The Waste Society: Living with Material Overflows


PI:  Professor Jarno Valkonen, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Lapland

Title of the Project: The Waste Society: Living with Material Overflows

Sites of research: University of Lapland

Baseline: Wasteful societies or societies shaped by waste?

Waste is widely recognised as one of the most urgent environmental and social problems faced by humanity today. The World Bank´s report on solid waste estimates that the world cities generate annually about 1.3 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste. This volume is expected to rise to 2.2 billion by 2025 (Hoornweg & Bhada-Tata 2012). In the European Union (EU-28), households produce 213 410 thousands of tons of waste per year (Eurostat 2015). Divided per capita, the amount of municipal waste is close to 500 kg – almost the same quantity as a decade before. Despite ever-more efficient reuse and recycling, the amount of waste has not diminished considerably, rather the opposite. For instance, in countries like Finland, a pioneer in developing efficient recycling practices, the amount of produced municipal waste has grown year by year despite all-round efforts to diminish it. The EU has set as its long-term goal to become a resource efficient economy by 2020. With the current ‘Circular Economy’ package EU Commission is delivering ambitious measures to cut resource use, reduce waste and boost recycling. In the Circular Economy vision, there is no waste, only by-products waiting to be economically utilised.

Zero Waste principle has become a well-established agenda in Circular Economy but its implications are ambiguous. As O’Brien (2011, 9–10) notes, there is no possibility for a rational debate over waste unless its complex and intrinsic place in society is appreciated. First of all, there is no life without waste. All of our actions inevitably generate excess; it forms an inerasable element of our environments and taskscapes. It refuses to vanish, no matter how much we bin it, flush it down the drain, dump it into landfills or burn it. Waste cannot be disposed of, only converted into something else (Strathern 1999, 61). Given that waste is unavoidable, the critical task is to learn to live with waste, find ways of co-existing with it and ways of dealing with it. Therefore, it is insufficient to treat waste as only a problem to be solved technologically.

As most of municipal solid waste is produced and handled within households, institutional organization of waste management is highly dependent on actions of individual households. This makes households primary units of waste management. Mundane materials such as product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles and cans, food scraps, newspapers, appliances, consumer electronics and batteries turn to waste as they travel through household practices. Everyday household waste practices are habitualized, often uncontested and change slowly. They are also deeply connected to consumption, identity, values and social relations.  Thus, in order to achieve EU’s waste reduction principles, waste policy should be able to transform not only institutional organization of industrial waste management but also the deeply habitualized mundane waste practices of households.

In other words, achieving waste reduction principles necessitates radical changes along all scales of waste management from uncontested everyday waste practices to institutional waste management.

Therefore, waste policy, in the proper sense of the word, is less a matter of governing things called ‘waste’, and rather about making society of waste. This makes waste a crucial sociological problem.

The proposed project seeks to understand municipal solid waste in all its complexity from a sociological viewpoint. By following municipal solid waste practices from households (Entering the bin, Case 1) to contact points where household and official waste management entangle (Practicing the bin, Case 2), to the sites of industrial waste management (Leaving the bin, Case 3). Our aim is to examine waste as integral to everyday life, work, institutions and social relations in contemporary society. We ask, how does society shape waste and how does waste, in turn, shape society?

Setting the scene: Sociology of waste

For the social sciences waste has for long remained a visible invisible, something like a ‘lost continent’ (Fagan 2003) largely absent from the analyses of production and consumption. What consumers do with the things they purchase, how they appropriate them and especially how they dispose of them has received relatively little attention (Gregson 2007; Gregson et al. 2007b, 187-188). It is almost as if no one ever discarded anything, only acquired things (Hetherington 2004, 158; Lehtonen 2003, 377-380). Waste is something social science has been reluctant to attend to, its absence from core agendas made even more striking when compared with the attention it has received in the physical sciences, particularly engineering, and in the arts and humanities (see e.g. Bennett 2010; Morrison 2015).

