Conference Paper: Recycling Modernity: Towards an Environmental History of Waste

22 10 2009

Tim Cooper
(University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus)

To read this article and its associated commentaries for free just click on the PDF links below.

Cooper PDF

Commentary 1 PDF - Zsuzsa Gille (University of Illinois at Urbana‐Champaign)

Commentary 2 PDF - John Scanlan (Manchester Metropolitan University)

In order to post your comment and response, please use the comments box at the bottom of this post. All comments are moderated and will appear shortly after they are submitted.



This article examines recent writing on the concept of waste from a range of disciplinary perspectives, and highlights some of the analytical work that the concept of waste can do. In particular it looks at the work of two authors, John Scanlan and Zsusza Gille, who in different ways have articulated the operation of waste within modernity both as a residue of progress and as the subject of disciplinary techniques of government. The article then suggests some of the ways in which environmental historians have already taken up the study of waste as a theme, and some of the possibilities which the insights of Scanlan and Gille contain for the further development of a critically engaged historiography of environmental transformation.

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11 responses

22 10 2009
Timothy Cooper

I would like to thank both repondents for their thought-provoking comments on the paper, which have left me with plenty to think about, and also provoke a re-reading of the field as I originally presented it in the essay. My initial responses (to a few of the points presented) are as follows:

Zsuzsa offers the most critical (in a generous sense) appraisal of the two, and I shall begin my response with her comments. She raises two key questions about the paper. Firstly, she queries the adequacy of model of modernity with which I am working. Secondly, she raises the extent to which my usage of waste remains largely socially and culturally determined, and consequently fails to take the materiality of waste sufficiently seriously.

Retrospectively, I would agree that the model of modernity I am using requires reconsideration. Recently, I have become interested in the role that waste has played as an ideological pillar of capitalistic transformation of nature. I think that my model of ‘modernity’ would now be expressed much more in these terms. More specifically, I would want to argue for modernity as a capitalist ‘ecological revolution’ (C. Merchant, 1989) in which ‘waste’ played a key legitimating (and therefore ultimately ideological) role. I would, I think, now take this paper far more into a discussion of the wide variety of marxist approaches to ecological and environmental change and place ‘waste’ firmly within that context.

Ironically, this also means that I would now probably wish to plead guilty to downplaying the capacity for waste to act as ‘physical substance’ in ‘real space’ as Zsuzsa suggests. Although, waste certainly can have a materiality which impacts upon the human, it is not so much this as the presence or absence of waste within particular spaces that is surely at stake. The presence of waste is, I would argue, a consequence of the definitively social production of space. In short, one problem with this paper as it stands is not that there is an excessive attention to the social construction of waste, but that insufficient space is given to exactly this question. For example, I do not give any substantive coverage to the literature on waste and environmental justice. This is an important omission.

John’s comments make explicit exactly these issues. Indeed, a focus on the materiality of waste would be problematic for environmental history if it threatened a return to ‘naturalistic’ accounts of historial causation. I do not think that this is what Zsuzsa intends, her model of the ‘waste regime’ is ultimately dynamic and has powerful explanatory potential. Nonetheless, there is tricky territory for the historian to navigate here. Ultimately, my understanding of historical practice is such that I think it is vital that environmental history avoid any temptation to reify the material world.

One thing that has come out of these comments, however, is a clearer sense of where I would want to position myself in the emerging debate on the analytical uses of waste. For that I’d like to thank again both respondents for their detailed and stimulating arguments. These will be providing me with sustenance for some time to come. It is certainly positive that a range of interpretive and disciplinary positions are starting to throw light on a subject, that we would all agree is of crucial contemporary importance.

22 10 2009
Dennis Mazur


Regarding the notion of “materiality of waste”, it is important to develop a conceptual model that reflects what is waste as a final material endproduct. Here, the definition of waste as “a final material endproduct” itself has social, cultural, and material consequences. Let us take as an example disposed computer hardward and let us examine this notion of a “motherboard” and its components. The question that immediately arises in this example is the very definition of what is a final material endproduct of waste of a computer motherboard is a quesion that is answered differently by different societies at different times.

First, in certain groups in a developing country, the mother hardboard is not a final product of waste for disposal, but is in fact a set of components, many of which are themselves salvageable and reusable.

Second, different developing countries, depending on their technologies of recover of useful components, would differ on how much can be taken out of a computer motherboard before “nothing else is left to salvage” and hence is waste that no one wants because nothing is recoverable from this endproduct.

Third, as waste recover processes from computer motherboards continues to develop as a science, even more may be salvageable than envisaged by the above societies at any earlier time.


