Via Reid Lifset, editor of Journal of Industrial Ecology (JIE):
Over the past two decades governments around the world have been experimenting with a new strategy for managing waste. By making producers responsible for their products when they become wastes, policy makers seek to significantly increase the recycling-and recyclability-of computers, packaging, automobiles, and household hazardous wastes such as batteries, used oil motor, and leftover paint-and save money in the process.
This strategy, known as extended producer responsibility (EPR), is the subject of a new special feature in Yale University’s Journal of Industrial Ecology. The special feature examines the use of EPR across diverse scales-from countries to provinces and states-and investigates work underway in the U.S., the European Union, Canada, China, Brazil and the State of Washington. The application of EPR to e-waste is a particular focus of the research in the special feature.
The Journal of Industrial Ecology is a bimonthly peer-reviewed scientific journal, owned by Yale University, published by Wiley-Blackwell and headquartered at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
Articles in the special feature are freely downloadable for a limited time at: http://jie.yale.edu/EPR
Partial support for this special feature was provided by Nestle Waters North America with additional funding from Reverse Logistics Group Americas LLC.
Measurements are never mere faithful representations of nature, but have social and political origins and ramifications. In representational theory, measurement is ”the correlation of numbers with entities that are not numbers,” a process of transformation, translation, and even interpretation at the level of sampling and gathering data. What is selected for measurement and what is not, how measurements are standardized, what counts as an important unit of measure, and how measurements are used all have stakes for the systems of which they are part. This is as true in discard studies as it is other scientific and social scientific endeavors.
Per Capita waste measurements are a prime example. It is not uncommon to come across a statement like “Americans generate more waste than any other nation in the world with 4.5 pounds (2.04 kg) of municipal solid waste (MSW) per person per day.” Per capita waste statistics are created by dividing the total weight of waste by the population of a given area, and give the impression that individuals are the main agents of waste. This both reinforces the popular myth that humans are inherently wasteful, and that waste in general is synonymous with post-consumer waste. Neither is true.
The vast majority of waste in the United States, and most developed countries, is industrial solid waste. It has more tonnage, and is more toxic, than municipal solid waste by a wide margin (MacBride). Per capita measurements of trash obfuscates the main agent of waste– even within municipal solid waste, which can contain commercial and construction & demolition waste, I would argue that waste is industrial rather than individual. Try not to make any waste for a week. It is nearly impossible, even for people like Beth Terry who dedicates massive amounts of time, energy, and research to reducing what she throws away. Her effort is heroic– not wasting is outside of everyday processes and possibilities because our food system, ability to clothe ourselves, communicate, and socialize come wrapped. Changes in per capita waste is often a measure of packaging trends rather than the (im)moral inclination to waste. As historians of waste know, disposability and waste is an industry tactic for saturating markets (see Vance Packard for a contemporary perspective on this strategy, which began in earnest in the 1930s).
Thus, per capita measurements, by interpolating individuals as agents of waste, politicizes measurement in the interest of industry by reproducing the myth of the wasteful human rather than calling out how humans in our society have become an inextricable part of a an industrial infrastructure of disposables and waste.
Previous Sewage Contamination (PSC) is a measure of waste that is self-consciously, willfully political. In the mid-nineteenth century, increased industrial activity and urbanization lead to the contamination of waterways used for public water supplies. Sewage, recently linked to several health epidemics, was of particular concern. Scientists were asked to determine whether a waterway was fit for consumption, but, in the professional opinion of Edward Frankland, a British water chemist for the Royal Institution, science was not always up to the task. Water analysis could not define the safety of water, chiefly because the presence and habits of germs, a new concept in the field, were largely unknown. Frankland believed germs could withstand filtration, chemical reagents, dilution, condensation, and other popular purification methods. Thus, even if a bacteriological test found no living germs in a sample, Frankland reasoned that a few germs may have survived purification and were just not present in the sample taken. These resilient germs could start an epidemic.
Thus, in 1867, Frankland introduced the concept of “previous sewage contamination,” or PSC, meant to represent the amount of sewage a river had received upstream. It was a number obtained by measuring the total amount of nitrogen compounds in a water sample, which in turn indicated the amount of organic material that had been in the water. This organic material could come from sewage or peat or other sources (science could not differentiate between them, and Frankland said the differentiation was “hygienically irrelevant”). PSC was meant to indicate whether there had ever been sewage in the water, and thus a potential health danger, regardless of whether the water had been purified.
In short, PSC was a metric used to advocate for a definition of safety that differed substantially from the status quo, which pushed for post-purification as the preferred technique of definition. Thus, PSC was an activist measurement. As a member of several Royal commissions on water quality, Frankland had the ability to instate PSC in water analysis reports received by Londoners. The idea was that citizens and other stakeholders would become disgusted, fearful, or enraged about the inevitable presence of “previous sewage contamination” in their water, and demand better water. Since PSC would be present in any purified source, as all local waterways were used as extensions of sewers and had other organic materials in them besides, “better water” would entail either changing the source of London’s water supply, or the legislated cessation of all sewage disposal into waterways. The latter was Frankland’s goal.
The reason to take measurements seriously is that quantitative work creates things. Per capita waste creates wasteful individuals and naturalizes an impotent course of action, while Previous Sewage Contamination creates pollution where before there was none. Activism is all about intervening in material conditions, and Franklin knew his judgement, expressed as a measurement, would be extrapolated off the page to make things happen in the world of things. Advocacy via measurement is not unique to activism–I would argue that per capita measurement is in the interest of industry, and it is not surprising to find that industry works to keep it as the measurement of choice in governance.
I believe that one of the unique abilities of scholars in the humanities and social sciences is to denaturalize such ontologies. Our job is to back up the truck and question the ground it stands on. In this case, we want to back construct the measurement to see where it came from and how the thing it purports to measure came to exist in the first place. This job is critical (in both senses of the term) because, as is evident from the examples, one of which is explicitly activist and the other which has high stakes for environmental action and blame, the quantification of characteristics into measurements has politics, and politics, to borrow Arjun Apparturi’s definition, is the set of relations, assumptions and contests pertaining to power.
