Waste Fantasies: Challenging Prevailing Notions of Waste, or How to Reclaim Political Land

Kathrin Eitel

Institute for Cultural Anthropology & European Ethnology
Goethe-University Frankfurt a/M, Germany


July 15, 2021

Waste is very much persistent and omnipresent in our contemporary world. It’s depicted in pictures on social media campaigns, it is part of our daily lives, it lays around, it permeates and is eventually removed or liquefies and decays into indefinable debris. Its persistent (sometimes more visible, sometimes very invisible) omnipresence has long attracted the interest of anthropological researchers. Prominently, the anthropologist Mary Douglas (2001 [1966]) has attested ‘dirt’ to be a matter out of place, pointing to its cultural relationality in space, where it is enacted in relation to the profane and the sacred. Building on Douglas, Michael Thompson (1979) has in his work, Rubbish Theory, examined garbage as something that changes its various aggregate states of value. Others such as Zsuzsa Gille (2007) further have described ‘waste regimes’ that are social institutions and conventions, classifying what waste is, how it is perceived as well as how it is regulated, produced, and politicized. Drawing on the global flows through which waste passes, and the multiple forms of recycling economies that handle and practice waste differently, contemporary waste/discard studies have described the ambiguity of waste. According to Gille (2013), it is difficult to determine the value of waste from an abstract level as it is always a social relationship. 

In this respect, anthropological insights have revealed multiple waste worlds, all of which contextualize daily practice, notions of a ‘green future,’ and climate-sensitive policies as being relational but still distinctive in their local embeddedness. This is visible for instance in works on practices of recyclable waste handling that contest the dominant notion of waste as being something dirty and to be discarded, unveiling waste as being of value (see Alexander & Reno 2012, Fredericks 2018, Miller 2018). Waste exhibits transversal social relationships across multiple temporalities, such as colonial infrastructure projects like wastewater channels that influence and shape understandings of dirt and purity and with that the appearance of a city (Jensen 2017).

However, waste is also classified as a change agent of things and situations when it turns out to be more than waste, such as  on “wastelands” (see Chalfin 2017). In such places, waste serves as a breeding ground for novel ecosystems. This side of the coin paints a different picture of waste – namely, that it is not ‘merely’ describable as a cultural phenomenon, but that it sits in contexts that point to its multiple relational ontologies that also evoke life and are enacted through everyday practices that embrace the material. In this way, it is intertwined with humans and non-humans alike, being entangled in their specific situatedness, rendering waste sometimes not as dirty at all (see Hoag, Bertoni, & Bubandt 2018; Zahara and Hird 2015). For example, Sven Bergmann (2021) has described how microplastic is entangled with the emergence of new microcosms and Jacob Doherty (2019) has elaborated on how marabou storks ‘help’ mitigating emissions of methane gases as they eat organic matter in open dumps. 

In combination with STS approaches that critically examine the way knowledge is produced and how it is mediated, travelling along various trajectories to dispersed places, the interdisciplinary field of waste and discard studies has also turned toward issues of sovereignty and management. As these studies pursue questions of interpretive authority over classifications and categories of waste, dirt, and cleanliness, they also reveal hegemonic knowledge (infra-)structures that ascribe waste with certain properties. Alexander and O’Hare (2020) aptly put it: there is no single epistemology of waste. Moreover, certain technologies of (un-)knowing permeate the understanding of what waste is, muting at once other ways of knowing and even sometimes depoliticizing situations in which waste matters. In this regard, waste, as the symbol of the Anthropocene, is a fruitful research topic to understand how and in what extent knowledge over things like waste reduction, recycling procedures, and disposal strategies, is implemented in the Global South, bringing connotations and narratives bound to these management practices along with them. More than sorting waste into relationships of profane and sacred, these studies pivot around the material politics of waste.

Transnational waste reduction programs that serve as an international template for addressing waste situations at the local level often do a certain kind of place-making at the site of their implementation. Inscribed in these are heteronormative imaginaries of dirt and purity, clean and green, nature and society/culture that are coined by dominant narratives of capitalist economies that promise to bring wealth to the far corners of the world and culture. Ultimately, these imaginaries are “sovereign fantasies of waste,” following Mel Y. Chen’s (2007: 367) notion. Chen defines this sovereign fantasy as “the national or imperial project of absolute rule and authority.” I adopt the term to identify these imaginaries as a single, but prevailing, ontonormative understanding of waste that seeks to detach waste from its cultural and social embeddedness and ascribe to it seemingly ‘universal’ properties. As such, fantasies of waste as a materialized imagination assumes the premise of having ultimate insight over the material, while proclaiming the only relevant interpretive authority over how waste is perceived and should ultimately be treated (as passive material with no life-sustaining aspects) along certain ideas of waste disposal strategies. 

The sharp differences between the ‘realpolitik’ often pushed by engineers and technicians and what ethnographic studies tell us can seem insurmountable, as prevailing waste fantasies are deeply grounded in histories, narratives, and imaginaries of the future (see Nguyen 2019). Ruling over waste and the performance of authority in this matter is a long-cherished legacy, that gleam in colonial pasts, grown in the consciousness of being in the ascendancy over others. As such, it has laid ground to infrastructures of ruling that impacts the way we perceive our planet (as exclusively endangered by waste and only exemptible with one technical solution). The promises that meander through time and space, whispering stories about modernity are tied to technical progress, to the exploitation of land and labor, and the invention of new materials such as plastic or aluminum that design also future perceptions of the world, having direct impacts on decisions and actions in the now (see Sheller 2014). In this regard, the geographer Max Liboiron (2021) asserts that ‘pollution is colonialism’ (and plastics one pollutant of it). Waste and pollution are an expression of power hierarchies that often build on colonial pasts and on interventions in the present. Colonialism can be understood as “a set of contemporary and evolving land relations that can be maintained by good intentions and even good deeds” (Liboiron 2021: 6). In this sense, pollution is “an enactment of ongoing colonial relations to Land.” It is, according to Liboiron, the violence of these relations (ibid.: 6). And this violence results from invasion tactics into the country that are no longer carried out by white men arriving on ships in pith helmets, but in the form of transnational waste regulations and programs. As a result, local practices of wasting and cultural connotations of waste are silenced. Local populations are thus denied their right to pollute, which in turn diminishes their right to self-determination and sovereignty.

