The complex nature of waste in modern society


(Source: Anas Jawed on Pexels)

I recently attended urban theorist, Christoph Lindner’s lecture on the complex nature of waste at UCL. The talk wasn’t necessarily a warning on how population growth is outpacing our current waste management efforts (we already know that). Rather, he highlighted the various discourses on waste (listed below) through key case studies incorporating geography, politics and social science that sought to explore our attitudes towards rubbish, and how we govern our own participation in the urban spaces we inhabit*. Lindner and Miriam Meissner’s joint collaborative project Global Garbage: Urban Imaginaries of Waste, Excess, and Abandonment formed the basis of the talk. 

WhatsApp Image 2019-10-23 at 5.50.50 PM
Prof. José Torero Cullen (Head of the Department of Civil, Environmental, Geomatic & Environmental Engineering, UCL), Christoph Lindner, Dr Clare Melhuish (Urban Laboratory Director, UCL)

What are the 5 discourses on waste?

  • Urban planning/environmental – explores the risks from production of waste and the global ecological impact that results from its management.
  • Socio-anthropological – analyses practices and attitudes that people develop in relation to waste.
  • Artistic – explores the artist’s use of waste and its journey from material to subject. Here, it becomes a commodity bought for its value to be recycled that then gets circulated into the global art market.
  • Philosophical – questions what qualifies as waste and why? If waste is seen as a form of matter out of place, how do we designate what it is and for whose standards?
  • Spatial – explores wastelands and derelict spaces that have come to be devalued. 

Below are two discourses explored through case studies, among a few discussed, that I found particularly interesting. 

Socio-anthropological discourse – the ‘mediatisation’ of rubbish in Naples

Lindner briefly touched upon Nick Dines’s input** in the book discussing what happens when rubbish is portrayed to be emblematic of an entire city. Naples came to international prominence in 2007 due to their poor waste management efforts exacerbated by the European debt crisis and the Camorra mafia. It became a city whose portrayal often revolved around rubbish and its failure at managing its own urban waste. Dines highlights that this ‘mediatised’ image of Naples as a ‘garbage city’ has misconstrued and sensationalised the place to be nothing more than a rotten dump harbouring serious doubts in the minds of tourists wishing to visit the area. 

Spatial discourse – ambiguous wasteland: rooftops in Tehran 

Pedram Dibazar’s chapter*** dives into the concept of wasteland. Here, the perspective shifts from the ‘visible’ to the ‘invisible’ using rooftops in Tehran as a case study. Termed ‘leftover’ due to their marked visual and spatial ambiguity, at least from an urban planning perspective, Dibazar argues that it is precisely because of their lack of visibility and ambiguous status that they gain value. How? For subversive use, i.e. the practice of nocturnal shouting as a form of political protest. No one can see you shouting at night but that is precisely the point. It’s the screams people hear against the Shah that is possible due to the ambiguous nature of the rooftops. When one contrasts this in the context of a highly regulated country like Iran, these ‘leftover spaces’ gain significant value.

Concluding thoughts 

The concept of waste is entirely subjective as highlighted by the two unique case studies above. How one chooses to define it depends on that person’s rationale. As cities are a product of the hyper-acceleration of our own lives, the waste they produce becomes central to contemporary globalisation circulating involuntarily across international borders, which makes it difficult to assign one discourse to fully understand it. For me, the philosophical view of waste resonates the strongest because my perception of something useless will, no doubt, be different for someone else. An old rotting cupboard in an abandoned place may be off-putting for some but is the ideal subject matter for me to photograph. I’d be interested to know what your view on waste is and how or why you have come to see it in that way.

* Lindner sought to clarify that the list is not a definitive one but hopefully adds to the discussion

** ‘Writing Rubbish About Naples: the Global Media, Post-politics and the Garbage Crisis of an (Extra-)Ordinary City’

*** ‘Leftover Space, Invisibility and Everyday Life: Rooftops in Iran’


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