Hamlin, Christopher. (1990) Edward Frankland: The Analyst as Activist
Law and Moser. (2006). Fluids or flows? Information and qualculation in medical practice
MacBride. (2012). Recycling Reconsidered
Star and Bowker. (1999). Sorting Things Out
Basurama (trash-o-rama), a non profit organization based in Spain, is preparing a public waste audit for MIT’s Media Lab Festival on April 20th. Their unique point of intervention that goes above and beyond a regular waste audit and the goal of quantification and classification of waste, is how to represent two tons of waste.
Basurama developed the graphic above to think through how they might display the waste after the audit. I’ve posted elsewhere about the logics of a theater of proof, a phrase coined by Bruno Latour in The Pasteurization of France, to describe the sudden manifestation of an otherwise invisible phenomenon legible to lay audiences. In a theater of proof, viewers can see the phenomenon under study in “black and white,” can understand it all at once as it becomes apparent in sensible, indisputable terms. This is the often goal of doing public waste audits (or at least it is for so many of my students who want to do such projects so people can “just see” all the waste they produce in their lives/dining halls/homes, and by doing so magically internalize the severity of the problem and change their behaviours).
Like most information visualizations, the problem Basurama is asking on their blog post about how to visualize two tons of waste is about the best practices of theaters of proof. How do we make such a theater? How can we arrange our raw materials as a sort of information landscape that makes the issue at hand apparent to lay audiences? How do we transform information, via this trash, into affective work for the viewer? How do we make the usually invisible, always heterogeneous, mashed up world of trash legible? How do we use aesthetics for intentional intellectual messages? What sort of things can trash say?
Personally and professionally, I am often concerned that tashy messages will reiterate popular mythologies about waste: that we, as individuals, make too much waste, when we, as individuals, have very little agency in the matter and are rather part of an infrastructure of waste. I would like to see a display of industrial vs. “personal” waste, where all the waste is in the former category and nothing is in the latter. The same could be done with systemic vs. unique waste, or waste generated in the pursuit of capital vs. that which is not (perhaps some community agricultural waste would end up in the latter pile). In short, I’m saying that Basurama’s step number 4, classification, is where the qualitative work of quantitative work comes in. Classification determines what will be proven in the theater of proof.
On a sunny spring morning we walk the Arahama coast near Sendai, the largest city in the Tohoku region that experienced the March 2011 tsunami. Two years and a few days later, yellowed grass stands in cracked concrete outlines of houses, bathroom tiles still recognizable. A team of green-shirted volunteers is hard at work near the river, and in the distance, smoke rises from an incinerator built specifically for disaster debris. A telephone pole lays in the sand near the concrete seawall lining this stretch of beach; remains of a metal roof rest bent and twisted in damaged trees.
I never intended to study tsunami debris or write about disaster. But I began fieldwork following marine debris in spring 2011, and plastic paths have led me across the Pacific to Japan where I am honored to attend a series of tsunami debris forums organized by the Japan Environmental Action Network (JEAN). The events bring beach cleanup coordinators from Hawaii, Alaska and Oregon together with coordinators in Japan and with those closest to the tsunami with the aim of fostering understanding and collaboration across the Pacific. Like the other participants, I have considerable experience looking for plastic on the shore, but today I walk a beach that does not feel like any I have visited before.
The sand is windswept and free of footprints except for our own. Large debris has long since been cleaned up, but bits and fragments are scattered everywhere. Bottle caps. Broken glass. A cup half buried in the sand. Tattered scraps of wood and other building materials. These objects are at once familiar and strange, as mass produced and anonymous as items I have seen on other beaches, yet haunted by the conditions of their loss. Those who have careers cleaning up objects from beaches ask permission before touching anything. At the tide line I pause, staring down the horizon, thinking of California so many thousands of miles away yet connected by ocean currents and all kinds of crossings of people and things.
The communities that lived nearby have constructed a memorial site with Buddhist statue and dark wall inscribed with names of those lost. A slow but steady stream of visitors brings small offerings: bottles of tea, flowers, strings of paper cranes. Small waves break in the distance, and the ocean air is laced with incense. I gaze up at the statue, backlit with a halo of morning sun, and try to imagine the clear blue sky as a wall of black water. At seven meters (23 feet) tall, the statue is the same height as the largest wave that inundated this stretch of the coast. The material record echoes in the surrounding trees, stripped of branches and devoid of greenery to the same height.
As we walk inland, shards of roof tile and dishes crunch in the gravel underfoot. A box of dusty CDs is tucked in the corner of one house’s foundations, a fragment of a teacup, white with yellow flower pattern sits carefully perched on a ledge beside another. I imagine those cleaning up carefully placing these objects where they might be recognized. We approach the local elementary school, a designated community evacuation center. It flooded part way up the second floor and all those who sought shelter there were able to climb to safety in time. With the school surrounded by water, several hundred people spent a long cold night waiting to be evacuated by helicopter, three at a time. We are shown photos from inside the school, chalkboard lists of those accounted for, classrooms organized by community. The damaged gymnasium is about to be torn down, but the fate of the main building is at the center of a debate common to many other communities. While some people want the building kept as a memorial, others do not want such a tangible reminder. A bright white banner hanging from the third floor reads “thank you! dream hope future.”
At the afternoon forum in Sendia’s busy city center, the guest coordinators give presentations showing the arrival of debris in the US. Many presenters emphasize how marine debris problems far predate and will long outlast tsunami debris. But they also detail local efforts to clean beaches, and the care taken to ensure volunteers treat found objects with respect. A succession of audience members express their gratitude and the hope that items can be brought back to Japan, reunited with their owners. There is a strong sense that these objects still belong to someone, that they are ‘pieces of lives,’ one speaker even comparing them to human remains. Like many people in Japan, they do not want tsunami debris treated as or even called debris. Speaking instead of ‘lost things’ or ‘personal items,’ they separate with words what they hope people cleaning the beaches of Hawaii and the West Coast of North America can separate in practice.
