Garbage, the City and Sustainable Transitions

via flickr by Editor B

via flickr by Editor B

by Sally Gee, David Evans and Elvira Uyarra.

At certain times of the year, ‘rubbish’ can replace the weather as the go-to topic of light and polite conversation.  Christmas is certainly one of those times that we start to worry about the scheduling of bin collections, debate whether or not it is possible to recycle wrapping paper and revisit the time honoured predicament of just how to get rid of that Christmas tree (we are firm believers in putting it outside until it goes brown and dealing with it later!) Of course, rather more fundamental anxieties come to the fore as we confront the consequences of our own material abundance – and gluttony! It is probably no accident that the Institution of Mechanical Engineers chose the middle of January to launch its report – and startling figures – about the amount of food that we waste[1].  Yes, even during record-breaking levels of rainfall and a particularly unpleasant cold snap, rubbish, waste, garbage, excess – call it what you will – is something that friends, neighbours and colleagues appear to be talking about. Maybe this seasonal vogue will pass, maybe it won’t but for some of us – waste is something that occupies our thoughts throughout the year. Although the effective management of waste is deeply un-sexy and almost invisible in the day-to-day running of things; the ‘water cooler’ chattering mentioned above holds some clues as to its significance. I mean, think of the inconvenience and mild irritation that unfolds when bin collections are delayed or rescheduled during the holiday period. Now imagine what would happen if taken for granted infrastructures of waste collection and disposal were to disappear for good and its place, we were left with overflowing bins. Just how big a step would it be to civil unrest, a decline in public hygiene and outright chaos? Our point is this: waste and its effective management is critical to the economic, social and environmental welfare of cities, and as such is an exciting topic for academic research.

The development of appropriate infrastructures of waste management are intimately linked to the growth of cities, and it is at the urban level where challenges associated with waste collection (including recycling), disposal (e.g. landfill shortages) and treatment (e.g. incineration) are most clearly felt. But cities also play a critical role in shaping infrastructures more generally. They can provide the scale, institutional arrangements (including intermediaries) and political leadership to enable transitions towards more sustainable forms of waste management. Sally Gee and Elvira Uyarra have recently conducted an in-depth case study on the emergence of a recycling-based waste infrastructure in Greater Manchester that tries to understand the various dimensions (institutional, political, governance, social and technological) underpinning the transformation of urban waste infrastructures. In the course of this research, they have developed close contacts with the Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority (GMWDA) and other key stakeholders in waste policy both at the national and local levels. From the case study it emerged that one major challenge for waste practitioners is managing the dynamic relationship between household practices and the physical waste infrastructure. The active participation of consumers and households is key to the transformation of waste infrastructure. Yet understandings of household behaviour are seldom informed by understandings of what people actually do ‘behind closed doors’.  Indeed, research exploring home consumption, material culture and everyday life rarely ‘talks’ to waste policy and research. David Evans has recently finished a project looking at the everyday waste practices of Manchester households and reached the conclusion that bins are fascinating, not least because they signal the importance of understanding what goes on at the intersection of domestic spaces and public systems of waste management.

Through various discussions of our respective projects, we realised that ‘waste’ might just provide a useful hook through which a range of academic perspectives (from urban studies, innovation studies, material culture, the sociology of consumption etcetera) might be brought together to address a practical and real-world problem. And so an idea was born. With the generous support of cities@manchester and the Sustainable Consumption Institute, we have been able to get our heads together and start thinking this through. We recently organised a workshop ‘Urban waste transitions: connecting innovation, infrastructure and households’[2] to involve other experts and stakeholders in our discussions.

In the morning Professors Frank Geels, Mike Hodson and Simon Marvin gave fascinating talks on how to conceptualise and understand the governance of sustainability transitions at the urban level.  Professor Nuno Gil complemented this ‘macro’ analysis with insights into the development of infrastructure and its relationship to the wider socio-technical system.  All speakers emphasised that innovation in complex systems is protracted, spatially embedded and contested. They also reflected on the challenges of governing sustainable transitions.  These presentations invited pointed questions about how these insights, tools and perspectives might be turned to the analysis of waste.  In the afternoon, it was time for the ‘wasters’ (if only there were a better collectively noun for people who specialise in waste!) to take to the stage and bring us up to date with what’s happening in waste scholarship and waste management.  Professor Nicky Gregson argued that ‘waste’ is not open to obvious or static definitions but an outcome of socio-economic processes, and emphasised the efforts to marketise outputs of resource recovery processes where waste becomes a commodity to be transacted.  Reflecting on this Professor Catherine Alexander explored the classification and re-classification of waste, highlighting the importance of challenging waste categories and understanding what they include as well as exclude.  She argued that the current focus on “bankable” volumes of waste collection redirects attention away from waste reduction and the reality of household processes.  Dr Tom Quested from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) discussed immediate policy issues and emphasised the importance of problem-orientated and multi-disciplinary research to support policy makers in their efforts to affect change.  John Bland (Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority) shared the GMWDAs experience of governing a sustainable waste transition in Greater Manchester involving not only the construction of new physical infrastructure in a complex political, organisational and economic environment, but also the authority’s efforts to promote behaviour change in households.  The speakers all reflected on the questions posed by the presentations given in the morning sessions and the ways in which these perspectives might be extended (or not) to waste.

A number of insights came out of this lively and well attended workshop.  Different speakers tackled different aspects of this dialogue and demonstrated the complex interconnections between innovation, infrastructure and consumption practices – and emphasised the spatial, temporal and economic dimensions to sustainable urban waste transitions.  There was unanimous agreement that technology and society are inseparable, and although this may appear obvious, it challenges some popular perceptions that transforming systems is merely a matter of matching supply and demand, or that sustainable transitions are simply a matter of technological fixes and/or straight forward changes in household behaviours.

This workshop was the first step in what we hope is an on-going process, helping us to identify gaps in research, as well as questions of academic interest and policy relevance.  So watch this space!  As Christmas festivities fade to a distant memory and our attention turns to failed resolutions for the New Year, tidying up the garden (including that brown Christmas tree) and the steady munching of Easter eggs.  As you struggle to remember which bin to put out this week, or how to fit all that cardboard into the cupboard under the sink; spare a thought for how your waste is created, who collects it and where it goes.  There is a whole system out there (and you – we all – are part of it) transforming waste in a variety of ways; some of which are more sustainable than others.


[2] http://www.sci.manchester.ac.uk/events/sci/urban-waste-transitions

Uyarra, E. and Gee, S. (2013) Transforming urban waste into sustainable material and energy usage: the case of Greater Manchester, Journal of Cleaner Production, at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652612006403 .

Gee, S. and Uyarra, E. (2013) A role for public procurement in system innovation:  The transformation of the Greater Manchester (UK) waste system, Technology Assessment and Strategic Management (in press).

Evans, D. (2012) Binning, gifting and recovery: the conduits of disposal in household food consumption Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 30(6): pp. 1123-1137

Evans, D. (2012) Beyond the throwaway society: ordinary domestic practice and a sociological approach to household food waste, Sociology 46(1): 43-58

Evans, D. (2011) Blaming the consumer – once again: the social and material contexts of everyday food waste practices in some English households Critical Public Health 21(4): 429-44

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