“When I got to get the stuff in the bucket, first I go down the far left edge of the pile, dump it in. Then I go down the far right side of the pile, dump it in. Then I go down the middle. So everything fits in the back of the truck, all even.”
“Yes! That’s coordinating movement, space, and energy. Dance.”*
The conversation above takes place between a sanitation worker in Austin, Texas, and choreographer Allison Orr in the excellent documentary Trash Dance, directed by Andrew Garrison. The film shows Orr’s process of putting together a choreographed “dance” of dump trucks, trash bins, and sanitation workers based on their everyday movements and talents.
The story is excellent not only because of the behind-the-scene views of Austin’s sanitation infrastructure via Orr’s month of preliminary ride-along with waste workers. Rather, the interviews with sanitation workers and the progression of the project from one of indifference, suspicion and disbelief on their part, through the slow buy-in, and finally to the display of comradery, talent, dedication, and somewhat ad hoc beauty is the center of the documentary. While the three-minute solo with the mechanical crane set to classical music is beautiful in itself, it is the interview with the huge African American sanitation worker declaring that he had to be in the show because he was the best damn crane operator in the city, and asking himself “how am I going to make this machine romantic?” that makes the movie. As one sanitation worker puts it, “The thing about this project is, we go from being just a bunch of nameless trash haulers to being Anthony, and Drew, and Ian.”*
In this way, Trash Dance is similar to the work done by New York City’s unique artist-in-residence and anthropologist-in-residence. In fact, Robin Nagle, DSNYC’s anthropologist-in-residence was one of the panelists after a viewing of Trash Dance in DUMBO. Along with the director and a NYC retired sanitation worker, the panel tended to be about telling stories about the day to day work and everyday workers that keep the city clean. These stories had the same kind of e/affect as the documentary. The differentiation of a massive work force into unique individuals doing a valuable job is reflected in both Robin Nagle’s new book, Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, and in artist-in-residence Meirle Laderman Ukeles‘ famous performance piece Touch Sanitation, where she individually shook the hand of every sanitation worker in the city over a two year period. It would seem that cultural workers introduced into waste infrastructure have a similar mission that I haven’t seen achieved by many other means. Cultural production via the humanities is a kind of methodology of respect and storytelling for which sanitation is a rich canvas.
You can see the film streamed from the official Trash Dance website for a limited time. There are also screenings in:
April 26-May 2 | The reRun Theater | Brooklyn NY
May 3-9 | Violet Crown Cinema | Austin TX
May 5 | Dance Camera West @ Annenberg Beach House | Los Angeles CA
May 17 | 14 Pews | Houston TX
June 22 | Northwest Film Forum | Seattle WA
July 13-14 | FilmBar | Phoenix AZ
July 12-18 | Gateway Film Center | Columbus OH
*All quotes are based on recollections of dialogue after viewing the film and are not verbatim.
TUESDAY, APRIL 23
4:00 – 6:00
MANHATTAN 3 SANITATION GARAGE
South Street Viaduct, Pier 36
(on the East River about half a mile north of the Manhattan Bridge; entrance is under the FDR Drive between Montgomery St and Rutgers Park)
Join us to celebrate Robin Nagle’s new book, Picking Up.
Subway: F train to East Broadway; walk east to South St, then north
By car from the north – south-bound FDR; segue onto the service road/viaduct at Jackson St; entrance on your left in about 500 feet
By car from the south — South Street going north; entrance is on your right about half a mile north of the Manhattan Bridge
RSVP to email@example.com
From the publisher’s website:
America’s largest city generates garbage in torrents—11,000 tons from households each day on average. But New Yorkers don’t give it much attention. They leave their trash on the curb or drop it in a litter basket, and promptly forget about it. And why not? On a schedule so regular you could almost set your watch by it, someone always comes to take it away.
But who, exactly, is that someone? And why is he—or she—so unknown?
In Picking Up, the anthropologist Robin Nagle introduces us to the men and women of New York City’s Department of Sanitation and makes clear why this small army of uniformed workers is the most important labor force on the streets. Seeking to understand every aspect of the Department’s mission, Nagle accompanied crews on their routes, questioned supervisors and commissioners, and listened to story after story about blizzards, hazardous wastes, and the insults of everyday New Yorkers. But the more time she spent with the DSNY, the more Nagle realized that observing wasn’t quite enough—so she joined the force herself. Driving the hulking trucks, she obtained an insider’s perspective on the complex kinships, arcane rules, and obscure lingo unique to the realm of sanitation workers.