22 10 2009
Susan Morrison

Tim, About the concern re failing “to take the materiality of waste sufficiently seriously” and the importance of, as you say, avoiding “any temptation to reify the material world”; this seems cognate to something John pointed out in his commentary of my piece about literature—that we are “in danger of placing history, society and the materials we study at the service of theory.” I am aware of that danger—the good thing about a conference like this is, we can be reminded to be vigilant about not forgetting the materiality of what we are analyzing—the commentary makes us (more) mindful. I only hope I can keep the energy and excitement up that the conference enables. Best, Susan

23 10 2009
John Scanlan

Tim, Zsuzsa, Dennis and Susan,

I think, with respect to the notion of modernity, and Zsuzsa’s comments, one clearly has to distinguish between a variety of modernities. Zsuzsa’s perspective is extremely valuable in this regard in drawing our attention away from a tendency to see ‘modernity’ as simply a western variant of a more generalizable historical phenomenon (but, even within ‘western modernity’ there emerge complications over whose notion of ‘modernity’ is being employed; industrial modernity, or Baudelairean modernity, etc). I have tended to speak in terms of the western metaphysical tradition and its influence on the Enlightenment (in On Garbage, 2005) and their influence on how we determine value, and how we discriminate in practical terms between the worthless and the useful. This is an approach than establishes a different set of co-ordinates for understanding ‘waste’ and its correlates than Mary Douglas’s analysis of pollution and taboo (Purity and Danger). It is in Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and so on, and what they have bequeathed to the way we ‘slice and dice’ this world. This western metaphysical tradition informs Enlightenment thinking, but does not in all respects or details refer to the same phenomenon as the modernity that was consequent to that.

I think Tim was quite clear on trying to establish a distinction here, and making an important point in saying that ‘dirt’ as conceptualized by Douglas is not to be confused with ‘waste.’ (I hate having to put the scare quotes around this word, but there is a real ambiguity in how it is being used – which is part of the point of Tim’s paper). ‘Waste’ is, of course, not just material stuff – nor, in fact, need it even be that what is wasted even be degraded, filthy, polluting, and so on (in Bataillean terms, it would be unnecessary expenditure, etc.). But in trying to see beyond the tendency to conflate ‘waste’ with dirt (or rubbish, trash, etc) I think that Tim seemed to be trying to bring his thoughts into line with the analytical potential of Zsuzsa’s notion of the ‘waste regime’. Maybe I am wrong?

The modernity of Hungary and its relation to waste, as Zsuzsa describes it, seems interesting in that it highlights some important problems in determining the nature, extent and meaning of this term ‘waste’ – and this gets into some of the issues that Dennis raises, which I want to touch on here, too. For what Dennis raises is the question implicit in the paper and its commentaries. Are we, when we talk about ‘waste’ merely occupying a position from which the potential of some material, or ‘good’, can be seen? If superfluous materials, or goods produced in excess of demand or need, were assigned for use under a system that in Hungary was well-organized, then in what sense are they ever waste? Waste can only ever be ‘waste’ in a relational sense – otherwise we are just talking about materials, whatever these may be, that are ‘resources’ awaiting some use?

So, I do agree with the comments by Dennis and Zsuzsa in that regard. ‘Waste’ is always dynamic: what is determined to be ‘waste’ at one time, or in one place, is not necessarily ‘waste’ elsewhere or within a different set of circumstances. This is something I explored in an article titled ‘In Deadly Time’ (Time & Society, 2007), which looked at the informal economy of waste in Victorian London, which has clear similarities today to the waste economies of those places Dennis mentions. Then, as now, the poor and the less well off recuperated what, for others, was worthless and discarded. And that, to respond to Dennis, seems to be the nub of the matter in conceptualizing ‘waste’ – it clearly is more than just materials stuff that looks like what, in another context (e.g., discarded or abandoned) we would think of as ‘waste’.

At an informal level it may have represented something quite similar in its understanding of ‘waste’ and value to that described by Zsuzsa. If, as I believe, nothing material is essentially ‘waste’ in the sense of being beyond redemption or re-use, then surely what is ‘waste’ is that whose potential future uses has not thus far been recognized or identified; that which, perhaps temporarily, perhaps definitively according to one set of values, has been discarded?

I apologise for such a long response … and one that leaves out some of the other important points raised, especially Tim’s contextualisation of this within the practice of history / environmental history

23 10 2009
John Scanlan

In my third paragraph, above, there is a misleading typo which I should alert you to. The sentence:

“Are we, when we talk about ‘waste’ merely occupying a position from which the potential of some material, or ‘good’, can be seen?”

should read:

“Are we, when we talk about ‘waste’ merely occupying a position from which the potential of some material, or ‘good’, CANNOT be seen?”

23 10 2009

Dear Tim, John, and Other fellow waste-enthusiasts,

This is such a stimulating exchange! I too have grappled with this question that John raises, namely, if in a society waste is reintegrated into the economy, does that society in fact recognize waste as conceptually different from (use) value–or does it make sense for us to make that distinction. The way I resolved this dilemma, at least so far, is that I distinguished between a meta-theoretical definition of waste, simply as a material we failed to use and then at a theoretical level, one would need to attend to the specific social (including cultural, political, economic and historical reasons) for this failure.

