Waste andWaste Management∗
Joshua Reno
Department of Anthropology, Binghamton University, The State University of New York,
Binghamton, New York 13902-6000; email: jreno@binghamton.edu
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 2015. 44:557–72
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waste, infrastructure, materiality, environment, labor
Discard studies have demonstrated that waste is more than just a symptom
of an all-too-human demand for meaning or a merely technical problem for
sanitary engineers and public health officials. The afterlife of waste materials
and processes of waste management reveal the centrality of transient and
discarded things for questions of materiality and ontology and marginal and
polluting labor and environmental justice movements, as well as for critiques
of the exploitation and deferred promises of modernity and imperial formations.
There is yet more waste will tell us, especially as more studies continue
to document the many ways that our wastes are not only our problem, but
become entangled with the lives of nonhuman creatures and the future of
the planet we share.
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For many anthropologists and other social scientists, waste is a mirror of humanity, a means or
intermediary by which to reflect on ourselves (Knechtel 2007, p. 9). This is the legacy of Mary
Douglas’s (1966) influential definition of “dirt” as that which challenges and reaffirms a given
cultural system.According to this structural-symbolic account, alongwith complementary analyses
by Leach (1964) andDumont (1980), the reason that an inedible animal, a dirty word, untouchable
Dalits, and rejected rubbish are categorized as objectionable and disposable in the first place is
that they each stand in for a basic cognitive, existential, and/or linguistic dilemma—a need for
meaningful order in a world without it.These ideas remain fundamental for approaches to waste in
the human sciences (Moser 2002, Scanlan 2005, Boscagli 2014). But a growing set of approaches
and perspectives, often grouped under the name “discard studies,” have begun to occupy the
gaps left behind by the structural-symbolic approach. Despite many differences, these scholars
tend to focus on the productive afterlife of waste—its impact on and significance for humans and
nonhumans. More than a symptom of culture, waste is a material that has effects in the world,
including local and global political disputes, liberal and illiberal forms of governance, competing
assessments of economic and moral value, and concerns about environmental pollution and crisis.
This article provides an overview of these recent and emerging discussions in anthropology and
Cleaning and wasting are quite familiar to us, and their products have to be dealt with somehow,
or managed once discarded. Yet in many ways research on what becomes of all that we
discard has only just begun. Until relatively recently, anthropologists have had little to say about
waste management. This tendency arguably reflects a preference for “social” ideas over “individual”
techniques that goes back to formative epistemological distinctions between science and
technology, as well as between religion and magic (Ingold 2000, p. 317). But the techniques of
waste management are worth appreciating in their own right. If classificatory rules mediate how
waste is managed, then the reverse is also true—waste management is more than a by-product
of a distinctly human demand for order, but a process actively involved in reshaping our ideals
and imaginations in turn. Today, adequate waste services are considered vital to the governance
of cities, industries, and refugee camps: a basic human right, an economic opportunity, and an
ecological imperative.
For ethnographers of waste and waste management, it is not enough to wonder why certain
things or people are categorized as polluting and therefore disposable. In addition, they ask (a)what
specific capacities and affordances characterize waste materialities, their management, and their
meaning; (b) who manages wastes and what do they become together in specific entanglements
of labor, power, and possibility; and (c) how do specific wastes circulate, from whom to whom,
and with what significance for specific waste regimes as well as more general global and planetary
processes? I consider each of these dimensions of contemporary discard studies in turn, pointing
to some of the limits and possible future directions for research.
The idea of waste management can also be problematic if it suggests human mastery over and
control of the physical world. Indeed, the very existence of unusable, unassimilable waste could be
seen as proof, pungent and polluting, of our own limitations (Allen 2007, p. 204). I conclude this article
with a call for renewed attention to the active role of nonhuman beings and processes in waste
management, against the tendency to imagine waste relations exclusively in terms of privileged human
violations of or instrumental plans for a passive nature. If infrastructure draws our attention to
taken-for-granted dimensions of social life (Larkin 2013), our everyday dependence on materials,
devices, and labor, then waste infrastructure can help us to realize our dependence on nonhuman
life forms and forces with which we share our bodies, environments, and, ultimately, our planet.
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Disposal raises normative questions about how one ought to rid oneself of things, including what
should be discarded when and where it ought to go. In this sense, making waste is part of what
makes us the ethical selves we want to become (Hawkins 2006). Disposal may be done to pass
on still-useful objects to other people, as with the informal transactions of charities, junk yards
or garage, and car boot and yard sales (Gregson et al. 2007). It may also occur in less permanent
ways, as when things are put away temporarily with the possibility of future reclamation or discard
(Thompson 1979, Hetherington 2004). Like commodity fetishism, furthermore, the disposal of
things can distort perceptions of reality, making the routine appearance and disappearance of
things seem phantasmagoric (Kennedy 2007). Taken collectively, wanton disposal can be used to
call into question the “invidious distinction” between classes (Veblen 1899), an abusive relationship
between society and nature (Lynch 1990, Foster 2002), and the obsolescence built into the designs
and desires of consumer capitalism (Packard 1960).
