A byproduct of industrial processes and household consumption, waste is a critical reflection of contemporary life. Waste management is an essential environmental service provided for by municipal governments, one with serious implications for public health and pollution. At the same time, waste is an economy, one that intersects with informal livelihoods, a globalized trade in waste materials, and existing urban geographies. In South Africa, the current waste economy is a multi-billion rand industry that employs roughly 30 thousand people in the formal sector and between 60 and 90 thousand in the informal sector. Much of the critical work for the waste sector is done by informal waste collectors, who collect huge volumes of waste materials that they sell to a network of buyers and traders.
This pedagogical case study is designed to reflect on waste management in global south contexts as actually existing systems. While waste is often framed as a crisis in the global south, it is important to note that waste management is nevertheless happening. An attention to waste can subsequently allow for a series of broader questions related to livelihoods, governance, and political ecology. Paying attention to the flows of waste in and through the city can call attention to patterns of inequality and urban environmental governance, especially in contexts of formal job loss. At the same time, solid waste management is a critical task for municipalities, one that will require creative approaches given that the production of waste materials continues to increase as consumption itself continues to increase. To pay attention to waste is also to pay attention to its inverse: production.
This set of resources is designed to introduce readers and students to the mechanics of waste management in global south contexts as well as to further critical engagements with the subject of waste. Specifically, this exercise asks readers to reflect on their values in regards to waste and its management, and to consider the ways that waste can or should be dealt with in ways that further goals of social justice, environmental sustainability, and equity.
In describing their orientation towards waste, the editors of the Discard Studies blog define the field in the following way:
The field of discard studies is united by a critical framework that questions premises of what seems normal or given, and analyzes the wider role of society and culture, including social norms, economic systems, forms of labor, ideology, infrastructure, and power in definitions of, attitudes toward, behaviors around, and materialities of waste, broadly defined. As its starting point, discard studies holds that waste is not produced by individuals and is not automatically disgusting, harmful, or morally offensive, but that both the materials of discards and their meanings are part of wider sociocultural-economic systems. Our task is to interrogate these systems for how waste comes to be, and our work is often to offer critical alternatives to popular and normative notions of waste.