I realize now, as I am reading through these comments, that, as John correctly points out, even in this meta-theoretical, bare-bones definition there is a certain moral imperative. The failure to use is certainly a condemnation of a sort. This condemnation was all fine and well for my purposes because I was primarily focusing on the empirical context of industrial wastes and was bent on critiquing overconsumption with underutilization. However, if we extend our gaze to lands, natural resources, people, that we failed to use, of course that definition becomes quite problematic exactly for the reasons Tim and John point out.

(By the way, I insisted on having this meta-theoretical definition, exactly because I felt that the social constructionist view (one man’s waste is another’s treasure) pulls the rug out from under any social critique of waste practices. The expert definitions were also useless because they talked about concrete wastes-breaking waste down into ever more numerous and ever more nuanced waste categories, refusing to recognize, their common social origins–that I tended to locate primarily at the macrosocial level.)

I am really not sure how to get out of this dilemma–the need to define waste for purposes of social critique, but without prejudging its concrete evaluation as something useful or useless–but I will keep thinking and your suggestions are also welcome.

23 10 2009
Timothy Cooper

Perhaps I can take this opportunity to raise a particular question that has been troubling me in the use of (for want of a better term) waste theory in my practice as a historian. I am a historian of the British environment. Consequently, my investigation of the history of waste is particularly bound up with an interest in the history, meaning and usage of this word in the English language. I wonder, however, how far it is necessary to rely on the materiality of waste in theory once one starts to look at this question from outside the confines of the English language. In other words, to what extent are any emerging analytical differences in this discussion a consequence of different empirical possibilities in different contexts? Does it even make sense to talk about ‘waste’ outside of an English language context. I don’t have an answer to this, but it is a question that had concerned me for some time.

23 10 2009

yes, especially because for example in Hungarian and Spanish the term(s) for waste do not have this double meaning (garbage/trash/litter AND prodigal)….

26 10 2009
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26 10 2009
John Scanlan

well, I think I also raised this question with regard to Susan Morrison’s paper, too – I don’t know if you have had a look at that?

I wouldn’t say it is just a matter of English language, but the extent to which this language rests on a logic that is shared across many languages. The reason I always harp on about the western metaphysical legacy is because it informs the structure of many / most (?) modern European languages. I couldn’t speak in specifics about particular languages, but for me that metaphysical tradition come down to how we understand and make sense of existence, and it runs through English, French and German thought, at least. To the extent that waste stuff is valueless, or worthless, or deemed expendable it stands opposed to some idea of what is required to sustain being / existence. Being – or to be more to the point – the verb ‘to be’ is what identifies through equivalence, but which at the same time designates also a point of exclusion. Every ‘is’ and ‘=’ draws the world we experience within the bounds of knowledge, yet also marks a point of exlusion. In other words, when we choose, or identify with, or attach a value to some thing, we are implicitly excluding something that is rendered non-identical. This is not a remarkable insight – all you need to to is look at Roget’s Thesaurus. It proceeds from the categories of ‘Existence’ and ‘Non-Existence’, and everything else that follows is similary posed in terms that can be assimlated back to the structure of western metaphysical though, which is ‘life’ and ‘death’.

Now, what makes waste a conundrum for us, and a problem, is that – with respect to its most unavoidable appearance in our lives, as shit – it is the mark of death. So, just as we separate what reeks of death, so too we dispose of those things that hint at the deadly temporality of decay and decline. Garbage, trash, waste.

But, this is only so because we differentiate ourselves from nature, and from natural processes of generation and decay. There is no ‘waste’ in nature, in other words. My point, in ‘On Garbage’, is that it is the human differentiation from nature that creates waste as what it is. This results directly from a metaphysics that is not shared, for instance, in ancient Chinese philosophy, nor – for instance – in Taoism and Buddhism, where the ‘I’, the self, is not differentiated from nature.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that there is not a ‘waste’ problem in those cultures today – but that may be more to do with the fact that they are developing / have developed recently according to the logic of western capitalism, which – as Heidegger says in ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ – sees nature as a ‘standing reserve’, an accumulation of use-values. In other words, which sees the human as something apart from nature – a western philosophical view of nature. That view, I argue, goes back to the metaphysics of ‘life’ and ‘death’; of ‘value’ and ‘non-value’; of the ‘useful’ and ‘non-useful’ (which seems to pertain aside from any particular given historical knowledge of how technology can put the world to use – that varies so that what was waste 20, 40 or 200 years ago, need not be today, tomorrow, etc.)

30 10 2009

Greetings from The Management. We’re thrilled that you’ve found such fruitful grounds for discussion and exchange. You’re welcome to continue here after today.

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