accessible to municipal officials, and, generally speaking, represented a risky technology when compared with the sanitary landfill (Howell 2013). At the same time, a rising tide of environmentalism and especially interest in recycling – or, resource recovery – meant that US EPA was studying and even funding alternatives to WTE, some of which were similar to WTE, such as investments in several technologies using refuse-derived fuels (shredding waste before burning it), many of which already had been dismissed by European firms (Battelle Columbus Laboratories 1979). While US EPA demonstration projects were themselves short-lived, they sparked a commercial and academic interest in alternatives to WTE and other resource recovery tools that persists to the present day.

Yet, by the mid-1980s, a boom in construction of ‘incineration with energy recovery’ plants–a term used by the EPA, engineering firms, and news media accounts of WTE project development, along with the much simpler term ‘burner’– was underway in the United States.  Changes to US utilities laws, and especially the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) meant that WTE plants became eligible as ‘qualifying facilities’ and could require other firms to buy the power they produced. Nevertheless, tightening pollution control laws, specifically the Clean Air Act Amendments, and dwindling municipal budgets saw construction of WTE and similar projects all but eliminated by the mid 1990s.

Recently, however, the technology has undergone something of a re-branding and resurgence owing to newfound ‘green’ credentials based on the advantages in emissions that WTE offers compared to conventional fossil-fueled power plants as well as the potential to combine WTE with intensive recycling at ‘materials recovery facilities.’ For instance, a major WTE plant operator in the US, Covanta Energy, insists on describing WTE as energy from waste (EFW), emphasizing that waste is considered a ‘renewable’ resource under many states’ alternative energy portfolio standards (Covanta 2014). Similarly, interest has emerged in WTE’s potential to generate carbon offset credits.

Despite the various aliases applied since the 19th century, incinerators remain, fundamentally, the application of industrial technology to the process of burning solid waste. As such, incinerators – like all waste management technologies – simultaneously reflect and constitute a particular ecological, economic, and social vision of the worlds in which they are employed; a vision which may or may not be shared by all stakeholders and thus subject to conflicts.
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References and Further Reading:

Battelle Columbus Laboratories. 1979. European Refuse Fired Energy Systems: Evaluation of Design Practices. Washington, DC: US Environmental Protection Agency.

Covanta Energy. 2014. “EfW vs. Incinerators”.  Accessed 20 February 2014.

Curlee, T. R., S. M. Schexnayder, D. P. Vogt, A. K. Wolfe, M. P. Kelsay, and D. L. Feldman. 1994. Waste-to-energy in the United States: A social and economic assessment. Westport, CT: Quorum Books.

Howell, J. P. 2013. Technology and Place: A Geography of Waste-to-Energy in the United States, Dept. of Geography, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI.

Melosi, M. V. 1988. Technology Diffusion and Refuse Disposal: The Case of the British Destructor. In Technology and the Rise of the Networked City in Europe and America, 207-226. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

———. 2005. Garbage in the cities: Refuse, reform, and the environment. Rev. ed. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1976. Resource Recovery Plant Implementation: Technologies. Washington, DC: United States Environmental Protection Agency.
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Jesse Goldstein

Typically when one thinks of a waste land, images of a bleak and desolate landscape arise. Here “waste” imparts its most negative connotation, referring to an unwanted, unused, perhaps even uninhabitable space. De-industrialized spaces are often considered “urban wastelands” (Gandy 2013). The Oxford English Dictionary defines waste lands as “Uninhabited (or sparsely inhabited) and uncultivated country; a wild and desolate region, a desert, wilderness”. In T. S. Elliot’s famous poem, The Waste Land, the waste land represents a socially, culturally and emotionally barren space. Such negative conceptions of waste lands largely shape our social and cultural interpretation of the term, making it difficult to imagine any alternative conception of waste lands that has not already been flattened into an abandoned, empty, or socially vacuous space of one form or another.

However, the concept has a complex and politically charged history. Prior to the rise of agrarian capitalism in fifteenth century England, waste lands were an important part of the rural economy. “Waste land” named the part of common lands that rural communities depended upon to meet their basic needs, including meadows to graze livestock on, wooded land to collect kindling and firewood, and spaces to hunt or to gather berries, mushrooms and medicinal herbs. The waste lands were all of the lands not specifically designated for any official use (such as growing crops), and so were available to meet other needs. For this reason, pre-agrarian waste lands can be understood as a productive remainder, teeming with a diversity of plant and mineral resources (Baker and Butlin 1973; Neeson 1993; Thirsk 1964).

