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date: 05 March 2021

Global Entanglements of Recycling Policy and Practicefree

  • Catherine AlexanderCatherine AlexanderDurham University
  •  and Joshua RenoJoshua RenoState University of New York at Binghamton


In line with rising public and policy concern about wastes, there has been a distinct rise in scholarly analyses of these and other developments associated with economies of recycling, focusing especially on people’s material and moral encounters with reuse. These range from nuanced investigations into how lives and materials can both be re-crafted by recovering value from discards; following an object through its many social lives; or focusing on a material such as plastic or e-waste and tracking how waste is co-produced at each stage of creation and (re)use. Examining contested property rights in wastes, together with the infrastructures and ethics of engagements with wastes and their recovery or otherwise, reveal how global economies intersect with a rapidly shifting policy environment and systems of waste management. The global entanglement of policies and practices not only shapes what becomes of waste but also how it is variously imagined as pollutant or resource.

Economies of Recycling in the 21st Century

When it comes to myth and ritual, anthropologists have long recognized the generativity of remaking for human imagination and social organization. As Levi-Strauss wrote, quoting Franz Boas, “it would seem that mythological worlds have been built up, only to be shattered again, and that new worlds were built from the fragments” (Levi-Strauss 1955, 428). And yet, the social sciences have been relatively slow off the mark (with the notable exceptions of Thompson 1979; Derksen and Gartrell 1993; Strasser 1999; and Medina 2007) to recognize the significance of material waste work and recycling practices in household, national, and global economies alike. It is not only myth-making and ritual activity that involve creatively repurposing fragments. The sheer size of waste and recycling trades indicates their global importance: 90 billion USD in 2016 (OECD 2018a, 9)—and that is an estimate based on available visible figures. Actual material flows are likely to vastly exceed this, especially given the sizable informal and illegal activities around waste management within and across borders. Notwithstanding the enduring value of remarkable insight—that ideas of waste, or rather, impurity, are found everywhere and yet differ in accordance with culturally specific systems of symbolic classification—this has tended to overshadow other engagements with the complex lives of materials in the contemporary world. Waste has a long tradition of being analyzed as an epiphenomenon of religious and moral symbolism. Yet, to return to Levi-Strauss, the kind of generativity that recycling speaks to echoes his idea of bricolage: that creating and recreating from scraps and fragments is a universal material and symbolic way of being in the world.

Recycling, reuse, and recovery involve an important subset of wastes in toto. The English distinction between discarding and recycling is not universal, of course, but there are corollaries in other languages and societies—for instance, in the Tibetan distinction between jhyanghe (“freeing, wiping out, taking away, subtracting . . .” [Desjarlais 2016, 131]) and solba (“to mend, repair; to restore, rebuild, re-establish what has been destroyed; to refresh, recreate . . .” [Desjarlais 2016, 116]). Similarly, recycling studies typically emphasize acts of recuperation, transformation, and locating value. The broader field of discard studies is often more concerned with the rejection of unwanted material, their disposal and potential toxicity, and the systems and conditions that enable this (see Liboiron 2018). Recycling is often linked with waste classifications and systems of discard, but not necessarily. Reusing a child’s worn and outgrown T-shirt as a duster does not mean the garment has been first classified as “waste.” However, for objects and materials fished out from landfills, other garbage, or collection sites, whether by individuals, cooperatives, or corporations, we can see a classificatory trajectory whereby things may move in and out of being classed as waste and value (Alexander and Sanchez 2019; Lepawsky and Mather 2011; Thompson 1979). Therefore, classifications of what counts as waste and policies that determine what should be done with it profoundly affect what is available for recycling and what it means when different people engage in it.