Near the end of the event, a speaker points to a yellow fish crate on a table at the side of the room. Lost in the tsunami, it floated to Alaska where it was identified as tsunami material and brought back to Japan with hopes of finding its owner. Word has just come that the owner of a soccer ball that traveled a similar path has finally been located. Though these anecdotes are uplifting, for many in the audience everyday life still means temporary housing and a continued struggle with uncertain futures. While most land has long been cleared, the government is not allowing residential rebuilding near the shore. Many people do not know when and if ever they can go back to their communities. A hand-painted sign at the beach reads, “losing living from Arahama in Sendai is the same as losing history, culture, or even the same as losing our home.” Here ‘home’ is furusato, a Japanese word that carries the cultural politics of origins, linking local and national, nostalgia and future, lifestyle and landscape. Above, strands of yellow flags signal the hope of return.
By Kim DeWolff.
An international group of scientists, including the young Chelsea Rochman and Mark Anthony Browne from California, with the support of the veteran marine scientist Richard Thompson from the UK and a host of others from the USA and Japan, has called on policy-makers to classify plastic waste as hazardous waste. Their argument, published in the latest issue of Nature, states that classifying plastic waste as hazardous waste is not only a more accurate description of its toxic activities, but will also allow effective action to be taken against such harms. Note that they are not calling for the end of plastics– though they target PVC, polystyrene, polyurethane and polycarbonate as the most hazardous of the hazards–but for a more rigorous infrastructure that comes with a new classification.
According to a hazard-ranking model based on the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, the chemical ingredients of more than 50% of plastics are hazardous… The monomers making up some plastics, such as polyethylene (used to make carrier bags), are thought to be more benign. Yet these materials can still become toxic by picking up other pollutants. Pesticides and organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls are consistently found on plastic waste at harmful concentrations 100 times those found in sediments and 1 million times those occurring in sea water. Many of these are ‘priority pollutants’: chemicals that are regulated by government agencies, including the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), because of their toxicity or persistence in organisms and food webs. [...]
With a change in plastics categorization, numerous affected habitats could immediately be cleaned up under national legislation using government funds. In the United States, for instance, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 would enable the EPA to clear the vast accumulations of plastic that litter the terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats under US jurisdiction.
This call is remarkable for a number of reasons. The first is that it is gutsy and straightforward in its identification of plastic pollution as an unmitigated harm, but it is even more remarkable that this balls-out call has been published in Nature, the world’s most cited interdisciplinary scientific journal, and a mainstay for scientific and scientifically-interested communities.
Does this signal the support by the UK publishers of a definition of plastic pollution based on unmitigated harm? There is an ongoing political rigamarole going on in the United States between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the chemical lobby group called American Chemistry Council (ACC), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and other stakeholders as to whether plastic chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) is really–truly, surely, demonstrably, always–harmful to consumers or not, the call to skip the back and forth and assign hazardous waste status to plastics we know contain or recruit chemicals we already call hazardous is refreshing, simple, yet still a bold step given politics in the lead author’s home countries. My hat is off to you, Rochman, Browne et al.
Secondly, the call to reclassify plastic waste as hazardous is remarkable for its ability to scale up to meet the severity of the problem. As the article indicates, the production of plastics is increasing exponentially. Most waste does not make it to the landfill or recycling center, but escapes into the environment. Our current infrastructure, from recycling to landfilling, is failing to contain plastics and its harms. By reclassifying plastic waste, both production and collection infrastructures change dramatically in ways that the authors say will both reduce the amount of plastics being produced, and better contain those that are.
Finally, the report is one of an increasing number of cases of scientists willingly becoming public experts rather than sequestered specialists. There has always been a small culture that propagates the idea that scientists are ethically responsible for their findings, expressed in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists founded by former Manhattan Projectphysicists after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in discussions about how science is inherently political such as in Mary O’Brien’s publication of “Being a Scientist Means Taking sides” in The Professional Biologist. Yet, this is still a ballsy feat in the United States with its strong prejudice against scientists “speaking out of turn.” Scientists are popularly thought to be the tools of policy in a well run technocracy, not the source of calls to action and creativity in the policy realm. The idea is that impassioned scientists lose objectivity and the ability to do good scientist. But many scientists might argue that their research creates these politics. Looking at shore after shore covered in plastics, and bird after bird with plastics in its belly, conducting study after study that shows the toxicity of plastics and their chemicals, even while you are wearing, sitting on, and eating from plastics, what is a scientist to do? Ethically, as experts and scientists, they are bound to publicize their knowledge, contributing to the public sphere and what some have called “technical democracy.” While Robert Oppenheimer states the role of science, scientists, and open inquiry in a democracy in dramatic terms characteristic of his time, and of his rigorous work in science and ethics following his work on the Manhattan Project:
There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry … There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors. Our political life is also predicated on openness. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it and that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. And we know that as long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost, and science can never regress.
- J. Robert Oppenheimer” in Life, Vol. 7, No. 9, International Edition (24 October 1949), p.58
As Samantha MacBride notes, modern waste–that is, postindustrial waste and particularly waste developed after 1945 when consumerism came into full swing in the United States– is synthetic, unpredictable, and heterogenous. Additionally, it has unique spatial and temporal characteristics compared to its predecessors.
First, longevity: I’ve written elsewhere about the staggering longevity of plastics; the thousand to million year cycles of nuclear waste are well known; Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) are classified in part for their lack of half-lives and last even longer than nuclear waste; superfund sites and brown fields have depressing longevity; the list goes on. Many modern wastes exist in geological time, rather than evolutionary time, and certainly longer that it takes a piece of paper to dissolve in the rain.
Then, there’s the geography of modern waste: the global networks of outsourcing goods and trash are well documented, and particular attention has been paid to electronic waste; another classification requirement of POPs are their ability to travel long distances; plastics accumulate in oceans, and plasticizers are on Mars, off-gassed from NASA exploration machinery; space debris is a relatively new, and probably permanent, field in discard studies; we can measure the age of Arctic and Antarctic ice based on particles deposited via nuclear fall out from the 1940s and Cold War.
