Opinion

Making Waste: Reuse, Repurpose and Reduce?

What does waste want to become, and what is it becoming as it enters a circuit of endless metabolism and transformation from one thing into something else?

As Dr. Fiona Allon from the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies put it: ‘What does waste want to become, and what is it becoming as it enters a circuit of endless metabolism and transformation from one thing into something else. What does this process of becoming entail, and is it always a good thing? Waste, after all, seems to be always on the move, becoming something else’.

Waste is currently in the process of being rethought. Departing from the static ways in which we might see waste (worthless, abandoned, outmoded, out of place, out of time, or as something to be discarded), we are increasingly seeing calls to ‘rethink’ waste. This includes calls to give it a new life, to see the way it transforms and is transformative, as well as the ways it circulates at different scales. Waste becomes revalorised just as practices that were once thought of as having had their time are revived. This revival signals something much more than a revalorisation of waste – it shows the complex entanglements between new identities, pleasures, social practices, and everyday politics.

This was the subject of an inspiring two days of presentations, conversations, and critical reflections on waste, sustainability, and social practices. The workshop, titled ‘Making Waste: Reuse, Repurpose and Reduce?’, explored a range of social and cultural phenomena including fridges, smart homes, used electronics, food sharing, chicken-keeping, craft, clothing reuse, and garage sales. With the support of the Sydney Environment Institute, what started off as a two-year DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) Berlin-Sydney collaboration between the University of Potsdam and the University of Sydney became a much larger forum to discuss critical issues related to the field of discard studies. A group of scholars from Adelaide, Berlin, Melbourne, Wollongong, Sydney, and Canberra were brought together to discuss the fundamental inexactness of waste.

If waste constantly moves from one state to another, how is it that we can pinpoint it conceptually and devise the methods and modes of inquiry that would be able to grasp its complexity? What theoretical frameworks are adequate when the human/inhuman, cultural/natural, social/physical divides are blurred? How do concepts of waste play out in social, cultural, and economic spheres? At what scales do we know waste? Far from being ‘dead matter’, waste presents itself as a dynamic entity. In exploring these questions, an understanding of the unpredictability of waste also led our research in unexpected directions, from everyday material practices, households, the revival of social practices, sustainability and the environment, infrastructure, and urban economies.

Waste, as Nicky Gregson and Michael Crang remind us, ‘is a long way from stuff that “just is”…rather it becomes’. An exploration of waste’s capacity for new life is generative: it at once raises questions about where waste ‘goes’ both physically, figuratively, and conceptually, supported by systems and technologies of circulation and exchange, as well as questions about our own relationships to waste, to one another, the environment, and sustainability.

The discussions generated rich, inspiring thought and the two-day workshop generated a host of fascinating questions, answers, and questions yet to be answered in a friendly and open atmosphere. As Associate Professor Ruth Barcan from the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies commented: “This workshop was so exciting. It was great to hear about such interesting empirical work on everything from fridges to smart homes to garage sales, underpinned by smart conceptual and theoretical work”.

References

Gregson, N., and M. Crang. 2010. Guest editorial materiality and waste: Inorganic vitality in a networked world. Environment and Planning A 42: 1026–32.