Nagle chronicles New York City’s four-hundred-year struggle with trash, and traces the city’s waste-management efforts from a time when filth overwhelmed the streets to the far more rigorous practices of today, when the Big Apple is as clean as it’s ever been.
Throughout, Nagle reveals the many unexpected ways in which sanitation workers stand between our seemingly well-ordered lives and the sea of refuse that would otherwise overwhelm us. In the process, she changes the way we understand cities—and ourselves within them.
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.
January 16, 2013 6:30 – 8:15pm
A choreographer finds beauty and grace in garbage trucks and, against the odds, rallies reluctant city trash collectors to perform an extraordinary dance spectacle. On an abandoned airport runway, two dozen sanitation workers—and their trucks—inspire an audience of thousands. Trash Dance chronicles this beautiful and unique work of art while also highlighting the way art can unite a community.
Join New America NYC for a pre-release screening of Trash Dance followed by a conversation on the arts.
President, The Guggenheim Foundation
Director, Producer, Cinematographer, Trash Dance
Dancer and National Director of Community Outreach, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theate
Executive Assistant to the President, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)
Friday, November 16 from 12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. CST for a FREE webinar focused on plastics cycling!
Registration is free and open to all!
Less than 30% of plastics used in bottles and less than 9% of all plastic waste is recycled in the United States. While municipal recycling programs have traditionally focused on bottle recycling, other plastics – including film and rigid plastics – compose the majority of available plastic waste. As communities seek to reduce waste sent to landfills and meet higher diversion targets, there is increased interest in including these additional plastics in recycling programs. Through the presentations and discussion in this webinar, we hope to explore plastics recycling and its future potential from a variety of perspectives.
Samantha MacBride, assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at CUNY – Baruch College and author of Recycling Reconsidered: the Present Failure and Future Promise of Recycling in the United States. Her current research is on the contested politics of municipal organic waste management in the U.S. and Canada. She focuses on how landfill gas recovery, industrial-scale composting and anaerobic digestion, and conversion technologies are differently understood and advocated for in relation to threats of climate change by social movements, business sectors, and the state.
Also joining us will be Keefe Harrison, consultant at Resource Recycling Systems, where she brings her direct experience in facilitating cross-sector solutions to the increased recovery and recycling of packaging. Formerly, Keefe served as the director of communications for the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, the project director for the Southeast Recycling Development Council, and as a local government assistance team member for the North Carolina Division of Environmental Assistance and Outreach. She has worked in the waste reduction and recycling field since 1998 and is an active national speaker and published author on recycling issues.
Tim Smith, Director of the NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise, will facilitate.
It has been one week since the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, September 17, 2012. In celebration, let’s look at the movement through the lens of discard studies.
My article, “Tactics of Waste, Dirt and Discard in the Occupy Movement“, has just appeared in Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest (volume 11, no. 3) as part of a special edition on Occupy. The article will be a free download for the first two months after publication.
Originally, the article included a photo essay. In the spirit of Occupy, I sought Creative Commons permissions (CC-BY-NC) for photos that were not in the public domain or taken by news media– originally, the Occupy edition of the journal was going to be full open access. When they changed the terms to two months of open access, CC licenses were no longer valid. The current article has only three photos. Here is the entire photo essay of how trash and discards were used in Occupations all over the world, supplemented with excerpts from the original article. Note that some photos contain expletive and potentially offensive language and images.
Part 1: Anti-Occupy Tactics- Trashing Materials
At around 1 am on November 15th, 2011, police came into a tented Liberty Plaza and began handing out fliers. The fliers said Occupiers had to leave the park or face arrest. Shortly after Occupiers ran from tent to tent to spread the news of pending eviction and arrest, police began tearing down tents and putting them in dumpsters…. No one could return to the park to gather their belongings. In the end, everything in the park– clothes, books, tents, medications, backpacks, laptops, kitchen supplies and food– were put into a garbage truck and transported to a city sanitation transfer station.
In New York City and in other occupations, taxonomies of trash were used as a conscious effort to restrict access to space and to define and discipline protesters. Over and over, in different evictions, city governments and police demonstrated their belief that political gatherings such as Occupy are dangerous in their filth, regardless of material sanitary conditions. As Mary Douglas so eloquently puts it, “As we know it, dirt is essentially disorder” (1966: 2). And in the eyes of those in power, the essential nature of Occupy is disorder. It is dirt.
