Waste flow: A lunchtime seminar with Myra Hird

by Michele Acuto

This week’s on “Waste Flow” lunch time talk at Saïd Business School was presented by Myra Hird from Queen’s University, where Myra has been heading a research project on Canada’s waste flow. As she reminded the us, Canada is today the largest producer of waste per capita, and now faces serious challenges as this refuse is mostly landfilled when not exported to other countries.

Myra’s talk presented us with a series of considerations on the definitional complexities of waste, the technology of landfilling and leachate management as well as the twin forgetting/remembering process at work in the everyday social construction of waste. Drawing on sociological and anthropological literature, snapshots from around the world like the infamous “flying toilets” phenomenon in slums, field research at Canadian landfills in Kingston and, not least, Futurama and Fight Club clips, Myra begun by teasing out the challenges of defining what is “waste” and what is “wasting”. Associated with both tangible as well as intangible resources, wasteful consumption has become a daily obligation of society. Yet, as the the phenomenon of ‘garbology’ tells and as Myra reminded us, trash is also an epistemological resource charged with meanings, identities and multiple values, both economic and cultural.

The talk proceeded on to some closer observation on the construction of landfills and Myra’s work in collaboration with Queen’s Civil Engineering professor Kerry Rowe. Focusing on leachate, that heterogenous material product of the guaranteed failure of landfilling, which spoke to the uniqueness of the uniqueness of the mix of garbage contained in each landfill, as well as to the inherent impossibility of fully controlling and containing waste. This was the inspiration not only for considerations on engineering landfills and liner systems but also on a broader consideration that Myra presented us with: waste management in developed countries like Canada is today a practice of domestication and forgetting aimed at containing and determining something that, as waste, is inherently undetermined.

These considerations then led to the last section of the Talk, where Myra moved on to the ethical issues embedded in this visions of ‘mastery’ of waste as opposed to ‘remembering acts’ aimed at countering the removal of waste from everyday experience and at making waste management, as much as landfills, public. This theme sparked a lively discussion in the dozen or so participants to the talk, which begun by a variety of considerations on the aboriginal dimension of of the Waste Flow project and proceeded on to a the challenges of experiencing waste against forgetting. Along with the difficulties of bringing in an aboriginal sphere into research, and the often autobiographic bases of waste research, the Q&A raised issues about the capacity of ‘staying’ with garbage to remove the ‘waste’ quality of refuse (as with the plastic bottle that ‘comes back to life’) as well as with the use of waste to produce something new like in the case of upcycling.

The final challenges for research in waste emerged then in the question of dealing with the holistic nature of waste not only as the popularized household garbage, but also less tangible and yet crucial elements like carbon emissions, or even the unavoidable if not necessary presence of useful natural waste like oxygen. As the talk and the discussion ultimately demonstrated, waste is indeed a largely indeterminate and complex participant to our everyday experiences. And as expected, the group did produce a relevant amount of waste by consuming an healthy quantity of sandwiches, juice and packaged water during the seminar. Myra, at least, had brought her own recyclable water-bottle.

About insisoxford

The Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) researches and informs the key processes of social and technological innovation.

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