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This introductory chapter situates the current edited volume at the crossroads of two powerful developments: the exponential growth of global waste generation since the early twentieth century, and the rise of nations of the Asia-Pacific region as economic powerhouses. In the beginning of the essay, Pál and Borowy venture out to explore the global history of waste and discards, as well connect it with the specific cultural-, social-, and economic aspects within the Asia-Pacific region. By doing so, the authors propose a new waste paradigm, particularly as it pertains to Asia, in which both historical and contemporary definitions of waste are represented. In the second part of the essay, the authors introduce the individual chapters and their relation to the overall theme of the book. These thematic chapters include case studies related to cities and living, food and human waste, design and art. By introducing these chapters and describing how they are connected, the second part aims to orient readers about the overall structure of the volume and the interconnections of the various case studies.
Contemporary Cultural Perspectives on Discards in the Asia-Pacific Region
Viktor Pál and Iris Borowy
This introductory chapter situates the current edited volume at the crossroads of two powerful
developments: the exponential growth of global waste generation since the early twentieth
century, and the rise of nations of the Asia-Pacific region as economic powerhouses. In the
beginning of the essay, Pál and Borowy venture out to explore the global history of waste and
discards, as well connect it with the specific cultural-, social-, and economic aspects within the
Asia-Pacific region. By doing so, the authors propose a new waste paradigm, particularly as it
pertains to Asia, in which both historical and contemporary definitions of waste are represented.
In the second part of the essay, the authors introduce the individual chapters and their relation to
the overall theme of the book. These thematic chapters include case studies related to cities and
living, food and human waste, design and art. By introducing these chapters and describing how
they are connected, the second part aims to orient readers about the overall structure of the
volume and the interconnections of the various case studies.
Scientists have been struggling to define waste, describing it, among other labels, as pollution
either as “matter out of place” (Douglas 1966) or within “thresholds of harm” (Liboiron 2016).
While there is no uncontested definition, there is complete unanimity that, whatever it is, there
keeps being more of it. Beginning in industrialised countries in Europe and North America,
growing living standards and high-consumption lifestyles have spread across the world. People
who have been far more affluent than earlier generations at any time in the past, had an
ever-growing quantity of possessions which they wished to replace in ever shorter intervals, an
evolution whose end-point has been marked by the emergence of single-use items. The global
adoption of a throwaway culture has had dramatic environmental consequences and has been
identified by the scientific community as one of the main driving factors behind anthropogenic
climate change and the global environmental crisis. (Clark, Fischbacher-Smith, & Blowers,
Andrew, 1992; Falasca-Zamponi, 2010; Gille, & Lepawsky, Josh, 2022) As this lifestyle
involves an increasing percentage of a growing global population, the unprecedented
accumulation of a rising variety of waste, including discarded plastics, paper, food, glass,
medical supplies or metals, creates problems whose global reach can as yet only be estimated.
This growing mass of waste is projected to rise even further in the foreseeable future, spreading
to every corner of the world, as the “away” of throwing things away has become “everywhere”.
In fact, the twenty-first century may be the first time in human history in which people cannot
escape their own waste by moving to some other place because there is virtually no place on
Earth left untouched by the unwanted leftovers of human activity. Marco Armiero has coined the
expression of “wasteocene,” depicting an era increasingly defined by the massive transformation
of natural resources into trash, partly toxic material, which is no longer used by humans or any
other living beings on Earth (Armiero, 2021). The scale of the challenge is serious, as
anthropogenic waste and pollution play a significant role in the escalation of an unprecedented
global environmental crisis which is threatening the biosphere and, eventually, survival of life on
our planet (Steffen et al. 2015).
While the beginning of this development lies in the traditional industrialised countries in Europe
and North America, their importance is declining compared to a growing role placed by Asia.
During the last decades, the centre of the global economy has clearly shifted from the West to
Asia (Quah 2010). The continent now represents half of global GDP and two thirds of global
economic growth and is set to further expand its dominant position:
Of the estimated $30 trillion in middle-class consumption growth estimated between
2015 and 2013, only $1 trillion is expected to come from today’s Western economies.