But beginning with acts of disposal can establish a false equivalence between the kinds of
things that are disposed. There is not one kind of discard: Nothing is waste in general but only in
particular. People may not want food scraps or toxic sludge in their homes, but there is a great deal
more to be said about what actual qualities and virtual possibilities distinguish these out-of-place
substances: about how they might be or ought to be handled, and about where and to whom they
might yet belong. Taking these qualities and possibilities seriously brings us from individual acts
of disposal to the collective management of wastes. The idea of different waste streams comes
from sanitary engineering and offers a helpful starting point. Rather than considering displaced
waste in general, one can imagine flows of different materials that have distinct properties and are
headed for different destinations.
Take the familiar practice of disposing of hair, nails, and excreta. Precisely because of their
lingering association with the person who released them, they can generate moral dilemmas concerning
the regimentation and revaluation of bodily traces, including their use in sorcery (Frazer
1980, Gell 1998) or forensics (Reno 2012). The products of human and nonhuman digestion can
just as easily be regarded as an example of creative potentiality, whether raw material for ritual
acts (Bourke 1891), a practical resource (Guillet 1983), or a representation of the cosmos itself
(Walens 1981).
Disposed of in sufficient quantities biological effluent can also spread pestilence and miasmatic
stenches (Barnes 2006). A Eurocentric historiography of modern technological and medical innovations
belies the uneven development of waste service provision. As a result, marginalized
subjects may be held accountable for their disproportionate exposure to disease (Briggs & Briggs
2006), thereby obfuscating the right to effective wastewater treatment (Zimmer et al. 2014). Even
where disposal systems are put in place, however, people continue to subsist in their margins,
both simultaneously challenging and sustaining the system. Parisian sewermen (Reid 1991) and
London toshers (Pike 2004) can turn collectively managed sewage into a source of material enrichment,
whereas Aghori Hindu ascetics consume corpses and excrement to attain divine transcendence
(Parry 1982). Productive tensions arise, not only concerning whether bodily waste is
more moral/material pollutant or spiritual/practical resource, but also to what extent it is to be
managed by the state, self-discipline, or some combination of both (Laporte 2002). The spread of
sewerage can radically transform relations among waste producers, workers, and products. Where
excretion becomes associated with water infrastructure and metabolic visions of the modern city
(Gandy 2004), public latrines transform into private bathrooms, and negotiations with “night soil”
workers are transferred to bureaucrats, politicians, and plumbers (Van der Geest 2002a). Scientific
models of polluting wastewater, which mandate careful regulation, may rest uneasily with
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alternative perceptions of landscapes, furthermore, as with the tensions between (post)colonial,
industrial, and Hindu assessments of the sacred Ganges (Alley 2002).
Household rubbish or municipal solid waste (MSW) is an outcome of parallel transformations
in urban infrastructure (a management of solids rather than liquids). MSW—the mass waste of
populations—is what most people mean when they refer to garbage, trash, or discard. This is the
image of waste that comes most readily to mind when policy reforms or environmental risks are
publicly debated and discussed: waste enclosed in black bags or left in the open as litter. As such,
MSWinfrastructure can further shape personal identity and social judgment. Japanese citizensmay
proudly display their recyclables for neighbors to admire (Hawkins 2006, pp. 107–10), whereas
Cypriots and Chinese migrants are both judged as culturally repugnant for littering public space
with what should have been left for waste workers to collect (Argyrou 1997, D¨ urr 2010).
But using MSW as a synecdoche for all waste would be a mistake. For one thing, the amount
of MSW in any society is typically dwarfed by the wastes of commercial enterprise. Consider the
category of food waste,which calls to mind consumer and retailermisuse of edible goods. Although
it is important, food waste is dwarfed by the many expenditures and losses of agricultural products,
which never make it to the marketplace yet still must be managed (Krzywoszynska 2012).