I’ve been thinking about the space/time of modern waste, and particularly plastics, for some time now. It was only after a discussion with Robin Nagle about our city’s recent and ongoing problems brought about by Hurricane Sandy that I thought about “disaster trash” as a form of modern waste. Disaster trash is simply the trash that happens as a result of a disaster. In the case of hurricanes, it includes a lot of construction and demolition (C&D) waste, as well as immediate tonnages of spoiled food, disposable water and food containers, and probably human waste if enough infrastructure is affected. This was certainly the case for Hurricane Sandy. Several emergency dumps were created, many still in use, the most famous of which is at Jacob Riis Park in the Rockaways.
While some of the content of disaster trash is the aforementioned plastic, e-waste, and chemicals like POPs, much of it isn’t. Much of it is drywall and concrete. But some of it is photo albums, favorite furniture, books, and heirlooms The unique space/time aspect of disaster trash is that a whole lot of it happens all at once, and its appearance exceeds waste infrastructures. Disaster trash is the result of large-scale wrecking. Hurricane Sandy presented, and continues to present, similar problems that 9-11 did for New York City in terms of disaster trash. Where do we put all this debris? How do we get it there? What is the nature of it? Should we sort it? Can we sort it? What kind of sorting do we prioritize? Where does it go next? How do we best attend to the social aspects of this special waste? It is full of things that are precious, dangerous, and unknown; things that are usually not wate. And here is this heterogenous mass, all at once, in dire need of space and attention.
While there has been extreme weather since the beginning of time, and human-made disasters since there were humans, I calling disaster trash a modern kind of waste, lumping it in with nuclear waste and plastics. There are two reasons I consider diaster trash a modern kind of waste. First, due to urbanization, a trend that has increased steadily since the 1850s in North America, the built environment yields much more trash in cities than rural or sparsly populated areas and strains infrastructure on unprecedented scales. Urbanization and the density of the built environment is one of the spatial aspects of modern disaster trash, a condition of how so much trash can happen in one place at one time. The second reason speaks of a more recent and unfolding modernity we are confronting for the first time. Climate change and the extreme weather events it entails is going to make diaster trash more common and more extensive than before. Will hurricane disaster trash differ greatly in terms of its compressed space and time from flash fire diaster trash? Decertification trash from flood trash? Unfortunately, we will have the opportunity to find out.
Finally, the space/time of disaster trash does not end with its sudden, massive appearance after a disaster. It lingers, it spreads out, it circulates. The debris from the Japanese Tsunami in 2011 has been washing up on western Canadian shores for several months and will continue to do so. The link from Canadian Shoreline Cleanup implies that this redistribution of waste may constitute a second disaster. While I feel I can generalize, haphazardly and blog-ishly, about the compressed space/time of diaster debris, I cannot think of how diaster trash might generally circulate after the disaster has passed. Perhaps it cannot be generalized, but only catalogued. In Japan, a group of artists have petitioned to keep a giant commercial fish oil tank where it landed after the tsunami as an in-place, in-time memorial. Parts of demolished houses in the Rockaways, New York, will likely become part of the planned wetlands buffer where homes used to be, buried as part of a hope that future houses will not have to be buried. Other parts of Sandy’s waste will slip into New York’s regular sanitation grind, shipped off to Ohio and Connecticut megalandfills on the usual schedule, becoming less disastrous as they conform to to normal spaces and times of our waste infrastructure.
Aliine Lotman (Anthro Dept, EHI, Tallinn University)
“Until the 19th century, the term ‘to consume’ was used mainly in its negative connotations of ‘destruction’ and ‘waste’. Tuberculosis was known as ‘consumption’, that is, a wasting disease. Then economists came up with a bizarre theory, which has become widely accepted, according to which the basis of a sound economy is a continual increase in the consumption (that is, waste) of goods” (Petr Skrabanek 1994: 29).
The activity of rummaging through rubbish for usable things is known by many names: dumpster diving, freeganism, skipping, recycling and so on. As the communities of people involved in this activity are not exactly homogenous, with a common ideology, it is not too certain where the different terms originate. Neverthess, I will denote here some of the connotations and ideas behind them.
Freeganism is often considered to be the most politically charged term in use. As the first known printed use of the word ‘freegan’ – the ‘Why Freegan? zine from the end of the 1990s – declares:
Freeganism is essentially an anti-consumerist ethic about eating; asking “why freegan?” is essentially asking “why not consumerism?” /…/ By not consuming, you are boycotting EVERYTHING! All the corporations, all the stores, all the pesticides, all the land and resources wasted, the capitalist system, the all-oppressive dollar, the wage slavery, the whole burrito! That should help you get to sleep at night (Oakes 1999: 3-4).
When the term freeganism is used, it is often in contrast to capitalism or about freeganism’s role in modifying it. The anarchist sociologist Jeff Shantz claims for example that freeganism is trying to evade capitalism by creating its own alternative economic system, inspired by Marcel Mauss’s conception of the gift economy (Shantz 2005). As such, the term might also be the most controversial one for being too strict to some and at the same too ambiguous to others (Gross 2009).(See also the Sydney doco Bin Appetit (YouTube 30March 2010).
Dumpster diving might be the most clear and easily graspable term for the outsider: ‘dumpster’ as the garbage bin or container where the items are retrieved from, and ‘diving’ as the activity necessary to reach deep into the vast containers filled with goods. Dumpster diving or ‘dumpstering’ are probably the most well known terms in an international context, whilst others might be perceived as more local terms.
Skipping and skip dipping share the connotations of dumpster diving and are the not as politically charged as freeganism. The difference seems to be geographical – ‘skip dipping’ is a term with clear Australian origin (Edwards & Mercer 2012) whilst ‘skipping’ is the term I heard from my informants who were either from Great Britain or had learned about skipping there.
The word most commonly used in Barcelona is recycling (reciclar) which has its congruous words in the languages spoken in the community. In Estonian, for example, the word is ‘recyclima’ [risaiklima]. It can be said to have the same meaning as ‘dumpster diving’. In this posting I mostly use this term, as it is the one my informants most commonly use.
Approaching the bins
A young man, we shall call him Mateo, yawns and stretches behind his laptop. It has been a tiring day of idleness. He does not work in the strict sense of the term. Today has been a usual day: he spent a number of hours planning tomorrow’s dinner, as friends are coming over and he would like to cook something nice. He then played with his roommate’s cat for some time and had something to eat. For a few hours he focused on the Wi-Fi problem – the neighbours’ router seemed to be giving a weaker signal, so a few other neighbouring networks had to be cracked. Now, as noted, he is stretching his back. Suddenly he glances at the clock – it is almost half past eight! He rises at once and walks into the kitchen, reaching for two large grocery bags from one of the drawers.
