Overflowing landfills, unwanted humans, and a new anthropology of waste

Why has the largest man-made structure on earth, until recently, been a landfill? Are waste pickers environmental heroes, or is their work first and foremost inhuman? Do we treat some humans the same way we treat waste?

Thomas Hylland Eriksen: "There is a logic of exclusion and expulsion to the way we handle waste, which is paralleled in the way people are being treated: redundant humans, sometimes spoken of as ‘human waste’". Photo: Raffaele Esposito, flickr

Researchers from three continents met at Overheating’s recent workshop in Oslo to discuss what new insights can be gained about the state of the world by looking at what we throw away or deem superfluous. Their goal is to develop a new anthropology of waste.

“Archaeologists have always used trash to reconstruct the past, but in social and cultural anthropology, waste has not figured prominently. It is ubiquitous, growing and symbolically and materially significant, but remains an understudied subject”, said Thomas Hylland Eriksen, the director of the Overheating project.

A growing amount of waste is one of the many overheating symptoms of planet Earth. “Since 1992”, Hylland Eriksen said, “the amount of waste produced by households in Norway has doubled. Fresh Kills, a landfill in the US, was the largest man-made structure in the world when it was closed in 2001. In the Pacific, there are ‘floating islands’ of bits of plastic that cover the area of Texas”, he stressed.

"The world is too full"

Thomas Hylland Eriksen: "Waste can be seen as a key aspect of overheating." Photo: Lorenz Khazaleh

“The overflowing landfills, polluted rivers, and filthy beaches may be the most visible and visceral expression of the Anthropocene—the era of total human domination on the planet. They indicate that ‘the world is too full’”, he said.

Waste, according to anthropologists, is not just made up of discarded material. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, who wrote a book on rubbish (“Søppel”, in Norwegian only) four years ago, prefers to view waste in a very broad way:

“Waste, to me, is also a huge unintentional consequence of modernity. You want information and you get confusion and distractions; you want individual freedom, and you get counterreactions like identity politics; you want affluence, and what you get is a ruined environment. So waste can, in fact, be seen as a key aspect of overheating. It also reproduces and strengthens global inequalities when the waste of the rich is dumped on the worlds of the poor.”

For him, there are also links to the current so-called refugee crisis:

“There is a logic of exclusion and expulsion to the way we handle waste, which is paralleled in the way people are being treated: redundant humans, sometimes spoken of as ‘human waste’, people who were not meant to be, who are ‘warehoused’ in refugee camps, slums or prisons, who are superfluous, poor consumers, and inefficient producers. European discourse about the current refugee crisis in the Mediterranean has a whiff of this attitude”, he said.

This broad perspective on waste dominated the presentations during the two-day workshop.

Cathrine Thorleifsson about the forced removal of Roma camps in Oslo: "In Oslo, discourses on cleanliness, order and security have veiled and legitimized contemporary antiziganism. Itinerant Roma are often lumped together as a threat to the nation in rhetoric of cultural racism." Photo: Lorenz Khazaleh

Humans as waste?

The issue of humans who are treated as “waste” to be ridden of was discussed by several participants.

Cathrine Thorleifsson and Ronald Stade addressed the racist way Roma migrants often have been treated in Norway and Sweden. In the eyes of the authorities, Roma are “unwanted bodies” that with their “dirty camps” “pollute our surroundings” and therefore have to be “tossed over the fence”.

The Oralman (“repatriates”) in Kazakhstan have not received a much warmer welcome, although they “share an ethnicity with the people who reject them”, explained Catherine Alexander. The Oralman left Kazakhstan as a result of Stalinist oppression, and returned in large numbers after they were welcomed back by the Kazakh government in the early 1990s. But most people there did not recognize them as “one of us”, and, instead, treated them as unwanted and odd strangers, or as elements of “excess” or “spillover”.

Many workers within today’s capitalistic system, Elisabeth Schober said, do not feel valued either. At her fieldsite, workers are treated as “disposable human material that could be hired, fired and replaced with great ease”. Schober has been on fieldwork at a shipyard in a booming area in the Philippines, where the costs of labour are among the lowest in all of Southeast Asia.

