Putting Dirt in its Place: The Contemporary Politics of Waste

2 June 2017 - 3 June 2017

Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DT

Registration for this conference is now open. Fees are £40 (full fee) and £20 (student/unwaged); it is also possible to pay a reduced fee to only attend the conference for one day. All fees include lunches and teas/coffees. Registration will close on Sunday 28 May.



Patrick O'Hare (University of Cambridge)



This conference explores the socio-material interfaces where waste meets politics in the present. It brings together a group of established and emergent waste scholars from across the social sciences to discuss the contemporary dynamics of waste and waste labour in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Five themed panels - on infrastructure, labour, circulation, elimination and reconceptualization– provide a structure through which waste will be explored in all its complexity.

Drawing largely on ethnographic research, presenters will debate how legal, regulatory, cultural, bio-political and economic factors influence what is configured and classified as waste. Can we speak of ‘waste regimes’? What role do religion, class and race play in determining the division of waste labour? Are formalization and privatization of waste management leading to the dignification or dispossession of waste workers? Can ethnographic and sociological explorations of the materialities of waste politics challenge normative understandings and definitions of waste, commodity and value? Are ideas like 'zero waste' and the 'circular economy' green modernist fables or realizable policies, and how do they reconfigure existing patterns of accumulation and inequality?

The conference will be accompanied by an art and photographic exhibition in the Alison Richards building. 

The keynote lecture, 'Overflows, Agencement, and Inequalities of the Circular Economy', will be given by Professor Zsuzsa Gille (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) on Friday 2 June at 4.15pm. This is a public event and is open to all, free of charge. 




Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH), the Centre of Latin American Studies, and the Department of Archaeology & Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.


Administrative assistance: conferences@crassh.cam.ac.uk


We are unable to arrange or book accommodation for registrants; the following websites may, however, be of help:

Visit Cambridge
Cambridge Rooms
University of Cambridge accommodation webpage

Day 1 - Friday 2 June

9.30 - 10.00

Registration & Coffee 

10.00 - 10.15


10.15 - 12.30

Panel 1: Infrastructure

Discussant: Caroline Humphrey (University of Cambridge)


Waqas Butt (University of California San Diego)

'Legitimacy as Fetish: Documenting Work in Lahore’s Waste Infrastructures'


Yannis Kallianos (University of Duisburg-Essen)

'Disorder and the Politics of Waste Infrastructure in Athens in Times of Crisis'


Francisco Calafate-Faria (Birkbeck, University of London) 

'The Infrastructure of the Recycling Utopia – Waste-pickers in “the Ecological Capital City"' 

12.30 - 13.30


13.30 - 15.45

Panel 2: Labour                                  

Discussant: Sian Lazar (University of Cambridge)


Santiago Sorroche (University of Buenos Aires- CONICET)

'Organizing cartoneros. The Development of Waste-picker Associations in Argentina'


Dominic Martin (University of Cambridge)

'From scrapping submarines to extreme ecotourism: work and post-work in the Russian Far East'


Andrew Sanchez (University of Cambridge)

'Relative Precarity: Decline, Hope and the Politics of Work'

15.45 -16.15


16.15 - 17.45

Keynote - Open Lecture

Zsuzsa Gille (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

'Overflows, Agencement, and Inequalities of the Circular Economy'

17.45 - 18.30

Drinks Reception

Day 2 - Saturday 3 June

9.00 - 10.30

Panel 3: Circulation

Discussant: Christos Lynteris (University of Cambridge)


Declan Murray (University of Edinburgh)

'At Home with Solar Waste in Rural Kenya'


Josh Lepawsky (Memorial University)

'Looking Again in a Different way: Digital Methods meets Discard Studies'

10.30 - 11.00


11.00 - 13.15

Panel 4: Elimination

Discussant: Matthew Gandy (University of Cambridge)


Catherine Alexander (University of Durham)

'When Waste disappears or … More Waste Please!'


