Reflections on ‘Opening the Bin’ (and waste research more generally)

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On the 27th April, over fifty scholars met in Helsingborg, Sweden for a three-day workshop dedicated to waste research in the social sciences and humanities. Organised by Lund University, the ‘Opening the Bin’ workshop sought to critically investigate waste perceptions, materialities, politics, and practices.

One of the first workshops of its kind, this gathering provided an unprecedented opportunity for scholars to share research and develop international transdiciplinary connections. Most participants were based in Europe, although several participants joined from further afield – including India, Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. Over the course of the workshop, paper presentations reflected a variety of social science and humanities disciplines, including STS, history, philosophy, and anthropology. By examining different contexts, infrastructures and conditions surrounding waste, participants also connected waste scholarship to broader academic discussions surrounding urban governance, de-growth, and the circular economy.

While diverse in subject matter and approach, these interventions highlighted several recurring themes and questions within contemporary waste research. Given concurrent sessions ran throughout the workshop, these themes were only drawn from sessions I had the privilege of attending. Nevertheless, I believe these themes and questions point to fruitful areas of investigation for contemporary waste scholarship.

Themes and questions in waste research

Perhaps the most common, and arguably fundamental, refrain of the workshop was how to make sense of waste, and its management. Most presentations offered some kind of definition for waste, which suggested an implicit agreement that waste is neither a definitive nor permanent status. We can appreciate waste status is not only fluid, but also subjective. Materials deemed waste could suddenly be identified as resources for a state or industry, as well as gift or material dependence for marginalised inhabitants. Furthermore, waste is often seen to be problematic and commonly associated with environmental burden and controversy. In turn, scholarship must help to disrupt and problematize popular understandings of waste – questioning what comes to be seen as waste, as well as its surrounding material, social, and political conditions.

To disrupt normative understandings waste, value must be taken into account. But value means many things. In this regard, we are not only talking about only price, but also uses (or lack thereof). To consider value, we must also take into account the broader configurations that enable someone to access and interact with waste – such as personal ownership or commons (O’Hare). Many presentations invoked value for in cases where specific waste materials were reclaimed or transformed – such as gathering rubbish at landfills or composting – thereby associating value with consumption or exchange opportunities. However, some presentations also noted the potential affective value of waste engagements, or the subjective importance people attribute to particular waste objects.

Given the myriad of ways value can be understood, this was a recurring and challenging point for making sense of waste processes, practices and politics. As such, emphasis on engagement – between the subject and waste object as well as between waste materials more generally – emerged as an interesting positioning within several presentations. For waste to exist, it must be identified and enacted. A dumpster diver develops certain sensibilities and skills so they can recognise edible food (Lehtonen & Pyyhtinen; Le Moal), while bike kitchens produce a common space where individuals can learn and practice bicycle repair (Zapata, Zapata Campos & Ordoñez).

Embodied skills, knowledges, and practices permit different forms of coexistence and interaction with waste. Through their encounters, people can identify different values and uses for waste, which in turn cultivate sensibilities and relations to so-called waste materials. For instance, practices like Bokashi composting shows how we cohabit with waste in different ways, creating matrixial borderscapes (Kinnunen, citing Ettinger) through ethical encounters. Closeness and visibility forge new perspectives of waste, and possibilities with their material properties. However, presentations often considered these examples to be liminal spaces – instances that demonstrate what is possible (Akponah; Zapata, Zapata Campos & Ordoñez). Instead, many prevailing waste infrastructures strive to make waste invisible (Ektander). When infrastructures and their associated flows break down, waste halts and becomes painstakingly visible. Likewise, obsolete materials and infrastructures are erased from official plans and public consciousness only to unexpectedly re-emerge in future (Wallsten & Corvellec). Alienation and invisibility foreshadow any collective appreciation of waste, and possibilities for different types of engagement.

Despite this, waste is an imminent presence in our worlds. Intricately related to value, consumption, and market economies, waste is presented as an entry point into wider discrepancies and uncertainties surrounding everyday life and socio-economic processes. Accounts of material recovery and recycling in Nazi Germany (Berg), as well as waste references in American television (Verrax) signal more than a society’s perspective of waste. Situated accounts of waste can help make sense of broader political ideologies, social temporalities, and cultural relations.

Today, individual waste management practices are commonly presented as the enactment of environmental citizenship. The waste hierarchy is dominant in many discourses, but difficult to realise (Johansson & Corvellec; Valkonen, Huilaja, Saariniemi & Kinnunen). Some presentations suggested novel ways of comparing people’s desired waste practices with their actual efforts (Widder, Braden & Ko; Lazell). In other instances, we heard how policymakers and industry are looking for ways to increase recycling and reusing, while paying comparatively less attention to lowering consumption, increasing material longevity, or closing resource loops. Accountability and responsibility emerge as the ultimate bugbear. How do we determine who should contribute to waste flows, shape processes of waste management, and work towards the minimization and ensure proper treatment of waste?

Keynote interventions

These themes were reinforced by the two keynote presentations from Prof Gay Hawkins and Prof Myra J. Hird, whose interventions deserve particular attention.