If recycling has always been a socially differentiated activity, depending on where it happens, with what materials, at what scale, and with what labor, it is only in the 21st century that the social studies of recycling have similarly multiplied. Anthropologists, geographers, and sociologists have contributed ethnographic accounts of micro-practices of recycling, previously concealed by the dominant emphasis on linear material trajectories from extraction to disposal, and show how these articulate with longer-term and macroscale policies, networks, and flows. In this way, the emergent literature on recycling complements, complicates, and sometimes challenges quantifications of wastes arising and diverted via energy, CO2, mass balance, and other indicators. One result has been to upturn earlier understandings of global economies where poorer countries contributed resources to wealthier regions and then bought back finished goods. Seen through the lens of secondary materials, an entirely different picture emerges of wealthier regions providing resources such as metal to the boom economies of the Global South, which both transform and use them. Again, recycling allows the category of “consumption” to be unpacked, revealing complex engagements with materials from simply hoarding them in anticipation of imagined futures (Alexander et al. 2009) to reuse and recycling. A focus on recycling further brings to light the work of recovering value at every stage of an object’s life by locating ever finer intervals in the value chain. Finally, recycling also highlights the creative actions of people who work to recover value from waste, who may be too readily classified as destitute and abject, or “human waste” (Bauman 2003; Yates 2011). As such, recycling may create wealth, though not always social standing (Chalfin 2017; Nguyen 2018), and may simultaneously index precarity and oppression (Gidwani and Reddy 2011; Millar 2018; Stamatopoulou-Robbins 2011).

Economies of recycling are thus a highly productive lens through which to understand the contemporary world, demanding we pay attention to the complex entanglements and sometimes inimical impulses of environmental goods and economic and political processes at different levels, scales, practices, and ethics. The next sections first outline the global policy and regulatory landscape before moving to consider precisely how rapid changes in this area profoundly affect key questions of scale, property, labor, infrastructure, and ethics through which the social sciences have typically addressed recycling and waste work within and between different political economies and the recycling strategies that emerge at these junctures.

Changing Policy and Legal Landscapes for Global Recycling

General policies related to waste and recycling are crucial to any analysis because they help depict connections at wider global scales, vitally necessary in the era of the Anthropocene, so called because it signifies the irreversible effects of human actions upon the planet at a geological scale. For Patricia Yaeger, “the apotheosis of trash” is found in “the death of nature” (2008); similarly, Gabrielle Hecht describes the Anthropocene as the “apotheosis of waste” (2018, 1). Both authors see the sheer velocity, variety, and amount of global waste generation as the root cause of profound changes to the earth. To trace out the causes and effects, it is essential to think about planetary connections.

Policies make these connections thinkable, even if they sometimes just make legible what happens or continues to happen, such as dumping in the Global South or work done by precarious labor. In anthropological terms, policies are both models of and models for the world, meaning they give shape to it even as they attempt to make sense of it. Put differently, policies involve imaginaries and practices of worlding, a useful term coined by Josh Lepawsky (2018) to evoke precisely the social construction of global relationships as an object of control and knowledge. For example, some worlding practices aim to have an impact on global trade routes for recyclates connected by nodes of collection, sorting, stripping, and resale. The importance of highlighting the idea of world construction in the case of recycling is that recent policies not only concern international relations, but increasingly ideas about reshaping the world environment as a whole in the age of the Anthropocene.

When it comes to policies related to global recycling flows, the 1991 Bamako and 1992 Basel Conventions to control transboundary hazardous waste flows are the most obvious point of departure. The latter has received considerable scholarly attention with regard to what could be called the reworlding of global flows of recyclables and toxics. In Lepawsky’s (2015) words, the Basel Convention is at once a waste regime (Gille 2007)—a given cultural and political system for determining what counts as waste and what is done with it—and a worlding in that it endeavors to create an emergent geographical reality by governing transboundary waste shipments. Since Basel is meant to prevent industrialized countries from exporting their hazardous waste to developing countries lacking the capacity to manage it properly, several further amendments and decisions were required at the international level to define what are otherwise material and geopolitical abstractions, namely, the oppositions “waste” versus “value” and “developing” versus “industrial.” Both oppositions were imperfectly delimited and inexactly characterized to allow for slippage, for example, making possible a market in e-waste recyclables. Policies therefore both presuppose and perform or enact how world and matter are categorized and made legible to policy and scientific analysis.

