This panel invites ethnographic papers on the living worlds of waste. Instead of a mere by-product of human life, we ask for analyses of waste as enduring and generative. As forms of (bio)matter, products of cultural meaning, or social practices and relations, there is always life after waste.
It is easy for us to think of rubbish, waste and pollution as inextricably associated with death. After all, we discard things only once their utility has (in our minds) 'expired'; we generate waste as a by-product of our everyday routines of living (especially eating + defecating); and we are all implicated in the production of pollution that we know is killing the biosphere. Yet what is required - and what is at stake - for us to shift our perspectives, and to see rubbish, waste and pollution as instead living forms? Do we need to simply reframe our categories, so that discards are no longer cast as 'matter out of place' (a la Mary Douglas)? Or do we instead need to adopt a non-representational position, in which we recast waste products not just as matter onto which humans project meaning, but instead as a particular kind of material trace: one that is produced by all living things - both human and non-human (a move that Joshua Reno has recently implored us to make)? And either way, do we need to be more attentive to the ways in which rubbish, waste, and pollution frequently generate new forms of social and bio-social life - from new livelihoods in the refuse industries; to new kinds of 'wastelands' (such as that of Agbogbloshie, Ghana); to entirely new bio-social entities (e.g. 'fatbergs')? This panel invites ethnographically informed papers that explore the living worlds of waste.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.
Disposal of the dead: beyond burial and cremation
Burial and cremation are profoundly important practices that are under serious challenge from alternative methods for the disposal of the dead. This presentation describes work to investigate the social, cultural, technical and personal challenges posed by these alternatives.
Seven billion bodies will be disposed of in the next 100 years as baby-boomers age and the developed world enters a period of "peak-death". Put starkly, at an average of 65kg per person and 55.3m deaths per annum, 3.6 billion kilograms of flesh, bone and blood must be disposed of each year, at a time when environmental concerns are at crisis point for many and the grip of tradition on funerary practices is weakening. In this problematic context, historically standardised forms of body disposal are actively challenged by technological innovations that offer new methods. Each of these innovations lay claim to environmental advantage, technical effectiveness, scalability, cost competitiveness, and sensitivity to religious, cultural and social diversity in ritual and ceremony.
This paper describes these innovative and scalable alternatives to, and elaborations of, burial and cremation - such as alkaline hydrolysis, use of liquid nitrogen and other thermal processes, mycelium body suits, Urban Composting, Natural Burial, and carbon trading among crematoria.
Taken together, these alternative and elaborative disposal technologies problematise cremation and burial. They match a critique of current disposal practices with suggested alternatives, alternatives that go beyond disposal technique qua technology to imply different approaches to the body - to what it is, and what its future can and should be; to personhood - what its relationship to the body is, and how this might be variously expressed; to the earth - and to death's relationship to it; and to the cosmos - how people attribute larger meaning to life.
Planetary (and post-planetary) futures in the 'shit soup' of Antarctica
Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Antarctica during the summer season of 2016-17, this paper argues that the continent's emerging sewage regimes engender a domain in which possible future interactions among people, fauna and environments can be not only imagined, but actively experimented upon.
The Antarctic Treaty System -which came into force in 1959- has relatively little to say about sewage. It states only that (to paraphrase): effluent from any Antarctic research station with 30 or more occupants must be macerated before disposal, and discharged at sea in a location in which it is likely to be rapidly dispersed. However, over the past 20 years, many Antarctic research stations have built sophisticated sewage treatment facilities, and have in other ways vastly expanded their infrastructures and procedures for storing, managing, and disposing of, human waste. Based on ethnographic fieldwork at NZ's Scott Base during the summer research season of 2016-17, this paper argues that the development of these new sewage regimes - and of the wider discard regimes of which they are part - could be read as an expansionary form of biopower - as yet another example of the ways in which Antarctica's technocratic-managerial elites use increasing regulation as a means for governing the bodies of all those who live and work on the continent. However, to stop there would be to miss the ways in which these new infrastructures of sewage are also living systems, in which the products of human bodies are brought into relationship with all manner of microorganisms, and with Antarctic ecosystems, in ways that are inherently unstable. In so doing, they also engender a domain in which possible future interactions among people, fauna and environments can be not only imagined, but can be actively experimented upon.
