Globalization, garbage, and the urban environment
Global cities and garbage Garbage is increasingly central to contemporary globalization debates. An online search for the phrase ‘global garbage’ produces results such as ‘global garbage crisis’, ‘global garbage detection’, ‘global garbage management’, ‘global garbage summit’, and many more. Garbage has become a global concern. It is implicated in the transnational flow of goods, people, capital, data, and images that thinkers like Arjun Appadurai (1996) consider constitutive of globalization. However, in contrast to these forms of flow, garbage can also circulate globally in other, less obvious ways. For instance, garbage can circulate involuntarily, as alarming ecological reports on the many tons of plastic debris drifting around the world’s oceans reveal (Derraik 2002). It can circulate for the sake of elimination, as in international garbage management and disposal programmes. Or it can even circulate as a commodity in its own right in a transnational ‘second order market’, where garbage is bought and sold for recycling or the extraction of raw materials. Cities play a central role in this context. The average urban resident reportedly produces around four times as much solid waste as a person living in the countryside (Hoornweg et al. 2013: 616). Consequently, with more than half of the world’s population already living in cities (United Nations 2014), urban population growth is expected to outpace waste reduction efforts in the near future (Hoornweg et al. 2013). For this very practical and urgent reason, cities also form key sites for experimentation with new strategies of waste management – as in the case of San Francisco’s Zero Waste programme, which has the goal of sending ‘nothing to landfill or incineration’ by 2020 (San Francisco Environment, n.d.). Similarly, the concept of ‘urban metabolism’ has recently gained renewed attention in urban studies and planning. The urban metabolism approach seeks to apply a more holistic approach to urban garbage management, taking into account ‘the sum total of the technical and socio-economic processes that occur in cities, resulting in growth, production of energy, and elimination of waste’ (C. Kennedy 2007). At the same time, due to elaborate recycling systems, specific types of garbage become potentially valuable commodities, whose collection and
processing is predominantly carried out in urban environments. In Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, for instance, Adam Minter (2013) shows how the trade of specific waste materials constitutes a highly elaborate and extremely globalized market. In this worldwide market, waste materials are traded for the extraction of valuable scrap metals. Crucial points to make in this context are that contemporary global production and trading are coordinated via a network of what Saskia Sassen has termed ‘global cities’ (Sassen 1991), and that recycling has managerial urban nerve centres – such as the city of Shijiao, China, which processes around 20 million pounds of imported Christmas tree lights per year for the extraction of copper. This copper is then resold to neighbouring wire, power cord, and smartphone factories (Minter 2013: 1-2). Specific cities and regions are thus implicated in what happens before and after consumption. Yet cities are more than just the main producers, managers, and marketplaces of waste materials. Garbage has also become prominent in urban social and artistic practices. Examples range from HA Schult’s haunting armies of ‘Trash People’ (Figures 1.1 and 1.2) placed in remote locations in nature, as well as on central squares of prominent European cities such as Brussels, Cologne, Moscow, and Rome, to London-based street artist Francisco de Pájaro’s ‘Art is Trash’ installations, made of urban detritus and assembled at different, seemingly random city sites. Similarly, contemporary films, such as Lucy Walker’s feature documentary Waste Land (2010), increasingly turn to the topic of urban garbage. Waste Land
documents artist Vik Muniz’s collaboration with catadores (pickers of recyclable materials) at Jardim Gramacho, one of the world’s largest landfills near Rio de Janeiro. The documentary shows how Muniz and catadores assemble waste materials into artworks, which eventually get sold at a prestigious London-based auction house. Garbage is thus transformed into a commodity and circulates in the global art market. At the same time, Muniz’s intervention is presented not only as an artistic project but also as a transnational social project, raising questions about global inequality and environmental justice. In this respect, Waste Land belongs to a broader tendency in contemporary culture to associate garbage – in its diverse forms and articulations – with issues of global economics, politics, and what social geographer David Harvey has termed ‘uneven geographic development’ (Harvey 2006). As the global flow of garbage can serve both the accumulation of profits (as in the trading of garbage for the extraction of raw materials) and the redistribution of risks, questions about where, how, and for what purposes garbage ‘flows’ are critical. Beyond that, contemporary social and artistic engagements with garbage raise questions that evoke the Lefebvrian notion of a ‘right to the city’ – the demand for a ‘transformed and renewed right to urban life’ (Lefebvre 1996 : 159), to be realized in both practical and material ways. Garbage in this context becomes an allegory, whose characteristics stand for much broader problems and dynamics linked to globalization and its impact on urban development, such as the proliferation of urban slums, the acceleration of urban sprawl, the rise of
transnational urban migration, and the privatization of public urban space and housing.