Mateo was born and raised in the outskirts of Barcelona, in a neighbourhood similar to where he lives now – houses built on hillsides, a cobweb of steep streets intertwined with innumerable staircases, a population of mostly working class Catalans and immigrants. His parents are too, as he says, working class people, trabajadores. From his childhood, he remembers dumpster diving as a shameful matter – a question of pride and poverty; even children wearing hand-downs from older siblings were bullied at school, not to even mention families who went picking through garbage. Mateo did not start recycling himself before ending up in Amsterdam after he was thrown out of the apartment he rented in Barcelona. Once he returned to Barcelona, he simply continued to go recycling as he had in Holland.
We are walking uphill as he tells me this story of becoming a recycler. We take a sharp left turn and he points straight ahead: “See? There’s Día”. Día is the shop that we are heading to; its red sign in the shape of a percentage symbol can not be seen from this angle. I immediately recognise the cashier’s red uniform as he steps out of the door of the shop, dragging behind him a full container of biological waste. We start moving faster, as Mateo tells me that the lady standing right next to the shop window is also a dumpster diver, and not the most generous kind. We reach the containers at the same time with the middle-aged lady (I later find out from a Polish squatter that the lady is Russian). The cashier has brought out two bin containers, one biological – with the brown lid – and the other – with the black lid – mixed. The three of us flip open the lids. Mateo and I like to think of ourselves as recyclers with a lot of solidarity (a catchword among the anarchist-punk-okupa scene) running through our veins, so naturally we share all our findings with the Russian lady, who then melts up and offers us some of her own. All in all the result of this 15-minute walk and talk are for us: six packs (500 grams each) of some yellow sweet fruit unbeknownst to me; a lot of red peppers; some salad; a huge amount of carrots; a broccoli; a big bag of onions; a zucchini; five small yoghurts; and two bottles of Actimel. We head home with a big smile, because being able to not pay for our food makes us radiate with joy.
A prelude on squatting - Background and finding access
All of the informants whose stories are embedded in my research are connected to the okupa scene of Barcelona. There are many, like Juan and Mateo, who are active and committed to the political side of the phenomenon. These are usually people who look for the best houses to squat and then take great care of the houses, keeping them clean and well hidden from enemy eyes. They are people who systematically take part of common events and help others when needed. Yet, some of my informants are not as political or as sustainable – spending most of their time sleeping, drinking, skate boarding and smoking pot. There is of course no general rule on the division of squatters, as it is a vibrant, heterogeneous and flexible community that resembles more a process than an entity. Yet it is safe to say that squatters with similar understandings of politics, activism and the okupa scene tend to live together in the same house, creating sub-communities that share the same worldview (Martínez 2007).
I had my first personal contact with food recycling in the summer of 2009 when I visited one of my best friends who at that time was living in Barcelona. Later, as my interest in food anthropology grew I decided to return to Barcelona and look deeper into this way of obtaining food that whilst considered more than normal (by being non-consumerist and thus more ethical) in some circles, is despised and frowned upon in other levels of the society. I intended to use my friend as a key informant who would grant me access to the circles, provide me with a place to live and show me where the best bins were.
Unfortunately during my fieldwork the friend of mine could not be in Barcelona herself, which at first seemed to make things difficult. Luckily for me, we kept a good connection and talked on the phone several times a week. I could say that this was a good thing for my fieldwork – I arrived to the field with no previous connections, personal contacts and relations that could interfere with my objectives, whilst at the same time my friend could still provide me with enough names and contacts from afar so that I could easily find a place to live and people to turn to during my first days in the field. Also, as a personal side note, without my friend’s mental support provided by a few phone calls a week, I am not sure if I could or would have been able to stay focused during my month in the field. As every anthropologist knows, the status of a would-be-anthropologist during their first time in the field is rather confusing, to say the least.
Although I had also intended to conduct interviews with non-squatter recyclers, it proved to be too time-consuming and difficult to form a trustworthy relationship with them once I had arrived in Barcelona. This was due to the lack of personal connections and shared spaces with non-squatter recyclers. The age group of my informants varies from 21 to approximately 33, with the majority in their late twenties. Most of my informants were either living or temporarily staying in one of the three squatted houses I had the most contact with. Only one of my main informants was from a different house. Five of my key informants were originally from Spain (three Catalan, one from Madrid and one from Zaragoza), others from various European countries or Latin America.
Garbage then and now – Or, food becomes food again
It is Thursday night. Although the sun is already setting, it is still unbelievably hot in the old town of Barcelona. I step run upstairs from the Jaume 1 metro station downtown, taking two steps at once. It is Food Not Bombs (FNB) night at the squat on Panses street and I’m hoping to get there before all the cooking starts. That is not an easy goal, as there is no time schedule in the squat and no certain time agreed on when to start cooking. At some point during the late evening, someone decides to start cooking and others who are in the house join him or her to help with the food or with serving. I hurry through the massive river of tourists that flows towards the beach at Barceloneta and head towards the tiny alleyway with cobblestones where the squat is located.
I have previously only been there once and not quite certain which dark smelly alley to turn into. Slightly worried, I nevertheless reach the right place, recognising it at once – the only doorway in the alley to be fully decorated (above it, the legs of a mannequin spread towards the street) yet without an actual door. In front of it, on the street, someone with a beard and a dog mounting an old bicycle. I go in from the empty doorway and run up the dark stairs to realise by the aroma in the hallway that someone has already started cooking. Three lazy dogs slowly jump off their chairs to greet me as I enter the dining room. People chopping, mixing, patting, smoking, and chatting surround the large wooden table in the centre of the room. Two or three 1,5 litre bottles of Xibeca beer are passed around; someone is playing the guitar on the balcony; cramped to the corner, two South American boys are smoking pot and playing a very slow chess game. A thick cloud of food aromas and sweat smell steams from the kitchen corner where at least four people are trying to cook on three burners.