Lucy J. Wishart (University of St Andrews)

'Let’s Get Organised: Critically Exploring the Future of Zero Waste'


Josh Reno (Binghamton University)

'Wasting People Well: Lean Manufacturing Standards and the Politics of American Military Contract Procurement'

13.15 - 14.00


14.00 - 16.15

Panel 5: Reconceptualization

Discussant: Geoffrey Kantaris (University of Cambridge)


Jamie Furniss (University of Edinburgh)

'Reverse-NIMBYism: Environmental politics when waste is a resource'      


Kathleen Millar (Simon Frazer University)

'Garbage as Racialization'


Patrick O’Hare (Cambridge)

'Commoning at the Cantera and Beyond: Hygienic Enclosure and Montevideo’s Waste Commons'

16.15 - 17.00

Closing Discussion

Catherine Alexander (University of Durham)

'When Waste disappears or … More Waste Please!'

This paper considers the unintended consequences of well-intentioned environmental propositions or principles, which on closer examination turn out to be partial views and/or isolated from broader structural constraints. In particular, I examine what happens if we take three core environmental propositions, which have almost become truisms or principles of our time, and consider them in conjunction. Baldly stated, these are the propositions. First, the world produces too much waste; we therefore need to reduce waste. Second, primary resources are being extracted beyond the point of sustainability or replenishment; we therefore need to reduce resource extraction, particularly carbon-based fuels. Third, energy demands are increasing, particularly in developing economies. We need to expand energy production, but we also need to reduce carbon emissions. This paper is, in part, a provocation: carefully adhering to all these excellent principles, produces unexpected results, one of which is that the apparent reduction or indeed elimination of waste in fact requires more waste. One might say therefore that this provocation is a reductio ad absurdum, but one that is regularly promoted and enacted, if in not so many terms. What this paper is therefore exploring is why ideas of closed loops are inevitably tripped up in their translation to practice.


Waqas Butt (University of California, San Diego)

'Legitimacy as Fetish: Documenting Work in Lahore’s Waste Infrastructures'

In 2011 the Lahore Waste Management Company (the 'Company') replaced the Solid Waste Management department as the primary institution of governance invested with the power and authority to monitor and improve waste infrastructures for the City District Government of Lahore. A publicly-funded entity, the Company was formed out 'good governance' efforts and is one of the many public-private partnerships that have emerged in Pakistan over the past few decades. While overseeing these infrastructures, it has contracted out its entire labour-force to two private companies that carry out waste disposal services. All the while the previous municipal department continues to exist but now only performs 'residual' functions. The expansion of governance institutions and corporate entities has undoubtedly impacted the provisioning of waste disposal services across Lahore’s different administrative units, with capital and affective investments made into acquiring new machinery, building a 'modern' sanitary landfill site, and employing a class of professionals. Alongside this infrastructure for improved waste disposal services has emerged a parallel one for documenting these same services, infrastructures, and institutions. While institutional and technological changes are undeniable, the labour of Christian sanitation workers remains the backbone of waste infrastructures in Lahore. This paper asks, how does the labour of this workforce come to be documented in different media forms such that, not only is their labour rendered invisible despite being visibly central to provisioning waste disposal services but also, the good produced by these services appear to arise out of the Company as the primary institution of governance within the municipal government. What are the technologies of mediation, both print and digital, by which the work of waste disposal comes to be known, abstracted, and objectified? How does the good produced by this service, such as the environmental, aesthetic, and health value that accompanies the disposal of potentially polluting and harmful material in a sanitary landfill site, become attached to the Company itself as well as the dominant political party in the Punjab, the capital of which is Lahore? This paper argues that documentation participates in a kind of commodity fetishism, whereby the provisioning of the good of waste disposal services is seen to emerge from the powers of the Company, technologies of documentation, and the ruling political party in the Punjab (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz), and not the concrete social relations that physically carry out the work of waste disposal. Thus the power of documentation is not a matter of technology or mediation but rather, is entangled with the legitimacy of the state itself and the political party that has been able to mobilize its institutions in contemporary Pakistan.


Francisco Calafate-Faria (Birkbeck, University of London)

'The infrastructure of the recycling utopia - waste pickers in “the ecological capital city"'

In a time in which global transactions have engulfed waste as one of its voluminous and far-reaching circuits, it is crucial to look at waste in global terms. But when it comes to waste, there is something else that circulates globally: ideas about its management. The idea of municipal recycling is a good example. As it circulated globally, this model has congealed under one naturalised form, which often has to be superimposed to different contexts, and to different materials and objects, with many different consequences and social impacts.