Policies can also determine material flows, whether that means driving some things underground, which can end up in black market exchanges and the illegal dumping of toxic waste, or sending things to cheaper places to be dismantled. “Cheapness” often simply translates to a working environment that lacks health and safety and labor regulations. Any consideration of material flows must therefore be attentive to questions of scale. Policies are typically grounded on statistical representations of material flows that emphasize different units of measurements: mass balance, CO2, energy, etc. Analyses of such flows can elucidate important problems about global environmental transformation and political responsibility, identifying which countries, industries, or segments of a population are worsening or ameliorating the greenhouse effect. But borders, and the distinct and bounded political realities they give rise to, themselves affect how such numbers can be gathered as some countries simply do not have good data. More precisely, they cannot create data that are up to the standards of the usually more powerful countries, who both export most of the world’s recyclates and set policy goals. This has the additional consequence of making policies a generative source of knowledge flows, with clear political implications: if powerful countries no longer export waste as they once did pre-Basel, they continue to export acceptable means of measuring and valuing waste. These problems bedeviled the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) in its early years of operation after the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which lacked sufficiently standardized monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) standards for many of its funded emissions reduction projects (see Reno 2018, 53–55). Consequently, in addition to setting policy to control the flow of waste into developing countries, global policy in the age of the Anthropocene also consists of building capacity in those countries to generate globally acceptable data about their own waste activities, and especially recycling projects that elude ordinary forms of assessment and evaluation. For instance, since 2010, the World Bank has experimented with new simplified methodologies for emissions reduction assessment for the CEAMSE plastic recycling operation in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This consists of exporting life cycle assessment practices that are sensitive to the carbon emissions reduction value of using recycled materials rather than virgin materials (UN-HABITAT 2010).

The distinction between waste and value, always an open-ended one (Thompson 1979), has required economic geographers to “jettison beginnings and endings in value chains and global production networks. Instead of beginnings and endings [they] advocate for studies of circulation and exchange that search for boundaries and edges” (Lepawsky and Mather 2011, 243). Whether the focus is e-waste (Lepwasky and Mather 2011), shipbreaking (Crang et al. 2012), clothing (Norris 2012), spent nuclear fuel (Garcier 2012), or plastic (Gabrys, Hawkins, and Michael 2013), markets in discards do not obey any one regime of value, where different kinds of value are combined and put at odds (see Appadurai 1986; Kopytoff 1986), but routinely trouble categories of pollution and impurity as they travel to the edge of policies and regulations—and just beyond. Futures prices for different waste streams, especially metals, are a significant component of recycling regimes of value, playing an important role in boosting or discouraging recycling.

Signatories to the Basel Agreement agreed upon an artificial distinction between “industrial” and “developing” to qualify countries, creating agreed upon spaces of exception for opportunity and risk. In the resulting contested framework of the Basel Convention, the world was “bifurcated into two undifferentiated and monolithic blocs of countries” (Lepawaky 2015, 10). In the decades that followed, the growth of e-waste grew exponentially, as did its transboundary shipment, yet this deviated from patterns expected in a pre-Basel world. For instance, much of China’s e-waste was coming from similarly developing countries in Africa, while much of India’s e-waste was destined for Belgium (Lepawsky 2015, 12). As Adam Minter (2013) argues, China’s indeterminate transition from developing nation to industrial powerhouse, an OECD “key partner,” not only complicates policy designs from the 1990s but also undermines simple assumptions about the value of waste, recycling and recyclates, and their role in development. China’s coastal cities became a dumping ground for all manner of discards nominally bound for reuse and remaking. Like the world’s forging operation, China became a sink for discards intended to be broken down and remade anew, to be shipped out again as “green” commodities made of recyclable material (Kirby and Lora-Wainwright 2015; Lora-Wainwright 2015; Tong and Wang 2012; Zuev 2018).

At the same time, this robust market in plastic material (arguably like the fossil fuel production that makes it possible) is at risk of exceeding whatever controls were imposed, not only by adherents to Basel, but by those taking advantage of the worlding it gave rise to. From the start of 2000, there has been increasing global awareness of a “plastic crisis” similar to the hazardous waste crisis of the 1970s and 1980s that led to the Basel Agreement. The global circulation and material character or vitality (Bennett 2010) of certain discards, from nuclear waste (Custers 2007) to plastic (Hawkins 2017), means that depollution and remediation strategies are often insufficient (Gray-Cosgrove, Liboiron, and Lepawsky 2015). As plastic has ended up in oceans, on beaches, and in marine life, there has been growing concern around the world of the risks of continued plastic consumption.

