Workshop Report: Waste and Price of Modernity, 19th-21st Centuries

Iris Borowy's picture

From: Iris Borowy

Shanghai University


Workshop Report: Waste between the 19th and 21st Centuries:

the Price of Modernity or the Sign of a Misdirected Development?


Waste generation has increased exponentially during the twentieth century, spreading leftovers of a wasteful life-style to even remote corners of the world. In the process, it has created environmental, economic and financial challenges at municipal, national and global levels. According to OECD and World Bank projections, the amount of global waste will have doubled or possibly tripled by the end of this century. This development is generally considered one of the consequences of industrialization, consumerism and population growth since the nineteenth century, and, at present, there is no end in sight. At the same time, there is no easy definition of „waste“.  Depending on circumstances, the same material can function as useless garbage or industrial raw material, as dangerous organic waste or valuable fertilizer, as flawed agricultural products or perfectly edible food. Some types of waste are highly toxic for humans as well as other beings and no useful purpose for it is in sight. Other types have changed definition between countries or have repeatedly shifted categories over time. These considerations formed the background for a workshop on Waste between the 19th and 21st Centuries: the Price of Modernity or the Sign of a Misdirected Development? held 26th - 27th October 2018 at the Center for History of Global Development at Shanghai University.

Heike Weber (Karlsruhe University) introduced a central theme of the workshop with a keynote lecture on “Unmaking the made: Waste in Temporal Perspective.” She pointed out that present societies (and historians) know more about the making of technologies than about the unmaking of the products thus generated, although the two are two sides of the same coin. Both are subject to societal norms and require technological and logistic infrastructures. Despite dramatic changes in the quantity and composition of waste, key processes have remained remarkably constant: the life of goods has been prolonged through trade in second- and third-hand consumer goods, and waste is still being disposed of by being dumped, incinerated or recycled. Given the growing amount of waste in recent years, Weber called for more attention to the “unmaking” of things as a cultural competence, embedded in larger context of production and consumption.

Various efforts of “unmaking” or disposing of waste formed one of the central strands of the workshop. Sophie Lange (Humboldt University, Berlin) explored how the disposal of West German, partly toxic, waste on the East German landfill of Schönberg against payment of Western currency provided not only a case study about the difficulty of getting rid of things when the waste was re-united with the West after 1989. It also served revealed a complex interplay of actors, all of whom were committed to larger goals as well as their own interests. This included those concerned about the toxic risks, as West German environmentalists, who voiced their concerns about the Schönberg landfill, were criticized by their East German counterparts for talking to East German politicians instead of to them, while they, in turn, showed a not-in-my-backyard attitude. An even more bizarre situation marked the episode described by Graham Mooney (Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC), involving a train loaded with 4,120 tons of human excreta making a 3000 miles journey between Baltimore and Louisiana after being hit by a hurricane. The fate of this train, soon dubbed “poo poo choo choo” seemed like a spectacular – and smelly – symbol of the neoliberalization of public policy, subjecting the disposal of human excrement to market forces. Meanwhile, social discrimination found its way into waste management where less privileged communities become places of waste disposal. The episode also seemed like an apt metaphor for the fact that humanity was still struggling to deal with even the most basic forms of waste. Far more benign, by comparison, was the case presented by Robin Kietlinski (City University of New York – LaGuardia Community College) on land reclamation in Tokyo Bay, where 18 Olympic and Paralympic venues are currently being prepared on “trash islands” – man-made land reclamation projects that have been developed in Tokyo Bay for centuries. Her paper raised questions not only regarding municipal waste management policies but also about the apparent disconnect between the rhetoric and actual steps taken by the International Olympic Committee regarding environmental friendliness.