Industrial wastes exist in such quantity and variety that they inspire entirely new products in
capitalist industry. At different times, petroleum spirit, coal tar, and glycerin were all externalities
of production that gradually became revalued as essential products (O’Brien 2007). But far more
waste is disposed of than reused. Industrial wastes thus pose a far greater risk to environmental
and human health and safety, leading to worldwide debates surrounding pollution from resource
extraction and commodity manufacture (Kirsch 2014, Little 2014). These harmful materials are
commonly known as toxic or hazardous waste streams, owing to their categorical separation from
MSW as a further division of waste labor. Toxic wastes are, by definition, more dangerous as
a result of their distinct physical properties and ideal methods of treatment. The category of
toxic waste also produces new economic arrangements and international policies. Industries and
states regard toxic waste as the most economically attractive waste to ship abroad to places with
reduced regulatory restrictions, as is the case with the growing, global stream of waste electrical
and electronic equipment (WEEEor E-Waste) and the controversial ship-breaking industry, both
of which involve objects that are profitable to reuse and recycle and highly toxic to strip and dispose
of (Gregson & Crang 2010, Gabrys 2011, Crang et al. 2012).
Other industrial waste streams can be singled out as uniquely destructive in ways that challenge
the causal simplicity of the waste stream metaphor and, more broadly, the metaphor of managerial
control. The degradation of plastics, for instance, releases chemical plasticizers, the flow of which
through living bodies and environments can be difficult to trace and may entail severe health
risks (Strong & Garruto 1991, Duffield et al. 1994, Liboiron 2013b). Similarly, nuclear wastes
require additional technological and regulatory innovations to contain their singular capacity
for contamination and accumulation (Garcier 2012). Compared to radioactive by-products, the
breakdown of less troubling forms of waste occurs at more manageable and imaginable timescales.
The contamination of nuclear wastes exceeds human life spans, involving a planetary “deep time”
beyond familiar temporal horizons (Masco 2006, Ialenti 2014).
Waste streams need not be environmentally toxic to generate moral concerns and controversial
property relations. Similarly challenging are abundant biomedical wastes (Parry&Gere 2006,
p. 140). When it comes to assisted reproductive technologies, the possibility of embryos or umbilical
cords becoming waste may be foreclosed altogether, even as forms of disposal are increasingly
central to biomedical practice (Thompson 2007, p. 264; Santoro 2009). So it goes with medical
charities, as well, which seek to reuse the many usable items that hospitals and clinics discard in
order to protect patient health and avoid legal liability. To the extent that aid workers revalue
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medical discards as a form of humanitarian care or Christian blessing for recipients abroad, they
may strongly resist the notion that they are helping to dispose of something worthless (Halvorson
An analysis of different waste streams reveals distinct material capacities, which shape the ways
that these by-products can be managed and the uses to which they are put. This flow of various
waste streams depends on the mediation of waste management infrastructure and the broader
sociomaterial relations of which they are a part.
Waste streams tend to change or deteriorate in some way over time, if for no other reason than they
are no longer actively maintained. As Ingold (2010, p. 9) writes, “[l]eft to themselves . . . materials
can run amok. Pots are smashed, bodies disintegrate. It takes effort and vigilance to keep things
intact, whether they be pots or people. The same is true of the gardener, who likewise has to
struggle to prevent the garden from turning into a jungle” (compare Deacon 2012, p. 207). The
deformation of waste could be seen as the inevitable counterpart to creating and maintaining form
(Lynch 1990, Bauman 2004, Viney 2014).
As they circulate and deform, wastes mix with people and places, with which they mutually
transform or become together. As with exchange practices, acts of rejection, remaking, and reuse
change people and their relations with each other as much as they change the objects themselves.
When waste management infrastructure is lacking, people and waste may mix in ways that threaten
human life and dignity. In refugee camps, for example, inhabitants are kept in a state of suspension
between political regimes in order to receive humanitarian aid and protection from conflict—they
thus represent political dirt, inDouglas’s sense (Malkki 1995).Though camps are typically planned
by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to promote hygiene and health above
all (Herz 2008), in practice inadequate waste removal can expose inhabitants to illness and disease
(Habib et al. 2006). Thus, a marginalized or exceptional social and political status not only is
metaphorically waste-like, but also is a factor that can increase exposure to other people’s actual
wastes and the risks thereof.
If infrastructures can be defined as “matter that enable the movement of other matter” (Larkin
2013, p. 329), then waste management infrastructure is arguably unique because the material
circulated is secondary, the by-product of the subtraction of unwanted matter from particular
settings (Osborne 1996, Joyce 2003). The role that waste management infrastructure plays is
typically absential: Waste management makes things disappear by moving them elsewhere, and,
like most infrastructures of liberal governance, waste management is considered most successful
to the extent that its workings and flows remain invisible. Waste management infrastructure is
thus bio-political, in the sense that it involves care for the life, the vitality, and well-being, of
populations (Foucault 2008, Alexander & Reno 2014).