If activists or policymakers focus exclusively on global circuits of materials and objects intended for recycling and reinsertion into the value chain, they fail to address the underlying problem of escalating consumption (McBride 2011). Further, these global networks help amplify situations where waste pickers exist in a precarious state of “vital liminality” (Millar 2018, 63–64), engaging in dangerous labor for wages that fluctuate depending on global markets in virgin and recovered materials, fluctuations that are partly driven by national and international waste and recycling policies. The post-Basel world gave power to China, and southeastern Asian countries in general, to dictate waste regimes elsewhere. Since the early 1990s, around half of US recyclables have been bound for China, both a symptom of global exchange between the two powers and a key element of it.

The Basel Convention has often overshadowed the Bamako Convention, organized by twelve African nations who were hazardous waste importers. But who controls global policy and influences global markets continues to change, along with the fluctuating relationship between center and periphery. In 2017, the Chinese government announced its National Sword program to limit plastic imports and radically reshape the global market in recycling. It was, to use Lepawksy and Gille’s terms, nothing short of a reworlding of the global waste regime. The effects were immediate. The United States began sending its plastic waste to other countries in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam. According to a study by Greenpeace, the burden of plastic waste coming to these three countries from the United States increased from approximately 5,000, 40,000, and 50,000 metric tons, respectively, to over 90,000, 150,000, and 80,000 metric tons; within a few months, these countries began enacting their own policies, modeled on those of China, to prevent these imports from overwhelming their capacities to manage them (McVeigh 2018). While Trump is often blamed for beginning a trade war with the US rival, China’s new policy on plastic imports preceded most discussion of official trade conflicts and set the stage for what came later. Thus, in 2016, China accounted for 8 million metric tons or 60 percent of global plastic imports, of which 50 percent were G7 countries’ exports. By February 2018, China was importing less than 10,000 metric tons of plastic waste. The effects in OECD countries were to stockpile, dispose via landfill or incineration, or seek alternative export markets, again in Asia while domestic capacity for recycling is slowly being enhanced. There were consequences in China as well, with feedstock shortfalls for the recycling industry, which had a negative effect on the textiles sector; 100,000 metric tons of smuggled black market plastic waste was reportedly seized by Chinese authorities in the first quarter of 2018. In response, prices, including futures prices, for plastics in China have increased and decreased sharply elsewhere (OECD 2018b, 9–12).

Policy stories draw us in because they seem to magically shift materials from the category of potential value to that of pollutant, or vice versa, redrawing the global conduits through which recyclates travel. But gaps in these policy stories are revealed through more in-depth studies of everyday remaking of ordinary materials. The next section outlines how such global and national considerations intersect with and drive but also eclipse quite different remaking practices at different scales.

Questions of Scale, Ethics, Infrastructure, Labor, and Property

From the previous section, it is clear that household, urban, or other local recycling interventions cannot be meaningfully considered without a broader sense of how they interlock with factors such as futures prices and national and international policies. If close examination of global trades in recyclates explodes the notion of a simple linear trajectory of materials to the end point of disposal, so too do analyses of household and local practices challenge the category of “consumption” as a simple staging post en route to disposal. As Stephen Gudeman (2016) has shown, creatively (re)using materials is integral to thrifty household management. Recycling and reuse suggest a range of practices of productive consumption that may in turn be shaped by broader material contexts such as shortage economies (Kornai 1980), but also the phenomenon of built-in obsolescence (identified by Vance Packard in 1960), a form of corporate malfeasance that hampers or prevents domestic attempts to repair, reuse, or reassemble commodities. To these more structural factors we may add the efflorescence of packaging, some of which can be recycled (e.g., plant pots from plastic bottles) but most of which swells the volume of households’ discards, whether “recyclable” or “waste.” The point here is that certain objects or materials cannot be recycled within the household despite the best of intentions. At the same time, when recycling becomes integrated into corporate strategies and state policy directives, they may enlist consumers’ good intentions to perform “consumption work” within the household (Wheeler and Glucksmann 2013), thus effectively outsourcing the labor of sorting and separating discarded material into waste streams to households, while corporates benefit from monetary return from the sale of recyclates.

