Category Archives: recycling

The Discard Studies Blog Is Back! (And Could Use Our Support.)

SimsMRF_conveyor

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 definitionsbibliographies, 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.

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Resources for Observing and Understanding America Recycles Day

recycle-logoWednesday is America Recycles Day. It’s a day that reveals the complex history of industry, consumer society, and our attitudes towards the environment.

Time magazine’s 2016 feature on the history of recycling, featuring interviews with Susan Strasser, Bartow Elmore, and me. I encourage readers whose curiosity is whetted by our quotes to seek out Susan’s book Waste and Want, Bart’s book Citizen Coke, and my Cash for Your Trash for elaboration.

My 2017 post for the Organization of American Historians on the history of recycling. I allude to it in the footnotes, but Samantha MacBride’s Recycling Reconsidered is an indispensable book for understanding how the system of recycling functions (and does not function).

This 2016 episode of BackStory Radio featuring segments with Brett Mizelle and Catherine McNeur, Robin Nagle, David Sklansky, Elmore, and me provides more historical context for what and how we discard, and how private and public recycling programs are shaped by that history. The episode concludes with an interview of Gary Anderson, who designed the recycling logo that appears at the top of this post.

Illinois Recycling Association Symposium in Chicago Thursday July 19 at 6pm

CharlesRayEamesAluminumChairThis Thursday, Steven Corey and I will discuss the past, present, and future of waste management, recycling, downcycling, and upcycling in a symposium for the Illinois Recycling Association.

Join the IRA for an entertaining evening of conversation about the history of waste reclamation, and how that history may inform a more sustainable future. Subjects will include many of the cool things we’ve made out of recycled material, from sports cars to guitars, as featured in Carl A. Zimring’s new book Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective.

Dr. Zimring, professor at Pratt Institute, will be joined by Steven Corey, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Department of Humanities, History and Social Sciences at Columbia College/Chicago. Dr. Corey served as curator for the noted exhibition “Garbage! The History and Politics of Trash in NYC” while completing his doctorate.

Join the Conversation:
Thursday, July 20 from 6 to 9 p.m.
Auditorium Building, 435 South Michigan Avenue, AUD #420

$35 general admission
$20 Student fee
Questions: info@illinoisrecycles.org

I’ll discuss some of the ways aluminum has been upcycled, including in guitars, cars, and furniture like the designs Charles and Ray Eames made for Herman Miller (see the above image). For more information and to register, click here.

OAH Blog Post on History of Recycling

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Organization of American Historians asked me to write a brief post on the Process blog about the history of recycling. Here’s the lede:

In the popular imagination, recycling arose out of the modern environmental movement. Some associate recycling with efforts to to divert discards from landfills or with World War II scrap drives when the government mobilized resources for the war effort. But recycling’s history is both older and more complicated than either of those depictions.

Paul Revere recycled, though he did not use that word…

Read the rest, including discussion of curbside programs, wartime scrap drives, and the turn towards upcycling as a sustainable design strategy.

On the Radio with Mike Nowak Saturday @ 10:15am WCGO-AM 1590 Chicago

radio_pic.jpgWith ASEH bringing me back to Chicago this year, my good friend Mike Nowak has generously invited me back for a return appearance on Chicago’s longest-running environmental radio show on April 1. The Mike Nowak Show airs every Saturday from 10am-noon CT on WCGO-AM 1590 and listeners outside the Chicago metropolitan area can listen live at the link or click through later to hear the show as a podcast.

I’ll be on starting at 10:15, and we will likely talk about my new book Aluminum Upcycled, which I’ll bring to the Chicago Humanities Festival on April 29. Based on past experience, it is quite possible Mike and I will discuss the state of recycling and waste management in Chicago.

Aluminum Upcycled Book Event in Brooklyn Saturday 1:30pm

zimringpostedI will discuss my book Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective (available now) at Pratt’s Sustainability Crash Course in Brooklyn Saturday afternoon March 25 from 1:30-2:20pm. 

The Sustainability Crash Course runs from 9am to 5pm with a variety of talks and events at Pratt’s Brooklyn campus (200 Willoughby Avenue near the Clinton-Washington C station and the Classon G station). My book launch will be in Pratt’s Engineering Building at 1:30pm and last about 50 minutes. The event is free, but registration is required.

I will have copies of the book for sale ($30 cash or check, a discount from the $39.95 list price) at the event. Johns Hopkins University Press describes my history of sustainable design strategies this way:

Beginning in 1886 with the discovery of how to mass produce aluminum, the book examines the essential part the metal played in early aviation and the world wars, as well as the troubling expansion of aluminum as a material of mass disposal. Recognizing that scrap aluminum was as good as virgin material and much more affordable than newly engineered metal, designers in the postwar era used aluminum to manufacture highly prized artifacts. Zimring takes us on a tour of post-1940s design, examining the use of aluminum in cars, trucks, airplanes, furniture, and musical instruments from 1945 to 2015. 

By viewing upcycling through the lens of one material, Zimring deepens our understanding of the history of recycling in industrial society. He also provides a historical perspective on contemporary sustainable design practices. Along the way, he challenges common assumptions about upcycling’s merits and adds a new dimension to recycling as a form of environmental absolution for the waste-related sins of the modern world. Raising fascinating questions of consumption, environment, and desire,  Upcycling Aluminum is for anyone interested in industrial and environmental history, discard studies, engineering, product design, music history, or antiques.

Time Feature on America Recycles Day

recycle-logoNovember 15 is America Recycles Day, so I am popping in late with a link to Time magazine’s feature on the history of recycling, featuring interviews with Susan Strasser, Bartow Elmore, and me.

Readers interested in the themes of this article may find expansion on several points in my book Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America (Rutgers UP, 2005).