Opening the bin Waste conference – 27th- 29th April – Lund University, Helsingborg, Sweden

By Jordon Lazell @jlazell 

As one of the most seminal conferences I have taken part in, the ‘opening the bin’ workshop addressed the social and culture dynamics of waste.  The conference bought together academics and practitioners working in the area of waste to highlight the dynamic nature of research in social sciences and humanities being undertaken in this area. Papers presented concerned waste across a number of different areas and sectors from food waste to the circular economy, recycling and e-waste amongst other topics, presenting theoretical, empirical and methodological insights.

The conference was particularly important given its framing of waste management in the socio-material. The core theme of waste was approached in intriguing ways to give explanation to how waste shapes contemporary culture and society more broadly. The conference provided a stage for knowledge across disciplines to come together and discuss waste in various forms. In particular the various critiques of current policy and discourses were very thought-provoking, such as the rise of the circular economy and the relationship between recycling and consumption of goods.

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The conference was held in Helsingborg, Sweden at Lund University. The town has small historic centre and is situated at Øresund straight, an important transport point into Denmark.

The key note speakers were particular good at this conference highlighting how the field of waste is making some key contributions. Prof. Gay Hawkins (Western Sydney University) opened the conference discussing how the social and political must be accounted for in contemporary accounts of waste. Waste was highlighted as a field explored across disciplines and is increasingly making its presence felt. Waste is not just a matter of environmental concern but is a categorisation of a material via a social construction, and this construction in action is a useful research topic. Gay Hawkins went on to note how waste was inherently political, configured politically as a means of governance in everyday life. Throwing things away and the categorisation of materials as waste has become a ‘mode of being’ with its own temporality and turn over, i.e the disposability of food as a result of plastic packaging. Plastic has become the skin of commerce, a material that was once made to be durable is now made to be disposable to facilitate the consumption.

The second key note speaker Prof. Myra J. Hird (Queen’s University, Canada) provided an eye opening critique of the governance of recycling. Myra first discussed the imperative of recycling as part of citizens everyday motivations of acting in a positive way towards the environment. Canada produces the most municipal waste in the world and recycling is a core activity for households, however Myra explained that it is given too much importance. She explained how the waste hierarchy is inversed where recycling takes president over reducing and reusing waste. Furthermore Myra showed a link between the establishment of recycling in an area and an increase in consumption of goods with any guilt or responsibility for purchasing products with packaging relieved by the recycling services. Myra went on to show that not all recycling collected is actually recycled, with materials such as Styrofoam exchanging hands between companies to eventually be shipped to china and put in landfill. The presentation was as much a critique to recycling as an expose on the recycling industry.

To hammer the point home further, Myra used a case study of the artic region of Nunavut to show how the military, mining and oil industry dump waste. The waste from these industries are significantly more than the amount produced by households and due to the inaccessibility of this area of the world waste is left to pollute the landscape. The household’s focus on recycling arguably is used as a means of distracting the public from these larger, more polluting sources of waste. I thought the way that Myra challenges the individualised nature of a recycling focus by positioning recycling as a form of governance to distract form more polluting sources waste a very interesting critique.

Other presentations I enjoyed included:

  • Work on design and architecture by several academics and presenters. How recycling facilities are design and situated in urban areas has an influence on their use. The differences between lower and higher socio-economic areas were shown to be evident and also how a car can have an impact on how accessible such sites are and how they are used
  • There was much talk on policy, particularly how the EU are going about implementing the circular economy and how this has been translated into national policy and action on the ground. Papers highlighted how the circular economy is somewhat of a myth of unsubstantiated promises of employment and economic growth; is difficult define and has overlooked waste prevention as a core activity in finding a sustainable solution to waste. The circular economy framing of waste as resources to be recycled has proved problematic in some circumstances, with materials being transported across countries to where recycling returns are the greatest.
  • Following on from the key note speeches, papers also discussed how the characterisation of waste and the associated recycling actions at consumer level are actually supporting and encouraging consumption. Papers highlighted how progression towards degrowth is disrupted by the way in which recycling facilities encourage consumption. Waste services require a consistent stream of recycling materials and consuming less would represent an economic risk.
  • A final, minor theme of the conference was Apple’s recycling robot Liam (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYshVbcEmUc). Apple’s renew campaign encourages customers to trade in their old apple items to be disassembled and recycled by a robot specially designed to take apart iphones. On the one hand this is a positive step, particularly as the materials in phones are becoming harder to come by. But on the other hand as well as encouraging consumers to feel less guilty about replacing their phone more often, the robot deskills a whole industry of phone repairers and recyclers. Whilst also diverting attention from those employed on low wages in undeveloped countries to recycle the mountains of electronic waste produced by the west.