New York City’s curbside recycling collections being sorted at the Sims facility in Sunset Park.
September brings with it the resumption of posts on the remarkably generative Discard Studies blog edited by Professors Max Liboiron and Josh Lepawsky and graduate student Alex Zahara of Memorial University of Newfoundland. Over the last several years, the authors of the blog have generated some of the best critical thinking across disciplines assessing the power relations, systems, culture, and economics of how and why modern societies discard. What Is Discard Studies?
We tend to think that we are familiar with waste because we deal with it every day. Yet, most aspects of waste are entirely hidden from common view and understanding, including the wider social, economic, political, cultural, and material systems that shape waste and wasting. Unlike studies that take waste and trash as their primary objects of study, discard studies looks at wider systems that make waste and wasting they ways they are. For instance, rather than asking how much people recycle and why they don’t recycle more, discard studies asks why recycling is considered good in the first place (MacBride 2011, Liboiron 2009, Ackerman 1997).
The field of discard studies is united by a critical framework that questions premises of what seems normal or given, and analyzes the wider role of society and culture, including social norms, economic systems, forms of labor, ideology, infrastructure, and power in definitions of, attitudes toward, behaviors around, and materialities of waste, broadly defined. As its starting point, discard studies holds that waste is not produced by individuals and is not automatically disgusting, harmful, or morally offensive, but that both the materials of discards and their meanings are part of wider sociocultural-economic systems. Our task is to interrogate these systems for how waste comes to be, and our work is often to offer critical alternatives to popular and normative notions of waste.
Discard Studies is designed as an online hub for scholars, activists, environmentalists, students, artists, planners, and others who are asking questions about waste, not just as an ecological problem, but as a process, category, mentality, judgment, an infrastructural and economic challenge, and as a site for producing power as well as struggles against power structures. We produce and host: monthly research-based articles on discard studies; compile a monthly report on recent articles, jobs, and calls for participation relevant to discard studies called “The Dirt”; and maintain a repository of definitions, bibliographies, and syllabi as resources.
The kind of reader who would wander onto my blog would certainly get a lot out of reading Discard Studies, and I recommend it for anyone interested in STS, environmental studies, urban studies, material culture, critical waste studies, political economy, ethnography, or environmental history. (A few of us environmental historians, including Martin Melosi, Steve Corey, Ruth Rand, Peter Thorsheim, and I, have structured sessions at ASEH to advance the approach Max, Josh, Alex, blog founder Robin Nagle, and their colleagues have championed on this site.)
The blog is back, and it has costs to meet, including paying for the server, compensating the collaborating editor who is a graduate student, and (if enough of us donate) allowing the writers of each piece to be compensated for their labors. If this strikes you as a valuable endeavor, consider supporting Discard Studies on Patreon.