For waste to end up somewhere else, regardless of what is done with it, requires labor. More
humble acts of waste management occur outside the aegis of any municipality, corporation, or
state. Varieties of cleanliness have become normalized and require constant effort to maintain
(Elias 1969, Hoy 1995, Shove 2003). Caregivers and domestic workers, paid and unpaid,
routinely expose themselves to forms of pollution to keep others clean. Separate but related
literatures explore the politics of household work (Constable 1997, Anderson 2000, Strasser
2000, Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001) and professional caregiving ( Jervis 2001, Van der Geest 2002b,
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Twigg et al. 2011) as typically performed by female and migrant labor. The provision of
workers to clean places, spaces, and bodies, often for low pay or none at all, is facilitated by
and reinforces divisions of gender and class, even as it may provide opportunities to resist the
indignities of filthy, denigrated labor (Barbosa 2007, Brody 2007). Outside domestic domains,
waste picking and informal recycling also tend to be gendered and infantilized (Norris 2010,
Fredericks 2012). It is not surprising that people with lower status should engage in lower-status
and polluting work; however, like domestic or household labor, waste work could also be seen
as a logical extension of social reproduction and affective labor, that is, as part of caring for
If successfully managed and removed from inhabited areas, waste must go somewhere and be
dealt with by someone. The most common way of dealing with waste is to dump it, whether in
bodies of water, in streets and alleys, in geological depressions, or on open land. Dumping can
be understood as a logical counterpart to the basic rejection of things, the removal of what is
unwanted. Dumping waste suggests that getting rid of it is the primary goal: Irrespective of what
comes of the waste when it is removed, it must move on. In this context, waste is also managed
as if its only potential was as an impediment or threat to specific forms of life. Consequently, its
absence makes those forms of life possible. As something dumped, the only social afterlife for
waste may arise through processes of mitigation and reparation, for example, as a problem for
communities in proximity to the dumping site (Reno 2011a, Dahlberg 2012, Little 2014).
When exposure to waste becomes part of a professional vocation, rather than something done
in private (seeDumont 1980, p. 93) or which arises owing to inauspicious proximity to a waste site,
it can also raise the possibility of stigma. This is most obvious in the case of the enduring association
between dirty and polluting trades and Dalits of the Hindu caste system ( Jayaraman 2008, Gill
2009), though it is common for marginalized social groups to end up doing dirty work (Zimring
2005, Furniss 2010).Moreover, as is the case with people of marked ethnoracial identity in North
America (Bullard 2008), to the extent that Indian caste is associated with poverty, individuals do
not have to work directly with waste to be disproportionately exposed to waste sites because these
groups aremore likely to live in places where land is cheaper and political resistance is less effective
(Srinivasamoha 2013).
The important point is that work with waste is not merely an outcome of one’s place in
a predetermined social hierarchy, but also something that is actively reinforced in practice by
becoming waste in different ways. Douglas (1966), in line with Dumont’s (1980) analysis of the
Hindu caste system, distinguished between stratification on the basis of categorical purity/impurity
and that based on the accrual of wealth, but as Barbosa (2007) shows in the case of Brazilian
domestic workers, the two can also be compatible. When people and places become associated
with waste, they may be seen as waste themselves, that is, as disposable and abject subjects without
potential (Bauman 2004).
Exposure to waste can also provide opportunities for the recovery of wealth from what otherwise
would be disposed of. At all stages of the dumping process—during cleaning, collection, sorting,
and disposal—wastes can be recovered, remade, and given life as part of a new creative process.
This too poses risks. Regardless of the waste stream involved, an open-ended transformation is
made possible through the productive combination of human creativity, the material vitality of
wastes themselves, and the physical surroundings where they come to rest (Bennett 2010). The
transformation of waste may be a source of contamination, literal as well as metaphorical; it might
possess traces of its former bearer, whose identity could be stolen or privacy violated; and it
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may also have indeterminate value, either as an actual object or as part of its underlying material
The most common form of reuse throughout the world is the informal recycling that occurs
as part of informal economies in and around urban settings and their dumps (Medina 2007). In
the privileged corners of the Global North, exotic images of poor children scavenging on dumps
have become a popular object of cosmopolitan consumption and moral concern. This denies the
informal recycling that occurs among economically and politically marginal figures in wealthier
societies. Children picking through dumps in Kenya or Brazil are more likely to be depicted in
global media than is the informal waste recycling by homeless Californian drug addicts (Bourgois
& Schonberg 2009), middle-class landfill workers in Michigan (Reno 2009), or dumpster-diving
anarchists’ collectives in many cities throughout theworld (Giles 2014). Even in poorer parts of the
world, informal waste pickers are not merely unfortunate victims of exploitation, any more than are
domestic workers (Brody 2007, Aguiar&Ryan 2009).Many of these individuals are concerned not
with the perceived indignities and abjection of mixing with waste, but with their access to good
waste loads as well as periodic price fluctuations in the global recycling market (Sicular 1992;
Tranberg Hansen 2000; Mitchell 2008, 2009; Alexander & Reno 2012; Kilby 2013).