These images may seem exhaustive, even redundant. But that is the point: across the world, from New York to Paris to Melbourne, designating entire encampments as trash was a common tactic of municipal governments and their police forces. The ability to designate, and then forcibly treat, another group’s possessions as trash is a show of power, and is particularly ideological in nature.This is just not a case of clearing areas as efficiently as possible. Even objects of obvious worth, such as libraries, laptops, backpacks, and kitchen supplies, were indiscriminately trashed.
In the days after the New York City eviction, some Occupiers went to retrieve their belongings from the Sanitation station where police said they were “storing” them. The hundreds of books from the People’s Library were of particular concern. The books and other belongings had been compacted in the truck and dumped to the concrete floor, effectively destroying them. They had clearly been subject to identical treatment as regular trash.
Not only do the Mayor’s office, police and dominant media control the terms of public conversations about Occupy in terms of sanitation so Occupiers have to constantly demonstrate their cleanliness in public, but more importantly, such derogatory symbolism rests on a binary: clean and dirty, safe and dangerous, us and them. This is the contest between Bloomberg and his police, and New York City Occupiers. The Mayor and police work to make the Occupiers Other, and Occupiers strive to exercise their rights as citizens to assemble and protest. This contest is often fought in terms of filth and waste.
For example, before the eviction of Liberty Plaza, Mayor Bloomberg told Occupiers they would have to leave the park for cleaning. In response, the OWS Sanitation Working Group called for a park-wide, OWS-initiated clean up. Bloomberg had ruled that the Occupation was unsanitary and so the city would have to clean up after them, while OWS maintained that they were good citizens and took care of their space. Hundreds of protesters scrubbed Liberty Plaza until it sparkled and there was no possible material evidence of unsanitary conditions. The “cleaning eviction” was cancelled. When Liberty was raided one month later, Bloomberg claimed it was due to his mounting concern that “the occupation was coming to pose a health and fire safety hazard to the protestors and to the surrounding community.”
Part 2: Anti-Occupy Tactics- Moral Trash
Tactics of making waste and trash out of the belongings and encampments of Occupiers did not stop at the material level. As many Occupiers know, the mainstream media, municipal governments and the police also used filth rhetorically to classify Occupy.
As the images above attest, slippage between moral and material filth is foundational to anti-Occupy rhetoric. Many of the images are drawings, cartoons, or illustrations rather than documentary photographs, which highlights the role of filth in the popular or opposition’s imagination.
The contest of filth and belonging is not new. The recorded history of those in power seeing threats to their social order as “filth” stretches as far back as medieval times. More recently, Ezra Pound’s Cantos regarded “the multitudes in the ooze,” citizens and their political leaders, as a flood of excreta, with democracy as a sea of swampy sewage. In contrast, Pound’s description of his desired enlightened dictator was neat and tidy, even shinning. In the last three centuries, the rhetoric of waste has usually been class-based, where the bourgeois “[condemns] the excremental working classes,” a pattern suited to a movement protesting the yawning gap between the rich and poor (Inglis 2010: 216). In every recorded case described by Inglis, filth and waste are used to describe the inferior, unregulated, disorderly and dangerous Other that pose some threat to the system of rule.
Within this understanding of the role of waste in protest, the seemingly contradictory acts of Bloomberg, the police, and other opponents to Occupy whereby they decry waste even as they create waste by turning entire encampments into trash make sense. They are methods to define and control what they see as dangerous disorder, specifically a danger to dominant social order. These are exercises in classing protesters as non-citizens. As Them. As Other. As Trash and Dirt.
Part 3: Occupy Tactics - Occupy’s Waste Infrastructure
One of the unique aspects of the Occupy movement compared to similar movements is the encampments. In these densely populated impromptu urban settlements, perfect strangers have to live together. In this context, ideals for how the world should work must be put into practice on the ground.
First and foremost, there must be toilets. There were hundreds, even thousands of people at Liberty Plaza on any given day before and after the eviction, and few accessible toilets in nearby businesses. Protesters had to figure out a way to rent, pay for, and site sani-potties. In New York, this meant an alliance with the United Federation of Teachers’ to place the sani-potties in the union’s loading dock. The UFT’s president said, “we are happy to help Occupy Wall Street to continue to be a good neighbor.” There was also a laundry service at Liberty, recycling stations, and, of course, the Sanitation Working Group, a facet of every Occupy encampment around the world.
