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Waste and modern societies (session 2 of 2)

June 28, 2021 15:00
June 28, 2021 16:30

Nadine Arnold, University of Lucerne; Christiane Schürkmann, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz


Kathrin Eitel, Goethe-University Frankfurt

Christiane Schürkmann, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

Xinyu Zhan, University of Geneva

In the light of fundamental socio-ecological transformations waste does not simply refer to leftovers, but rather to an urgent issue that calls for attention and action: Ecosystems, particularly oceans and seas are full of micro-plastic, rising CO2 emissions produce greenhouse effects and global warming, nuclear waste challenges societies to find solutions for disposal of these toxic materials. In this context, modern societies more and more realize that “there is no away” (Morton 2013) for materials, substances and things that have become (ir-)relevant as waste. Waste thus emerges as a phenomenon of material resistance and activity that requires treatment, governance, and ethical frameworks. Therefore, debates on sustainability emphasize the implementation of a ‘Green New Deal’ or alternatively strategies of ‘degrowth’ and waste emerges as a contingent phenomenon, involving processes of interpretation and meaning making.

Although people necessarily produce waste (George 2014), we know that consumer cultures producing trash are a modern phenomenon (Strasser 1999). This means human consumption drives the production and accumulation of wasted goods (Packard 1960), but we must also consider that humans and their lives themselves can become wasted as outcasts (Bauman 2004). The notion of human waste demonstrates the tremendous metaphoric power of waste (Farzin 2017), although referring to Mary Douglas’ (1966: 36) structuralist perspective, waste is often discussed “as a matter out of place”. However, waste appears to be an issue created by ‘the moderns’ (Latour 1993, Descola 2013) and in view of the changing state of the nature and its relationship with people, waste is turning into a globalized ‘stress test’. Considering this societal relevance of waste, we encourage empirical and theoretical contributions from different sub-disciplines that will respond to the following:

  • What is waste in modern times and who defines what has to be treated as waste and in which way? In other words, how are things, materials and artefacts classified as ‘waste’? 
  • Which situated ‘waste practices’ embedded in routines and everyday life are developed by the ‘moderns’? And what are the characterizing structures of waste management and governance and what are their societal effects on waste and society?
  • Which conflicts and controversies emerge in the production, distribution and prevention of waste? How does waste challenge producers, consumers, and disposers and therefore societies at large? And what interventions are chosen to meet these challenges?
  • Which theoretical perspectives are useful to study the materiality of waste as well as the construction of its meaning? And which methods are well-equipped to examine waste empirically? 

Keywords: waste, society, socio-ecological transformation, modernity

Invisible Infracycles. Following plastic and aluminum along the recycling infrastructure and in ruined wastelands in Phnom Penh, Cambodia 

Kathrin Eitel, Goethe-University Frankfurt

Cities, sewers, and oceans are drowning in synthetic waste. Plastic and aluminum fragment into debris and particles that successively become part of our environments, bodies, and our planet, accelerating climate change and amplifying the climate crisis in the Anthropocene. Within this context, waste workers as the Cambodian ed jais make their living out of it. In Phnom Penh, thousands of waste pickers collect recyclables from streets, corners, and households, preventing them from being burned or dumped in sewers. While they turn waste into something valuable again, these women re-integrate the fluttery material into a functioning recycling economy, which is characterized by ist ‘informal’ and bottom-up character. 

This infrastructure has been proven to be rather structured around multiple cycles, what I call infracycles than along a causal-linear sequence of one supply chain. Following the circulating material ‘waste’ and the recurring practices of waste workers, as waste pickers, intermediaries, microbes, and animals alike exhibits multiple cycles that are part of communities of practices (Bowker and Star 1999), being relevant parts of the recycling infrastructure. But in ruined wastelands waste is also a monument of our capitalist consumer system and, at once, it rebels against it in form of leaking materials that ooze out of infrastructures or in the way waste workers handle it. Unfortunately, these specific ways under which recycling economies work (and not work) often stay invisible and unrecognized by political actors, additionally being in danger to be overseen by blind political implementations based on the circular economy model. 

I argue that following the material waste methodologically and its trajectories which it undergoes unveil dispersed pericapitalist perspectives on a circular economy that can be approached differently as integral and inclusive (Tsing 2017). It shows how waste workers and their situated history and background could be included in a model that is based on local-specific conditions, functioning adaptively and recursively to occurring changes in quotidian life (cf. Bateson (1987 [2017]).). The empirical example can further elicit how the model can be expanded to work integral insofar as it approaches a holistic understanding of systems whose limits are not set by (trans-)national borders or multilateral political agreements (cf. eg. EC 2020). 