Most of the rest will come from Asia. Asia produces and exports, as well as imports
and consumes, more goods than any other region, and Asians trade and invest more
with one another than they with Europe or North America. Asia also accounts for
60 percent of the world’s population. It has ten times as many people as Europe and
twelve times as many people as North America. (Khanna, 2019, p.4)
This impressive economic growth, above all of China but also of India and other countries,
which has raised millions of people out of poverty, has affected waste in the region in two ways:
One was that Asia has become a central actor in the global waste trade. This has been especially
true for China, whose spectacular economic growth in the 1980s created an immense need for
cheap raw material for its manufacturing sector. Given the combination of a large demand in the
production sector and low salaries, it made economic sense to import waste from other countries
and transform it into raw material through labour-intensive recycling, often involving primitive
and unhealthful methods (Minter, 2013). During the next thirty years, China became the world’s
largest importer of various forms of scrap, , importing, for example, up to 75 percent of all
globally traded plastic waste, along with 24 other types of solid waste, including paper, metal
and textiles (Ritchie, & Roser, 2018). In 2017, the Chinese government banned the import of
most sorts of plastic and paper waste, provoking dramatic shifts in the global waste trade, with
profound effects on the trade and final disposal of these products. While subsequently most of
the plastic went to South East Asian countries, India has replaced China as the major global
importer of unsorted waste paper (Ma et al., 2021). Nevertheless, even in 2018 China was the
world's largest importer of waste and scrap, followed by Germany, India and Korea (Yamaguchi,
2021, p.21).
On the other hand, other research increasingly challenged a simple picture of North-South waste
dumping. Though exact data are difficult to come by, it appears that only a small part of global
waste is traded. One study found that approximately 23% of all e-waste generated in the OECD
countries was exported to five non-OECD countries (Breivik et al. 2014). Some years later,
estimates of the Basel Action Network regarding Waste of Electric and Electronic Equipment of
European countries range from 0% (Hungary) to 12.5% (UK) with most countries hovering in
the lower single digits (Habib, 2022, p.4). Meanwhile, investigations among scrap traders
showed that, rather than being “dumped”, a lot of e-waste and scrap formed part of a complex
system for repair, reuse and recycling, in which actors in different parts of the world played an
active part (Minter, 2013). Similarly, By 2010, only around ten to eleven percent of its total
plastic waste was imported (Ritchie, & Roser, 2018) and today, only approximately two percent
of global plastic gets traded internationally (Ritchie, 2022). The rest never leaves the country
where it was made. In the process of its dramatic economic development, China increasingly
generated its own domestic plastic waste, so that it became the largest producer of plastic waste.
Already in 2014, a leading scholar of discard studies stated:
Evidence from a variety of sources collected using a diversity of methods suggests a
new though still minority position: the bulk of e-waste imports are not waste but
are instead working or repairable equipment; domestic sources rather than only
foreign dumping contribute significant volumes of electronic discards in
‘developing’ countries; and trade from rich ‘developed’ nations to poor ‘developing’
nations represents a modest portion of e-waste flows relative to flows within these
regions. (Lepawsky, 2014, p.147).
As a second consequence, the immense economic growth of the Asian region has meant
substantial increases in production, consumption and concomitant waste production (Jutta,
van Zanden, 2020; Wong, 2021; Assa and Robin Jeffrey, 2018.) While receiving relatively
less attention in public media (and partly in academia), this aspect of waste-related
developments in Asia is probably more influential. The speed of this development meant
that it affected societies that often retained important characteristics of more traditional
ways of life. This combination turns final disposal into a huge challenge. Though
circumstances differ, municipal solid waste in many Asian cities contains a high percentage
of organic, wet waste, often making up more than half of the waste quantity. This makes
incineration, as is commonly practised in Europe, very difficult. (Aleluja and Ferrão,
2016). While informal forms of management and recycling play an important role, the
sheer magnitude and speed of economic growth threatens to overwhelm existing formal
and informal infrastructures. 65 percent of mismanaged plastic waste, defined as ending up
“littered or inadequately disposed” happens in Asia, and the two countries that contribute
most mismanaged plastic waste to the world are India and China, followed, after a large
margin, by the Philippines (Ritchie and Roser, 2018).