Various infrastructures for sanitation were, and continue to be, part of a system of citizenship within the Occupy movement. Signs in Zucotti Park announced: “We are all part of the sanitation effort,” “We at Sanitation uphold the Good Neighbor Policy, which is a great guideline of our values and respect for each other in this community,” and “Thank your sanitation workers! It starts from the ground floor.” These services and signs were part of the rules and values of citizenship in the Zucotti encampment, all of which mirrored what Occupiers expect and demand from the 1%. According to anthropologist Mary Douglas, “dirt” is all about maintaining good citizenship, where beliefs and practices about filth and contagion uphold social values and what counts as acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The way Occupiers treat dirt and trash is symbolically similar to the City’s efforts to alienate them: in both situations, dirt is about maintaining a set of ordered relations, and rejecting inappropriate elements. For Occupiers, these ordered relations involved respect, sobriety, and cooperation. One of the three community rules at Liberty Plaza, drafted through a consensus process, was “Keep it clean. This plaza and these flowers are important to the community. Our ability to uphold the beauty of this park well represents our commitment to a better world.”
Very often, the cleanliness of the park was articulated as a direct testament to protester’s desires for just, “clean” politics. Signs declared, “Today we clean up our community, tomorrow we clean up Wall Street,” and admonished, “If you can’t clean up after yourself, you can’t clean up this corrupt world.” This sentiment is so strong that one protester self-identified as a cleaner: “We [Occupiers] clean. It’s what we do. It’s who we are.”
Not only was basic maintenance part of the citizenship-building process of the Zucotti encampment, dirt, trash and discards were also used as the raw material to imagine a better world. At the height of the encampment, Zucotti boasted a grey water system as part of the People’s Kitchen, a bike-powered composter whose compost was cycled to several nearby community gardens, a recycling depot, and a reuse station to fuel the movement’s cardboard aesthetic. These environmental amenities, constructed from scratch for public use, were a concrete manifestation of the better world Occupiers seek. In this better world, waste and trash were a thing of the past, as citizens’ duties included using resources as fully as possible. In many conversations, prolific waste was seen as a necessary product of exploitative capitalist production.
Together, the rhetorics and actions of cleaning up and building a wasteless future come to bear directly on Occupy’s message for just citizenship from 100% of society. Not only is littering and leaving messes for others to clean a breach of citizenship in the park, it is also an ethical breach in politics and finance. Not only is wasting, trashing, and discarding an undesirable act in the park, it is also undesirable and intolerable from institutions outside of the park. Wall Street is a notoriously bad housekeeper. It is worth noting that after the eviction of Zucotti, the “ethics of doing your chores” continued as the Sanitation Working Group cleaned foreclosed houses for reoccupation, and cleanliness continues to be a goal in meetings and other shared spaces within Occupy, though in different forms.
A second way that trash, dirt and waste plays into the tactics of Occupy is the argument that things that ought not be discarded have been wasted and trashed by the wealthiest 1% of society, banks, governments, and corporations. Many Occupiers involved in the eviction of Zucotti whose belongings were “stored” in dump trucks carry their crushed laptops to public gatherings as artifacts of injustice. The People’s Library called a press conference after the eviction and piled hundreds of trashed books in front of reporters to demonstrate the intolerable politics of trash practiced by Bloomberg and the police.
The same tactics are also used in a more symbolic sense. Members of Occupy Student Debt donned graduation caps and gowns made of garbage bags to symbolize how their degrees and earning power after graduation were worthless under the weight of their debt. Occupy Museums built a miniature model of a house in Harlem threatened with foreclosure out of discards and presented it to the Museum of American Finance, asking that the depreciated status of the property be ensconced in an elite cultural institution as part of the master narrative of how American Finance affects everyday people. Various testimonials on the “I am the 99%” tumblr site make reference to how their lives, futures, or degrees are “going to waste” or “being wasted” because of the corruption and inadequacies of institutions meant to support them. In each case, the rhetoric of waste, trash, filth and discards are used to critique the disproportionate power of a minority to discard the rights and livelihoods of the 99%. There is an implicit argument here that a citizen or resident of the United States should not be treated like trash by definition of what it means to be an enfranchised person.
Like their opposition, Occupiers also use the rhetoric of dirt, filth, waste and uncleanliness to characterize corrupt governments, the financialization of governance, and the corporate priority of profit over good citizenship. The London encampment sported a much-photographed sign reading “Compost Capitalism.” A direct action from OWS involved scrubbing Wall Street with brooms to “clean up” Wall Street. Protesters threw garbage at the Barcelona Stock Exchange.