Learning from waste pickers

People who deal directly with waste are also often placed in this category. Their role in cleaning up the city is in many parts of the world disregarded. Cairo’s informal waste collectors, the Zabaleen, have been prosecuted by authorities for decades. They are seen as a major source of the city’s waste problem, rather than contributors to its solution, Jamie Furniss stressed.

Jamie Furniss: "Cairo's informal waste collectors are efficiant at preventing things from ending up in the landfill." Photo: Lorenz Khazaleh

Furniss is one of several anthropologists at the workshop who has been on fieldwork among waste pickers, waste collectors, and scrap workers.

Their research, among others, questioned popular images of these people, and opened the invitation for rethinking attitudes to waste and waste management.

One of the questions their research raised was: What is the meaning of waste when Cairo’s Zabaleen are able to recycle more than 80% of the material people throw away?

Are waste pickers a reliable symbol of poverty when, as Caroline Knowles learned during her fieldwork, women who collect plastic bottles on a landfill in Ethiopia earn in a day what a waitress earns in a month?

Aren’t some of the informal waste pickers and waste workers in reality entrepreneurs? Shouldn’t waste picking be called “labor”?

After his fieldwork in an Indian scrap yard, Andrew Sanchez found it necessary to rethink theories of labor. He met several scrap workers who—despite harsh conditions and the social stigma attached to it—expressed satisfaction in the work process itself. The reason for this, Sanchez suggested, is that their work is transformative. An important part of their work is to find new uses for objects whose value has expired.

Freek Colombijn: "From the perspective of the waste pickers, their low status is partially compensated by a degree of freedom and an income." Photo: Lorenz Khazaleh

The fresher the waste, the more precious it is

The situation of waste pickers and workers, of course, depends on their ethnographic context. Some are better off than others whose work can be quite dangerous.

In his fieldwork, Freek Colombijn found an interesting pattern among waste pickers in Indonesia who collect waste from door to door and sort it in temporary garbage dumps: the fresher the waste, the more precious it is; therefore, the income is higher and the people are more satisfied and wish for no other work. Conversely, the closer to the final destination (landfill) where people work, the more monotonous their work is, and people seem to work with less diligence and joy.

So, does waste actually exist? For waste pickers in poorer countries, waste is first and foremost a precious resource that can be traded in a market. From the perspective of Warao indigenous people in Venezuela, Christian Sørhaug said, garbage heaps are even regarded as sites of abundance. He compared landfills with forests: “Materials in the wastelands (bikes, cassettes with salsa music, toys for kids, metals, etc.) afford a range of possibilities, much the same way that lianas, trees, and animals in the wetlands do”, he said.

Christian Sørhaug: "Warao, mostly young men, paddle from the lower part of the Orinoco Delta for a week until they reach the Cambalache landfill, where they gather goods they otherwise would not be able to acquire." Photo: Lorenz Khazaleh

“It is not really garbage as long as it still has value,” said one of the waste pickers Elisabeth Schober met in the Philippines. In her fieldsite, the growing number of people who try to make a living from this valuable, discarded material on the landfill are often viewed as a problem. Penny Harvey observed the same tendency among planners in Peru where she studied the development of a new waste management system. Waste has been transformed, and instead of asking how to dispose of it, one now asks how to extract its monetary value.

Turning abandoned buildings into precious mines

Also in the USA, people have become more interested in transforming so-called waste into something useful. In places that struggle with depopulation, abandoned houses have been turned into “mines” for revalued building materials like wood, slate tiles, and bricks.

The Temple of the American Dream in Detroit, made by reclaimed scrap wood. Photo: Black Rock Arts Foundation, flickr

“This might be turned into high-end restaurant tables”, said Catherine Fennell, while she showed a picture with material that was gathered from an abandoned gym in Detroit, Michigan.

In Detroit, reclaimed materials have become ubiquitous in everything from pizzerias, and airport juice bars, to yoga studios.