As the widened model of CE is adaptive to changes, it can do the tightrope walk between being a template, a model, serving to apply globally and to be able to consider and react recursively according to local-specific conditions. “Closing the loops” of product lifecycles as the European Commission (2015) depicts it demands us to take situated sociomaterial constellations of recycling into consideration.

Keywords: Infrastructure, recycling, pericapitalism, circular economy, Cambodia 

Managing Modernity. Nuclear Waste as a Challenge for Nature and Society 

Christiane Schürkmann, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  

The question of storage and disposal of nuclear waste, particularly the so called high-level radioactive waste (HLW) can be identified as one of the most urgent socio-ecological challenges of our time. This waste affects societies at large in its immense requirements of finding and constructing sites for repositories in different nations operating with nuclear energy over the past decades. 

The paper suggests a perspective on nuclear waste as a toxic object – an ‘object of modernity’ with critical implications. Referring to their potentially hazardous activity, toxic objects unfold an ambivalent character and create an area of tension: they are hybrid socio-chemical fabrications produced by an interplay of humans, materials, and technology – in this way they emphasize the hybrid character of “naturecultures” (Haraway 2003) or “Nature/Cultures” (Latour 2017). However, these objects also materialize the dualistic relationship between nature as an object that needs to be regulated and a human-related society as the regulatory authority. In this perspective, toxic objects can be described as products of the “Moderns” (Descola 2013; Latour 1993) and their ambition to establish industrialized, capitalized – and furthermore chemicalized – societies with an anthropocentric access to the world. In societies as these, nature is objectified and treated as a resource for economic growth and political power. Hereafter human agency is confronted with a material activity (artificial radioactivity) produced by modern societies. 

Against the backdrop of this perspective, and based on participant observation in the field of nuclear waste management in Germany, the paper discusses 1) how nuclear waste is addressed as a consequence of having been modern by different actors such as scientists, politicians and citizens; 2) how ‘nature’ is involved in the process of finding a site for a repository – especially with regard to the question of identifying suitable host rocks depending on particular geological conditions (for instance argillaceous rock, rock salt, granite in Germany; argillaceous rock in Switzerland). In this way, HLW is conceptualized as a toxic object that empirically enforces the reproduction of separating material activity from human action and a material related nature from a human related culture, respectively, even though it might be argued as a product of hybrid Nature/Cultures. At the same time, this waste questions the dualistic relationship of these two spheres with regard to its hazardous and unpredictable activity and by confronting ‘modern societies’ and their ability to act. 

Keywords: nuclear waste, nuclear waste management, toxic objects, nature/culture, nature/society, modernity 

Alternative Consumption, Sustainable Consumption and the Search of the Good Life: Practicing Zero Waste in Chinese Cities 

Xinyu Zhan, University of Geneva 

Over the last few years, citizens have grown to be more aware of the negative impact of waste and especially plastic waste, manifested in a global movement called ‘zero waste’. This paper studies how citizens and movement ‘leaders’ understand and perform zero waste in Chinese cities, where consumerist lifestyles are in full bloom. I argue that practices of alternative consumption (such as un-consumption, collaborative consumption, reuse and upcycling) and sustainable consumption (such as buying sustainable products and services) – all central to the zero waste movement – could be understood as everyday resistance to the wasteful consumer culture in search of the ‘good life’ (O’Neill et al. 2018; Di Giulio and Fuchs, 2014). Using in-depth interviews with movement ‘leaders’ and participants, as well as online observation of movement networks in selected Chinese cities, I analyze how practices of zero waste are performed through shared meanings and competences, as well as collective constructions of alternative systems of material flow, inspired by theories of practice. The zero waste movement sheds light on how everyday concerns over survival and security (material value) and concerns over the environment and nature (post material value) could be combined and addressed in a vision of sustainability that puts the pursuit of the ‘good life’ in the center. The movement raises critical questions about the current paradigm of economic growth in China, and calls for further exploration of more sustainable models of development to deliver wellbeing to all within planetary boundaries. 

Keywords: zero waste, lifestyle movements, sustainable consumption, wellbeing, practice theory, China