In conclusion, to focus on the physical and material aspects of dirt and trash within Occupy or to keep a tally chart of when and where trash appears and whether or not it actually carried dangers of tuberculosis as some media claimed is to miss the point of the roles of waste, discard, dirt and filth within the movement. Instead, we must focus on the different logics of transgression attendant to waste and dirt. We can see that ideas about filth, waste, and transgressions make up an ongoing political debate about the ideal society by both Occupiers and its opposition. While many new tactics that use trash and filth to argue for or against certain types of order have been innovated on both sides of the Occupy movement, these are the terms over which contests about what counts as tolerable and intolerable conditions, right and wrong, citizenship and the Other, acceptable and unacceptable behavior and what constitutes “out of placeness” have been waged for centuries, and will continue to be waged.
Douglas, M. (1984). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London, Ark Paperbacks.
Inglis, D. (2011). “Dirt and denigration: The faecal imagery and rhetrocs of abuse.” Postcolonial Studies 16(39): 207-221.
This article was written by Max Liboiron, New York University, and edited by three members of Occupy Wall Street who wish to remain anonymous.
Currently “Tactics of Waste, Dirt and Discard in the Occupy Movement” is published as a forthcoming article in Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, but will soon be part of a special issue on the Occupy movement. From August until September, the special issue will have free and open access. When that open access ends, I will post an expanded version of the article on this blog with a full photographic archive.
Both Occupiers and our opponents have used waste and discards—figuratively and literally—in strategies to create and cultivate a new social movement on one hand, and to maintain power and control over protesters on the other. This study will look at the roles trash, waste, filth and discards have played in tactical decisions by both sides of the movement from the point of view of a New York City Occupier. Overall, the examples examined of trash, filth, discards and their attendant transgressions make up an ongoing political debate about the ideal society by both Occupiers and its opposition. These are the terms over which contests about what counts as tolerable and intolerable conditions, right and wrong, citizenship and the Other, acceptable and unacceptable behavior and what constitutes ‘out of placeness’ have been waged.
Liboiron, Max. (2012). “Tactics of Waste, Dirt and Discard in the Occupy Movement,” Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, Routledge.
Sewers are the most expensive and expansive urban infrastructures in North America. They are underground. They are made of inflexible pipes.They are difficult to access. And increasingly unpredictable acts of nature, from earthquakes to climate disruption, are making the probability of their spectacular, large-scale failure something to take note of.
A couple of folks in Portland are on it. They’ve developed A Sewer Catastrophe Companion, an “illustrated guide [that] presents a series of graduated responses you can do to keep yourself and your community safe from disease during the short term and long term disruption of sewer services. It’s a solution for managing excreta that’s not excreting problems later.”
The Sewer Catastrophe Companion is remarkable for a few reasons. First, like much emergency literature, it is an exercise in realizing how invisible yet foundational many of our urban infrastructures are, and how daily live is premised on its smooth functioning. But the Companion takes this a step further to break down the logistics of reestablishing that infrastructure on a smaller, though potentially long term, scale. Just leaving your feces in the sun won’t do. It turns out there are best practices for that sort of thing. Now you, too, can become antiquated with the usually externalized life cycles and ecosystems associated with your own body.
Another notable facet of the Companion is of particular interest to scholars like me who are interested in how quantification and scale have the ability to change things ontologically. In short, knowing how much you defecate might change your outlook on life. How many times do you go to the bathroom in a day? Never counted? With a sewer catastrophe you might. Consider this fantastic infographic:
Reading it is one thing, planning for it is another (where would all those buckets go?), and living it is yet another. How would urban planning, sizes of communities, and uses of private and public space change if we thought in units of pee and poo buckets? I leave it to you to ponder.
The Companion was written and researched by Molly Danielsson and Mathew Lippincott, and illustrated by Molly Danielsson and Emma Conley.
Occupy Wall Street, and specifically representatives of the People’s Library, are suing New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg, its police commissioner Ray Kelly, the Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty, and other City officials in the seizure and discard of 2,798 books during the raid on Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011.
If you are not familiar with the trashy tale of the People’s Library, which Discard Studies posted about in November, here is the refresher: In the middle of night on November 15, 2011, the NYPD violently evicted Occupy Wall Street’s encampment at Zucotti Park by order of Mayor Bloomberg. Property that was not carried away in the arms of Occupiers was loaded into City Sanitation garbage trucks, compressed, and taken to the 57th St. Sanitation Garage. Many of the 3,600 books were missing or damaged, along with laptops and other library equipment.
