Towards a New Understanding of Waste

Today, at the same time as the individual experiences, a sense of global ephemeral urgency is confronted with alternative ways of conceiving experiences that escape his/her brief dimensional understanding. The documentary Into Eternity: a film for the Future (Madsen, 2010), which addresses the possible solutions which could be adopted in the face of the danger of radioactive waste, presents a rupture of the time frames that humans are capable of understanding. The problem is clear: the permanence and activity of this type of waste can go beyond 100,000 years, a figure that far exceeds the temporal terms which the human brain can comprehend (not even the recorded history, prior to the invention of writing, reaches such an extent). Therefore, a situation arises that makes it necessary to move away from historical assumptions in order to establish a dialogue with waste: it must be understood that what is thrown away has ceased to disappear and that, instead, it remains.

Figure 1: Into Eternity: a film for the future.

Today's thinking is 'abysmal', as Buenaventura de Sousa Santos (2010) would say. The way of proceeding is based on categorical divisions between what is conceivable and what appears hidden. The separation that exists between the social experience, especially in the West, and the future effects that emanate from it, makes it impossible to reconcile these two parts. In other words: modern first-world existence has ceased to think about the consequences of its actions; and this is all the more striking when it comes to the issue of waste. Hence, it could be said, individuals are dispossessed of their own 'aftermath', which transcends the epistemic realm and disappears from common knowledge, yet moves to other places, also invisible to the great capitalising eye of the global north. Here is an example that may be very illustrative: back in 1989, Jorge Furtado published a short documentary, Island of Flowers. He exposed there, with no small amount of sarcasm, how the cycle of domestic waste management in developed communities actually exceeds the intelligible field of these collectivities. And that is because, after having been food for the pigs and even having passed through the landfill, it becomes food again but, this time, for the most disadvantaged humans. The irony of the matter can be clearly appreciated here: the general experience demands the depositing and managing of waste, and that is what is done; however, for a limited time. This results in such management extending and crossing the line of what it is known, moving to an epistemic field that it is not named and, thus, its existence is denied. Therefore, it could be affirmed that citizens are unaware of the effects of the waste they produce; a kind of residual anti-epistemology has been generated, agreed actions of dispossession that configure waste as something that occurs just in an initial moment, stopping its cycle of ontological "being" prematurely at the beginning of its existence.

Figure 2: Island of Flowers’ poster.

This being so, a residual genealogy must be carried out in order to understand the scope of the situation. Ignorance of the future effects and consequences of waste, the gap between producing and managing, is not something arbitrary but is imprinted in the societies' ways of functioning and permeates the collective life. This is the age of instantaneity, where continuous promises of innovation and progress incite subjects not to stop consuming and, consequently, not to stop discarding. The excessive dynamics of 'use-throwing' have become irremediably established, especially in the societies of the global north, so that the great economic achievement of capitalism has been consummated, but not without the consequent results that predict its end on the other hand. Then, global warming can be understood as a product of recent history, and its inevitable connection with the Anthropocene, as the result of the technological development that has been taking place since the 18th century. This term arises from the consideration of human beings as a "geological agent" that intervenes and modifies planetary processes in a direct and literal way, and, although it does not cease to provoke debate, it is accepted – grosso modo - to designate the new geological period of the Earth (Chakrabarty, 2015). This new era of consumption, then, crosses the field of the human and has a transversal impact on the rest of the beings with whom they coexist on the planet. In other words, residual anti-epistemology, pollution, lack of organisation and management, have global effects and come to determine the very ontology of life on Earth. Therefore, the very problem is that what is known as growth, actually, is a decrease, a global catastrophe.

Figure 3: Layout of Living in the Anthropocene:

Earth in the Age of Humans

(John W. Kress, Jeffrey k. Stine; 2017).

Might it not then be a matter of re-epistemologising waste and generating a new ontology of waste, that is to say, to stop forgetting and start understanding? If one thing is clear, it is that action must be taken to address this issue, in order to try to prevent adverse effects and stop the unsustainability of Westernised lifestyles. The ontologisation of waste and its consequent re-epistemology must go beyond mere communication and become new ways of proceeding, relational apparatuses that determine its indeterminacy and thus, through performativity, can reverse the irreversibility of the issue. It is therefore a question of generating new knowledge, of re-establishing the common imagery and making it an interactive space that considers waste not as elements to be discarded, but as things to be done. Jacinto Choza was not wrong when in his book Philosophy of trash. Global, technological and legal responsibility (2020) he proposed new mechanics, not of reusing or recycling, but of reappropriation of waste, in order to establish a dialogue with it and thus try to account for its inevitable existence. Artistic actions have also been carried out in an attempt to generate new links with waste, fleeing from its state of uselessness and turning it into new resources with which to intervene the space. To mention just a few, the project Transforming arms into tools (Amorós, Bohigas et al., 2001) reconditioned weapons of war and turned them into works of art in Mozambique, or the Objections project (Callén and López, 2019), which sought to intervene in the regimes of aesthetic sensibility and explore the different types of affectivities that can be developed towards objects that are no longer considered useful.

In short, it is necessary to approach the residual issue from both an analytical and a more experimental perspective. Only in this way, by acknowledging the dominant epistemology, can one then proceed to deterritorialised existing relations, to flee from consumerist deficiencies and to create new relational spaces that do not respond to proper human logic, in order to be able to practice poetic, new, vital actions, that favour a new ontology of waste, that grant it an intermittent destiny; not only for the human species but also for the non-human ones. As Donna Haraway says, "to be an individual is always to be many" (2014) and, in this case, rubbish is part of the subject, it speaks of his identity.

Image references

Bibliographic references

  • Amorós, Gemma; Bohigas, Xavier; de Fortuny, Teresa and Montull, Anna (2001). Militarism and environmental crisis. A necessary reflection. Barcelona: Centre Delàs d’Estudis per la Pau.

  • Callén, Blanca and López, Daniel (2019). Intimate with your junk! A waste management experiment for a material world. The Sociological Review, 67, pp. 318-339.

  • Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2015). The human condition in the Anthropocene [lecture]. Barcelona: CCCB. Available on:

  • Choza, Jacinto (2020). Philosophy of trash. Global, technological and legal responsibility. Seville: Thémata.

  • De Sousa Santos, Buenaventura (2010). Más allá del pensamiento abismal: de las líneas globales a una ecología de saberes. In Descolonizar el saber, reinventar el poder, pp. 29-60. Uruguay: Trilce.

  • Furtado, Jorge (1989) [director]. Island of Flowers [short-documentary]. Brasil: Casa de Cinema de Porto Alegre. Available on:

  • Haraway, Donna (2014). Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene — Staying with the Trouble [conferencia]. Denmark: Aarhus University. Available on:

  • Madsen, Michael [director] (2010). Into Eternity: a film for the future [documentary]. Denmark: Films Transit International. Available on:

Author Photo

Alicia Macías Recio

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