“Material recovery and reuse has been prevalent throughout human history”, the anthropologist explained. “Yet as practiced in the U.S. over the past several decades, it is seen as an ecological response to the fact that construction and demolition debris makes up half of all material in U.S. landfills. This movement is closely associated with triple bottom line thinking, a business philosophy that seeks to generate social and environmental benefits alongside economic ones.”

This transformation of materials from waste to something useful—or the other way around—has been of interest to anthropologist Michael Thompson since he first wrote about it in 1969 in the magazine New Society and then ten years later in his classic, “Rubbish Theory”.

Recycling and re-evaluation

Michael Thompson: "Just as, to understand poverty, we must study the very rich: so, to understand value, we must study rubbish."  Photo: Lorenz Khazaleh

It was not only recycling that he was writing about, but re-evaluation. Objects that were considered rubbish can regain value as antiques or historic homes.

“When you recycle a building”, he explained at the workshop, “the building itself disappears. Re-evaluation is something that happens in our heads, and the building itself stays the same. It’s our attitude to the building that changes. Once we see an old decaying building as sadly neglected glorious heritage rather than as awful rat-infested slum, our behavior towards it changes.”

These attitudes to what constitutes rubbish, and what is ascribed value and what not have been changing with the times for different reasons.

Anthropologist Ola Gunhildrud Berta told about changes on the Marshall Islands after it had become part of global capitalism.

The transition from homegrown to storebased food, a process that was started by the Japanese colonial administration, led to more and different waste. “A few generations ago, most of the disposable household waste came from biodegradable materials (palm leaf plates and cutleries, coconut cups, etc.)”, he said. “Now it is mainly plastic and hermetic.”

Ola Gunhildrud Berta: "The common pattern seems to be that poor Pacific nations import the scraps from wealthy ones (typically former colonists) for a cheap price, but at a high cost." Photo: Lorenz Khazaleh

Tommy Ose sees the large amount of food waste as a sign of households being alienated from the larger food cycle; first, by encountering it on the supermarket shelves, then discarding the residue in our bins so that other people make it disappear. 

“Rather than being remembered for its potential use value as human nutrition, the necessity for life—without which there would be no life—food now often becomes a mean to other ends: a fit body; gourmet taste; or lifestyle displays of competence”, Ose said who is researching food waste in Northern Norway.

“The current around-the-clock availability of all kinds of food, regardless of seasons of the year, in seemingly endless amounts, makes us look at food in a more short-time perspective, as disposable. We value food less, more of it gets wasted as we prioritize spending our time on other things than food management and care,” the anthropologist explained.

Tommy Ose discusses food waste: "Large-scale changes in Northern-Norway (urbanization, industrialized food production etc) have contributed to wasteful practices." Photo: Lorenz Khazaleh

For a new anthropology of waste

Nearly 50 years ago Mary Douglas wrote Purity in Danger, a book which famously defined waste as “matter out of place”. Thomas Hylland Eriksen hopes a publication that is based on the workshop presentations will be able to develop a new anthropology of waste.  

“‘Purity and Danger’ was one of the most important anthropology books of the mid–20th century, but we need to graft Douglas’ perspectives on societal cohesion and the boundaries of the body onto a historical and global anthropology able to say something not only about timeless questions, but also about the rapid changes of the present world", the anthropologist said.

For more anthropology of waste: Elisabeth Schober.

"I certainly hope we can achieve this with our planned publication. The workshop was a thrilling experience for several of us, with many very powerful presentations”, he added.

Elisabeth Schober, who had the idea for this workshop, was also very happy about the outcome.

“It was a high-risk workshop. No one in Overheating is working on waste as a central theme, but we had many stories about waste and wondered how to make sense of them”, she said.

“Every anthropologist probably has some notes on waste. But unfortunately these notes are often in danger of being discarded by us. I think", she concluded, "we should make waste one of the central issues that we study and not let it be something that we just discard.”

At the end of the day. Waste from the waste workshop. Photo: Lorenz Khazaleh


By Lorenz Khazaleh
Published Nov. 3, 2015 6:07 PM - Last modified Apr. 7, 2021 12:40 PM