There are several notable aspects to this complaint filed today in US District Court. First, the suit is not about the money, and barely about the books. As reported by the Village Voice,
The lawsuit asks for $47,000 in compensatory damages, as well as punitive damages. But in recognition that sanitation employees, who the city doesn’t indemnify against punitive damages, might get stuck with the bill, Occupy Wall Street took the unusual step of limiting its request for punitive damages to $1,000.
Bloomberg and the police have been using City services, including Sanitation and the MTA (public transit system), in their efforts to quash protesters. In the past, Occupiers have cheered Sanitation Workers in the streets around lower Manhattan, but in a statement put out by the People’s Library, this enthusiasm stops short of the Commissioner:
We cannot allow the Mayor and his commissioners to get away with these violations of law and constitutional rights. We have now filed a Federal lawsuit to demand accountability from the city and its officials, demanding both compensatory and punitive damages.
It will be interesting– and telling– to see how the split between Sanitation workers and the Sanitation Commissioner play out in this complaint. Will it be analogous to descriptions of the relationship between Ray Kelly, NYC Police Commissioner and individual police brutality? Were Sanitation workers just following orders? Where there some “bad apples” in uniform the night of November 15th? Are they “out of control”? Since the Sanitation Department will probably never be afforded the power of the Police Department, some of these criticisms seem absurd. But the uneven power relationships between workers and their employers, including the ability for those in power to use workers to further their own ideological goals, is one of the many interrelated grievances of Occupy Wall Street.
The tricky politics of OWS vs the Sanitation Department via the People’s Library is only one of the unique aspects of the lawsuit. The second, at least for Discard Studies readers, is how the act of discarding a library by force is being leveraged to accomplish a great range of political work. The Librarians state that the goal of the suit is to obtain public acknowledgment that the raid as a whole was fundamentally unconstitutional: “We believe that the raid and its aftermath violated our First-Amendment rights to free expression, Fourth-Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure, and Fourteenth-Amendment rights to due process, as well as the laws of the City of New York regarding the vouchsafing of seized property.” The books, as owned, seized, destroyed, and missing media objects, are being used to address the entire set of issues brokered by the raid. Moreover, the lawsuit may bring documents and other evidence to light about the decision-making and planning process behind November 15th, which has remained out of the public sphere.
If the Discard Studies post in November was about the ability of the state to willfully discard citizen’s belongings as a show of power, this post is (happily) looking forward to how a citizen group’s ability to call out the power to discard has larger political ramifications for the use and abuse of power by the state. Bloomberg: you’d better watch what you discard.
Dr. Kathleen O’Reilly (Department of Geography, Texas A&M University, http://geography.tamu.edu/profile/KO%27Reilly) is seeking a postdoctoral researcher for a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Global Development: Water, Sanitation, Health Program) funded project entitled “Successful Sanitation Habits in Rural India.” This 12-month position is available starting January 2012 and runs through December 2013. The initial appointment will be for a one year term and is renewable for a second year term contingent upon excellent performance and continued funding.
The project is a two year study in West Bengal and Himachal Pradesh, India that will identify the social and environmental factors influencing toilet usage habits of families in rural India. Both quantitative and qualitative data will be collected over an extended field period. The project will contribute to our understanding of sanitation adoption among all family members in a household.
The postdoctoral researcher will assist Dr. O’Reilly with a range of research activities, including travel to India for data collection over four months in 2012-2013, and assisting with: 1) data review, coding, and analysis of collected quantitative and qualitative data; and 2) writing of scholarly products (e.g., manuscripts and presentations) in College Station, TX.
The position requires a completed PhD in geography or a related field or a letter certifying that all requirements for the doctoral degree have been met and stating the conferral date. The ideal applicant will have field experience, training in quantitative and/or qualitative methods, and expertise in political ecology, gender theory, and/or South Asian studies. Language proficiency in English, Hindi, and/or Bengali is desired. Salary is $40,000 annually, including benefits.
Please send 1) cover letter describing research interests and experience; 2) complete curriculum vitae; 3) writing samples; and 4) names of three referees to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write “postdoctoral position” in the subject line please. Review of applications begins immediately and will continue until the position is filled.
Texas A&M University is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer. The University is dedicated to the goal of building a culturally diverse and pluralistic faculty and staff committed to teaching and working in a multicultural environment. We strongly encourage applications from women, underrepresented ethnic groups, and individuals with disabilities.