A wide range of occupations for cottagers, very literally “cottage industries” relied on the waste land’s resources, including charcoal burners, brick makers, spindlers and spooners (Everitt 2000).  Commoners integrated these waste lands into their everyday life. The land might provide bark for tanning, bees to collect honey and wax, grasses to cut as hay, pastures for animals, and even small game. Poorer members of a village community relied heavily upon the resources they could glean from waste lands, effectively allowing the land to function as a social safety net (Birtles 1999). Regardless of one’s economic standing, work – and play – on the waste land was largely the domain of women and children. They did much of the gathering work, and were largely responsible for the subsequent use of the waste land’s products (Humphries 1990).

While these uncultivated lands were not, categorically speaking, unused lands, that is how they came to be seen through the narrow economic lens of investors, large-landowners, and those who supported the process of enclosure, which legally transformed common lands into private property from the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries (Enclosure was a legal device specific to England; in other nations this transformation occurred differently)(Comninel 2000; Aston 1995).These financially minded people, supported by the British Board of Agriculture, did not recognize the non-financial goods that the waste lands provided, and instead saw only that these lands were not-yet financially profitable. As a result, they argued that these waste lands were in actual fact wasted lands, lands that could be made (financially) profitable but were instead seeing their potential go to waste (McNally 1990). The commoners’ more positive conception of common wastes, for which there were many names, particular to each local community, such hoath, leacon, lees, tye, scrubs, roughs, and shaw, were gradually supplanted by a singular, negative conception of a wasted or “unimproved” landscape (Goldstein 2013).

This represented a crucial shift away from a social and geographical concept of waste as a productive remainder towards a second, legal conception of waste as property being disrespected or misused (ie, not used for profit) (Amt 1991; Kerridge 1969; Middle English Dictionary 2010). The commoners that derived their livelihoods from the common waste lands were castigated for being lazy and inefficient stewards of the land, wasting their commons by not putting them to the most financially profitable uses, such as raising livestock or growing grains for the urban market. Commoners were often associated with the ‘uncivilized’ Native population of North America, who were likewise accused of mis-using or wasting their God-given resources (E. Wood 2002; N. Wood 1984 Cronon 2003). Common waste lands had become wasted commons.

What we see from this history is how value-laden the concept of “waste land” can be, and how there may be economic interests lurking behind some of the dominant narratives of misused, unused or use-less “waste lands” in our vocabulary today.
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Amt, E.M. 1991. The meaning of waste in the early pipe rolls of Henry II. The Economic History Review 44(2):240–248.

Aston, T.H. and C.H.E Philpin (eds). 1995 The Brenner Debate (pp 10–63). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Baker, A. and Butlin, R. 1973. Studies of Field Systems in the British Isles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Birtles, S. 1999. Common land, poor relief and enclosure: The use of manorial resources in fullfilling parish obligations 1601–1834. Past and Present 165:74–106.

Comninel, G. 2000. English feudalism and the origins of capitalism. The Journal of PeasantStudies 274:1–53.

Cronon, W. 1983. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang.

Everitt, A. 2000. Common land. In J Thirsk ed The English Rural Landscape ch 9. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gandy, Matthew. 2013. Marginalia: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Urban Wastelands. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 1036: 1301–1316.

Goldstein, J. 2013. Terra Economica: Waste and the Production of Enclosed Nature. Antipode 412: 357–375.

Humphries, J. 1990. Common rights, and women: The proletarianization of families in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Journal of Economic History 501: 17–42.

Kerridge, E. 1969. Agrarian Problems in the Sixteenth Century and After. New York: Barnes and Noble.

McNally, D. 1990. Political Economy and the Rise of Capitalism. Berkeley: University of California Press

Middle English Dictionary 2010 Waste. Middle English Dictionary. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Neeson, J. 1993. Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700–1820. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

OED. 2010. Waste, n. OED Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thirsk, J. 1964. The common fields. Past and Present 29:3–25.

Wood, E. 2002. The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View. New York: Verso.

Wood, N. 1984. John Locke and Agrarian Capitalism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Further Reading:

Gandy, Matthew. 2013. “Marginalia: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Urban Wastelands.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 103(6): 1301–1316.

Gidwani, V. 2008. Capital, Interrupted: Agrarian Development and the Politics of Work in India. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Goldstein, J. 2013. Terra Economica: Waste and the Production of Enclosed Nature. Antipode 412: 357–375.

Locke, J. 1690. Second Treatise of Civil Government. Accessed 17 September 2010.

Neeson, J.M. 1993. Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700–1820. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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