This paper presents and discusses the case of Curitiba’s recycling policies as an example of a model of waste management that has been formatted for global circulation. The city’s emergence as a pioneer of municipal recycling was partly built on the suppression of the voices of a most important part of what made it possible: the urban poor who collect and sell recyclable materials in the city. Curitiba launched its first recycling campaign in 1989. Since then it has displayed outstanding rates of recycling. Throughout the 1990’s Curitiba became known as an environmental capital and an enclave of 'the first world' in the Global South. Yet, to this day, more than 90% the household waste recycled in Curitiba goes through informal circuits, whilst the city continues to be seen as a pioneering example for the world to follow.

Based on ethnographic data, this paper focuses on Curitiba’s informal workforce of waste-pickers. The aim is to excavate their struggle for recognition, from the debris of the production of a marketable image of the city. With this archaeological move I seek to challenge the more general symbolic order imposed by recycling as an un-politicised utopia.


Jamie Furniss (University of Edinburgh)

'Reverse-NIMBYism: Environmental politics when waste is a resource'

This paper explores contrasting regimes of representation and management that have structured waste politics in Egypt over the last decade. The Egyptian state’s attempt, beginning in the 2000s, to ‘occupy the field’ of domestic and commercial waste collection was premised on a ‘waste regime’ familiar in Western settings, in which waste is framed as a negative externality requiring a publicly subsidized service to remove it. This contrasts with the logic of the pre-existing regime in which waste was removed in accordance with its resource value by informal sector waste collectors, the state taking responsibility only for wastes accumulating in common spaces. The clash of these two regimes resulted in a struggle that illustrates the clashes that can arise from attempts to formalize and standardize waste management. The upshot of this clash, however, was not the triumph of one waste regime over the other, but their sedimentation into a syncretic regime that blends market and public service logics. A series of street-level arrangements and ‘tactics’ allowed for the informal sector waste collectors to maintain access to waste and the reforms did not result in their total dispossession. After making this initial point, this paper focuses on the question of the ‘valence’ of waste (the emotional force or significance of waste, in particular the feeling of attraction or repulsion with which it is invested) in environmental politic. I argue that since this struggle was not to be rid of, but to have access to waste, it inverted the assumptions underpinning the way waste and environmental politics are most often understood in ‘Western’ settings, for example through discussions of the NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) phenomenon and ‘environmental justice’. These generally approach the distribution of waste in a critical light that emphasizes how it is concentrated around the under-privileged. This view is transversal to research on waste at various scales, including the local, national and transnational (cross-border waste flows). This paper nuances the standard account in two respects. First, by showing how the issues of resistance and dispossession took shape around continued access to waste rather than forced exposure to it, I argue that ‘environmental justice’ does not mean the same thing in all contexts. Second, I argue that the spatial and distributional issues raised by the notion of environmental justice should not be understood solely in terms of siting of waste concentrations or linear distance from them, but rather should approach the distribution of vulnerabilities associated with waste in a manner that include the more complex, micro scales of bodies, households, and neighbourhoods.


Yannis Kallianos (University of Duisburg-Essen)

'Disorder and the politics of waste infrastructure in Athens in times of crisis'

This paper discusses the politics of waste infrastructure in Athens from the point of view of disorder. Waste management in Greece has been defined primarily by landfilling, low recycling rates, and fines for failing to comply with EU waste legislation. At the same time, because of local resistance, finding sites for new waste management facilities in the Attica region has been a difficult and dynamic process, that reflects a generalized feeling of mistrust towards the authorities. Moreover, since 2010, waste controversies have been re-codified within the ‘crisis’ context, and have been invested with new social and political meanings and practices. These have given rise to diverse processes, imaginations, and circulation of flows around waste infrastructures. The paper focuses on Fyli landfill, the country's largest waste infrastructure, and Attica’s only legal waste management facility. By exploring the ways in which the intermingling of formal and informal practices takes place around waste treatment processes, the paper asks how uncertainty, contingency and instability shape the governance and everyday experience of waste infrastructures in Athens.


