Souchen on Hird, 'Canada's Waste Flows'
Myra J. Hird. Canada's Waste Flows. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2021. Illustrations, tables. 336 pp. $40.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-228-00528-5.
Reviewed by Alex Souchen (University of Guelph) Published on H-Environment (February, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58010
Over the past few decades, discard studies has exploded in popularity. Many new and dynamic studies have emerged, though Max Liboiron’s Pollution Is Colonialism (2021) and Discard Studies: Wasting, Systems, and Power (2022, coauthored with Josh Lepawsky) serve as the latest theoretical and empirical starting points in an expanding field.
American scholars and writers, in particular, are avid contributors to ongoing debates and discourse about trash and the so-called throwaway society. Consequently, they have ingrained into the field a geographical and national focus on the United States. For instance, Robin Nagle’s Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City (2013), which examines the role and experiences of sanitation workers in managing waste disposal in New York City, and Martin V. Melosi’s opus on Fresh Kills: A History of Consuming and Discarding in New York City (2020), once the largest landfill in the world, reflect some of the urban and waste management themes prevalent in discard studies.
Others have surveyed the broader political, economic, and cultural contexts surrounding garbage in the United States, such as Edward Humes’s Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash (2013), a piercing account of America’s enormous trash problem. Some studies have examined trash with greater historical foci, such as Carl A. Zimring’s Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America (2005) and Susan Strasser’s Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (2000), which shine further light onto the history of waste in America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Beyond the United States, there are numerous scholars investigating the cultural, political, and economic relationships with trash. For example, Heike Weber, Chad Denton, Tim Cooper, and Zsuzsa Gille have delved deeper into waste issues in Germany, France, Britain, and Hungary, producing thoughtful and engaging reflections on the role of waste in society.
Some studies have explored the connections between waste, inequality, infrastructure, urbanization, and labor in various non-Western contexts and developing economies. These studies include Rosalind Fredericks’s Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructures of Labor in Dakar, Senegal (2018), Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins’s Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine (2019), and Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey’s Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India (2018). Each account adds different perspectives and insights into humanity’s checkered relationship with trash, while tying lived experiences and everyday life to wider geopolitical, transnational, and environmental concerns.
Yet, despite the outpouring of scholarship, one country, Canada, has remained conspicuously absent from ongoing debates in the field, which brings me to the present offering, Canada’s Waste Flows, by Mira J. Hird, a professor of environmental studies at Queen’s University. Hird is also the director of Waste Flow, an interdisciplinary research project based at Queen’s that explores waste as a global scientific-technical and socio-ethical issue. Hird’s background and expertise makes Canada’s Waste Flows an emphatic capstone to an already distinguished career: quite frankly, it is a fantastic book that redirects attention to one of the most wasteful countries in the world. I highly recommend it to those interested in discard studies, material culture, municipal governance, settler colonialism, and the politics of waste.
Over the course of nine chapters (separated into three sections on Canada’s southern and urban areas, Arctic regions, and the materiality of waste), Hird offers an incisive, timely, and thorough account of Canada’s garbage problem. And to be sure, this is a big problem. Canada produces incredible amounts of trash: by Hird’s estimation Canada generates almost 1.3 billion tons of waste annually, across all economic sectors and households (p. 11). On a per capita basis, the amount of municipal solid waste (MSW) topped 791 kilograms in 2005, though that total dipped slightly in 2012 when only 777 kilograms of MSW were generated per person (pp. 10-11). Indeed, Hird’s statistics and facts about Canada’s waste problem are worth the price of admission alone and, hopefully, will help vault Canada to center stage from the periphery of discussions about waste management.
Perhaps the book’s greatest strength is in the nuance that Hird deploys to problematize Canada’s waste statistics, especially those per capita figures. By digging deep into the contexts, institutions, and actors involved in generating waste in Canada, Hird shows that nuance matters: only 2.6 percent of all MSW is actually produced by Canadian households. This is a surprising revelation given the per capita presentations of waste in major surveys and reports. According to Hird, dividing the totals by population size obscures the waste’s true origins, since individual consumers produce only a fraction of the total. Instead, Hird shifts responsibility for the waste problem upstream, to industry and manufacturers. In Canada, the vast bulk of waste is generated by the oil sands, mining, agriculture, and construction industries. Therefore, Hird convincingly argues that per capita assessments are inflated and can mislead public discourse and deflect responsibility away from the real culprits, by implying that the onus for waste reduction falls on individuals instead of industry. She then deftly ties this to the rise of neoliberalism and its influence over capitalism, governance, and the economics of waste.
Canada’s Waste Flows also has much to say about settler colonialism, which is the book’s other key contribution. Hird argues that waste is a symptom of inequality and settler colonialism in Canada. Her main focus is on Nunavut, a territory in Canada’s Arctic, and the ways settlers (traders, missionaries, government officials, and military personnel) introduced waste and wasting practices into areas that were not prepared to manage or mitigate the accumulation. For instance, most landfills in the North were located near resource extraction sites and defense installations (such as the Distant Early Warning [DEW] Line) that were abandoned after short operational lifespans and changing geopolitical, colonial, and economic relations. However, these sites were horribly contaminated with hazardous wastes and other materials that migrated north with southern interests and simply abandoned, leaving local communities and indigenous populations to bear the brunt of the health and environmental effects.
This book has few drawbacks, though perhaps its greatest is the lack of historical perspectives and discussions about waste. Hird confines much of her analysis to current waste issues, with the year 2000 serving as a rough demarcation point. This leaves much of the twentieth century and all of the nineteenth century out of her otherwise comprehensive study.
However, one historian’s complaints about wanting more history should not detract from Hird’s accomplishments. Canada’s Waste Flows is a superb investigation of a major environmental issue with immense implications for our present and future.
. Chad Denton and Heike Weber, “Rethinking Waste within Business History: A Transnational Perspective on Waste Recycling in World War II,” Business History 64, no. 5 (2022): 855-81; Tim Cooper, “Challenging the ‘Refuse Revolution’: War Waste and the Rediscovery of Recycling, 1900-1950,” Historical Research 81, no. 214 (2008): 710-31; and Zsuzsa Gille, From the Cult of Waste to the Trash Heap of History: The Politics of Waste in Socialist and Postsocialist Hungary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).
Citation: Alex Souchen. Review of Hird, Myra J., Canada's Waste Flows. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. February, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58010This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.