A dark haired skinny boy at the end of the dining table explains to me that they are making lentil cutlets with oatmeal and almond flour. He says he bought the lentils himself, because there is so much almonds in the house that he decided he wanted to use them for cutlets. The almonds, a 50 kg bag, were recycled from a dumpster behind a chocolate factory the night before. It had been quite a hassle to transport it back to the house, even more so because of the other oddity they had found – the front half of a huge chocolate statue of a brown bear. This statue is now the centrepiece of the corner table where most of the recycled food is accumulated. The sight is peculiar to say the least: next to a green pile of zucchinis, a sad-looking brown bear made of chocolate.
Let’s take a closer look on the modern food cycle – on how capitalism and the neoliberal worldview have affected food production/consumption and why edible food fills rubbish containers, heading towards destruction. I describe the journey of a food item towards reaching the zone where it becomes repulsive to the consumer, focusing solely on commercial garbage bins – containers used by shops, super markets and food factories – excluding garbage containers used by households. The group under study refrain from dumpstering in household containers, preferring commercial ones. This is mostly for a rather prosaic reason: they say there is simply much more food in commercial garbage containers.
There are also figures supporting their claims. Although it is estimated that the European average food waste production consists of more than 40% of food waste produced in households and only 5% of food waste that origins from retail and wholesale, the same study shows a remarkable difference when looking at country-by-country data. Whilst it is estimated that Spaniards create 218 791 tonnes of household food waste per year, the amount of food waste created in retail and wholesale is astonishing: approx. 1 244 846 tonnes per year (Monier, Hestin, et al 2011). This is an extraordinary difference compared to other European countries. Another reason for disregarding household garbage bins by my informants is tightly connected to my research topic – namely, personal rubbish is conceived as more disgusting than public waste (c.f. Rotberg & Rabb 1985; Stoller 1989).
According to my informants, commercial garbage containers are filled with food for reasons that could roughly be divided into three categories:
Food that presumably has low aesthetic value for the possible consumer (vegetables that are too big or too small; vegetables with visual effects of ageing: spots, crinkles; food with packaging that has been damaged etc.);
Food that is reaching or has reached its ‘sell by’ or ‘best before’ date;
Foods that are in the same package with a damaged food item (i.e. a bag of oranges with one mouldy orange, a box of eggs with one broken egg, a six pack of beers with one bottle broken and so forth).
In a nutshell, these are foods that give the possible consumer the feeling of not being ‘fresh’ enough. Needless to say, this food is actually by in large edible. To understand better how and why this came to be, let us look at the history of the modern food system – how it was born and where it is right now.
An historical overview
With the large-scale urbanisation of the 18th century in Europe self-sufficient food production in households became nearly impossible – there just was no room to grow your vegetables or animals any more. This accelerated during the last 200 years to a food system where almost everyone is more or less dependent on the global food economy. As free market economy widened to an international extent, the processing and growing of food items and agricultural products moved to the so-called Third World, where labour and land are cheaper and the requirements for safety and lower environmental impact demand smaller or non-existent investments. This made food production cheaper and led to a situation where it is cheaper to grow food materials en masse in the ‘developing’ countries than to produce the necessary amounts of vegetables and meat locally. Food became abundant and globalised. Gretel & Pertti Pelto have defined this as ‘delocalization’ in their study of dietary changes in different human populations since 1750:
By “delocalization” /…/ we refer to processes in which food varieties, production methods, and consumption patterns are disseminated throughout the world in an ever-increasing and intensifying network of socio-economic and political interdependency. From the point of view of individuals and families at any one place on the globe, delocalization means that an increasing portion of the daily diet comes from distant places usually through commercial channels (1983: 507)
They emphasise that the dietary changes associated with delocalization have had contradictory results in different parts of the world – while more industrialised countries have seen a leap in better nutrition, less industrialised countries have, on the contrary, seen a degradation of nutrition levels due to the spread of the so-called cash crops. Although market liberalisation and the introducing of cash crops are mostly hoped to better the general economic situation of a given ‘developing’ country and to enhance the living conditions of its rural population and farmers, this is often not the case; as the increasing prices and social standards lead to bigger living costs, the agricultural reforms may even end up worsening the situation (Ponte 1998).
Yet, this kind of relationship is not anything new. Starting with historical luxury goods such as tea, coffee, sugar and (other) spices, food consumption has been tightly connected with the power relations between the North and the South, the richer and the poorer, ‘us’ and ‘them’. One of the most thorough works on this interdependence is Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power (1986) in which he draws a global yet detailed picture of the relationships surrounding sugar, how it evolved in time and how it has effected the economic and social development of the modern world. According to Mintz, sugar was the first crops that led the way to a capitalist system of food production. Sugar farming in the Caribbean and its importation to Europe laid out the foundation for a global food economy. Although Karl Marx might disagree when labelling this type of production as capitalist (capitalist production is based on labour selling, not slave labour), Mintz considers it to be one step before capitalism, a sort of pre-capitalist stage.
Along with the syrupy lines of sugar becoming an everyday commodity for the masses, the consumer society began to evolve, bringing along an ever-increasing appetite for cheap foodstuffs. And where consumerism flourished, a wave of food waste followed shortly afterwards. Basing her work on Baudrillard’s theory of consumption the eco semiotic concentrating on garbage, Riste Keskpaik, claims that “[e]xcessive production of trash is not simply a feature of the consumer society; it is its basic structural-functional aspect” (Keskpaik 2004: 37). In the neoliberal culture based on consumerism, wasteful behaviour and excessive waste creation are paradoxically the very instruments to give birth to an illusion of affluence:
In a way, it is the same with affluence: for this to become a value, there has to be not simply enough, but too much. /…/ This is the function of waste at all levels. /…/ [I]t is waste, in some way, which orientates the whole system (Baudrillard 1998 : 45).
As demonstrated by my informants – none of whom reported any health issues as a result of consuming discarded foods – as a result of these three reasons there are massive amounts of edible food converted into the waste/dirt category. This can be seen in relation to a need of seeing food as ‘fresh’ and ‘clean’ by the consumers.