In places with entrenched or emerging waste management infrastructures, alternativemodes of
valuation may also come between different kinds and classes of waste workers, some of whom wish
to reclaim waste for profit and others of whom may be compensated for dumping it (Millar 2008,
Reno 2009, Lane 2011). Different forms of waste labor are no more identical than are alternative
waste streams. Unionized “san men” in New York City are different from catadores searching for
scrap to sell in Buenos Aires or Zabbaleen garbage collectors in Cairo. At the same time, they
all must attend to the particular qualities of transient matter, to processes of deformation.Waste
labor is as much corporeal as it is representational; it involves an appreciation for the capacities
of things to become and not only to contaminate (Norris 2012, Zhang 2014a). Moreover, the
labor of waste management is often dangerous, threatening workers with illness and injury as
well as workers’ social identities (Nagle 2013). This is especially so where potentially toxic waste
streams are dumped in contextswith insufficient state regulation and/or enforcement (Burrell 2012,
Crang et al. 2012). Yet the implementation of reforms, ostensibly for environmental protection
and worker safety, can also threaten the livelihood of waste pickers (Hill 2001, Millar 2012).
Overall, there has been less ethnographic research on different sociotechnical systems of disposal
than on informal waste recyclers. This deficit in the literature will likely need to improve
as informal recycling cooperatives are dispossessed through the further privatization and bureaucratization
of waste management. What work has been done on waste-treatment technologies
demonstrates that many of the same problems that beset common dumps and their pickers still
linger on in the most regulated and mechanized waste sites. Incinerators may be protested and
resisted as a source of pollution (Clark 2007, Alexander & Reno 2014, Zhang 2014b), despite
their long-favored status among sanitary waste engineers as an efficient way to eliminate waste
while recovering heat and power. “Sanitary” or “modern” landfills attract similar opposition, because
of what they release into the atmosphere, but they are plagued by the additional concern
that they might leach into surrounding environments and bodies (Falasca-Zamponi 2010, Reno
2011a). Unlike common dumps, however, these landfills aremore carefully designed to cordon off
waste from both society and nature, maintaining their contents in a state of suspended animation.
This makes it possible for landfills to one day be recovered as an invented commons, a source of
new land upon which to build or reclaim for other purposes (Horne & Nagle 2011). However,
this model of burial and reclamation may come at the cost of reusing worthwhile items from
the rubbish. When waste management becomes heavily dependent on landfill, as has occurred in
countries such as the United States, the result is a dump regime ( Johansson et al. 2012), where
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waste is neither commodified nor repurposed. Instead, it is reduced to a sacrifice of air space, a
material that limits the amount of refuse that can be taken in, reshaping the labor of employees
and the profit schemes of owners in turn (B´elanger 2007, Reno 2009).
Dump regimes diminish opportunities for cultivating “arts of transience” (Hawkins 2006,
p. 129) by which people creatively reuse materials and remake their own lives and relationships.
The result is a significant loss of both material and human potential. Future ethnographers will
need to attend to the practical, economic, and bureaucratic dimensions of new regimes of waste
management, while simultaneously identifying those alternative waste practices and skills that are
being displaced and those that continue to subsist on the margins.
Waste is not just something out of place; it is inseparable from the production of spatial relationships
at various scales.Waste flows and politics connect people across great distances and become
entangled with planetary, nonhuman processes.
Opponents of waste sites are sometimes characterized as NIMBYs (not in my backyard), as
if to provincialize their interests. To challenge an understanding of waste politics that would
be limited to “end of pipe” concerns, Gille (2007) uses the concept of a “waste regime,” which
describes unified representations, practices, and politics of waste within a single analytical category.
Central toGille’s analysis of waste management transitions from socialist to postsocialistHungary
is the way that waste is dominantly understood and dealt with in a given place and time.
The management tendencies of waste regimes reverberate across multiple scales. The politicization
of local waste sites—such as the Love Canal disaster—can result in changes to entire
waste regimes (Pellow 2002, Rootes 2009). Similarly, one can identify a contemporary shift in
waste regimes throughout much of the world, as political reforms at national, regional, and local
levels have led to the innovation of new management techniques based on the representation of
waste as a resource. In various ways, these initiatives challenge the notion that abundant waste is
inevitable, that humankind is wasteful by necessity rather than by design (Liboiron 2013a).