Currently, there has been an increasing interest in social sciences in examining waste and its place in society. During the last two decades scholars have contributed to the growing field of waste studies by analysing waste, for instance, from the viewpoints of cultural economy and ethics (Hawkins 2006), social history of disposal and waste (O’Brien 2011; Strasser 1999), how we come to terms with throwing things away (Hetherington 2004), how practices of ‘ridding’ are connected to the making of social relations and identities (Gregson 2007; Gregson et al. 2007a&b), and practises of recycling and reuse (Gregson & Crewe 2003). Even though these studies have contributed greatly to the social scientific understanding of waste, they have nevertheless stayed far from the contact with the actual stinky and slimy garbage. Even when empirical study has been conducted, the focus has been on one specific level of action at the time, for instance, on household practices (e.g. Gregson 2007) or institutional waste governance (e.g. Zapata Campos & Hall 2013).There has been a call for empirical inquiries that examine waste practises on multiple scales as co-emergent and interdependent phenomena. This perspective has been considered vital in order to understand the constitutive character of waste in society. (Hultman & Corvellec 2014.)

We take up this challenge and seek to follow matter as it travels and mutates within waste management practices along the different scales. Our contribution to the social scientific waste studies is to examine municipal solid waste in all its complexity. This necessitates being present in and following the actual situations where matter is being handled as waste in practices.

We examine, firstly, the private sphere in which surplus materials are dealt and worked with. This means taking part in households’ everyday practices and routines of acquiring, consuming, living with and divesting things (Cases 1-2). Secondly, we study the institutional waste management practices, which define, organise and govern waste. This means taking part in the waste management labour and following waste as it turns into work, business and value (Case 3).

The project draws from two theoretical albeit interconnected multidisciplinary discussions: ontological politics approach and practice theory. Ontological politics suggests that reality does not precede the mundane practices in which we interact with it, but it is rather shaped within these practices (Mol 1999, 75). For us, this means that waste is not a static, given matter, but its character is always open, situated and contested. The ontological status of waste is being constantly produced and performed while it is being handled (Woolgar & Neyland 2013). Practice theories seek to understand elements of everyday life activities that are not necessarily immediately visible or often verbalized (Pink 2012, 40). From the wide umbrella of practice theories we take up the idea of agents as carriers of routinized, intersubjective complexes of bodily movements, of forms of interpreting, knowing how and wanting and of the usage of things (Pink 2012; Ingold 2011; 2013. See also Schatzki 2001; Reckwitz 2002). In the project, we argue that waste matters, in all senses of the word. Humans engage with the materiality of waste in the course of their mundane lives and institutional practices, as producers of waste, as politicians, as waste managers, as citizens, or as waste collectors. We study what it is to encounter and live with waste as matter.

Objectives of the research

The main objective of the project is to produce novel theoretical and empirical insights into waste and its role in society, consumption and the contemporary way of life. The analytical framework of the project is built on three theoretical assumptions.

First, we start from the idea that there is no society without waste and waste management. Waste is not just something that needs to be managed, controlled and governed. The forms and effects of waste and already its sheer scale are remarkably significant for the organisation of society. Waste is not only a matter of concern which calls for constant attention, but it also brings people together and creates divisions, disturbs the social order while also participates in producing it.

Second, we commence from the idea that waste is not a singular entity but it is heterogeneous and multiple. Previous research has mainly treated waste as a well-defined, determined and stable entity (see e.g. Bulkeley et al. 2007; Davies 2008). For us, by contrast, the ontological status of waste is not fixed but processual, precarious and difficult to define. We approach waste as something relationally and situationally produced in and by various concrete practices from discarding, sorting out, reducing, recycling, transporting, processing and managing to selling, taxing and scavenging. Waste is the subject of evidence to be collected to inform policy, waste is managed, waste is traded in national and global markets and waste becomes the subject of education initiatives. Each of these practices produces waste as a different kind of entity, and a different kind of object for waste governance (see Woolgar & Neyland 2013). Thus, waste exists and is spread out on multiple scales: it involves for instance the economy, politics, moral ideas, infrastructures, consumption habits, households, bins, landfills and various materials like foodstuffs, plastic, fabric, wood, oil and metal.