The situation, therefore, defies simplistic victim-perpetrator narratives. The complexity of the
situation may show up most clearly in the challenge of e-waste in China: the Chinese city of
Guiyu became notorious as an e-waste dump in which informal waste recyclers recovered metals
from e-waste imported from overseas by primitive means. Retrieving precious metals by
washing circuits with acid or burning plastic-covered cables in order to recover copper cables
and working under atrocious conditions often without any protective gear, people would breathe
in noxious air and drink water from contaminated water. Therefore, the town became notorious
as an example of waste imperialism, with Northern countries dumping their e-waste on poor
Southern communities. However, this is only part of the story, at best. By 2015, most of the
e-waste processed in Guiyu was of domestic origin (Fu, Zhang, Zhang and Jiang, 2018). The
demand for minerals, metals, rare Earths and sometimes plastics is high, driven by the
fast-growing economy in which consumer electronics such as computer monitors, refrigerators,
and air conditioning units form part of rapidly rising living standards, while mobile phones are a
crucial element of the fabric of social organisation. Phones are used to keep contact with friends,
to pay for shopping, to transfer money to people and enterprises, to take pictures, to watch
movies, to distribute work related information, to navigate movement through cities etc. Since
the beginning of the pandemic, phones have become a crucial element of the zero-Covid strategy,
as red or green codes on the phone determine the movements and their limitations by more than a
billion people. The average phone is used for 19.5 months in China, prompting a steady stream
of discarded phones (O’Neill, 2019, chapter 4). It also created a constant demand for components
for new phones. Mining precious and rare Earths from e-waste is generally cheaper than virgin
mining (Fu, Zhang, Zhang and Jiang, 2018). It may also be safer, since below ground mining has
one of the highest incidences of work-related to accidents and deaths (O’Neill, 2019, chapter 4).
China, therefore, epitomises both the extent to which waste studies need to pay more attention to
recent developments and need to do justice to it, forming part of a larger landscape of
economic-environmental-social transformations.
For some time, waste has been the object of a growing body of literature in the humanities and
social sciences. However, its distribution has been quite uneven. There is a rich literature on the
history of waste primarily produced in and focused on the United States. Authors of the
American waste experience powerfully tell a disturbing history that includes rapid economic
growth, the opening up of economic systems and the skyrocketing production of waste and
disposables (Melosi, 1981; 2020; Miller, 2000; Strasser, 1999; Zimring, 2005). Special studies
have been dedicated to specific events, such as the scandal of Love Canal, a residential area was
found to have been built on an abandoned hazardous waste site (Newman 2016), and a lot of
attention has been dedicated to the question of environmental justice (or lack thereof). Findings
that (hazardous) waste sites were disproportionately located in poor and non-white
neighbourhoods have acted as one of the drivers of a new understanding of environmental
(in-)justice and environmental racism (United Church of Christ, Commission for Racial justice.
1987; Boer et al., 1997; Mohair and Bryant, 1992). Other studies have added nuance, finding that
hazardous waste sites in Texas were disproportionately situated within poor but (at the time of
siting) largely white neighbourhoods, possibly because waste disposal sites were routinely placed
in rural areas with low population density. (Yandl and Burton, 1996).
These histories contain important lessons on the impact of anthropogenic environmental change
in some of the richest nations of the world, but their findings do not easily lend themselves to
global generalisations. In recent years, a growing body of literature has emerged on other areas:
A number of studies have addressed environmentalism in authoritarian states, which often
produce policies other than the norms developed in Western liberal democracies, (Brain, & Pál,
2018). For example, the Nazi waste collection and recycling efforts were some of modern
history’s most extreme examples of waste utilisation actions, and within that context waste
economy was an integral part of the Third Reich directly linked to its racist and colonialist
ideology (Weber, 2013). By contrast, many environmentally focused social scientists writing
about communist countries highlighted details of environmental destruction and wastefulness,
with a few notable exceptions (Beck Pristed, 2020; Gille, 2007; Pál, 2017). Some of the newer
research points out that communist governments aimed to mend material shortages with
extensive efficiency improving and recycling efforts and that efficacy became an obsession for
socialist planners. For example, in Hungary, several state-owned recycling companies were set
up as branches of Ministries and large nationwide trusts which sought total control over material
cycles and glorified secondary materials as critical resources to run the communist economy. In
consequence, post-consumer waste campaigns involved the entire society and extended the
obsession of waste utilisation beyond the industrial sector into the entire society via education,
outreach and everyday practices. (Pál, 2023) Other studies have sought overriding themes
beyond East-West paradigms by framing waste as a function of development (Borowy, 2019).