New and emerging technologies are being promoted as regulatory regimes seek to compensate
for the loss of landfill space, to satisfy public demands for more recycling, and to avoid the
production of greenhouse gases. Efforts to reuse waste before resorting to landfill, or to mine it
afterward ( Johansson et al. 2012), are limited if waste is seen as somethingmerely polluting. Leading
alternatives to landfill or incineration include thermal waste treatments, such as gasification
and pyrolysis, and those involving organic decomposition, such as in-vessel composting, anaerobic
digestion (Reno 2011c), or more domestic “eco-enzyme” devices (Zhang 2014a). The recovery of
energy or fertilizer from waste treatments such as these does not eliminate the threat of pollution
and public resistance, however, and may even incentivize the production and importation of waste
(Reno 2011b, Alexander & Reno 2014).
A more familiar recent policy initiative is the “consumption work” of recycling (Wheeler
& Glucksmann 2014), which places more of a burden on households to sort wastes for reuse.
Recently, food waste reforms have begun to target improper consumption (Alexander et al. 2013,
Evans 2014), even as the food industry profits from its profligate waste (Giles 2014). Whereas
economic incentives and moral shaming campaigns focus on consumer and retail practices, the
possibility of compelling manufacturers to produce less waste is foreclosed.
According to Gille (2007), any prevailing waste regime will have blind spots because of its
narrow focus on some materials rather than on others (on recoverable metals rather than on toxic
chemicals, for example). As a consequence, materials have a tendency to “bite back” against the
dominant trends in waste management, exposing their limitations. For example, items recycled
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by well-meaning Northern elites may become entangled in toxic and low-paid labor abroad
(Alexander & Reno 2012).
With the demand for improvements in waste regulation and infrastructure in wealthier
countries, the cost of domestic disposal makes transnational waste shipment more attractive.
At the same time, environmental justice activists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)
have gone global, calling attention to waste sites where infrastructure is inadequate or missing
altogether (Pellow 2007). It was as a result of international activism that the shipment of toxic
waste from rich to poor nations was eventually prohibited by international regulations, especially
the Basel Convention of 1992/1996. And yet, new wastes (such as WEEE) and new economic
arrangements continue to muddy the regulatory distinction of toxic waste from recoverable
resource (Clapp 2001, Lepawsky & McNabb 2010). The post-Basel waste regime has additional
blind spots. Waste trading from GlobalNorth to South is monitored and politicized by numerous
NGOs and media organizations, whereas generally unregulated and ignored North–North and
South–South trades grow in size and importance (O’Neill 2000, Lepawsky 2015).
Not only waste but also waste regimes have been exported and experimented with abroad
through colonial and imperial formations that implicate subjects at the “core” and “periphery”
equally. British colonial officials experimented with the recovery of biogas from biological waste
decomposition in India prior to its introduction in the United Kingdom. In general, “civilizing”
colonial subjects meant disciplining their wastes and waste practices as objects of scientific
knowledge and political control (Anderson 2006). The purported universality of Euro-American
sanitation has been challenged in contexts where the costs of modernity are borne even as its
promises are endlessly deferred (Chakrabarty 1992). This deferral can itself amount to a strategy
of abandonment, constitutive of imperial formations that leave uneven traces in the form of ruins
and ruination (Stoler 2013). Accra, Ghana, can be characterized both as a dumping ground for the
WEEE of the Global North (Burrell 2012), as well as a city with a growing and poorly managed
domestic waste burden of its own (Baabereyir et al. 2012).Moreover, if communities are routinely
exposed to sites where pollution has been left behind and landscapes ruined, they may struggle to
represent their environmental suffering or come to expect it as an ordinary part of the landscape
(Masco 2006; Auyero & Swistun 2007, 2008). Informal waste practices proliferate in poorer waste
regimes, potentially frustrating the ambitions of international lenders and local elites aiming for
waste reform (Chakrabarty 1992, Furniss 2010, Fredericks 2012).
The distinction between local and global sources of waste can disguise the common structural
and political-economic origins of both. The kinds of waste streams that proliferate and their geographic
distribution are tied to the global spread of capitalism and its crises, a growing divide
between the world’s rich and poor, and political conflict and ethnonational divisions. These structural
tendencies serve to increase the number of people who are “redundant” because they are
unemployed, disabled, racially marked, or threatening to security state apparatuses (Bauman 2004,
Gidwani & Reddy 2011, Gidwani 2013), and conspire to dehumanize people all over the world,
as if they were human waste (Yates 2011). Their disproportionate exposure to waste sites and
streams is constituted by and constitutive of these wider structural processes, but it also provides
opportunities for creative acts of resistance (Faulk 2012, Liboiron 2012).