Third, we counter the idea of waste as dead matter. Social scientific studies of waste have been predominated by the legacy of Mary Douglas (2004/1966), which has led researchers to consider waste in terms of categories and meaning: waste is generally seen as ‘matter out of place’ (see e.g. Frow 2003). We counter this socio-constructivist and anthropocentric perspective by foregrounding the dynamic materiality of waste. For us, waste is not a passive object just waiting to be endowed with meanings, but it amounts to materials, which are active in themselves: they do something. (Ingold 2011; 2013; Bennett 2010.) The sheer accumulation of surplus matter forces us to manage it e.g. by classifying, sorting, and placing it into different compartments. While we acknowledge the difficulty of incorporating the dynamic materiality of waste to the analysis, we have not laid out our response to this question beforehand, but rather our aim is to try to develop an approach that makes it possible to analyse the materiality of waste within practices.

From the aforementioned starting points the project explores the following broad research question:

How is waste enmeshed in everyday lives, economies, policies and the sociocultural order?

We will address this question with three empirical case studies that seek to capture the scalar complexity of waste. The empirical cases are located in Finnish Lapland for particular reasons. Waste management in Finland is governed by national legislation, which follows European Union’s waste directives. Finnish waste management is organized regionally. Lapland is the vastest of these waste management regimes. The organization of waste management in Finland is conditioned by sparse population, long distances, and extreme weather conditions.  These challenges are extreme in Lapland. In addition, the economy of the region is based on the tourism industry, which results in high seasonal variation in the amount of waste. These aforementioned characters make Lapland an excellent case to study the constitution of contemporary waste society.

We take the bin as a methodological contact point from which it is possible to grasp the scalar variety of waste. In the bin, the matter’s ontological status changes. The matter is different before it enters the bin and after it leaves it. The project will not only explore the matter’s passage into waste, but also what is done to and with things after they have become waste. We study how households deal with material overflows and dispose of unwanted things (Entering the bin, CASE 1), how households’ waste practices and organization of institutional waste management encounter (Practicing the bin, CASE 2), what kinds of economic and organizational ‘geographies’ of waste do the flows of waste produce (Leaving the bin, CASE 3).

CASE 1:  Entering the bin

The starting point of Case 1 is the understanding of household as the primary unit of consumption and waste generation. The case examines making of Waste society in and through the practices of managing material overflow within households. Rather than thinking only in terms of disposal, this case takes the practice of divestment as its starting point. As a counterpart to acquirement, divestment is a useful concept due to its broadness: it encompasses both passing significant objects between generations and the mundane acts of disposing of ordinary goods and artefacts (Gregson et al. 2007b, 187). It entails various meanings implicit in getting rid of surplus things not only by placing them in the waste stream, but also by moving them along via various conduits such as destroying, donating, selling, abandoning, passing on and forgetting about. The mundane practices of divesting surplus things in the flow of daily life are explored by taking part in the everyday lives of people. The novel ways and conduits of managing the overflow, such as utilizing possibilities of social media and trying out collective trash treatment methods are developed, trialed and tested together with research participants. The analysis concentrates on practices of managing the material surplus by asking: How and why are certain objects disposed of and others kept? What happens to the unwanted things? In addition, this case develops experimental participatory research methods for sociological inquiry. The case study is the post doc project of Veera Kinnunen.

