We are nowhere near ‘peak waste.’Hoornweg et al, 2014: 117
When we read news about waste – plastic bags clogging water drains in India and causing contaminated drinking water, child labour used to dismantle used electronics in Malaysia, space junk orbiting earth or PPE masks washing up on our shores – our waste problem seems clear: waste is being mismanaged! The solution appears similarly obvious: we must better manage our waste! But the devil, as the famous idiom goes, is in the details. What we understand the problem to be – the mismanagement of waste – depends on how we actually define waste. Whose waste are we referring to? Who should be responsible for managing it better? And what, more specifically, would register as ‘better’ waste management?
At first glance, the definition of waste seems equally obvious. Waste is all of that stuff that we once wanted but no longer want (Strasser, 1999). Waste is all of those things we put in our trash can, and if our local waste services are functioning well, are whisked away from our homes to quickly become out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Yet, waste turns out to be a rather complex problem involving different rightsholders and stakeholders, temporalities, geographies, political economies, transnational agreements, regulations and policies, and cultural traditions that disproportionately affect a range of publics. To introduce this complexity, let’s consider the following waste snapshots:
Between 1977 and 1980, contaminated topsoil and debris from the atoll (including 16,000 items of WWII ordinance, such as unexploded artillery projectiles, mortar shells, hand grenades, and small arms ammunition) were bulldozed into the crater, and a 45 cm concrete cap, or dome, was constructed on the surface. The Dome is now at risk of failure from deterioration, saltwater incursion, vulnerability to typhoons and sea level rise. (in Kavanagh, 2020: 49)
Since the first nuclear detonation on 15 July 1945, there have been some 2,056 nuclear detonations across the globe, most of them exploded on colonized Indigenous lands far away from the capitals of colonizing forces (Arms Control Association, 2020). France, for instance, tested its first nuclear weapon, code-named ‘Gerboise Bleue’ (Blue Desert Rat) in Algeria in February 1960, which France had violently invaded and then colonized. This first French nuclear test was recorded at 70kt, or as powerful as the US bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II. France also made use of some of its other colonies in the French Polynesian atolls in the South Pacific as well as controversially conducting the last of its 210 nuclear tests there in 1996, during the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) negotiations in Geneva. France signed on to the treaty only after international protests included French export boycotts. Only in 2009 did France’s Senate acknowledge the impacts of its testing programme and provide some compensation to civilian and military veterans.
France’s nuclear testing had carcinogenic and other negative health effects on local residents: atmospheric plutonium-239 concentrations were found to be four times greater in these French colonies than in continental France, leading in some cases to the evacuation of whole islands. It also resulted in considerable damage to the environment. Radiation from the blasts led to declines in livestocks and biodiversity. And, like the Runit Dome, France stored radioactive waste (including plastic bags, clothing, metal scrap and
In July 2015, Lebanon authorities closed a major landfill in the Naameh region of its capital, Beirut. The landfill was over-capacity, and the local government attempted to resolve the problem by contracting with a British waste management company to export the waste to Russia. The British company, however, failed to submit the paperwork on time, leaving the garbage to rot in what became known as the ‘river of trash’ (Hume and Tawfeeq, 2016: np). In response to the Bourj Hammoud/Jdeideh landfill reaching capacity, local authorities extended the landfill, and investigations by Human Rights Watch (2020) reported that waste burning – which has significant negative health and environmental consequences – continues to be used as a means of getting rid of the garbage. To date, officials have not resolved the mounting municipal solid waste (MSW) crisis in Beirut.
This is not the first time a municipality has attempted to export its waste problem. On 31 August 1986, the Liberian cargo ship Khian Sea was loaded with over 14,000 tons of incineration ash waste from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Exports, including waste, often change company hands several times between point of origin and final destination, and Joseph Paolino and Sons, the company contracted by Philadelphia, subcontracted the shipment to Amalgamated Shipping Corp and Coastal Carrier Inc, who intended to offload the waste shipment in the Bahamas. When the Bahamian government refused to allow the cargo ship to dock, it triggered a more than two-year saga. The subcontractors and the crew of the Khian Sea attempted to offload the waste in several countries, including Honduras, Panama, Bermuda, Guinea Bissau, the Dutch Antilles and the Dominican Republic (Leonard, 2010). All refused to accept the waste. The subcontractors even tried to return the waste to its origin, Philadelphia, where officials also refused to repatriate its incineration garbage. Then, in January 1988, the crew dumped some 4,000 tons of the toxic waste in Haiti, calling it ‘topsoil fertilizer’ (Reeves, 2001).
