Waste management has been a part of our human-built worlds from the time of the earliest cultures and civilizations. Only in the late 19th century, however, owing to an increase in human population and therefore the amount of waste generated, did widespread awareness about issues such as recycling and landfills emerge in Western political and economic arenas. When New York City produced so much waste that nearby Staten Island could no longer accept trash from the city—there was no place to put it—the world watched in amazement as garbage from U.S. cities began to be shipped overseas and out of the country for disposal. This awareness became a central concern of everyday life beginning in the mid-20th century.
I. What Is Waste?
II. Classifications of Waste
III. Calculating the Risk and Cost
IV. Critical Discussions
I. What Is Waste?
The word waste refers to junk, scrap, trash, debris, garbage, rubbish, and so on. For the most part, it is understood as those materials resulting from or rejected by a particular production activity. Waste is also a more or less inclusive concept for such matters as energy losses, pollution, and bodily fluids. Waste is what we no longer need or want, as individuals or groups, and what emerges from sorting activities where parts of our worlds are discarded and others are not.
Waste has always existed and will continue to exist. The exact definition of waste is not necessarily always the same, even if we share common notions of waste in dealing with it daily, or even if most institutions and experts agree on how to define it functionally. For example, we may find dissimilar notions of waste just by observing how substances currently judged as waste are the target of contrasting views, by different people or social groups, in distinct places or even in the same place. Present debates are frequently localized or regionalized, and waste has distinct configurations in southeast urban Brazil, northern rural India, and San Francisco Bay, for example.
Furthermore, we can also find dissimilar notions of waste by looking backward through archeological records, which show us how the earliest human settlements began to separate their residues and assume a need to control some of them. In doing so, we can see how these records distinguish between the notions regarding waste of the first human settlements and those of previous human groups mainly engaged in hunting and gathering activities.
Hunters and gatherers did not stay put long enough to deal with remains of slow dissolution. Waste should be seen constantly as a dynamic notion, socially constructed and without the same meanings shared by everybody, everywhere, across time, space, and culture.
II. Classifications of Waste
Waste can be classified along a spectrum from extremely hazardous to potentially nonhazardous. In addition, based on its type, waste can occur as a gas, liquid, or solid. Based on origin, it may be commercial, household, industrial, mining, medical, nuclear, construction, or demolition waste. Based on their physical nature, waste streams can be organic or inorganic. Some putrefy, some do not. Based on possible outcomes, waste can be categorized as possibly reusable, returnable, recyclable, disposable, or degradable.
These categories distinguish how dangerous, expensive, or complicated each type is to eliminate. Almost all of our waste is framed as a problem in today’s terms because of the quantity our society generates. If our society practiced a lifestyle that did not waste anything, or generated little waste and of the kind not harmful to the environment, it would not be considered a problem. Decomposition would turn the problem into an asset just based on chemistry alone.
Our main way of dealing with waste is to assemble technical strategies. Those strategies become the core of waste management. Each grouping under a strategy corresponds to a material and symbolic technical world, based on large-scale processes with linked stages such as the identification, removal, control, processing, packaging, transportation, marketing, and disposal of wastes.
Waste is viewed in hierarchies, often ordered from the most to the least favored kind of waste to manage. For example, waste that does not contaminate water, land, or air would carry most-favored status for landfills. Waste that is toxic would carry least-favored status for incineration, for example, because burning the residue would contaminate the air. The sustainability mantra of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” applies. Depending on types of waste and intentions, strategies such as prevention, minimization, reduction, reutilization, retrieval by recycling or composting, energy recovery by incineration, and disposal to landfills or other legal depositories are employed.
Waste hierarchies guide the disposal approaches followed by most industrial, business, or government institutions. Modern paths to successful waste management policies, sustained by worldwide case studies, have been grounded not only on straightforward arrangements between some or all possible strategies but also on the perception that sometimes a lower option can be better than a higher one. Leading experts at the present time argue against these hierarchies, however observe that no strategy should be linearly pursued one after another but rather should be used in synergistic or complementary fashion. These hierarchies are now seen more as guidelines, able to provide basic information on the relative benefits brought by each of the strategies, rather than as preassembled processes.
The world of waste management tends to present situations merely as applied, or ready to be dealt with by engineers or chemists, as its performance is constructed in a technologically integrated way that often depends on this practical standard. Waste management is mostly nourished by endogenous technical talks rather than by health, environmental, economical, cultural, or other social debates on waste impacts and causes. There are now more joint efforts between manufacturers, merchants, activists, and lay people. Recent waste-management strategies have benefited from enlarged and exogenous joint frameworks, supported by institutional procedures that also take into account nontechnical issues and actors, notwithstanding the technical strategies that tend to be privileged.