CASE 2: Practicing the bin

This case study focusses on the moment in which matter has been passed to the bin and thus its ontological status has changed to waste. The bin is the borderline in which formal and informal waste practices encounter. Our preliminary study about waste management illustrates that institutional waste management understands the household as a consumer of frontline waste services. The household is offered a subject position of a ‘waste producer’ with taken for granted waste practices. The official waste management is organized based on the assumption of uniform household waste practices with steady waste streams from season to season. However, households’ waste collection is situated and highly sensitive practice in connection to the dynamics of the place where people live their lives. This controversy has resulted in malfunctions and even conflicts. (Valkonen et. al. 2017; Saariniemi 2017.) Hence, if the connection between informal and formal waste management does not work, there is a risk that the waste policy fails completely. In this case study, we argue that the relationship between household and official waste management is more than a consumer-producer relationship; it is reciprocal and co-productive. This case study aims at opening the ‘black box’ of waste management by focusing enquiry on the practical negotiations of the responsibility, ownership and value of waste within households.  In concrete, this means taking part in the mundane waste management practices of households. Multisensory, participatory ethnography as well as walk-along and

videoethnography methods will be utilized. The study asks, what happens when households’ routinized waste practices meet official waste management imperatives in the bin? How do households negotiate their waste disposal in relation to the official waste management? The case study is the post graduate project of Johanna Saariniemi.

CASE 3: Leaving the bin

Case 3 starts with the idea that in the Waste society the bin is not the endpoint of consumption but, instead, an opening for new economic relations. The ontological status of waste has been charged with value when leaving the bin. Whereas waste within household practices is treated as unwanted matter of no value, the institutional waste management takes waste as a potentially valuable resource. The case study focuses on economic and service networks involved in the industrial management of waste in Lapland. The organization of waste management is a complex combination of institutional waste management and private or public-private waste businesses and services.  Waste management is organised by economic principles but the primary motivation is the environmental concern. We argue that the objectives of waste management are contradictory: On the one hand, the primary objective is waste reduction, on the other, the high amount of waste is vital for the profitable waste economy. In this case we take this contradiction as a starting point. We examine the constitution of industrial waste management in Finnish Lapland. The region covers more than a quarter of the geographical area of the country but has less than 5% of the population. However, the amount of garbage per person produced is more than half greater than the average of all Finnish citizens. Waste transportation routes are hundreds of kilometres long – even 600 kilometres, with the endpoint in public-private owned incinerator in Central-Finland. We follow ethnographically the transportation routes, relocation and reuse of municipal waste and trace linkages between policy makers, public and private sector organizations and households by using participatory methods.

We ask, how the ontological status of matter transforms as it is moved along the waste management industry. How does unvalued matter gain value? What kinds of economic geographies do the flows of waste produce? Case 3 is a post-doc project of Heikki Huilaja.

Effects and impact beyond academia

Based on the three interlinking case studies, therefore, the project’s main theoretical and empirical outcome will be a major contribution to the existing multidisciplinary waste studies in general and sociological literature on waste in particular. The project will enrich research of municipal solid waste governance by developing means to study social, technological and economical aspects of waste simultaneously as co-constitutive participants of a multi-scale ontological assemblage. The strength of the project is its thorough and detailed empirical engagement with waste. The majority of previous scholarship is either heavily theoretical or considers waste exclusively in terms of waste management. By empirically examining how people discard things, what they do to and with waste and how waste practices constitute society, the project generates novel tools for researching waste and significantly increases sociological understanding of waste as a fundamental part of social life.

The project has several practical and societal outcomes. Firstly, by bringing forth contemporary co-productive waste practices the research project raises public awareness of waste as not something that needs to be gotten rid of but instead as a resource and as something that needs to be learned to live with. Secondly, by emphasizing the complexity of waste practices as not unchanging but continually negotiated, modified and re-created in everyday practices, the research will influence waste policies and household practices and encourage both citizens and policy-makers to develop new, alternative ways of living with waste. Thirdly, by producing detailed research knowledge on contradictory contact points in which waste management fails, the project offers crucial tools for making socially and environmentally sustainable waste policy in the way towards Circular Society.