Waste can also circulate and bite back as a result of nonhuman flows and divides. Characteristic
in this regard is the Pacific garbage patch, a region of theNorthern Pacific Gyre that has attracted
both floating plastic debris and global concern and fascination. A relatively recent discovery,
oceanic patches have grown for decades, mixing with marine environments and forces without
any humans to decide whether they were out of place and without government interventions to
regulate or mitigate their impact. But even when wastes end up on beaches (and can therefore be
more directly assessed and addressed), people debate what scales to address and how: whether this
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plastic waste should be quickly cleaned up as a nuisance or be carefully documented as evidence of
a more-than-human, global environmental crisis (De Wolff 2013). The hidden and unmanaged
circulation of plastic in ocean currents challenges the assumption that all waste finds its place as a
result of human design.
The pollution of the world by human waste has become a basic anthropocentric conceit, a belief
that we are set apart because of the uniquely contaminating impact of what we leave behind (Lynch
1990, p. 43).The idea of the Anthropocene usefully draws our attention to broader planetary forces
in which industrial activities are enmeshed. In this sense, waste not only is a mirror of humanity,
but actively partakes in climate change and geological formations and oceanic gyres, as well. At
the same time, care should be taken lest an appreciation for human impact become conflated with
an anthropocentric belief in the power and reach of human managerial control. Waste, in all its
variety and complexity, should serve as a reminder that we can never fully grasp the planetary
processes to which we contribute, nor can we assume that they are easily managed.
By reducing waste to an all-too-human by-product in need of rational management, we foreclose
from consideration how waste may exist for nonhuman beings, how it is not merely something
that happens to them. At one scale, our most intimate waste is not ours alone. Traditional germ
theories of sickness and health are based on distinctions between pure and impure, inside and
outside, as if our collective species and our individual bodies were self-contained (Tomes 1999).
But these boundaries—upon which are based hygienic and sanitary practices—are unstable and
becoming increasingly more so with renewed biomedical appreciation for the material powers
of waste. The hygiene hypothesis (Gwee 2005, Koloski et al. 2008) proposes a link between too
much cleanliness, a civilized rejection of dirt, and the proliferation of ailments and allergies of the
gut. Health is made possible, according to this theory, precisely through microbial invasion and
a resulting multispecies ecological balance within our bodies. It is based on this idea, of a body
necessarily invaded by helpful microbes, that there has been a resurgence of interest in fecal transplants
(Wolf-Meyer 2014). Here, feces carrying the microbial remnants of a healthy gut ecology
become an instrument of health management rather than a problem for waste disposal: a resource
and not filth.
Beyond the microecologies of guts, further entanglements derive from the wastes humans
release into their environments. Urban settings and waste sites teem with creatures that subsist
on our wastes, from pigeons, to pigs, rats, mice, dogs, and cockroaches (Nagy & Johnson 2013,
Instone & Sweeney 2014, Reno 2014, Gross 2015). But this is a widespread phenomenon. Reid &
Ellis (1995) demonstrate that Turkana pastoralists unintentionally reproduce rare tree species in
the vicinity of the corrals where they pen their animals. It is precisely the defecation of livestock that
serves to ecologically recruit vulnerable tree species, which would otherwise struggle to survive in
the arid landscape. Based on the utilization of dung for fuel to create Andean pottery, Sillar (2000)
argues that the production of every artifact is embedded in interdependent relationships both with
other social and technical practices as well as with wider environmental relationships. Waste is
always relational and not only because someone elected to dispose of it. It is also embedded in
further relations with life forms and forms of life implicated in its vital materiality (Gregson &
Crang 2010).
At the same time, the designs, devices, and laboring bodies that manage wastes are of grave
importance toEarth’s future. For this reason, the engineering techniques of waste management are
now and have always been as much moral and political as they are mechanical and mathematical.
Moreover, as emerging do-it-yourself and scholarly-activist collaborations demonstrate, there are
566 Reno
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other ways that anthropologists and other scholars might productively engage with vital matters of
human living, which otherwise become the exclusive domain of sanitary engineers, urban planners,
and environmental policy makers (Liboiron 2012, Grassroots Mapp. Forum 2014, Hird et al.
2014). The future of discard studies needs to engage with waste managements as well as to push
past them, to see where human control and design leave off and new and strange arrangements of
life and nonlife come into being. If waste is seen as a problem that can be solved through human
mastery of the environment, we are back to an older form of anthropology, which reduced waste
to a symptom of the human search for meaning.
The author is not aware of any affiliations, memberships, funding, or financial holdings that might
be perceived as affecting the objectivity of this review.