Freshness and cleanliness can be connected to the concept of ‘healthism‘ as used by professor of medicine Petr Skrabanek. In The Death of Humane Medicine and the Rise of Coercive Healthism (1994) Skrabanek describes the long history that food consumption (diet) and (not) dying have – how the two have been connected through times and still are. He shows how the line is drawn between the ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ – wrong and right, pure and impure. We eat what is considered to be good for our health, so that we would live a ‘good’ life and, if possible, not die at all, or at least live as long as it is possible.
Superfluous amounts of waste, especially edible food accounted as waste, that create the possibility for dumpster diving are a trait of the consumer society based on a neoliberal view on food as commodity and also on obsessive healthism. But we must not rush into conclusions and misinterpretations. Waste in itself is a much older concept than a passing tendency in the economic interpretation of the surroundings. In the next paragraph I will try to give a better description of the category of rejected matter in order to see how and why cultures position themselves in relation to it.
What is waste?
Garbage, trash, waste, rubbish are terms that all denote the same category, the category of rejected matter. This rejected matter has been discussed in structural anthropology as the zone between nature and culture, a liminal zone of being a part of both, yet neither. Mary Douglas has famously called dirt – rejected matter – “matter out of place”. Her structural approach ties the existence of dirt directly to a system of symbolism:
Dirt /…/ is never a unique, isolated event. 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. This idea of dirt takes us straight into the field of symbolism and promises a link-up with more obviously symbolic systems of purity (Douglas 2001 : 36).
A thing becomes polluting or dirty in relation to its context, to the system of classification surrounding it as a symbol – a broom standing in a corner is not dirty, but a broom placed on a dining table is. Dirt is the opposite of order, of systematisation. Dirt is a destructive yet creative power, a process of change constantly breathing down purity’s neck. According to Douglas, all societies base their notion of dirt and pollution on symbolic categorisation, regardless of whether or not the society has knowledge on bacteriology and hygiene; the categorisation of dirt exists in all cultures, despite of economic or historic developments (Douglas 2001 ). This notion of dirt is closely related to the philosopher Julia Kristeva’s idea of abjection that brings dirt and pollution to the realm of psychoanalysis. Kristeva takes Douglas’s notion of dirt and connects it to the feeling of repulsiveness necessary for defining oneself and rejecting all ambiguous matters in order to categorise the surroundings and to position oneself towards them:
It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior /…/ (Kristeva 1982: 4).
In the ambiguity, the being and not being, the phase between life and death of dirt, of waste, is what makes one feel an uncanny presence of death, bringing about abjection, repulsiveness. In the third chapter I will discuss abjection more thoroughly in relation to the notions of edibility and in-edibility that arise somewhat naturally when thinking of eating discarded foods.
Jo and I reach two garbage containers that have their lids open, which is often a sign that someone has already visited them. Nonetheless we go up to the bins to make sure. Jo props up his bike on a tree next to the containers. The bike has a flat tire, but Jo insisted bringing it along, as the trailer he attached to it would definitely be needed to bring home the huge amounts of food that we would find. Thus far, it has a small bag of bread and sandwiches that Jo picked up from some street corner without me noticing and a few loose tomatoes, mushrooms and other vegetables that we found from the first bins we raided. They roll around the trailer like forgotten dices. Someone else had already visited those bins, too, so we did not find as much as Jo had boasted beforehand. All the best bits had been taken out and the remaining food had been carelessly mixed together, mushy vegetables with meat bits and napkins. Ugh. “Uhm, someone has already been here,” I cautiously mention. Jo shrugs his shoulders “No, don’t worry” and digs in. I do as told and manage to find a few tomatoes that do not slump through my fingers. I put them in the trailer and wipe my palms against the lid of the bin. We then walk towards the heart of the old town to reach another shop that could be recycled.
Baudrillard, Jean 1998 . The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. London: Sage.
Douglas, Mary 2001 . Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Routledge.
Edwards, Ferne & Dave Mercer 2012. Gleaning from Gluttony: An Australian Youth Subculture Confronts the Ethics of Waste. In Williams-Forson, P. & C. Counihan (eds). Taking Food Public. Redefining Foodways in a Changing World. New York: Routledge. (chap. 14, pp. 175-194).
Gross, Joan 2009. Capitalism and its Discontents: Back-to-the-Lander and Freegan Foodways in Rural Oregon. Food and Foodways. 17: 57-79.
Keskpaik, Riste 2004. Semiotics of Trash: Towards and Ecosemiotic Paradigm. MA Dissertation. Department of Semiotics. Tartu: University of Tartu.
Kristeva, Julia 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.
Martínez, Miguel 2007. The Squatter‘s Movement: Urban Counter-Culture and Alter-Globalization Dynamics. South European Society and Politics. 12(3): 379-398.
Mintz, Sidney W. 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.
Monier, Véronique, Mathieu Hestin, et al. 2011. (waste across EU27) SR1, Final Report. Paris: BIO Intelligence Service, EU Commission, DG Env.
Pelto, Gretel H. & Pertti J. Pelto 1983. Diet and Delocalization: Dietary Changes since 1750. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 14(2): 507-528. Republished in Rotberg, Robert I. & Theodore K. Rabb 1985. (eds) 1985. Hunger and History: The Impact of Changing Food Production and Consumption Patterns on Society. Cambridge: CUP. (pp. 309-30).
Ponte, Stefano 1998. Fast Crops, Fast Cash: Market Liberalization and Rural Livelihoods in Songea and Morogoro Districts, Tanzania. Canadian Journal of African Studies. 32(2):
Rotberg, Robert I. & Theodore K. Rabb 1985 (eds). Hunger and History: The Impact of Changing Food Production and Consumption Patterns on Society. Cambridge: CUP.
Skrabanek, Petr 1994. The Death of Humane Medicine and the Rise of Coercive Healthism. Suffolk: St Edmundsbury Press Ltd.
Shantz, Jeff 2005. One Person’s Garbage… Another Person’s Treasure: Dumpster Diving, Freeganism, And Anarchy. verb.lib.lehigh.edu/index.php/verb/article/view/19/19 [06.05.2012]
Stoller, Paul 1989. The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.