Greenpeace alerted the Haitian government to the illegal dumping, but the ship left before government officials could compel the crew to reload the waste. While some of the waste was sequestered in a bunker, most of it remained on the beach, open to the environmental elements. But the story does not end there: the crew attempted to offload the remainder of its load in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Morocco, Yugoslavia and Senegal, without success. The ship even changed its name from the Khian Sea to Felicia and then to Pelicano in an attempt to disguise its waste load. Finally, in 1988, over two years after
As early as the 1950s, sailors were reporting that turtles and other marine life were ingesting plastics (Hamilton and Feit, 2019). But it was in 1997, when oceanographer and sailing boat race enthusiast Charles Moore was returning from a Los Angeles-to-Hawaii race and he and his crew spotted what is now known as the North Pacific Gyre or the Pacific Trash Vortex (National Geographic, 2019), that news and social media really turned its attention to plastics ocean waste. In his 2009 TED Talk, Moore noted that the Gyre contained more plastic than plankton, on which feeds and therefore sustains the ocean’s sea life. The North Pacific Gyre swirls in the ocean currents between Japan and the United States and is some 20 million kilometres in size. In 2016, Moore and his crew discovered another – bigger – gyre of garbage, called the South Pacific Gyre or Garbage Patch, that swirls between South America and Australia (Cirino, 2017).
Remember eating sprinkles on cupcakes as a kid? The tiny little colorful sugary beads. … So colorful and delicious and always associated with good times! … But, if you spilled them, man oh man, what a task it was to clean up all those hundreds of colorful tiny sprinkles. This thought has been running through my head over the last few days as we’ve been inspecting more and more trawls heavily laden with plastic. (Cirino, 2017: np)
Most (about 80 per cent) of the plastics in the ocean come from the land. The other 20 per cent consists mainly of plastics debris from boats. Ocean
These brief snapshots provide a window into the diversity of waste issues that we, as a global society, are facing. The United States’ nuclear testing on Indian land in Nevada and New Mexico, for instance, has been so extensive that the US government has labelled these areas ‘sacrifice zones’ (Krupar, 2013; Masco, 2006). All nuclear waste is stored temporarily: only Finland claims to have found a permanent nuclear waste storage system. Nuclear radiotoxicity endures for upwards of 100,000 years, or 3,000 human generations (van Wyck, 2005). The uncertainties of nuclear waste disposal leave the implementation of technical designs mired in controversy (Durant and Johnson, 2009; Solomon et al, 2012). The Runit Dome is just one nuclear repository dotting our global landscape whose temporary status is vulnerable to climate and other environmental changes. There are different types of radioactive waste, with different effects on human and animal bodies and the environment. Moreover, since nuclear energy produces radioactive waste throughout the entire fuel cycle – that is, from the mining of uranium, to reactor decommissioning (Center for Sustainability, 2012; Nuclear Energy Agency, 2010), to reprocessing (that is, recycling) – spent fuel is surrounded by serious questions of proliferation and safety (Lagus, 2005; UNESCO International School of Science for Peace, 1998). Further, both nuclear waste repositories and landfills consume enormous amounts of energy derived from fossil fuels to sort, treat, store and transport waste (Chong and Hermreck, 2010). And warning future generations about these nuclear waste sites means ‘saying something about a future twice as far from us as human written culture lies in the past – or roughly the entire span of time since the ice age … [which] seems utterly impossible’ (Galison, 2014). Nuclear waste, then, introduces crucial problematics concerning both waste’s sequestration and its temporality.
