Managing Waste

Waste calls us to action—we cannot let it accumulate. Eventually, we notice and smell the presence of heaps of trash and consumer durables and we feel we need to do something about it: we burn it, bury it, dispose of it, discard it, reuse it, or recycle it. In short, we try to take care of it.

These myriad practices transform the waste object as well as our relationship to it. On the one hand, they reallocate value to trash. Recycling, for instance, subjects waste to the laws of profit and exchange and creates new markets. When you donate the clothes you no longer want instead of trashing them, charities usually sell the best items, usually a small number, at their thrift shops. The rest they sell to textile recyclers, who then recycle your clothes into cleaning cloths. Alternatively, textile recyclers sell the clothes to other countries around the world. A donated dress from Japan may in this way end up at a second-hand store in Israel. On the other hand, managing waste practices fundamentally redefines how waste figures in our connection with our body. Take, for instance, the anti-litter campaigns that started in the late 1960s in several Western countries. They transformed trash from matter out of place into morally unsettling evidence of the collapse of civic obligation, according to Gay Hawkins.

The campaigns initiated a major shift from disposal as elimination to disposal as a process of waste management. Recycling, composting, and reusing inaugurated new habits and rituals. Fulfilling their civic duty, people started handling their empty bottles differently from their old newspapers. As they rinsed and sorted their trash, they became environmentally aware and, ideally, careful waste managers. “Keep Britain Tidy” is just one of the many campaigns that emerged during that time. After more than 50 years, the slogan is still used to educate the British to litter less.

Berlin induces its citizens to proper waste disposal through canny slogans on its waste containers. Photograph by author, 2015.


Philadelphia encourages the public to keep drains clean and unclogged. Photograph by author, 2018.






Berlin, in turn, uses funny slogans on their waste containers to make disposing fun. Philadelphia, similarly, marks its drains with quaint images of water animals telling its citizens which way the waste flows.

Public cleaning initiatives and waste management more generally vary across countries and communities. In The Business of Waste, Raymond Stokes, Roman Köster, and Stephen Sambrook explain the differences in waste management in Great Britain and West Germany after World War II. The authors illustrate how the two countries took profoundly different paths from low-waste to throwaway societies, and more recently toward the goal of zero waste. Bringing in a perspective from Brazil, Jutta Gutberlet extrapolates the particularities of waste management from the Global South—a world region where people’s lifestyles are not yet “cocooned in the consumption bubble,” she says. Quite the contrary, informal and cooperative recyclers in Brazil, the cartadores, have developed effective practices and policies supporting the circular economy, sufficiency, and solidarity.

The original virtual exhibition features an interactive gallery of book and film profiles and articles showcased on the Environment & Society Portal. View the individual gallery items online or in the appendix of this PDF. 

Although we cannot let trash accumulate, we rarely want it nearby when it does. Trash seldom stays close to its place of origin. Rather, waste has an inbuilt mobility as we try to move the material out of sight. We throw it into bins, flush it down the drain into the sewage system. Prior to filter systems, industries built higher chimneys to reduce local emissions by transporting their air waste further away. Today, plans of opening up a new waste disposal facility, be it an incinerator, a sewage-treatment plant or a landfill, are often accompanied by cries of NIMBY (“not in my backyard”). Concerned citizens point out that the waste disposal may have detrimental effects on the neighborhood. Finding the right disposal spot has proved particularly difficult for nuclear waste, as this 1985 quote from an anonymous Earth First!er demonstrating against the Canyonlands Nuke Dump illustrates:

We are here to make it clear that there are many people, of which we are but a handful, unwilling to abide by your demented “decision-making process” which continues to consider establishing a nuclear waste dump in one of the most fragile and beautiful places on the planet, thereby killing it and threatening everything around and downriver from it.

— Anonymous Earth First!er in Earth First 5, no. 4

Over the years, the rather selfish cry NIMBY—not in my backyard—has transformed into NIABY—not in anyone’s backyard—as activists have worked to establish a strong solidarity between communities and countries all across the world. Little did these debates acknowledge, however, that the trash has to go somewhere. Now.

While most of our trash is managed close to its source, starting in the 1960s and 1970s, some of the material began traveling over large distances to reach its disposal grounds. Communities started hauling their trash to the next county, the next state, the next country, and even the next continent. About 10 percent of the hazardous waste that industrial countries produce crosses nation-state borders for its disposal, Jennifer Clapp documents in her book Toxic Exports. While much of this waste trade happens within OECD countries, some goes to countries of the global South. Not all schemes are legal. Most are ethically doubtful. The importing countries may offer cheaper deals, but do not always own facilities to dispose of the material in an environmentally sound or healthy manner. They, in turn, face a choice between being poor and being poisoned. Since the 1990s, activists opposing the trade have cried out “Garbage Imperialism” and bemoaned a “recolonization” of the world through trash.

The research group Hazardous Travels: Ghost Acres and the Global Waste Economy investigates the structures and dynamics of this global waste economy through case studies from the United States, Germany, India, and Ecuador. Follow them on twitter if you want to learn more about their research.

Extract from the movie poster for Eisenfresser/Ironeaters.


A still from the movie Iron Crows


Watch the movies Eisenfresser [Ironeaters] or Iron Crows to learn about ship breaking—one of the world’s most prominent examples of waste relocation. Since the 1980s, the world’s largest ship breaking industry has been situated at India’s West coast, and by now moved up to Bangladesh. Here, people recycle industrial countries’ shipping fleets for little money. This business is highly controversial. Shipbreakers work with their bare hands and often little protection gear to break the ships apart. Their work is dangerous and their health impaired, and refuse often seeps directly into the ground. Yet, every single part of the ship is reused and recycled, from the iron body parts to the asbestos and interior design elements it contains. The industry, in turn, fights hard to shed its bad image.

Shipbreaking at Alang shipyard, Gujarat India. Photograph by Ayushi Dhawan, 2018.


At the market in Alang, vendors sell everything usable from the dismantled ships, ranging from cutlery and antiques to lifeboat provisions. Photograph by Ayushi Dhawan, 2018.


In the end, we are always on the lookout for what Joel A. Tarr terms the ultimate sink in his book The Search for the Ultimate Sink, the optimal solution for the disposal of our trash. Yet, for some materials, such as nuclear waste, there is no such thing as the ultimate sink. As you accompany filmmaker Edgar Hagen on his quest around the world to find “the safest place” for the remnants of nuclear activity, consider possible alternatives. Should we not be able to find other solutions?