Further talks turned to informal waste workers and their frequently crucial role in societal efforts, albeit one that left them vulnerable to socio-economic exploitation.  Madhu (Miranda House, University of Delhi) revealed the ambiguity of an increasing use of disposable female sanitary products in India. Though this formed a very welcome development for women’s health it did make life more difficult for Banghis, people who are charged with manually removing human waste and cleaning clogged waste pipes. This responsibility and the social ostracism that goes with it is deeply embedded in the caste system. A positive example of empowerment was presented by Kalyan Shankar and Rohini Sahni (Symbiosis International University, Pune) regarding waste recycling in Pune, India. In 1993, numerous, mainly female, waste-pickers formed the Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP) Union and have since been able to establish their ‘right to work’ as waste pickers, helping them to negotiate with municipal officials for medical insurance and other welfare benefits. However, their position is threatened by formal private contractors, that are increasingly considered more efficient and modern. Similar tensions emerged from a presentation by Mohammed Rafi Arefin (New York University) on Zabbaleen, informal waste pickers and their uphill struggle to compete with formal industrialized, though often less efficient, waste recycling companies in Cairo, Egypt. The municipal administration seemed to favor the more “modern” formal process by arguing that small-scale waste picking was not economically profitable.  Indeed, data on various economic and health costs as well as costs of time of labor, machines, and electricity are often selectively used to serve a specific agenda.


Questions regarding waste prevention were addressed at a panel regarding food wastes. Thomas Bryant (Independent Scholar, Berlin) provided the history of food campaigns in Nazi Germany prior to the World War II the spirit of autarky, waste reduction, waste recycling and self-sufficiency were defined as civic virtues and duties. In a campaign that served as preparation for the upcoming war, the German ‘Reich Food Cooperation’ invested heavily in a struggle against spoilage, including the promotion of chemical food conservation, agricultural pest control, advice for housewives and specific cooking and baking recipes. Though of peaceful intent, militarist metaphors also informed the War on Waste initiated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1960.  Lucas Müller (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.) analyzed how the FAO established a scientific and regulatory infrastructure to delineate and maintain a boundary that separated food with supposedly safe levels of aflatoxin contamination from waste. However, this boundary quickly proved to be porous when in Kenya starving families ate aflatoxin-contaminated corn from dumps, suffering food poisoning. Dunfu Zhang (Shanghai University), by contrast, showed how changing cultural habits and rising living standards are changing attitudes towards food waste in China. Tellingly, the surviving generation of the “great famine” and the younger generation who are affected by consumer tradition have contradictory habits.


A different strand of contributions addressed discussions involving the difficulties of defining waste. The scene was set by a keynote lecture by Craig Colten (Louisiana State University) in which he revisited the historical background of how industry and regulatory practitioners portrayed waste in their discussions about environmental hazards. Citing, among others, the example of the 1978 Love Canal pollution in New York, he analyzed the dynamics of hazardous properties of waste, the legal liabilities and how industry in the US has responded to these perceived risks. One reaction was to develop by-products to be used elsewhere in production processes. These practices effectively blurred the line to raw materials, but proved insufficient when the emergence of a formal definition for hazardous waste and concomitant legislation in the 1970s imposed greater liability on those responsible for decades of casual dumping. These events provoked fierce debates by and within industry on what had been known and knowable about wastes released into the environment. Interestingly, these debates came years after several international organizations had engaged in discussion on principle about what exactly constituted “waste” and how (not to) address it. In a survey over the long-term development of waste as a topic on the international agenda, Iris Borowy (Shanghai University) reviewed how an ever-growing list of different forms of waste was seemingly unaffected by an episode of in-depth considerations during the late 1960s and early 1970s in which the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Organizations of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) argued that addressing the challenge would require profound changes in socio-economic structures.


These questions tied into one of the questions of the workshop of how waste was connected to larger questions of development. The interdisciplinary character of the issue was born out by two papers by Guy Keulemans (University of New South Wales) and Alice Twemlow (Royal Academy of the Art, The Hague) dedicated to the relationships between product designs and waste. Examining a selection of experimental works in recent museum exhibitions in Rotterdam and Sydney, Keulemans, questioned the narrative of a genre of speculative design in which designers endow experimental products with a sustainability narratives. He specifically challenged museums to take a self-critical attitude regarding the transparency of their materials listing, the practicalities of material experimentation undertaken by experimental designers, and the communication requirements of curators and museums. Keulemans demonstrated how exhaustive information regarding the chemical content of exhibits could themselves become art. Twemlow, provided a critique of questionable labels which attempted to draw attention away from the physicality of waste, such as the supposed immateriality of information, the ‘cloud’, service design, ‘innovation culture’, and the ‘creative economy’. Among several projects seeking alternative paths, she highlighted a new practice called self-destruction: products are deliberately designed to dematerialize, disassemble, deactivate or decompose. Echoing a similar demand by Heike Weber earlier, she called for an integration of disposal as a central element of product design.