Household reuse studies (and indeed those of landfill workers [e.g., Reno 2016]) also remind us that recycling practices are not necessarily solely driven by either economic or environmental logics. The sheer pleasure in making new-from-old objects or anticipating future uses of salvaged scraps should not be underestimated (Alexander et al. 2009), nor how such actions can become part of broader social and ethical concerns about living the right way (Isenhour 2010). Moreover, the restoration of a Ming vase may resemble patching and reusing but be freighted with a radically different meaning (Gerasimova and Chuikina 2009; Spelman 2003). Although anthropologists (e.g., Alexander 2009; Alexander et al. 2009; Butt 2018; Calafete-Faria 2016; Eriksen and Schoeber 2017; O’Hare 2017) have typically focused on household discards and their onward paths via municipal waste management schemes, this attention echoes a neoliberal emphasis, often found in national waste strategies, on the waste management practices of the individual and household as the central target to reduce planetary degradation. The wastes generated by industry, retail, agriculture, biomedicine, and so on hugely exceed household waste in terms of volume and toxicity, but have received relatively little ethnographic attention with respect to what can and cannot be recycled (Blanchette 2019; Gordillo 2014; Halvorson 2018; Hodges 2008; Liboiron 2013). What has garnered considerable attention is the informal, sometimes cooperatively organized labor of waste pickers on disposal sites (e.g., Butt 2018; Chalfin 2017; Colombijin and Morbidini 2017; Demaria and Schindler 2016; Gill 2009; Millar 2018; O’Hare 2017; Perelman 2016; Perelman and Boy 2010) and to a lesser extent, waste workers at sites of imported recyclates (Crang et al. 2012; Gabrys et al. 2013). These emphases on waste workers may be seen as part of the tradition of anthropological work that focuses on marginal and excluded people, both to rethink these terms from the perspective of those people and to re-examine dominant political and economic narratives from a different perspective.

Such studies are also crucial for understanding what lies beneath the notion of the “circular economy” so popular with the EU’s and China’s policymaking circles. This term encapsulates the aspiration for all unwanted by-products from one process to become valuable resources for another. Extrapolating from small-scale natural ecologies (Zhang 2020), the idea is that if waste-producing locales and processes can only be correctly aligned, there would be no more waste. As Garcier (2012), Gregson et al. (2015), and Schulz and Lora-Wainwright (2019) note, this idea can variously elide places where pollution settles and remains, the often hazardous, poorly paid labor of recycling, and finally, in China, the concentration of financial benefit in fewer and fewer hands.

Recycling beyond the household therefore raises several intersecting themes. First, property rights and obligations over waste are crucial to determining what happens to different kinds of discarded material and are often bitterly contested because of different varieties of latent value such material can contain. Second, waste infrastructures, of which formal and informal labor may be part, can again be sites of contestation over how to deal with wastes and can govern whether a given material or object is destined for disposal or recycling. Finally, the often hazardous and unprotected labor of disassembling objects to recover valuable elements presents a series of questions into the ethical, economic, and environmental trade-offs, sometimes at different scales, of such practices.

The global disproportionate allocation of the entangled economic, environmental, and social benefits and disbenefits of recycling is both complex and central to understanding how contemporary recycling operates. Where and how recycling and recovery happen, outside and sometimes within the household, are shaped by and help shape global and national policies. Even where these social practices and contexts of recycling occur at legal peripheries or outside the control of official policies, they still relate dynamically to these policies as productive exceptions beyond their apparent reach.