As the opening keynote, Prof Hawkins noted that researching waste in the social sciences and humanities is a relatively recent trend. While an abundance of research and theoretical work concerning waste has emerged over the last 15 years, she suggested three areas of waste research merit future investigation by the academic community: disrupting our waste definitions, configuring waste as political, and living in waste cultures. By constituting waste as political, and associated with broader relations, flows and sectors, we can appreciate that waste has become a mode of being in contemporary life. Paradoxically, waste management and its associated infrastructures are often invisible or unnoticed, resulting in an “ontology of the present” (Hawkins) where reusability, replicability and disposability are coupled with a sense of perpetual immediacy.

Building on this inaugural provocation, Prof Hird challenged participants to see waste as a global issue, deeply intertwined with circuits of capital. Focusing disproportionately on solid municipal waste tactically privileges recycling as an individualized and depoliticized manifestation of environmental citizenship and diverts attention from more significant waste forms. Instead of looking in the recycling bin, we should focus our attention to spaces where industrial and military waste are produced, dumped and disregarded. These encounters and circumstances shed light on another critical dilemmas facing contemporary waste management. In turn, Prof Hird suggested that forced coexistence and denied accountability for waste is in fact a form of continued neo-colonialism.

Hird’s point seems particularly important, and rests as the basis for one final reflection I would offer to the workshop. While the presentations at Opening the Bin offered fascinating insights and shared a multitude of approaches to understanding waste, the fact that most interventions were predominantly based within a European context should be explicitly recognized. Waste is produced through and associated with globalizing and neoliberal relations, but it is also very much “matter out of place” (Douglas, 2005) within a place, time and context. The handful of presentations engaging with waste beyond the European or North American context help to remind us of this, but it would be interesting to explore the divergences and connections between different contexts more explicitly in future.

While this reflection offers a possible trajectory for future gatherings of waste scholars, it should not take away from the overwhelming value of the workshop. Indeed, attending Opening the Bin has been incredibly productive and inspiring. With my research presently underway, this was a critical moment for gathering questions, reactions and feedback from fellow waste scholars. Furthermore, general discussions and encounters have opened the potential for new conversations and collaborations across geographies and disciplines. I suspect the ideas shared and connections made in these three short days will lead to interesting developments in waste scholarship over the coming years.

Thank you to the workshop organisers of Opening the Bin, and to Manchester Geographical Society for supporting my participation in this workshop.

Presentations referenced

Workshop abstracts and programme available at: http://www.ism.lu.se/en/opening-the-bin/program

Akponah, Precious O. (University of Leicester): Rethinking Rubbish: Unwrapping the Transformative Potential of Rubbish in Lagos, Nigeria.

Berg, Anne (University of Michigan: Waste’s Social Order. A Historical Perspective.

Ektander, Caroline (Independent Researcher): Envisage Waste: Design Engagements from within a Bureaucracy.

Hawkins, Gay (Western Sydney University): Accounting for the Social in Sociotechnical Accounts of Waste?

Hird, Myra J. (Queen’s University): Looking for Redemption in all the Wrong Places: Environmental Citizenship and the Long Duré of Waste Contamination.

Johansson, Nils (Linköping University, KTH Royal Institute of Technology), Corvellec, Hervé (Lund University): Why do Policies Fail to Reduce the Amounts of Waste? An Investigation of Swedish Planning for Waste Prevention.

Kinnunen, Veera (University of Lapland): Cohabiting with Trash.

Lazell, Jordon (Coventry University): Food Waste Across Space and Place: Understanding the Transition of Food into Waste in the Context of Urban Lives in the UK.

Le Moal, Fairley (University Lyon 2, Stockholm University: Recovering food waste and the appropriation of spaces in the city of Lyon.

Lehtonen, Turo-Kimmo; Pyyhtinen, Olli (University of Tampere): Valuating Waste: Containers, Bags, Bins and other Technologies of Dumpster Diving.

O’Hare, Patrick (University of Cambridge); Exploring the Landfill Commons.

Valkonen, Jarno; Huilaja, Heikki; Saariniemi, Johanna; Kinnunen, Veera (University of Lapland): Bringing Environment Back to Waste Management: a Case Study of Waste Policy in Finnish Lapland

Verrax, Fanny (INSA): Waste as Intention: the Representation of Waste in American TV Series.

Wallsten, Björn (Linköping University), Corvellec, Hervé (Lund University): The (Un) becoming of Urks: Infrastructure Maintenance as a Liminal Condition.

Widder, Lynnette (Columbia University), Jessie Braden (Pratt Institute), Joy Ko (RISD): Studies in Eating, Walking and Wasting in the City.

Zapata, Patrik; Zapata Campos, María José (University of Gothenburg), Ordoñez, Isabel (Chamers University of Technology): Repair Movements’ Commoning Practices. The Case of the Bike-Kitchen in Sweden.

 

Reference made to Douglas, M. (2005). Purity and danger: an analysis of concept of pollution and taboo. London ; New York: Routledge.

 

PhD researcher in human geography, University of Manchester. Kathleen’s research considers how initiatives promoting community responsibility for waste…

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