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date: 08 August 2020

Economies of Recycling

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

The landscape of global economies of recycling has rapidly changed over the early 21st century. Increasingly, policy and economic and scholarly attention on environmental transformation have focused on this topic, in keeping with Gabrielle Hecht's characterization of the Anthropocene era as "the apotheosis of waste." The global policy environment that was ushered in by the 1992 Basel Agreement has begun 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) now refusing to accept what had previously been categorized as recyclable plastic, and countries like Norway pushing for revisions to Basel to accommodate concerns about oceans filling up with plastic debris. This has led to reverberations from wealthy OECD countries, struggling to meet their recycling and carbon accounting quotas, and from marginal and precarious informal recyclers the world over, who can no longer collect rubbish for a guaranteed return.

In line with rising public and policy concern about wastes, there has been 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 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 infrastructures is a useful method for exploring how global economies intersect with systems of waste management—not only to determine what becomes of waste, but also to discover how it is imagined as pollutant or resource, apotheosis of the Anthropocene or deliverance from it.