Questions of access, usage rights, and attendant obligations are central to many of the tensions within economies of recycling. To what extent are households and other waste producers obliged to prepare their discards by carefully sorting them into distinct waste streams before the property in that material, and any attendant profits, are transferred to another party? Is extra-household waste an urban commons or the property of the municipality and its subcontractors? When money is to be made from disposal or the market for certain recyclates suddenly improves, the question of access to waste or selected waste streams may be intensified. Municipal administrations, more or less obliged to comply with political visions of waste management in order to be perceived as “modern” and attract investment, often favor private corporations over informal waste picking by individuals or groups, although diverse political projects have crystallized around waste management in different parts of the world. This is a forced choice in some places in the Global South where, historically, investment in waste infrastructure was less attractive for global capital than more profitable schemes, leaving over-strapped states to manage them alone (Gidwani 2013, 2015; Lewis 1982). In the wake of crises in national debt and exacerbated by internationally mandated structural adjustment programs and the end of Cold War era funding (Bear 2015; Piot 2010), corporations and privatization may appear to be the only option for handling basic needs. And this means that, whether discarded or recycled, waste is imagined primarily in relation to property: on the one hand, there is property in waste, as in waste pickers who seek to revalue what they sift through; on the other hand, property is at odds with waste, which can appear merely valueless, as something to bury or export to others who may or may not revalue it.

There are rich pickings for industrial-scale waste management multinationals who are often simply paid by the weight or volume of waste disposed of. The three disposal methods are roughly: burning, burial, or, less often, rotting. This emphasis on simple removal, as Jamie Furniss notes (2017), is also predicated on an urban vision of spotless streets. What this occludes, however, is the alternative latent value in the same material if it can be sorted into different waste streams and sold on for recycling, a process that is typically labor-intensive and requires a multisensorial sensitivity to distinguishing fine (and therefore valuable) gradations of material difference (Butt 2018; Calafate-Faria 2016). This is made clear in Kathleen’s Millar’s exemplary ethnography of Jardim Gramacho, literally “the garden of Gramacho,” the rather ironically named largest landfill of Rio de Janiero, which was closed after thirty-four years in 2012. Rather than characterize property claims in and around Rio’s landfill as informally economic per se, Millar argues that they are better seen as a form of life with material and existential dimensions (2018). Indeed, making property claims to waste can be a powerful political gesture. The more familiar locus of recycling is landfills, and indeed, there are many instances, particularly across Latin America, where informally organized waste pickers have similarly formed themselves into workers’ cooperatives (Medina 2007; Sorroche 2015), often having to battle more formal organizations for the right to access waste. This phenomenon also appears across cities elsewhere in the world at the point of waste collections, as Waqas Butt describes for Lahore (2018).


Part of the infrastructural turn in anthropology (see Larkin 2013) has embraced the politics and economics of the peculiarly urban problem of collecting and disposing of excessive waste (Harvey 2017) The long history of public urban sanitation measures reveals different visions for the good life and futures. It also shows how infrastructures both determine and are determined by the changing composition of waste materials historically and geographically, and how they constitute quite different assemblages, or “urban metabolisms,” of technology, policy, and human and nonhuman labor, depending on locality. Examining how waste and recycling infrastructures intersect at a global scale provides an insight into what happens when quite different assemblages connect or collide. For example, the political capital in keeping nuclear waste reprocessing out of France, a country heavily reliant on nuclear power, comes at the cost of reprocessing occurring in Russia under relatively lax regulatory regimes, with hazardous transportation of spent and replenished fuel to and from France (Garcier 2012). One city’s pristine streets may come at the cost of another’s stockpiling of imported waste.

There is political capital in demonstrating the ability to keep a city clean, and by the same token, failed waste infrastructures are an immediate sensory reminder of political and administrative failure, as Naples’ 2009 waste crisis amply demonstrated (De Rosa 2018). Human bodies, and indeed sometimes animals (Doherty 2019) and microbes (Reno 2016), are part of this infrastructure, and there may be contested infrastructural configurations aimed at either collecting as much as possible and disposing of it—or more selectively collecting, sorting, separating, and selling on materials. Such struggles hinge on the property and potential values in discarded materials and how they are assessed, to which we can add the political value of a pristine urban landscape. Formal and informal labor and private, municipal, or cooperative organizations may variously be mutually dependent or rivalrous.

