Waste Watching: Robin Nagle's Discard Sudies
January 12, 2014 5:28 PM   Subscribe

Discard Studies "is meant as an online gathering place for scholars, activists, environmentalists, students, artists, planners, and anyone else whose work touches on themes relevant to the study of waste and wasting." It's about hoarding discourse. Migrants' material trails. The stewardship of repair. Flood level markers. And so much more, thanks to the trashiest anthropologist in New York.

Discard Studies* is the blog of Robin Nagle, Ph.D., professor and "anthropologist-in-residence at the Department of Sanitation in New York City since 2006." (TED bio.) From her TED talk, "What I discovered in New York City trash":
I strongly believe that sanitation workers are the most important labor force on the streets of the city, for three reasons. They are the first guardians of public health. ... The economy needs them. If we can't throw out the old stuff, we have no room for the new stuff, so then the engines of the economy start to sputter when consumption is compromised. ... And then there's what I call our average, necessary quotidian velocity. By that I simply mean how fast we're used to moving in the contemporary day and age. We usually don't care for, repair, clean, carry around our coffee cup, our shopping bag, our bottle of water. We use them, we throw them out, we forget about them, because we know there's a workforce on the other side that's going to take it all away.
Interview: C-Span Q&A.
BRIAN LAMB: Robin Nagle, why did you want to drive a garbage truck?
NAGLE: ...I realized I couldn’t understand the job to the depth I wanted until I was qualified to in fact, do the job. So I was hired, went through all the steps and the first time I drove that truck by myself, I have to say it was terrifying and exhilarating. I was in one of the most powerful vehicles on the road, not the biggest truck but I was the one nobody wanted to be stuck behind or get next to and I liked it a lot.
Interview: Mother Jones
When you put out your garbage--and of course I'm using the generic "you"--you are not the last person who will have to deal with it. When you have, let's say, a piece of broken glass, or something really jagged, or you're doing a renovation and you're putting out wood that's got nails blooming out from one tip of it, or any kind of hazard you know handling requires great care, think about how to perhaps add a few layers of buffer packaging, sandwiching, anything diminishing the hazard a little bit.
Interview, Scientific American: Trash Is Her Treasure: A Profile of a Sanitation Anthropologist
What are some surprising things you’ve learned by analyzing garbage? In affluent neighborhoods, I was profoundly impressed with how much good stuff rich people throw away.
A review of Nagle's book, "Picking Up," from the NYT:
But the mission of Nagle’s new book, “Picking Up,” isn’t just to make us take note of sanitation workers (“san men,” not “garbagemen,” please). She also argues something larger: They are New York’s Most Essential. “Sanitation,” she writes, “is the most important uniformed force on the street.”
From the Resources section of Discard Studies: Films & AV Media

And while on the subject of films, I found this article -- "The Archaeology of 'Star Wars'" -- via Discard Studies. "The standard practice of ‘Hollywood’ is usually to destroy relatively flimsy, wood and plaster sets as soon as the director shouts ‘cut’ for the last time. However a quirk of history kept many of the sets from Star Wars intact. ... And so for decades these structures have stood in the desert and in towns being lived in, around and also being left alone…"

Previously: Fighting Dirty.

The end of things for us is often just the beginning of objects' afterlives...

* Co-founded with Max Liboiron.
posted by MonkeyToes (7 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Inadvertently omitted previously: Do You mongo?
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:26 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh wow, this is really great! I have read a lot of archaeology rubbish stuff but not modern, and I really appreciate that she became certified to work with the department itself.
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:41 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

This may also be of interest-- one look at the anthro/archaeology of migrants through the border.
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:44 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

this is an amazing post, thanks a bunch!
posted by makethemost at 12:57 AM on January 13, 2014

See also Robin's Gel conference video from 2009.
posted by mark7570 at 5:28 AM on January 13, 2014

Regarding Hoarding, it's good to see that 'Hoarding Disorder' is in DSM-5. I've thought for a while that this is one of the fastest-growing hysteric responses to modern culture and am starting to encounter people with hoarding disorder in everyday life. I don't see that these people (many very excluded and suffering greatly) will be the subject of reality TV for much longer, and the DSM thing helps I guess.

People with hoarding disorder tend to be clinging on to an infinite number of objects with the rationale that they 'might need them some day'. And since nobody can actually predict the future, nobody can conclusively prove that the hoarder will not need the object in the future. So they have a pivot from which to build an entire worldview. It's not about acquiring the stuff; it's about the unthinkable terror invoked by the notion of disposing of it. So a kind of dark mirror for our constant mass consumption society.
posted by colie at 5:49 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

This really is a fantastic post. What gets considered trash and by whom is a dynamic very central in the lives of poor people.

If you know how to select and how to repair objects rangeing from clothing to machinery, how to kludge, how to re-use, then you are better able to survive.

That said, there is a fine line between hoarding, and practicing a less wasteful life-style.

Who you are in society and where you are in the world defines what is trash and what is legitimately re-usable.

What is plentiful and what is scarce defines what is garbage.

Whether it can be re-used defines whether something is trash or not.

What can be sold as is defines what is trash.

Economic status defines what is trash.

For me, the line is smell. If there is a smell you can't get rid of,that object is trash.

In a small space, unless you have bins, preferably clear bins, it's going to be hard to keep your things in order, and free of disagreeable smells.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:17 AM on January 13, 2014

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