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Annual Review of
Volume 44, 2015 Contents
Some Things I Hope YouWill Find Useful Even if Statistics
Isn’t Your Thing
George L. Cowgill                                                                               1
Pleistocene Overkill and North American Mammalian Extinctions
David J. Meltzer                                                                              33
The Archaeology of Ritual
Edward Swenson                                                                              329
Recent Developments in High-Density Survey and Measurement
(HDSM) for Archaeology: Implications for Practice and Theory
Rachel Opitz and W. Fred Limp                                                            347
Biological Anthropology
The Evolution of Difficult Childbirth and Helpless Hominin Infants
Holly Dunsworth and Leah Eccleston                                                         55
Health of Indigenous Peoples
Claudia R. Valeggia and J. Josh Snodgrass                                                 117
Energy Expenditure in Humans and Other Primates: A New Synthesis
Herman Pontzer                                                                              169
An Evolutionary and Life-History Perspective on Osteoporosis
Felicia C. Madimenos                                                                        189
Disturbance, Complexity, Scale: New Approaches to the Study of
Human–Environment Interactions
Rebecca Bliege Bird                                                                           241
Fallback Foods, Optimal Diets, and Nutritional Targets: Primate
Responses to Varying Food Availability and Quality
Joanna E. Lambert and Jessica M. Rothman                                               493
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Resource Transfers and Human Life-History Evolution
James Holland Jones                                                                         513
An Evolutionary Anthropological Perspective on Modern
Human Origins
Curtis W. Marean                                                                           533
Anthropology of Language and Communicative Practices
How Postindustrial Families Talk
Elinor Ochs and Tamar Kremer-Sadlik                                                     87
Chronotopes, Scales, and Complexity in the Study of Language
in Society
Jan Blommaert                                                                               105
Linguistic Relativity from Reference to Agency
N.J. Enfield                                                                                   207
Politics of Translation
Susan Gal                                                                                     225
Breached Initiations: Sociopolitical Resources and Conflicts
in Emergent Adulthood
Norma Mendoza-Denton and Aomar Boum                                               295
Embodiment in Human Communication
J¨urgen Streeck                                                                                419
The Pragmatics of Qualia in Practice
Nicholas Harkness                                                                            573
Sociocultural Anthropology
Bonnie Nardi                                                                                  15
Anthropology and Heritage Regimes
Haidy Geismar                                                                                71
Urban Political Ecology
Anne Rademacher                                                                            137
Environmental Anthropology: Systemic Perspectives
Yancey Orr, J. Stephen Lansing, and Michael R. Dove                                    153
The Anthropology of Life After AIDS: Epistemological Continuities
in the Age of Antiretroviral Treatment
Eileen Moyer                                                                                  259
Anthropology of Aging and Care
Elana D. Buch                                                                                277
Contents vii
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Anthropology of Ontologies
Eduardo Kohn                                                                                311
Oil and Anthropology
Douglas Rogers                                                                                365
The Post–Cold War Anthropology of Central America
Jennifer L. Burrell and Ellen Moodie                                                       381
Risks of Citizenship and Fault Lines of Survival
Adriana Petryna and Karolina Follis                                                        401
Piers Vitebsky and Anatoly Alekseyev                                                       439
Of What Does Self-Knowing Consist? Perspectives from Bangladesh
and Pakistan
Naveeda Khan                                                                                457
Addiction in the Making
William Garriott and Eugene Raikhel                                                      477
Waste and Waste Management
Joshua Reno                                                                                   557
Theme: Resources
Bonnie Nardi                                                                                  15
Pleistocene Overkill and North American Mammalian Extinctions
David J. Meltzer                                                                              33
Urban Political Ecology
Anne Rademacher                                                                            137
Environmental Anthropology: Systemic Perspectives
Yancey Orr, J. Stephen Lansing, and Michael R. Dove                                    153
Energy Expenditure in Humans and Other Primates: A New Synthesis
Herman Pontzer                                                                              169
Disturbance, Complexity, Scale: New Approaches to the Study of
Human–Environment Interactions
Rebecca Bliege Bird                                                                           241
Anthropology of Aging and Care
Elana D. Buch                                                                                277
Breached Initiations: Sociopolitical Resources and Conflicts in
Emergent Adulthood
Norma Mendoza-Denton and Aomar Boum                                               295
viii Contents
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Recent Developments in High-Density Survey and Measurement
(HDSM) for Archaeology: Implications for Practice and Theory
Rachel Opitz and W. Fred Limp                                                            347
Oil and Anthropology
Douglas Rogers                                                                                365
Resource Transfers and Human Life-History Evolution
James Holland Jones                                                                         513
Waste and Waste Management
Joshua Reno                                                                                   557
Cumulative Index of Contributing Authors, Volumes 35–44                            591
Cumulative Index of Chapter Titles, Volumes 35–44                                    595
An online log of corrections to Annual Review of Anthropology articles may be found at
Contents ix
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