The emphasis in formal waste management contracts is usually on disposal, with waste streams being evaluated by weight: so many tons, so much income. What this obviates, however, is first: residual value in the material being disposed of, and second: how cost-effective, in monetary or energy terms, it is to recover that value. Energy can be recovered in the form of gas but is reliant on high-calorific feedstock to generate good-quality energy. What these technocratic, large-scale disposal operations often prevent, however, are the possibilities of recycling and extending the lives of materials, as well as providing a livelihood for thousands of waste pickers. These tussles may be seen as replaying struggles over rights to the city but in the context of its wastes; such conflicts are often sharpened when municipal visions, policies, and technologies are imported from quite different places.

Thus, as waste volume increases in many of India’s cities, incineration appears an attractive option for simultaneous capital accumulation, the apparent elimination of waste, and the production of energy, though only if it can be tailored to local circumstances (Doron and Jeffrey 2018). Delhi’s adoption of an incinerator to address its waste management met with hostility in the 2000s from waste pickers deprived of access to recyclable materials and thus their livelihood but, in an unexpected turn, they formed an alliance with Delhi’s middle class, anxious about air pollution from the incinerators (Demaria and Schindler 2016). Delhi’s first incinerator was notoriously imported from Denmark, a country whose waste management policy is largely grounded on such technology. Such concerns, however, that incineration burns recyclable material are also appearing in Denmark (Schick, Ford, and Badami 2017) and in Britain, alongside conflicts over other energy-to-waste technologies (Alexander 2016; Levidow and Ramen 2019). Quite apart from the economic devastation caused by inserting such technologies into waste infrastructures based on waste picking, there is the additional problem that waste composition in the Global South is typically wetter and thus less appropriate for incineration (Calafete-Faria 2016).

Britt Halvorson (2018) and Lucy Norris (2012) provide further ethnographic examples of the collision of value regimes, in all senses, when recyclates cross continents. Thus, the usable but discarded medical equipment that is carefully culled by American Lutherans, to be sent as charitable donations to Madagascar, is transformed on arrival to commodities (Halvorson 2018). Meanwhile, clothing donations to European and Scandinavian charity shops are exported to Panipat in northern India, to be skillfully picked apart by poorly paid, unprotected migrant labor, mainly women who are controlled by factory owners, The process is harmful to the health of the women and their children and pollutes adjacent land and waterways. The women’s stories of trying to account for the influx of what appear to be perfectly good garments suggest yet another clash of values (Norris 2012).

There is also a subfield of waste infrastructure studies: how infrastructures are themselves recycled. Thus, 19th-century northern industrial cities generated vast amounts of ash that in turn was formed into bricks for more housing (Alexander and Reno 2012). As Stoler (2013) has discussed, successive political regimes leave behind not only ruins in the conventional sense of a crumbling artifact clearly linked to the past, but ruination as continuing material and ideological processes in the present, which have negative effects. Gastón Gordillo (2014) and Erik Harms (2016) have both considered the 21st-century equivalent of urban destruction, but where ruins fail to be recycled into resources for other construction, combining material ruins with Stoler’s sense of ruination. As Gordillo shows for the Argentine Andes, the multiple forms of rubble that remain form a palimpsest of various kinds of violence wreaked on the area for centuries. Harms’ (2016) ethnography of Ho Chi Minh explores the human cost of such urban infrastructural recycling: the poor who are evicted from housing are not those who benefit from the rebuilding.


The ethics of recycling are far more complex than may at first appear. The public environmental good of resource recovery and minimizing planetary degradation begs the questions of at what scale this should occur, let alone whose responsibility it is to reduce resource use and for what public. Rivalrous goods can emerge as the health and safety of waste workers, or the production of energy, or a pristine urban environment. These too can be further qualified or challenged: Does the environmental cost of transport offset the apparent gain of disassembly and reassembly? Can hazardous work and polluted lands be counterbalanced by the monetary value of cheaper material inputs and employment when both are scarce and in demand? Many of these questions hinge on geographical or technological displacement and the asymmetrical allocation of goods and bads (Alexander 2012). The inability to achieve adequate economies of scale in collecting a given material stream, even something as critical as rare earths to the electronics industry, can mean it is economically not worth recycling (Garcier and Verrax 2017), whatever the environmental damage of continued extraction. Gay Hawkins links these global ethical questions to those of personal responsibility (2005), suggesting that the tendency in the Global North for waste processing to be seen as belonging wholly in a technocratic realm means citizens are disengaged from the effects of their actions.