Publications in humanities or social sciences on waste in Asia are still relatively rare. A model
study is the excellent book by Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey, which analyses the complex, often
contradictory experience of increasing waste and the myriad ways in which people in different
niches of society have reacted to it. It highlights the ambivalent character of waste as between
garbage and useful material, as the value of paper, plastic, glass, metal but also human hair can
change rapidly in response to national or global events (Doron and Jeffrey, 2018). If
recommendations by orthodox Jewish rabbis in New York can have an impact on the price and,
consequently, the practice of human hair collection in India, this just confirms global
entanglement of waste as a tradable commodity. Similar connections, direct as well as indirect,
are also at work within the Asian regions, where the societies of Mainland China, Taiwan, Japan,
Thailand and other countries are interconnected through economic, political and cultural
relations (Yamamoto and Hosoda, 2016).
The special contribution of the social sciences has been to highlight how waste related measures
are always on some level political. This dimension is especially important in Greater China,
where competing political systems lend a special tension to the already daunting task of finding
solutions to rapidly developing multi-million cities in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
(Wong, 2021). The analysis of mainland China has given rise to the concept of environmental
authoritarianism. However, in practice, this label may obscure as much as it reveals, as central,
provincial and local authorities are engaged in ambiguous mixtures of cooperation and
confrontation for the interpretation and implementation of waste regulations (Li, Yang, Wei, and
Zhang, 2019; Wang and Jiang, 2020). Besides, in an effort taking up the waste challenge, China’s
leaders have included new actors in waste governance, while aiming to reassert the state’s
leadership. This has given local stakeholders the opportunity to mix authoritarian and liberal
elements in their handling of waste situations (Lo, 2015). Thus, waste may also function as a
marker of how individual waste activism can create new collective subjectivities to partake in the
“socialism with Chinese characteristics”. (MacFarlane 2019; Kruger 2020; Monsaingeon 2017).
The Chinese experience echoes that in India, as well as many other nations in the Asia-Pacific
region. For example, members of the Keralite community in India tackle the waste issue by
participatory development programs and bottom-up planning that have led to regional solutions
(Veron 2011). This and several similar experiences resonate to the observation by Judith Butler
(2004), that neoliberal politico-economic systems mobilise subjects to sustain the status quo
where someone has to be and stay lesser for all others to stay secure, thus assigning vulnerability
and systematically reproducing precarity.1Butler’s insight can be easily connected to notions on
the logic of capitalism: by Zygmunt Bauman (2004; 2014) who contends that the human is a
disposable factor of production, which should be made redundant and thrown away as waste
when useless 2In this context, collective action and identity are often seen as fighting back to
regain control of individual communities' waste problems. According to Alberto Melucci, the
collective identity concept is an interactive and shared definition produced by several individuals
or groups as a reflective and dynamic process (Melucci, 1989). Melucci also connected
collective identity with collective action such as social movements, in which individuals or
groups cannot be seen as a homogenous reality (Melucci, 1996). The notion of collective identity
helps us understand the driving factors for choices and actions. It also explains what motivations
are presented to act collectively when it comes to waste, because as Taylor (1989) suggested
collective identity is the shared definition of a group that derives from members’ common
interests and solidarity. These notions are in fact key to understanding human-waste relations in
2For a similar argument see Yates (2011).
1It is important to note that Butler conceptualised precarity in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and focuses on lives
under the global neoliberal politico-economic system.
depth. More so, Claire Saunders (2008) suggested that collective identity and culture are
discussed through a sense of togetherness (we-ness), where the group dynamic is seen, and
where solidarity is also one of the most possible outcomes. (Saunders, 2008). Collective
participation may come in many different forms of collectively held, institutionally stabilised,
and publicly performed visions of desirable futures (Jasanoff 2015, 322) This sociotechnical
imaginary can intertwine society with technological forms, such as the ones related to waste.