Josh Lepawsky (Memorial University)

'Looking again in a different way: digital methods meets discard studies'

Digital methods have gained importance for tracing the outlines of publics formed around issues. How might such methods be turned to the study of publics gelling around issues related to waste? I discuss a methodological protocol for using a suite of free and open source software to turn the internet into a tool for researching such social formations. To illustrate the protocol I draw on my research into global flows of electronic waste as a matter of concern. I discuss the possibilities of the method by tracing the circulation of a single (in)famous image from its origin to its dispersed appearance across the web.


Dominic Martin (University of Cambridge)

'From scrapping submarines to extreme ecotourism: work and post-work in the Russian Far East'

This paper examines transformations in ways of working with waste in a Far Eastern military-industrial mono-city. Bolshoi Kamen was a Soviet ship-building town that, in the 1990s, became a ship-deconstructing town when it was tasked with decommissioning Russia’s toxic and aging fleet of nuclear submarines. Working over the rusting hulks of the pride of socialist construction was this city’s salvation. Constituencies that were marginalized during Russia’s precipitous plunge into capitalism were able to subsist and form collectives both working on and scavenging scrap from military-industrial infrastructure. Marginal men such as ex-prisoners were able to form labour collectives around the joint activity of gathering and repurposing military industrial leftovers. 

Ironically, the Soviet productivist ideology that valorized labour and the labourer above all managed to survive in this city through a detour into a ‘second modernity’ (Beck) that dealt with the unwanted by-products of the first promethean modernism. Yet by the 2010s some of the city’s youth have become unsatisfied with the productivist paradigm that projects the city’s future into one stage (constructive or deconstructive) in an endless metabolism of production.

 To plot a destination beyond, these youngsters have turned their attention to another form of pervasive waste that litters every corner of the Far East: plastic bottles. From these bottles they have constructed floats on which they traverse the rivers of the Far East, thereby inventing a new sport and, they propose, a possible form of ‘extreme eco-tourism’. This young citizenry propose that, in a post-growth economy, Russia’s can become an ‘ecological super-power’ to the Asia-Pacific region not by waste work but using waste for leisure.


Kathleen Millar (Simon Fraser University)

'Garbage as Racialization'

This paper contemplates parallels between the representation of garbage and the racialized production of the category of the human. Specifically, it aims to address three interconnected questions arising from the contemporary biopolitics discourse of ‘disposable life’: (1) Why is garbage taken to be synonymous with abjection?; (2) What has made it possible that (human) waste is today’s go-to metaphor for theorizing conditions of scarcity and oppression?; and (3) What does it mean that those whose livelihood involves reclaiming material from garbage are often represented not only as iconic of ‘disposable life’ but also as a sign of the inhumane?

I explore these questions through an analysis of competing representations of a garbage dump in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, called Jardim Gramacho, where several thousand people make a livelihood from collecting recyclables and where I have conducted ethnographic fieldwork over the past 10 years. This site became internationally famous when the 2010 film Waste Land—a documentary that traced a photographic project of Jardim Gramacho by the renowned artist Vik Muniz—was nominated for an Oscar. However, long before Waste Land made a splash in the cinematic world, the Jardim Gramacho dump had been attracting the attention of various filmmakers, artists, journalists, activists, and scholars (including an anthropologist). Despite their differences, many of the images of Jardim Gramacho produced over the years have oscillated between rendering the dump as brutal abjection or seeking to transcend the garbage by giving it aesthetic value. Drawing on Alexander Weheliye’s (2014) conceptualization of ‘genres of the human’, I am interested in how both perspectives’ refusal to actually engage with the materiality of waste and the labour of catadores precludes alternative modalities of the human, thereby compounding the racialization of the mostly nonwhite bodies present on the dump. In short, I argue that a different theorization of garbage is necessary to recognize and make space for new forms of humanity.


