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the ethics of waste

12 december 2012

Gay Hawkins's Ethics of Waste is the kind of academic book that cites some other scholarship about its subject and adduces some of the toolkit of applicable theory, in the interest of combining and recombining things that other academics haven't. She talks almost up to, and then moves well round, the actual topic of the ethics of waste. She isn't interested in telling us how to act with regard to garbage, or to inform her treatment of the whole messy affair by diving in to do actual garbage-related observation or research. In other words, it's one of those books whose actual argument seems to be "here's something it would be worthwhile to spend more time thinking about." Well, fair enough. The Ethics of Waste did get me thinking a little more about trash, and that can't hurt me or the planet.

Rather than look directly at trash, Hawkins looks obliquely at some events and representations of the stuff to show how we might inflect some of our rubbish-related theory through her critical lenses. I took away a couple of things, though probably not the more subtle ones on offer. One is that rubbish is always a social construct. We know that one man's trash is another's treasure, but on top of that, nature doesn't care if we've thrown something away or never even seen it. Waste is a relation among people, or among people over and through various smelly things.

I also learned that waste produces a discourse rife with moralizing, and that we might be better off putting such moralizing on hold. Whether we are violently against litter, or alternatively, violently against recycling (as even some environmentalists are); whether we abhor consumer capitalism or run right out to get its products on Black Friday and its successive days of madness, matters little to how we deal with garbage.

And deal with it we do. The process of taking out the trash, a social construct in the modern developed world just as in previous societies, has become transformed even in my lifetime, from a matter of paper grocery bags in battered steel cans to one of plastic sacks set at one place and green plastic bins of recyclables set at another.

Recycling fits my mildly compulsive and decidedly blue-green personality well. I study every 8½x11 piece of paper to see if a crossword puzzle can be printed on its reverse. (Usually the blankness of the verso is more interesting than whatever nonsense is printed on the recto.) After I've solved the puzzle, into the recycling bin it goes: blue at the office, green at home. I suppose I could be even greener by never printing and solving the puzzles at all, but a man must have some bulwark against dementia.

And it's not just 8½x11s, of course: every piece of paper that comes into my hands gets perused for recyclability. If it's not too laminated or plasticky, if it's not stained with Nutella, it gets carefully preserved and tipped into the correct bin. I have been known to separate those insulating collars (pure clean paper) from coffee cups (waxy and befouled) in order to recycle them. Some of you laugh. Some of you do it, too.

In this way, a new ethics of waste has remade me, body and mind, in ways that Foucault and Bourdieu would – I was going to say "approve of," but that's not exactly right – "recognize" is surely better. A precarious train of assumptions and inferences continually trains and retrains me in habits that didn't exist when I was young. I recognize things as disposable, keepable, purifiable, irredeemable in different ways than my parents and grandparents did. And I know that their attitudes toward the garbage were provisional and evanescent in turn. "The waste remains," as William Empson said, but we can be more optimistic than he was: it need not necessarily kill us, body or spirit.

Hawkins, Gay. The Ethics of Waste: How we relate to rubbish. Lanham, MD: Rowman, 2006.