Authors of this volume recognize this problem of waste making and management and chapters in
this volume share the observation that what we do with waste is not primarily the question of
econo-techno fixes, rather it stems from the values, ethics, and attitudes of human societies and
culture. Thus, waste systems cannot be detached from the way our societies are built and
organised, but as an integral part of both human culture and the ecosystem via a value-based
approach (Mies and Gold, 2021). In this vein, this volume takes an attempt to approach the
complexities of human actions when it comes to waste, such as values, beliefs, and ethics.
The strength of this volume is that it shows the immense scope of waste as a multi-dimensional
phenomenon that is aligned with human actions and decisions. In this process, human
interaction with waste leads to various social and cultural frames, thus waste management can
foster community building but also dynamics of exclusion of marginal groups. It can relate to
efforts of creating circular economies, but also to fruitless efforts of making discarded material
disappear, only for it to re-appear in garbage patches in the ocean. It can also unleash human
ingenuity that connects garbage with high-tech laboratory research, as technical waste gets
re-purposed for laboratory work and, after a while of usage, regains its nature as waste.
The purpose of this book and the essays included to foster, inform, encourage the kind of human
decisions which create preconditions for inclusive and solidar-cultural, and social frames and at
the same time lead to technological and economic processes which support human-nature
coexistence for generations to come.
In Chapter 2. Madhu investigates the intertwined system of social hierarchy and the cultural
construction of food waste in the Indian context. Madhu argues that birth-ascribed caste identity
is reflected in what people eat, with whom they can eat and what they can or cannot eat, and thus
eventually the food waste they create. This chapter concentrates on marginalized groups,
especially the Dalits, who experience discriminatory boundaries in the ways they consumed
food, thus this paper reflects on various cultural and social factors which decide what becomes
food and what can be termed as inedible, and as such waste. Madhu argues that caste-ascribed
food practices largely contribute to the dehumanisation of Dalits via the food(waste) they eat.
Thus, this chapter suggests that food and food waste and what can be edible or inedible goes
beyond the framework of human survival and is more a mark of cultural hierarchy.
In the next chapter Pinar Temochin investigates the unique and successful community approach
to solid waste management in the Kerala state of India. There the local government,
eco-companies, and active citizens have developed a joint and progressive approach for the
management of solid waste issues by developing collaboration and cooperation among
themselves. This, in return, enabled them to gain more autonomy in waste management issues.
Thus, this chapter investigates the key aspects of this unique, regional collaborative waste system
of Kerala and seeks reasons for its perceived success locally by focusing on the role of local
communities and how they determine as well as redefine solid waste. Temochin argues that
socio-cultural identical factors are key to shape and influence sustainable local environmental
development, among which a strong sense of community is key to develop very high
environmental literacy and motivation to act for collective ecological interests
In Chapter 4 Alicia Ng juxtaposes China’s strong push for the Circular Economy: toward zero
pollution and waste, as well as the fact that the country used to be the world's largest electronic
waste recipient, and is the second largest global producer of domestic e-waste. Ng places
sustainable, remediation methods known as bioremediation in the centre of this study, to question
the opposing key elements of waste and waste pollution: is bioremediation a way to fulfil zero
waste goals or it is an alternative way to embed waste and toxicity, and continue their
inevitabilities? Ng suggests that tension between conflicting aspects of e-waste and
bioremediation are key to understanding in order to make informed decisions.
In the following chapter Virginie Arantes investigates the political and ethical aspects of solid
waste management in Shanghai’s urban communities and its interrelations with environmental
citizenship. Arantes argues that waste initiatives have become key in crafting green structures of
community organisation where imaginaries, arguments, desires, and policies created and foster
the construction of ‘green’ and ‘good’ citizenship, a shared responsibility that serves as to restore
a sense of responsibility within an authoritarian regime. Thus, this study is bringing attention to
the moral aspects of waste management, and especially to responsibility and collective action.
In Chapter 6 Dr. Rosaline (Yi Yi Mon) Kyo focuses on environmental waste and vulnerability
based on socioeconomic status and gender via analysing contemporary Chinese artworks. The
author analyses Chen’s artwork in relation to landscapes created by the construction of the Three
Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, and how large governmentally-funded public works projects
impact vulnerable communities. Kyo then goes on and places Cheng’s and Zhangke’s work in
conversation to analyse economic development in early 21st-century China in the context of
socioeconomic and gender related environmental vulnerability.