The Khian Sea fiasco is by no means an isolated incident in an otherwise stable and equitable waste export system. In February 2013, 69 shipping containers of MSW labelled as ‘recycling’ travelled from Vancouver, Canada, to Manila, Philippines. In the ensuing political debacle in which Canada’s federal government was forced through international humiliation and pressure to repatriate its garbage, Vancouver’s waste travelled some 20,072 kilometres
Whether in the form of mining, nuclear, industrial, hazardous, sewage or municipal, and whether it is dumped, landfilled, incinerated, buried deep underground or processed into something else that eventually becomes trash, waste constitutes what will likely be the most abundant and enduring trace of the human for epochs to come (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000). Countries as well as supra-national organizations such as the United Nations gather statistical information on the production, diversion and disposal of different types of waste, including MSW; industrial, commercial and institutional (ICI) waste, which may include medical wastes; construction, renovation and demolition waste; household hazardous and special wastes; organics; packaging and printed paper, including paper and plastics; agricultural wastes, including things like animal sewage lagoons; extraction wastes, including mining; and nuclear wastes. But beyond these apparently rather neat statistical categories lies a labyrinth of complexity. This book is an effort to unpack this complexity using public sociology as a tool.
The public sociology of waste
The term ‘public sociology’ was coined in 1988 by Herbert Gans, during his Presidential Address at the American Sociological Association (ASA) conference entitled ‘Sociology in America: The Discipline and the Public’. Before this, sociologists had certainly emphasized in their research and in their teaching the critical need to engage with pressing public issues, and in ways that would interest, galvanize and empower members of the public
As mirror and conscience of society, sociology must define, promote and inform public debate about deepening class and racial inequalities, new gender regimes, environmental degradation, market fundamentalism, state and non-state violence. I believe that the world needs public sociology – a sociology that transcends the academy – more than ever. Our potential publics are multiple, ranging from media audiences to policy makers, from silenced minorities to social movements. They are local, global, and national. As public sociology stimulates debate in all these contexts, it inspires and revitalizes our discipline. In return, theory and research give legitimacy, direction, and substance to public sociology. Teaching is equally central to public sociology: students are our first public for they carry sociology into all walks of life. Finally, the critical imagination, exposing the gap between what is and what could be, infuses values into public sociology to remind us that the world could be different.1 (2004: np)
Central to my approach as an environmental sociologist is to examine the structures of society – not only institutional structures such as families, schools, legal systems, health care and so on but also race, gender, sexuality, religion, social class, nation, age and so on – that are empirically shown to structure people’s lived experiences. A Public Sociology of Waste is concerned with how these factors structure people’s lived experiences of waste. Waste is a global problem whose lived experience varies substantially depending on cultural history, nationality, social class, gender, race and so on. As John D. Brewer notes, the ‘promise’ with which C. Wright Mills oriented sociology ‘was to cultivate an imagination in the social sciences that helped ordinary men and women grasp the intricate patterns of their own lives and to see how these connected with wider structural forces and processes about which they had no understanding and over which they had no control’ (2013: 146). Throughout the book, I argue that public sociology may usefully provide tools for understanding and framing waste as a socio-ethical issue (as opposed to a techno-scientific or consumer-behavioural issue) that is only
In order to examine the complexities of waste, I situate A Public Sociology of Waste as a critical foray into the ways in which waste is framed by key rightsholders and stakeholders and the consequences of these framings for public engagement with waste issues. As such, the central argument anchoring the book is this: how we understand the problem of waste and its solution(s) critically depends on how waste as a concept is framed. Understanding these frames opens a way for public sociology to assist in resisting these framings and to engage publics in creating their own framing.
Throughout this book, I argue that one of the major consequences of these different frames is that the world’s waste has become a ‘wicked problem’. Wicked problems are ones that are difficult to resolve because their multi-dimensional complexity means that solutions are often contradictory: solving one aspect of a wicked problem may well open up a different problem or problems. For instance, as Chapters 3 and 4 show, increasing plastics waste recycling increases our carbon emissions, which contributes to global warming. As Chapter 5 examines, protecting ourselves and our loved ones from waste in our environment often means increasing our waste footprint. And as Chapter 6 demonstrates, even if we drastically reduce our consumption (itself a contradiction in capitalist growth economies), we are left with a profound (in its scale and toxicity) waste legacy that will endure for an unknown number of future generations. Thus, waste is a wicked problem precisely because it presses publics to confront the environmental, political, economic, symbolic and cultural dimensions of contemporary global society.