Ethnographies of recycling challenge simplistic categorizations of waste work as abject (Bauman 2003), revealing the possibilities, albeit sometimes compromised, of hope and wealth amidst precarity and oppression (Chalfin 2017; Nguyen 2018). Above all, such studies teach us to be attentive to how the work of waste picking and recycling is experienced by those who do it. Well-meaning attempts to rehabilitate bodies and souls alongside materials (Alexander and Reno 2012) may be mocked by workers in some cases (Alexander 2009), but in others, the transformative potential of waste work is embraced and sometimes realized (Nguyen 2018).

One last observation highlights again the need for ethnographic particularity when analyzing the ethics of waste work. Broader ethico-religious frameworks may determine who does waste work and why. In India, such work is polluting and therefore symptomatic of humiliating caste relations (Gill 2009; Korom 1998), undertaken in Barbara Harriss-White’s ethnography (2017) by Dalits and Scheduled Tribes who are bonded for three years to an informal labor contractor. Here the relationship between waste work and belief and ritual, with which we began, takes on a harmful form. In other cases, it may be that religious minorities are the ones who engage in scrapping and informal recycling, as was the case with Jewish migrants in the early urban settings of the United States (Zimring 2005) or for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank today (Stamatopoulou-Robbins 2011, 2019). Wherever religious categories have a role in who recycles and how, this requires heightened attention to the moral and political dimensions involved, whether these entail worsened forms of dehumanization and abjection or serve to support global religious aid initiatives (Halvorson 2018).

Multiple Entanglements of Recycling Practices and Policies

Ethnographies of recycling show that the pathways of different discarded materials are shaped by numerous intersecting histories, policies, ethical frameworks, and waste infrastructures at different scales. What appears are multiple stories of such entanglements.

The landscape of global economies of recycling rapidly changed over the early 21st century. The global policy environment that was ushered in by the 1992 Basel Agreement began to shift radically. In a post-Basel world, the geography of the Global South altered sharply in 2018 with China, followed swiftly by other southeast Asian nations, refusing to accept what had previously been categorized as recyclable plastic, and countries such as Norway pushing for revisions to Basel to accommodate concerns about oceans filling up with plastic debris. This led to reverberations from wealthy OECD countries struggling to meet their recycling and carbon accounting quotas and marginal and precarious “informal recyclers” the world over who can no longer collect rubbish for a guaranteed return. Indeed, familiar categories of Global North and South have ceased to have much descriptive or analytical use where China and most of the other BRIC countries hold so much power and leverage at the global geopolitical scale. Notably, perhaps, in 2019 the OECD simply terms China, Indonesia, Brazil, India, and South Africa as “key partners.”

In line with rising public and policy concern about wastes, scholarly analyses increased of these and other developments associated with economies of recycling, focusing especially on people’s material and moral encounters with reuse. These range from nuanced investigations into how lives and materials alike can be re-crafted by recovering value from discards; following an object through its social lives; or focusing on one material such as plastic or e-waste and tracking how waste is co-produced at each stage of creation and (re)use. Whether the notion of the Anthropocene, let alone its cause, is accepted, exploring how global economies intersect with national policies and local systems of waste management reveals not only what becomes of waste but how it is variously imagined and treated as pollutant or resource, as apotheosis of the Anthropocene or deliverance from it.

Further Reading

  • Alexander, Catherine, and Joshua Reno, eds. 2012. Economies of Recycling: The Global Transformation of Materials, Values and Social Relations. London: Zed Books.
  • Lepawsky, Josh. 2018. Reassembling Rubbish: Worlding Electronic Waste. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Reno, Joshua. 2015. “Waste and Waste Management.” Annual Review of Anthropology 44: 557–572.
  • Reno, Joshua. 2016. Waste Away: Working and Living with a North American Landfill. Oakland: University of California Press.


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