Prevailing fantasies of waste in this regard intervene in these lands as my ethnographic study in Cambodia has also unveiled. In Cambodia, where I have done ethnographic research between 2017 and 2019, the voices of the people who work with recyclable waste, are visibly excluded when it comes to political deliberations around waste regulation. Instead, waste scientists and engineers who are attested to know how to technologically fix the ‘broken’ and ‘dysfunctional’ waste/recycling system exercise interpretive supremacy at the detriment of local perspectives. This is visible in multiple reports on waste management in Cambodia, where the existence of the recycling economy is rendered as “informal” and the perspective of engineers emphasized (see RGC 2017). This is also reflected in the composition of so-called expert groups advising the Cambodian Ministry of Environment, which consist of these same engineers and transnational organizations working on broader climate change issues within a regulatory framework such as the SDGs. Further entrepreneurial actors are addressed to step into this economic yet idled field to bring solutions forward (see GBN Program 2019). This has become especially relevant these days as the Cambodian government has launched its National Circular Economy Strategy and Action Plan aiming to formalize the recycling economy in the country (Kunmakara 2021).

Ultimately, these reports and programs are not about the altruistic intention to ‘help’ Cambodia get on the ‘right’ track, but, following Liboiron, these programs and deliberations are a form of invading in a country and its land. In my research, the issue is about gaining access to political land, i.e., domination over (national) politics, and thus a domination over interpretive sovereignty. It even goes further as it is also an invasion into ‘political Land’ (with a capital L) that goes beyond the definition of the political as something practiced among politicians and political organs (for the definition of Land, see Liboiron 2021: 6fn). In this way, these programs also infiltrate the political in the form of cultural and spiritual ways of practicing and doing politics, for example, in the private sphere. 

This points us to an understanding of colonialism that is both contemporary and originates in the past – and ultimately influences the future and impacts the practices of policy making until today. The invasion of geographic land was primarily of interest to colonial settlers such as the French (1983-1953), but also to colonialists who probably did not see themselves as such (such as, in part, the Vietnamese or U.S. troops during the American War / Vietnam War) in Cambodia. These different control regimes that permeated Cambodia at different times by differently oriented actors simultaneously laid the foundation for various infrastructures such as global trade routes, shipping routes or the Silk Road through which plastic and aluminum products could easily enter the country after the rapid marketization in the 1980s – also because plastic and aluminum products were already connoted with wealth; a notion that also stems from the colonial past. Suddenly, the country was drowning in plastic waste, and there was no time to come up with local disposal strategies (see Eitel 2019). Infrastructures of policymaking, another legacy of the invaders, became apparent in tackling the garbage problem. Cambodians had been used to sitting down at consultation tables to discuss the country’s problems and possible futures with foreign actors. These conditions served as the  ground on which knowledge, sovereignty, and notions of how to ‘best’ deal with problems could continue to develop, a basis on which knowledge, and thus sovereign fantasies about waste could migrate. Along these ‘old’ pathways and trajectories of dispossession, the ‘management’ of Cambodia’s waste problem stands both in the legacy of the past and gains legitimacy in the present: namely, in the context of a supposedly global understanding that the world should be rid of waste to save the climate and our nature, asserting the separation of nature and culture (see Eitel 2021). In this way, political action both perpetuates colonial (infra)structures and creates new starting points for them. All of this feeds back into the idea of a future without garbage that appears as the result of seemingly neutral discourses.

An anthropology of waste must challenge prevailing fantasies of waste and their implicated notions. In this way, it seems a good starting point to unveil the constituting and circulating mechanisms of such waste fantasies, and the ways they and their underlying notions of dirt and purity for example are practiced, negotiated and contested. This allows us to trace their feeding back into cultural normative orders that are informed, and shaped by waste fantasies relying on waste futures. Reclamation of political Land implies, following anthropologist Kathleen Miller (2018: 33) who understands waste reclamation as an “act of remaking the world,” the attempt to adopt notions of waste futures and to make visible different tropes. As anthropologists, we would do well to describe these (waste) fantasies, their legacies, and their attempt to flatten and disregard other notions evoked in cultural frameworks and sociomaterial constellations that often remain out of sight. We can use the potential of this endeavor to understand domination as transversal and situated practices rooted in heritage, legacies, and self-understandings in different time periods for new directions in (anthropological) waste research. 

Ultimately, however, we also wrestle with other scholars on the political terrain of waste fantasies, encountering them in debates about the meaning and use of a sociocultural material that is at once wholly our own and not at all. Figuring out the various entanglements that make waste fantasies emerge in a more or less predominant form then means reinforcing those trajectories and strands that are the relational cross-connections between these traveling fantasies, becoming visible for instance in urban struggles. We should all be aware that these fantasies become the future of all of us – and that, moreover, stem from very clearly sketched visions of the future.

Works cited

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