Studying waste issues and the public sociology of waste in brief
I have been studying waste issues for years, poking around open garbage dumps, visiting energy-from-waste (EfW) facilities, state-of-the-art landfills and recycling hubs. I have observed people hovering over recycling bins and painstakingly trying to decide which one to toss their coffee cup lid in, as well as rather listlessly hovering over these bins myself. I have spoken with numerous engineers, waste operators, government officials, food bank volunteers, environmentalists, members of the public concerned about waste issues, and fellow waste researchers, and I have read government reports, scholarly articles, academic books and novels on the topic of waste. And
I am fortunate to have found, and been found by, a range of expert scientists, engineers, social scientists, humanities scholars and graduate students similarly interested in waste issues. Years ago, R. Kerry Rowe, civil engineer and world-leading landfill expert, first suggested that my interdisciplinary way of researching, and my interest in materiality (I had just published a book on microorganisms in which I developed a social theory concerned with the origins of sociable life; see Hird, 2009), might be harnessed to study waste issues. Before my conversations with Kerry, I had not thought in any serious way about waste (beyond bacterial metabolism), so I have Kerry to thank for introducing this topic to me, as well as for letting me visit his civil engineering laboratories and shadow some of his graduate students through their research projects. I happened to sit next to Peter van Wyck, communications scholar at Concordia University who researches nuclear waste issues, on a flight between Saskatoon and Edmonton: a chance encounter that led to our work partnership on a number of research projects that focus on waste issues. Allison Rutter, biologist, waste remediation expert and director of the Analytical Services Unit at Queen’s University, graciously let me shadow some of her graduate students conducting research on waste in her laboratory, and – very significantly – introduced me to waste issues in Canada’s Arctic. It is in these communities that I have most confronted, and been confronted with, my privilege and ignorance as a white settler Canadian (see Tuhiwai Smith, 2012; Simpson, 2014; and Todd, 2016). And it is this perpetual confrontation, and its discomfort, that prompted me to realize, early on, that a book about waste issues must do more than just acknowledge the strong association between waste and (settler) colonialism.
I am grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for a number of research grants that have funded some of the case studies that illuminate the waste issues described in this book, and to other granting agencies such as the Institut des Sciences de l’Homme, the France Canada Research Fund, the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research, Mistra and Formas for financially supporting my research and making the cross-national analyses featured in this book possible. I also secured ethics approval from Queen’s University for all of the case studies recounted in this book. And I am particularly grateful to the graduate students with whom I have been fortunate to work on various waste issue case studies, and in particular Jacob Riha, Hillary Predko, Micky Renders, Aja Rowden and Gabrielle Dee. Much of my thinking about waste as a critical lens with which to reflect upon big, interconnected issues like race, gender, socio-economic privilege, global governance and environmental justice has benefitted from ongoing discussions with a generation of emerging scholars who I hope will carry the torch of waste studies.
After introducing some of the variety and scale of our global waste issues in the present chapter, Chapter 2, ‘Framing Waste’, is concerned with the major theoretical lens with which I build my rationale for a public sociology of waste. After examining how framing theory has been taken up within various studies and applied to various social issues, I examine the three major frames that organize our differential understandings of waste as both a problem and how it should be resolved. The first major frame is that of individual responsibilization, or as I call it, the problem of amplification. Within this frame, waste is limited to MSW, which is the waste that individuals, families and households produce and manage on a daily basis. That is, the problem of waste is framed by manufacturing and retail industries, as well as governments and (misled) members of the public as a problem of post-consumer waste. This frame masks the fact that, overwhelmingly and by orders of magnitude, almost all waste is produced before consumers enter the waste picture. Our global waste problem is produced by the extractive, manufacturing and retail industries that have deliberately amplified the consumer’s role in waste production in order to deflect responsibility from themselves and on to consumers. This frame has proven to be highly successful, as Chapter 2 will examine.