Research methods and material, support from research environment

The project seeks to tease out the co-constitutive role of waste in society by addressing waste practices from different scalar perspectives and with specific sets of data. All the three subprojects share similar methodological points of departure. The project will apply multi-sited and multi-scale sensory ethnography (see Pink 2012; 2009; Ingold 2013), which supports the understanding of waste within different scales, practices and contexts. This enables us to analyze the multiple meanings of waste in people’s everyday lives as well as interaction between different stakeholders. Our interest in everyday life activities, which are not necessarily immediately visible or often verbalized, guides us to explore people and waste as they are entangled in practices. Ethnographical participatory methods offer a route to access practices as they are performed (Pink 2012, 40). As an attempt to explore to the full the emplaced and multisensory nature of living with waste, a sensory ethnography approach (Pink 2009; 2012) is applied throughout the project. Sarah Pink stresses (2009) that the sensory ethnographic approach reveals different routes to obtain knowledge: it includes sensory experiences, perceptions, sociality, knowing, and bodily practices in the analysis.

The project takes ethnography as a specific understanding of the knowledge production process that offers analytical depth and direct and continuous social contact with the participants. Our approach treats research knowledge as co-produced ways of knowing rather than objective “data” and research as an inevitably collaborative process. It stands for an approach to “researching with” rather than simply about people, and in this sense it is also compatible with participatory/activist/intervention research (Pink 2012, 32, Ingold 2013). Rich ethnographic data will be produced through participatory observation and arranging video recorded “garbage tours” in peoples’ homes, neighbourhoods and waste collection sites. This embodied, emplaced form of ethnographic knowing (Pink 2012) is supplemented with traditional interviews as well as relevant administrative material and statistical and media documents (see The Data Management Plan). The research material consists of the following:

  1. Fieldwork data: materials co-produced within participatory observation fieldwork periods, including fieldwork diaries, households’ ‘disposal diaries’, photos, and video recordings.
  2. Interview data: one-on-one and group interviews. In-depth interview data will be collected from households (CASES 1 & 2), municipal waste officials, entrepreneurs and workers (CASE 3).
  3. Supplementary data: administrative documents, statistics, and media texts.

Methodologically, to study waste ethnographically is to follow materials (Ingold 2011) and tell a story of what happens to materials as they flow, mix and mutate. In line with Tim Ingold (2013), we understand ethnography as an art of inquiry. In the art of inquiry, the conduct of thought goes along with, and continually answers to, the fluxes and flows of the materials with which we work: “These materials think in us, and we think through them”. According to Ingold every study is an experiment, not in the sense of testing a hypothesis, but in the sense of trying out and seeing what happens, of prising an opening and following where it leads (Ingold 2013, 6-7). To understand the nature of things is to attend to their relations and to tell their stories.  In the story, as in life, it is in the movement from place to place – or from topic to topic – that knowledge is integrated. To know someone or something is to be able to tell its story. (Ingold 2011, 160–161.) In the project, we join in the material of waste in movement, relate with it, and tell its stories to other academics and also to wider audiences.

Ethical issues 

We will follow the ethical guidelines of Finnish Advisory board of Research Integrity ( and the ethical guidelines of the university. In our study, we value the principles of open science, but we will also take care of the right of self-determination of the participants, as well as their privacy and data protection. In general, prevention of any harm towards the participants will be discussed with the participants during the whole project, and we will think through the possible ways our research might cause harm to the dignity of any participants or to their bodily or material well-being. However, we will stress the clarity and openness of our work regarding the purpose, methods, outcomes and sponsors. Information will be provided for the participants about the topic, research methods, purpose of the study, and the archiving and possible secondary use of the data. In publications, the identities of participants will be protected, and especially while using individual interviews, we will guarantee their anonymity. Participants will be informed of and have access to all the publications where their knowledge is used. By revealing the meaning of waste in everyday life, and by organising focus groups, we will support practice-based knowledge production, which in turn empowers people and can offer platforms for future cooperation and even new kinds of social business models.


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