Review: Catherine Alexander and Joshua Reno (eds), Economies of Recycling, Zed Books, 2012.

This review originally appeared in The British Journal of Sociology Volume 64, Issue 3, pp. 548–549, September 2013. The book can be bought directly from the publisher, Zed Books

The territorial etymologies of the word ‘waste’ – from vastus and its Latin root of ‘vast’, a time and space that is void, immense or enormous – absorbs its vacant neighbours, vanus and vaccus, and includes the verb vasto, “to make empty or vacant, to leave unattended or uninhabited, to desert” (Lewis and Short, ed., A Latin Dictionary). The earliest uses of the word ‘waste’ in the English language invariably denoted an enormous and empty sense of a depopulated landscape, “uninhabited (or sparsely inhabited) and uncultivated country; a wild and desolate region, a desert, wilderness” (OED, s.v. ‘waste’). Economies of Recycling: The Global Transformation of Materials, Values and Social Relations intellectually inhabits these spatial and temporal fields of study, uncultivated by traditional approaches the study of commodities and their chains of manufacture, and seeks to challenge the absolute qualities of desolation and emptiness associated with discarded matter. It provides a welcome and necessary contribution to our thinking about waste, a book that acknowledges the intricate relationship between worldmaking and waste making.

ImageAs a catalyst into wider anthropological and cultural geographic enquiries – into the influence that waste objects have on labour relations (chapters by Norris, Crang et al, Fredericks, Faulk), local responses to resource scarcity or excess (Tong and Wang, Halverson) and the uneven legal frameworks for waste’s national and international governance (Gracier, Reno) – this volume is unusually aware of the acts of use and recovery necessary to the practice of storytelling that underpins the multiple versions of ‘recycling’ that are traded on an increasingly complex and global scale. By being materially and semantically expansive in movement and meaning, waste can have transformative effects on how we understand the traffic and trade of materials across temporally and spatially distinct locations. Many chapters succeed in offering important insights into the globalised and globalising webs of use, reuse and disposal. The territorial nature of human-nonhuman entanglements that the authors trace illustrates the shadowy relations that can challenge “familiar economic relationships and understandings of how the global economy works” (ER 4). Both the practice of and critical engagement with recycling, the editors claim, “offers new ways of imagining and engaging with the world” (ER 15).

From the rag trade in India to the e-waste industries of China the chapters in Economies of Recycling engage us in the longstanding issue of scale, perspective and description that objects of waste seem to thrust upon us. The analysis of an object of waste, whether or not we choose to unravel its complex journey through time and space in full, must reckon with the suspension of use or its impossibility, a time or location in which the time of use ends. The collective response to this challenge, lucidly introduced and clearly organised into three sections, stresses that the complex entanglement of things, places and people means that the absolute suspension or eradication of use is rarely complete and the time of things is difficult to organise into discrete units. The more sophisticated accounts presented here, which are themselves conditioned by the sense of temporal excess that things of waste provide us, reflect upon the capacity for acts of description to accurately observe and participate in the cultivation and harvest of waste things. Interestingly, this is often best illustrated in chapters where economies of recycling appear to break down, go awry or produce ‘externalities’ of their own, not through a disparity between supply and demand but through the failure of the imagined ‘cycles’, ‘chains’ and ‘flows’ that things are thought to pass through. Romain Gracier’s fascinating analysis of how nuclear material and its movement through differing legal interpretations of ‘nuclearity’ shows how material can fall from the closed and idealised ‘nuclear fuel cycle’. Another example comes from Lucy Norris’s careful description of the ragtrade in the north Indian town of Panipat which is studded by processes which discard objects while selecting others for reuse and repurposing. Halverson’s chapter on medical aid describes the theology behind an international recycling project and exposes how some objects are repeatedly discarded because the of peculiarities of the an aid project’s aims and its asymmetric donor-recipient relations. The mantra ‘No Junk for Jesus’ motivates volunteers but also produces a rationale for recycling some objects and discarding others.

In their introduction Catherine Alexander and Joshua Reno argue that the book’s chapters “unpack the global flows of materials” to reveal the increased “fluidity of people and things” (p. 2, 9). One of the problems of using such lamina language to describe the dynamic movement, acts of narrative and negotiation with time, is that ‘flowing’ suggests continuity, predictability and uniformity for a set of circumstances and relationships that the book reveals to be so diverse, often contradictory and certainly unpredictable. The latent connection between the ideals of a closed cycle and the naturalised vocabularies of flows and streams, which so often supports these systems-led ideas of global recycling, is an interesting tension left unresolved by this collection. Nevertheless, waste is, as these ethnographically informed chapters repeatedly attest, a condition of things that arises from our storytelling traditions (academic or otherwise) and this work breaks new ground in representing the scale and diversity of our narrative responses. It is warmly recommended to undergraduates, postgraduates and researchers working across the social sciences and humanities.

This review originally appeared in The British Journal of Sociology Volume 64, Issue 3, pp. 548–549, September 2013. The book can be bought directly from the publisher, Zed Books