In the following chapter Tin Ping (Timothy) Yeung elaborates further the role of waste in
contemporary Chinese art, more specifically toxic scrap heaps, sordid streets and ragpickers’
abject labour conditions which fuel apocalyptic imaginaries of the waste crisis. Young focuses
on three contemporary Chinese artworks by Kan Xuan, Song Dong and Zhao Xiangyuan and
Han Bing, and situate them within the socio-historical context of post socialist China to
understand better how Chinese artists engage with waste as a tool for political positioning and
construction of the human and nonhuman in the time of the ecological crisis.
The chapters in the last section explore other regions of the Asia-Pacific region including
Australia, Bangladesh, Japan, Vietnam to make better send of the current social and cultural
challenges of waste.
In Chapter 8. Keitaro Morita analyses the cultural and social aspects of nuclear waste in
Post-Fukushima Japanese environmental literature. Morita investigates waste within one’s
property and the ‘IMBY (In My Backyard)’ concept via analysing actions of a ‘hoarder’ who is
guiding the reader to the world of human mortality and horrors of the ecological crisis caused by
the Fukushima nuclear disaster within Naraha, that is known in Japan as “the Tibet of
Fukushima”, where in the fictional world the accumulated nuclear waste is turned into “The
Mountain of Light,” and becomes a destination for pilgrimages, rather than a mere vista to look
at a nuclear dystopia.
In Chapter 9. Betsey Price and Paige Lalonde explore the history and present of food waste to
define the cultural, social perspectives which drive the conceptualization of what is edible as
food. Authors explore aspects of health, religion, culture, politics, and class which all contribute
to the importance of certain foodstuffs, meanwhile others are defined as “food waste”. Authors
explore examples from Vietnam, China, and the Middle East to link the past to the present and
use those connections to propose a culturally-rooted definition of food that influences our
consumption habits and that recognizing this could help us better mitigate food waste.
In this last chapter Michael Chew explores the international circulation of consumer waste
through adapted multi-sited photovoice methods to reveal the complexities of human-waste
relationships across multiple geographically separated sites. Chew investigates environmental
behaviour change and human/non-human relations through participatory visual methods
engaging with urban youth in Bangladesh, Australia and China resulting ‘photo-story’ visual
artefacts. Thus, this chapter explores the relational quality of the waste-actors as a network rather
than discrete entities, therefore this study aims to expand on conceptions of agency, subjectivity
and visuality of consumer waste.
Peter Kirby rounds up the collection with a recapitulation of how ideas regarding recycling and a
circular economy in Asia have often been at odds with reality. Arguably, the vision of a fully
circular system has even served to justify ongoing consumption and wastefulness. Drawing
attention to the degree to which the policies in different countries are intertwined, he shows that
the supposedly exemplary recycling practices in Japan depend in part on the possibility of
Japanese authorities to export waste to China for, supposedly but unverified, recycling on
Chinese soil.
While every chapter portrays a case in itself, collectively several themes emerge. One is the
similarity of the challenge. All communities are faced with ever-growing quantities of waste in a
complex system of ties. While often victims of waste generated elsewhere, they are also
complicit in an overriding structure in which they also contribute to waste and/or gain their
livelihoods from processing it. Depending on circumstances, therefore, waste has become a
threat as well as income, a means of oppression as well as a path towards social rise. Often, these
dynamics play out against the confines of social hierarchy, experienced as tensions between
disadvantaged groups and higher strata of society, between Dalits and middle classes in India,
poor migrant workers and businesspeople in China, between citizens and local elites or the state.
However, several contributions also highlighted how individuals have found ways to leave their
own marks, with the girl who took the initiative to collect organic waste on a tricycle in
Bangladesh as a case in point. Finally, it is impossible to overlook the importance of art as a
means of expression. Using film, literature, photography, people draw on art as ways to
understand and give a voice to their views, claiming agency in a challenge that engulfs the world
and in which Asia is increasingly taking centre stage.
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