III. Calculating the Risk and Cost
Risk management and cost assessment are among the approaches known for including the impacts and causes of waste. Using qualitative and quantitative research methods, these approaches acquire vital information needed to manage not only waste and its required disposal but also the potential effects or costs. Moreover, these methods are able to inform particular decision-making processes on the adoption, construction, and location of particular technical strategies or to structure thematic disputes. Should the costs of handling waste be borne by public entities, or are they the producers’ responsibility? This leads to legal questions that address the “polluter pay” principle, and the “product lifespan stewardship” associated with life-cycle analyses.
There are other general approaches that carry waste management into larger contexts such as ecological modernization. Such approaches mostly point to steady economic growth and industrial developments, overlapped with environmental stances and legal reforms concerning waste. Even so, within them we may always find extreme positions, framing waste in strict economic terms on the principle that it should always be rationalized into the building of competitiveness policies or market efficiency. On the other extreme, there are those who frame waste in conservationist terms and see it narrowly as a hazard that, above all, affects biological and social sustainabilities.
These and similar approaches make it hard to talk about waste management without regarding it and its debates as parts of a broader controversy involving social equality and environmental sustainability. For almost every waste management strategy there is an equal and opposite counterstrategy—or at least opposition against it. Perhaps the most prominent today is the social justice movement, which focuses on equity, empowering the disadvantaged and creating environmentally sustainable practices that bring economic development to a community without causing negative health effects. We can always find crucial issues within waste disposal, such as toxic emissions from incineration, persistent organic pollutants, permanence of radioactive sludges, landfill locations, end-of-life vehicles, electronic-waste increases, ocean dumping, energy inefficiencies, and large scale littering, as well as toxic coal ash spills and unstoppable oil gushing.
IV. Critical Discussions
Waste management has grown as a topic of general concern, with most critical discussions emerging around its various technicalities. Debates on such a subject have played a substantial part in catalyzing public reflections about the links between, on one hand, technical interests, and on the other hand, public and private safety and welfare. Some of these debates even gain legitimacy, not only by helping to erect regulatory procedures in national and local domains but also by influencing the emergence and ratification of international treaties in relation to waste.
Examples of this include the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, or the inclusion of waste in broader agreements about sustainable global politics, as in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.
The emergence of social groups and movements addressing concerns about waste management has been equally significant. Since the antinuclear and antitoxics oppositional movements of the 1960s, waste issues have grown to be an arena for civic participation. We now have an engaged landscape of groups and movements, ranging from health to ecological justice, that has not yet stopped confronting or shifting the settings of waste management. In such a landscape we can observe resistance trends such as “not in my backyard” or “not in anyone’s backyard,” ideas such as “want not, waste not,” or concepts such as “zero waste.” We may also identify movements and projects that, in recent years, have engaged in the recovery of waste, at times ideologically associated with “freeganists” (people who limit their involvement with the conventional economy), at other times coupled to public interventions, as in the “Basurama” collective (a loose network of those interested in trash and its social effects). Other groups are based on the bricolage of “do it yourself,” or even on artistic recovery activities, such as the “WEEE Man” project (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, which drew attention to itself by erecting a large humaniform sculpture made out of electronic waste).
No assessment of waste management has ever been deemed to be completely consensual. Major disputes involve questions about the extent to which we should limit ourselves in surveying waste-management strategies. As a result, we find “throwaway” ideologies that leave society and culture overflowing with the costs of producing goods and services. Managing waste is considered impossible or inadvisable when and where regular economic growth seems to depend on “planned obsolescences” promoting waste itself, with junk piles of devalued residues matched by stockpiles of commodities. Most of these outlooks have not been consistently considered appropriate in major waste-management approaches, but their persistence has often helped to support various critiques concerning the source of what is wasted in our mass systems of invention, production, distribution, and consumption.
- Kinnaman, Thomas C., ed., The Economics of Residential Solid Waste Management. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003.
- Melosi, Martin V., The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America from Colonial Times to the Present, abridged ed. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008.
- Rathje, William, and Cullen Murphy, Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.
- Scanlan, John, On Garbage. London: Reaktion Books, 2005.
- Strasser, Susan, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. New York: Owl Books, 2000.
- Thomas, Vivian E., Garbage In, Garbage Out: Solving the Problems with Long-Distance Trash Transport. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.