Environmental and Planning D has published a new article by David Evans entitled, “Binning, gifting and recovery: the conduits of disposal in household food consumption.”
This paper explores the movements and placings that work to configure food as waste. At issue here—following the work of Nicky Gregson, Kevin Hetherington, and Rolland Munro—are the multiple conduits that exist for ‘moving things along’ and the idea that consumption research needs to move beyond the unfortunate conjunction of disposal and waste. I suggest that the disposal of surplus food is enacted via a graduated process in which it first enters a ‘gap’ where ambiguities and anxieties surrounding its residual value and onward trajectory are addressed. Drawing on ethnographic examples, I explore the shifting contours and gradients that reduce the possibilities for disposing of food through conduits in which it can be handed down, handed around, or otherwise saved from wastage. I also unpack the overwhelming tendency for surplus food to be cast as ‘excess’ and placed in conduits—typically the bin—that connect it to the waste stream. Crucially, it is suggested that food is a specific genre of material culture and that this underpins the normativity of its binning alongside the attendant prevention of its recirculation or recovery. To conclude, I reflect on the broader implications of this analysis for understandings of consumption, disposal, and waste.
Keywords: food waste, consumption, disposal, divestment, material culture
One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Waste is inherently ambivalent. It is both worthless and the basis for a billion dollar, recession-proof industry, complete with cartels and multinational companies. Disgust with filth both reaffirms our identities and troubles us. But a plethora of contradictory terms and values is not what makes trash wicked. Waste is wicked because of its inextricable mix of social, economic, environmental, infrastructural, political and cultural factors at a variety of scales.
In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, two urban planners, wrote about a shift in urban planning from an ethos of efficiency to one that recognizes the complexity of problems that arise from open systems, particularly when these systems are both material and social in nature:
By now we are all beginning to realize that one of the most intractable problems is that of defining problems (of knowing what distinguishes an observed condition from a desired condition) and of locating problems (finding where in the complex causal networks the trouble really lies). In turn, and equally intractable, is the problem of identifying the actions that might effectively narrow the gap between what-is and what-ought-to-be.
Because open systems are made of and are part of other open systems, defining, locating, and intervening in a problem is not only difficult, but also impossible to do with complete acuity. Efforts to solve them are likely to lead to other problems, or at least affect other parts of related systems in unanticipated ways.
Rittel and Webber call these wicked problems: “We use the term ‘wicked’ in a meaning akin to that of ‘malignant’ (in contrast to “benign”) or ‘vicious’ (like a circle) or ‘tricky’ (like a leprechaun) or ‘aggressive’ (like a lion, in contrast to the docility of a lamb).” There is no way to draw a boundary around the edges of a wicked problem where the effects and causes of the problem, and the influence of proposed solutions, stops. Contradictory, shifting, complex, and ever-expanding circumstances in wicked problems often exceed both current knowledge and consensus, particularly because a “plurality of objectives [are] held by pluralities of politics” by different stakeholders, each with a different set of knowledges, standards, needs, and desires. The information needed to describe and solve a wicked problem is not available in advance because each wicked problem is essentially unique in its complexity and so has never been solved before.
Trash is one such problem. Waste is often defined as an personal shortcoming, a vice of individuals or of a class of people, which means that solutions are individual as well. Some even say that there has been waste since there has been humans, and it is natural/a necessary evil. In this case, solutions are always already mitigation. Others, like Vance Packard, see contemporary waste as a planned aspect of industrial capitalism, placing solutions in economic and regulatory realms. How a problem is defined directly affects which solutions are deemed possible, viable, and feasible. These are the stakes of defining wicked problems.
This semester, as part of my Environmental Communication class at NYU, my students and I wrote a pamphlet called “Best Practices of Defining Wicked Problems.” We hope it is of great use to those in discard studies, either as a framework for applied policy work, or as a reflexive tool that is “good to think with” for academics in critical studies.
We wrote the document by consensus. After an open discussion of what we wanted to write about, individuals could propose a sentence or paragraph. We then discussed any issues we had with the proposal, such as particular word choices and their implications, or what kind of work the writing did. Finally, we used hand signals to indicate that we were happy with the sentence, unhappy with it, or had a smaller issue with it. If any one person indicated either of the last two situations, we returned to the discussion phase and started over. This does not mean that everyone agreed to the same degree on every part of this pamphlet, but that we all agreed that we could move forward with the writing at every point. We used the first or last fifteen minutes of many classes to write this document, and spent an entire class period consensing on its final form. Feedback, forwarding, and questions welcome.
Have a wicked day.
RAIR (Recycled Artist in Residency) is a young yet accomplished project located within a construction waste recycling center in Philadelphia. They have twelve hours left in a fundraising campaign to open the trash-stream residency program to applications from artists in the Spring of 2013. They hope to hire staff with the money and become a viable arts-trash organization. Artists have long sourced art supplies from the waste stream, for economic reasons, to leverage the history and patina of used and discarded items, and to specifically comment on waste and discard practices. However, curb-side picking is not nearly as efficient or rewarding as wading through a compiled collection of waste at recycling centers, transfer stations and dumps, most of which are inaccessible to artists and members of the public, particularly in urban areas. RAIR is giving artists access to the waste stream and to space to make their art.
For those of you new to crowd sourcing funds, third party systems like Kickstarter and Indiegogo usually ask fund raisers to provide thank you “perks” to donors. The perks for the RAIR project fundraiser are artistic Discard Studies in and of themselves, including a stash of Sanborn Maps they found in the trash heap, and a Taxonomy of Trash poster by Tim Eads.
More about RAIR from their website:
“RAIR (Recycled Artist-In-Residency) is a group of dedicated individuals working to connect art and sustainability. We provide artists with salvaged materials and comfortable workspace while increasing awareness about the waste stream.
This project came out of requests from Philadelphia-based artists wanting access to recycled materials at Revolution Recovery, LLC – a construction and demolition recycling facility in Philadelphia. They’ve been informally donating materials to artists for years, and have dreamed of starting a structured program. A group of people started thinking about the potential for establishing a formal residency program at the facility. We’ve been dedicating time and energy into the project for a while now, and believe RAIR is ready to play a key role in creating awareness about art and sustainability in Philadelphia.”