Trenchtown: reuse and self-built in an ecological ethos
The study of waste reveals the flows between the global North and South (where the highest number of recycling initiatives are found) as well as alternatives to a consumerist lifestyle, as found in an experience by middle class ecologists in southern Brazil.
The study of waste reveals social hierarchies within countries and between the global North and South, with long distance transportation that takes place on a planetary scale, which often makes the South a dumping ground for the North. Thus, some solid wastes from developed countries travels in large ships to Africa, Asia and Latin America, and are received as raw material by economically needy communities where most garbage pickers are found. The materials range from rare-earth metals removed from computers to dirty hospital sheets (like those from the United States that were sold in Northeastern Brazil, in one scandal denounced by the media in 2011). But the study of waste can express specific ethoses and visions of the world. This is what we find with the reuse of construction materials by a group of ecologists in Florianópolis in the 1980s. The process of self-building they undertook has a dual meaning, because through the choice of material to be reused, both homes and a new lifestyle were built, based on values alternative to those of the hegemonic consumer society.
At the tip or at home: living with waste on a remote community
At the Warlpiri community of Nyirrpi, a unique aspect of life is living in proximity with waste. In this paper, I analyse Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations at Nyirrpi through the lens of Warlpiri as well as local government perspectives on waste material and approaches to its management.
A unique aspect of living at the small, Warlpiri community of Nyirrpi, central Australia, is that you find yourself living intimately not only with many people but also with your collective waste. In his book Waste Away (2016) Joshua Reno reveals the distancing effect of large-scale waste management practices: a disconnect from the materiality and effects of waste itself, as it is whisked away from view to distant landfills, as well as a social separation between waste workers and waste makers. Taking my cue from Reno, I ask what the implications are when the opposite is true: when relationships with and around waste are physically and socially intimate. To unpack this question, I analyse waste at Nyirrpi from two angles. On the one hand, Warlpiri people often live with waste material - finding new uses for waste at home, and sometimes scavenging and re-homing found items from the tip (to the sometimes distaste of non-Indigenous residents). Further, the domestic labour of cleaning up rubbish at home is deeply embedded in Warlpiri relationships based on care and reciprocity. On the other hand, local government waste management practices are akin to what Reno describes above. (Re)-categorised in terms of danger and contamination, waste ceases to be that with which humans can live with or (re)-use: its handling becomes embedded in regulatory systems, as its handlers are in labour relations. Taking these combined perspectives and practices of living with waste, my paper ultimately asks what this entails for Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations at Nyirrpi.
Throwing away one's cake and eating it too: food waste, reclamation, and the aspirational futures of late Anthropocene capitalism
Emerging endeavours to reclaim commercial food waste—from secondary markets to energy production—represent incipient futures for capital accumulation in the late Anthropocene, allowing businesses to capitalise on their waste and mitigate their footprint without restructuring their commodity chains.
From ugly potatoes discarded in the fields to unspoiled products abandoned in supermarket dumpsters, commercial food waste has become the object of growing concern in industrialised countries—perhaps symptomatic of the increasingly evident environmental and social costs of late capitalism. In recent years, the massive scale of these wasted food surpluses has alarmed publics, policy makers, and private enterprises alike. They have increasingly sought innovations to divert these excesses from the waste stream, yet rarely challenged the underlying logic of commodification and capitalist exchange that produces them in the first place. This paper therefore describes emergent practices of capitalist reclamation, and even recapitalisation, of these commercial food surpluses, such as the development of for-profit enterprises like the Daily Table—a restaurant which produces discount meals from supermarket cast-offs—and the production of energy from organic wastes through aerobic digestion—which allows supermarkets like Tesco to recoup the caloric surplus value trapped within their food waste. These endeavours, I argue, represent incipient futures for 21st century capital accumulation, allowing commercial enterprises to reclaim their own waste, bolster their bottom lines, and mitigate their environmental footprints without fundamentally restructuring their commodity chains. In such ways, I argue, may the capitalism of the late Anthropocene attempt to throw away its cake and eat it too.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.