The second primary frame is that waste is a resource, or as I call it now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t. Through an examination of a seemingly mundane waste object – the human placenta – I demonstrate how experts conceptualize waste as rightly discardable material to the general public, but valuable to experts who transform waste into a resource. This frame is equally effective whether we consider human placentas or MSW that is incinerated to produce energy. The third frame gets us closer to the heart of a public sociology of waste. It concerns identifying waste, explicitly, as a social justice issue. Indigenous and other activist groups as well as large non-governmental organizations such as Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch, as well as an increasing number of waste studies researchers, are exposing the links between waste and economic, political and social injustice. While Indigenous and poor communities around the world have known of – and indeed live in close
Chapter 3, ‘The Public Problem of Recycling’, is the result of several years of research, some of which I undertook with two of my former graduate students, Scott Lougheed and Cassandra Kuyvenhoven. In this chapter, I take a deep-dive into the realities of recycling. Given the force and enthusiasm with which local and federal governments, communities and non-governmental organizations around the world have embraced, championed – and become dependent on – recycling as the method of decreasing waste and improving the environment, it is important to examine what recycling actually entails and achieves. That is, it is vital that we study the research on the material benefits and costs of recycling compared with other waste management methods, as well as the social, economic and political consequences of recycling. Only by considering recycling’s environmental footprint as well as how recycling operates within our cultural, economic and political systems are we able to meaningfully get beyond recycling rhetoric that has, since the 1970s, forcefully and loudly declared that recycling is an environmental good. Of the 3Rs – reduce, reuse and recycle – recycling is the least environmentally friendly but does not disturb (on the contrary, it encourages) circuits of capitalist production and consumption. Chapter 3 argues that municipal governments in cooperation with industry successfully foster an ‘environmental citizenship’ identity based on individual and household waste recycling, even though this accounts for a tiny fraction of our waste production. In doing so, members of the public are encouraged to accept, endorse and reproduce the amplification and individual responsibility frame examined in Chapter 2. Within this frame, members of the public – and mainly women – are encouraged to survey and judge their own recycling behaviours as well as those of their neighbours, families and friends, rather than the much more voluminous quantities – and often greater toxicity – of industrial and military waste. As such, recycling itself is the diversion. This chapter argues that waste is an excellent example of how governments and industry implicitly cooperate to divert attention away from understanding waste as something that industries and governments produce and must take responsibility for and instead shift responsibility to members of the public to resolve.
Chapter 4, ‘The Public Problem of Plastics’, which I wrote with the assistance of Jacob Riha, continues the examination of waste as a public
Chapter 5, ‘The Public Problem of PPE Waste and Being Prepared’, which I wrote with Jacob Riha, takes advantage of what has surely been a difficult, and for millions, devastating time of living through the COVID-19 global pandemic. Environmental tipping points, political instability, dwindling primary resources and global capitalist growth economies furnish myriad imagined apocalyptic futures. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other supra-governmental bodies focus on developing systems of resilience and adaptation for vulnerable populations, a geographically disparate group of people are mobilizing as ‘preppers’. Once represented by social media and some scholars as individuals and small communities on the margins of mainstream society, the global COVID-19 pandemic is positioning prepping as a rational and, indeed, responsible response to disaster. This chapter focuses on prepping as a particular response to the uncertainty of our species’ survival. Drawing on a range of theoretical traditions and empirical observations, it critically examines the various discourses and practices that preppers deploy in preparing themselves and loved ones for what they believe is the certainty of a survivalist future. Far from the experiences of millions of people who are forced into relentless adaptation due to unremitting poverty, inequality and global changes in climate, preppers largely plan for their imagined future by accumulating survivalist skills and things. That is, what most characterizes preppers is their mass consumption: preppers spend many thousands of dollars stockpiling
The final chapter, ‘A Public Sociology of Waste’, distils the major insights derived from the previous chapters. My central concern here is to explore how waste is framed by industry and governments (at all levels) to the public as something that human ingenuity and expertise has transformed from hazardous and harmful to something that is benign, and indeed, a ‘green’ energy resource. Crucially, this framing is about reassuring the public that neoliberal capitalism is compatible with environmental sustainability. I make the case that a public sociology of waste must advance the public’s understanding of waste as primarily industry-produced and governed, and that sociologists and other waste studies scholars must – using theoretical and empirical tools – reframe waste as a global social justice issue.