Interpreting waste as a component of international economic regimes, Michael H. Picard (Harvard Law School, Boston) drew a parallel between the opium wars of the 19th century, in which Great Britain imposed opium imports on China in order to balance the trade deficit in their trade with the country, and recent Sino-Western trade relations regarding plastic. Uyilawa Usuanlele (State University of New York, Oswego) also connected waste management to colonial history by contrasting pre-colonial policies of cleanliness in Benin with an increasingly import-dependent economy during colonial and post-colonial times, which generated more waste, some of which are new and hazardous to humans and the environment. Though a new regime of waste management was established, it has not kept pace with the growing population and economy and with the demands brought about by both. By contrast, Inez Xingyue Zhou (University of California, Santa Barbara) analyzed the Chinese government’s new trade policy on scrap material importation (a.k.a. “foreign garbage ban”) not in terms of a neo-colonial but of a globalized consumption framework. Thus, the global trade in plastic waste and its serious environmental effects formed part of a recycling business in China generating profits as a result of a global – and increasingly Chinese - consumer culture.

On a different note, Trang X. Ta (Australian National University) portrayed the informal trade in secondhand clothes as reactions to overproduction on the one hand and a search for sustainable lifestyles on the other. Discussing two examples of street markets in Hong Kong and Singapore she interpreted the secondhand good both as a commodity of the industrial process and a symbol of alternative social economies. Ironically, these contradictory qualities complement one another while being deeply embedded in the globalization process, as traders from around the world, especially Africa, travel to Asian countries to buy secondhand goods and sell them back home. Ankur Parashar (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali) addressed waste management in small and medium cities in Himalayan India, a neglected topic so far. He argued that a comprehensive analysis required looking at urban governance as an assemblage of actors including the state, civil society and international agencies.  This seemed particularly relevant in view of the marked shift from state to municipal responsibility.

The constructed nature of “development” was demonstrated in the paper by Paulomi Mallick (The University of Burdwan, West Bengal) regarding struggles regarding agricultural land seized in Singur, West Bengal, from the local farmers in 2006 to build a “Tata” car factory. After strong local resistance, the construction plant was given up and after a long struggle Supreme Court declared in 2016 that the land acquisition for the Tata plant had been illegal and the acquired land must be returned to the landowners and cultivators. This decision put motion a lengthy process of de-industrialization and re-agriculturization. In the process of this “development in reverse” the categorization of which materials and areas constituted “waste” repeatedly changed. The paper by Katarzyna Jarosz (International University of Logistics and Transport, Wroclaw) similarly saw the absence of industry as a sign of development. She discussed how the absence of an effective waste management system limited the touristic value of Kyrgyzstan and, therefore, represented an economic as much as an environmental challenge. Underlying problems were not only lack of funds but also lack of knowledge and awareness among local populations.

During the final discussion, participants pointed out the diversity of approaches used during the workshop, addressing waste through the lenses of health, environment, culture, religion and gender, and exploring the roles of a similar diversity of actors, including producers, industries, consumers, waste pickers and designers. In addition, the contributions had revealed profoundly different assumptions regarding waste either as an unavoidable component of (modern) life or as a perfectly avoidable result of a mismanaged economy. Nevertheless, many aspects remained unexplored, such as mobility of waste, outer space, atomic waste, or the psychology underlying the relentless increase of waste production in the first place. Sometimes, discussions suggested historical blind spots: while several papers had drawn a connection between waste production and capitalism or neoliberalism, few had considered which alternative economic system, if any, had a record of producing less, or to what extent making a system the primary culprit included an element of diverting blame from behaviors in which many (or all?) people shares some responsibility.  This thought shifted the discussion towards zero-waste lifestyles and to the question whether or to what extent people practicing them could serve as an alternative model.

These considerations led to a final discussion about the role of historical research in the debate of current challenges. Some participants pointed out the need for critical research into examples of potential solutions as a way of diversifying narratives and avoiding the risk of contributing to the very perspective of constant deterioration which historians were criticizing.