Declan Murray (University of Edinburgh)

'At home with solar waste in rural Kenya'

“I have put it away in the store”

“They are kept in the cupboard”

Rhoda and Stephen’s responses are typical of users of small-scale solar photovoltaics in Kenya when describing what they have done with their now-broken solar product, their solar waste. Yet when talking about what they plan to do in the future the same individuals suggest they will seek a replacement, repair or dispose of the product beyond their house. This paper interrogates that distinction, and others, to explore people’s decision-making processes behind the first, and critical, action in the life of solar waste.

Standalone (or off-grid) solar power has spread rapidly across sub-Saharan Africa over the last decade. Well over 2.2 million ‘off-the-shelf’ products have been sold in Kenya alone since 2010. While such development could be positive in terms of energy access amongst other development indicators, the limited lifespan of these products (no more than five years) means the market is also increasing the volumes of electronic waste found in rural (often remote) areas of the continent - areas where our understanding of waste infrastructures is lacking.

The paper sits data from a survey of 262 solar users alongside interviews and ethnographic fieldwork to suggest that product design, business model, and user understanding all play a role in the decision made by Rhoda, Stephen and others like them in determining what to do with their solar waste when it products no longer performs its primary task of generating electricity. In the sub-field of electronic waste many studies have been done on transnational flows, in urban settings or at sites of consolidated waste, however this paper brings the local, rural and domestic perspective to bear on what is happening to waste (and why) before it reaches that urban consolidation, if indeed it ever does.


Patrick O’Hare (University of Cambridge)

'Commoning at the Cantera and Beyond: Hygienic Enclosure and Montevideo’s Waste Commons'

This paper draws on doctoral research conducted in and around the Felipe Cardoso landfill, the principle landfill site of Montevideo, Uruguay. For generations, waste-pickers now known as clasificadores (classifiers) have relied upon the landfill and the city’s waste more generally as a source of income, food, fuel and building materials. As such, I argue that the urban waste can be understood as an urban commons, homologous to the diverse rural landscapes which together formed the traditional English commons.

The Montevidean municipal approach to waste has until recently been based on the management of risk and has thus sought to downplay and destroy the value which inheres in the waste stream. At the landfill, such an approach has translated into what I call 'hygienic enclosure': periodic attempts to exclude waste-pickers through the establishment of a guarded perimeter and oppressive policing. In response, clasificadores have resisted with as much tenacity as the commoners of old, and remain there to this day.

Thinking about discarded materials as a commons has important implications for the theorization of waste. It implies a recognition not only of the value in waste, but also of the value of temporarily classifying materials as waste rather than resource. The act of discarding materials involves an abandonment of private property claims, opening up space for decommodification and commoning. Treating potential waste materials as resources, as is beginning to happen in Montevideo, often means diverting them from the waste-stream, thus depriving clasificadores of their livelihood. I attempt to contribute to commons theory by drawing on ethnography to frame the commons as spatialized materials claimed by vulnerable groups in the context of unequal power relations, rather than a universalizing basis for transformative politics.


Joshua O. Reno (Binghamton University)

'Wasting People Well: Lean Manufacturing Standards and the Politics of American Military Contract Procurement'

This paper seeks to address two prominent gaps within the interdisciplinary field of discard studies. The first is a tendency to focus on the waste of households, municipalities, and corporations, and neglect the waste of the state, especially forms of waste unique to the state that arise from permanent war economies. The second is a tendency to analyze waste producers using external concepts developed for the purposes of critique—such as 'planned obsolescence'—rather than search for immanent conceptions deployed by waste producers themselves. In order to address these gaps, this paper draws on the senses of waste adopted within the American defense industry.

Despite the defense cuts that came immediately after the Cold War, the profits of American military manufacturers have soared in recent years, yet the labour of American military manufacturing is more precarious than it ever was.

With the days of 'Military Fordism' now past, prominent defense companies are beginning to adopt lean manufacturing standards. Based on the Japanese 'Toyota Model', these standards aim to identify and eliminate seven forms of muda/waste and thereby enhance value and efficiency in the production process. Critics point out that lost waste translates into lost or devalued labour and the intensification of managerial control. In the words of Zygmunt Bauman, these processes lead to human waste in the form of surplus and unproductive labour.

