Waste as an International problem

Rich countries export waste to poor countries, either through outsourcing the manufacture of goods bought, where the waste inherent in the manufacturing process is externalised, or by exporting waste produced in rich countries to poorer countries where both wages and health and safety standards are lower. This means that figures given for greenhouse gas emissions from the management of waste in countries importing manufactured goods are deceptively low. The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (1989) restricts the international transportation of hazardous waste. In 2019 this was amended to include plastics, partly as a result of China’s decision to refuse to continue to accept imports of plastic waste for recycling. Apparently, it was the ‘heartwrenching’ story of an 11-year-old girl which prompted China to consider the implications for being the world’s plastic waste dump (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, 2019). Even though recycling is considered to be preferable to landfill or incineration, it can create considerable pollution, for example from harmful chemicals leached from plastics, electrical waste and others. Sending waste to another country for treatment, at some cost to its already relatively poor population, hides the real cost of Western lifestyles.

One of the impacts of China’s decision to stop accepting waste from overseas was to divert the shipping of plastic waste from China to other countries in SE Asia (including by relocating Chinese companies), where substantial amounts have been languishing on beaches, creating informal and hazardous landfill sites. Associated with informal waste dumps is waste picking - a hazardous and very low paid occupation in which women and children, as well as men, are involved worldwide. Through this it can be seen how gendered consumption and household activities in rich countries, which have been discussed elsewhere in this book, have a direct bearing on the gendered life experiences in poor countries. Excessive consumerism, which has its origins in Western culture and has found its fullest expression in neoliberal capitalism, produces waste in the extraction of materials used to manufacture goods we don’t need at all, or need less of; in the processing of materials and then of products; in the transportation of goods to market; and then in the disposal of these goods when they are discarded. As Chapter 4 has illustrated, the clothing industry reveals just how wasteful we are in buying many more items than we need and then discarding them into the waste stream. The burden of the waste produced through all stages of manufacture, transport and disposal of unwanted clothes, has a gendered effect, just as the persuasion exerted on buyers is gendered.

Implications of seeing waste as a gendered issue

Waste can be seen as blurring the dualistic boundaries between what is ‘human’ and what is ‘nature’. Ideas reviewed in Chapters 1 and 3 which challenge these boundaries between human and nature suggest that waste is an intrinsic part of broad, human-including, nature. Krupar conceptualises waste as a ‘boundary zone’ between human and non-human nature, which effaces the dualism. Attempts to conceptually separate waste from nature, or what is considered human from what is considered waste can be seen as products of masculinist and patriarchal organisation. Transnatural ethics draws on queer theory and queer ecology, in which waste is considered to be ‘both other and internal to the “normal” workings of society’ (2012: 225). Attempts to compartmentalise waste as a fixed other and to order it in ways which hide it from public view are uncomfortably close to views on who can be ‘wasted’ in society: from deaths in war (since the First World War, always more civilians than armed forces), to poor people affected by chronic pollution and environmental disasters, some examples of which this book has given. Waste has long been used as a critical metaphor for marginality, from Marx and Engle’s ‘refuse of all classes’ to Bauman’s ‘human waste’ (Millar, 2012). These casualties and the relationships which produce them are profoundly gendered.


This book is based on the premise that the fundamental causes of environmental problems are the same as those which cause gender (and, for that matter, all social) inequality. These causes are embedded in dominant world views as to how the world should be ordered. This final chapter on waste applies the concepts and arguments of previous chapters to the case study of waste. For example, waste is not a fixed or unchanging thing: it is defined differently in different societies, at different times and in different places. What is considered waste in North America may be a valuable resource in Cuba; what we would have used as a food product 100 years ago may be discarded now. Attempting to define waste as something other than human or ‘pristine’ nature is a characteristic of our dominant Western society, attached to thinking in hierarchies and dualisms. It seeks to elevate human nature above all other forms of nature and values particular social groups according to their distance from waste and dirt. A consideration of waste can also challenge the way in which we conceive of and categorise gender itself, which is Kruper’s intention when she applies a transnatural perspective to the disposal of military hazardous waste. She disrupts dualisms by thinking of waste as a boundary zone through which human and non-human nature percolate.

Gender hierarchies are well illustrated through how waste is managed in the household and the community (more often the unpaid and low-paid work of women) and in the workforce (more often the work of men, especially in the better paid jobs). Examples from Europe and sub-Saharan Africa in particular illustrate that this is likely to be a universal practice. Attitudes towards waste and its management are gendered and Fredericks has described the devaluing of certain spheres of work - particularly those associated with waste, and with the crisis of social reproduction - through the disciplining of gendered bodies. Cultural taboos and strictures mean that the management of bodily waste is affected by one’s gender, and decisions governing urban planning and design are often not sensitive to intimate gendered needs, from breastfeeding children, or changing their nappies to safe and secure public toilet facilities accessible to all financially and by design. Bodies are particularly sensitive to pollution in gendered ways, whether through working in the most noxious waste environments, or exposed to pollution through housing location. Poverty is a key factor in this, and poverty is gendered. Examples are given of how protests about waste and resulting pollution are gendered, in many cases led by women sensitised to their families’ exposure through their caring and domestic roles.

The way in which the world is politically and economically ordered means that there is a hierarchy of countries as well as people, depending on their relationship with waste. In this hierarchy, poor countries count for less and are seen as fitting depositories for the waste of richer, more powerful countries. The recent case of China, which took the decision to refuse the plastic waste of rich countries, but to relocate waste treatment/sorting plants to poorer countries in South East Asia, illustrates the mobility within hierarchies. Of course, the need for transboundary waste movements would be much less if the dominant world culture consumed less and made better, more efficient, use of fewer things. Examples that the book has used to illustrate how production and consumption is gendered leave no doubt that this lifestyle is divisive and unsustainable.

Recommended reading

Alexander, C. and Reno, J. eds. 2012. Economies of Recycling. The Global Transformation of Materials, Values and Social Relations London: Zed Books.

This is an excellent compendium of examples of how waste is recycled in different countries. Rosalind Frederick’s chapter on gendered trash work in Dakar, Senegal is especially pertinent to this chapter, but gender is considered in other chapters, such as recycling in India.

Buckingham, S., Reeves, D., and Batchelor, A. 2005. ‘Wasting women: The environmental justice of including women in municipal waste management’ Local Environment 10,4: 427-444.

There is still very little published work on the gendering waste management, particularly in the global North, and this analysis of a European Union funded pilot on gender mainstreaming waste management in Europe is one of the few relating to waste management in Europe.

Hawkins, G. 2006. The Ethics of Waste. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

While not explicitly about gender, Gay Hawkins’ book is a highly accessible introduction to the ethical significance of waste. It explores how we think about waste in everyday contexts.

Krupar, S.R. 2013. Hot Spotter’s Report. Military Fables of Toxic Waste. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

This is a wonderfully inventive book which explores how hazardous military waste is categorised, disposed of and hidden. In particular it challenges conventional notions of waste remediation from a transnatural perspective, drawing on queer theory and queer ecology.

Walker, L. 2011. Waste Land. www.wastelandmovie.com/Accessed 26.09.2019.

This is an inspiring film about the lives of a group of catadores on the Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro. It explores the lives of some women and men who recycle waste from this massive city dump through an art project led by the Brazilian artist Victor Muñoz. It would be interesting to watch this in the context of Katherine Millar’s chapter on the waste recyclers of Jardim Gramacho in Alexander and Reno’s book recommended above.

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