Workshop: Waste between the 19th and the 21st Century:

the Price of Modernity or the Sign of a Misdirected Development?




Friday, 26 October

9 – 9.15 am        Welcome


9.15 – 10.30 am               Chair: Iris Borowy          

Keynote Lecture: Heike Weber (Karlsruhe University)

Unmaking the Made: Waste in A Temporal Perspective


10.30 – 10.45     Coffee Break


10.45 – 11.45 am             Chair: Iris Borowy


Guy Keulemans

University of New South Wales Art & Design

A lie of speculative design? Understanding the nature of ‘biomaterials’ in experimental products with sustainability narratives.


Alice Twemlow

Royal Academy of Art,

The Hague (KABK)


Trawling the Trash: Design’s Critical Engagements with Waste



11.45 am – 1.30 pm       Lunch

1.30 – 3.00  pm                Chair: Lucas Müller

The global dimension

Michael H. Picard

Harvard Law School, Boston


The Global & Domestic Impact of China’s National Sword Policy


Iris Borowy

Shanghai University


Coming to Terms with Global Waste: The Contribution of International Organizations

Trang X. Ta

Australian National University,



The Global Economy of Obsolescence and the Circulation of Secondhand Surplus


3.00 – 3.15 pm Coffee Break


3.15 – 4.45 pm                 Chair: Craig Colten

Strategies to get rid of waste

Sophie Lange

Humboldt-University, Berlin


From a German-German Bargain to the Making of an Environmental Problem in the 1980s

Graham Mooney

Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore


A Trainload of Neoliberal Shit


Robin Kietlinski

City University of New York – LaGuardia Community College


"Trash Islands: The Olympic Games and Land Reclamation in Tokyo Bay”


4.45 – 5.00 pm Coffee Break


5.00 – 6.30 pm                 Chair: Madhu


Uyilawa Usuanlele

State University of New York, Oswego


Changing Nature of Waste Management and Environmental Health in Benin City, Nigeria, since the 19th century: A Historical Perspective


Ankur Parashar

Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali


Urban Waste Management in the Himalayan cities



Saturday, 27 October


9.00 – 10.00  am              Chair: Graham Mooney

Keynote Lecture: Craig Colten (Louisiana State University)

Hazardous Wastes: Definitions, Liabilities, and Memories


10.00 – 10.15 am             Coffee Break


10.15 – 11.45 am             Chair: Uyilawa Usuanlele

Informal economy         


Miranda House, University of Delhi


Whose job is it anyway? The Equation of Caste and Sanitary Waste Management in India


Kalyan Shankar / Rohini Sahni

Symbiosis International University, Pune


Waste Pickers in India and a 'Right to Waste': Revisiting the Argument

Mohammed Rafi Arefin

New York University


The Politics of Neglect: waste, labor, and (in)visibility in Cairo, Egypt.


11.45 am – 1.30 pm   Lunch


1.30 – 3.00 pm                 Chair: Heike Weber


Thomas Bryant

Independent Scholar, Berlin


“Struggle against spoilage” –

Waste management and autarkic policy in Nazi Germany

Dunfu Zhang

Shanghai University


From thrift to sustainability: the changing table manners of Shanghai’s food leftovers

Lucas Müller

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA


Food Contamination and the Limits of Regulation in the War on Waste



3.00 – 3.15 pm Coffee Break



3.15  - 4.15 pm                 Chair: Dunfu Zhang

Misdirected development?

Paulomi Mallick

The University of

Burdwan, West Bengal


Back to Agricultural Land Dismantling Car Factory: A Case Study of Unique Waste Management of the ‘Misdirected Development’ at Singur, West Bengal (India) 2011-16

Katarzyna Jarosz

International University of

Logistics and Transport, Wrocław


It is such a waste! Solid waste management in Kyrgyzstan and tourist attractiveness.

Inez Xingyue Zhou

University of California, Santa Barbara

Plastic China, Plastic Chain: An Inconvenient Truth about Recycling



4.15 – 4.30 pm   Coffee Break


4.30 – 5.30 pm    Final Discussion            Chair: Iris Borowy


7.00 pm    Dinner Downtown