In the context of these transformations, and an emerging national climate of military audit, this paper focuses on the ethics of waste adopted by military manufacturers themselves. Based on interviews with current and former members of the defense procurement establishment in the rust belt community of Binghamton, New York, I present financial, manufacturing, and human waste as expenditures endemic to the contemporary defense industry, rather than an aberration that can be eliminated through proper accounting practices.  


Andrew Sanchez (University of Cambridge)

'Relative Precarity: Decline, Hope and the Politics of Work'

Based on ethnographic fieldwork among industrial workers in the Indian city of Jamshedpur, this paper explores the political distinctions that divide insecurely employed people. By comparing the political discourses of a corporate workforce whose employment security has declined during the past two decades, with those of a traditionally insecure labour force in the informal sector, this paper historicizes the condition of precarity relative to one's experience of social change. For recently precarious labourforces in Jamshedpur's automotive sector, an historical experience of labour struggle and employment security allows for faith in the possibility of social improvement. By contrast, workers in the city's scrap metal yards lack such historical reference points, and tend to doubt the capacity for positive change and the efficacy of labour unions. Drawing upon anthropological analyses of hope, this paper describes how the daily life of labour politics is structured by popular understandings of historical process, and critiques the concept of a homogenous class of global Precariats.


Santiago Sorroche (University of Buenos Aires- CONICET)

'Organizing cartoneros. The development of waste picker associations in Argentina'

Waste picking is a long-standing phenomenon in Argentina. Nevertheless, with the crisis of 2001, the nation saw how the dramatic explosion of persons scavenging for materials among garbage bags had assumed a new social and political dimension. State agencies that had previously jailed the scavengers as ‘vandals’ soon began to develop policies in order to integrate this population into the formal waste management system. While in the City of Buenos Aires they were recognized as workers and receive a ‘incentive’ from the city government that let them get better incomes, in the surrounding province of Buenos Aires their work continues to be informal, even if it is no longer illegal. Towards that end, the Argentinian Federation of Waste Pickers and Recyclers (FACyR) has developed a national campaign, ‘Reciclado en nuestras manos’ (Recycling in our hands), wherein they have presented a bill that would fund differentiated recycling collection programs, inspired by the one that the Movement of Excluded Workers (MTE) has established in the City of Buenos Aires.

Based on my postdoctoral research, in this presentation I will illustrate how cooperatives in the province of Buenos Aires struggle for recognition as workers and to establish new ways of working through the collection of pre-classified recyclables. This process is sustained by what I call a testimonial politics, which allows them to demonstrate that they are capable of running a proper waste management system. In so doing, and by way of achieving recognition for their work as a sustainable form of waste management, they have come to form an exemplary model of interest to state agencies (local, regional and national), as well as NGOs (both national and international). On this basis, waste pickers have started to work with the local governments in carrying out censuses of waste-picker populations and in the formulation of local regulations, which encourage the abandonment of horse and cart waste collection. They also work to distribute subsidies to the individual waste pickers who don’t form part of a cooperative, and seek to integrate them into a formal system, in spite of the challenges that this presents both to the cooperatives and to local governments. In this context, I will analyse how, during this process, new tensions emerge between the cooperatives members, principally, in relation to the reorganization of work and the management of new members, funds, censuses and meetings with the local and provincial government. 


Lucy J. Wishart (University of St Andrews)

'Let’s Get Organised – Critically Exploring the Future of Zero Waste'

'Zero Waste' is a globally recognised philosophy of resource use which purports to challenge dominant modes of production and consumption in contemporary society. The term zero waste has been broadly adopted in society and research. Initially zero waste was identified as a predominantly grassroots movement with community groups presenting alternatives to traditional waste governance. More recently zero waste has been adopted as a policy goal by national and local governments and attention has been drawn to frameworks and techniques which support government led transitions towards zero waste. Critics suggest that technical manifestations of zero waste lack vision and fail to challenge existing systems. The interplay between zero waste as a grassroots philosophy and zero waste as policy objective has yet to be explored. In this paper I offer an account of the bureaucratisation of zero waste in Scotland and I suggest that bureaucratic organisation both enhances and limits the potential of zero waste principles. I suggest that waste studies offers opportunities to address these limitations by empirical investigation of zero waste organisations.