“I’m looking through the symbol for all that’s disgusting”

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by Aaron Vansintjan

There are people who don’t think twice about throwing something away that others might think very valuable. There are also people who are willing to give society’s discards value once again. Martin is one of those people. Martin collects trash for a living. He also runs the popular blog, Things I Find in the Garbage, which has 1,167,429 hits and 5,940 followers.

One winter night Martin drove me around the super-rich Montréal neighbourhood, Town of Mount Royal (TMR). We talked in the car—Martin shared some (dumpstered) tea from his (found) Thermos—and, once every so often, stopped at a promising pile of trash. We had to be careful to avoid getting in trouble with the security. It was two days before Christmas but there was no snow on the ground, and there was an occasional sprinkle of rain. After rooting through some trash bags and tossing anything we liked in the trunk we would hop back in the car, picking up where we had left off in the conversation. The following are excerpts from that discussion edited for clarity and flow, with some changes suggested by Martin.

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Why did you pass that pile?

Ummm. It just didn’t have a good vibe for some reason. It just seemed like, cardboard, or maybe they’re working on a new bathroom and bought some new shit. Renovation kind of stuff.

So you’re looking for the small things.

Yeah. Small things are good. Well, it’s also just the look of the pile. It’s hard to explain. If you see kind of vintage-ey stuff, that’s good. For sale signs, that’s very good. Because those people are moving, or whatever. There’s a lot of cost-benefit analyses going on my head. Trying to figure out what’s worth the time, you know?

What distinguishes you from others doing this kind of work?

The trash bag. That’s the thing that really makes me a pro, I guess. It’s the fact that I’ve realized that most of the good stuff is in trash bags. A lot of people when I tell them most of the stuff I find is inside bags, are very surprised. And then I’m surprised that they’re surprised. I wouldn’t be able to make a living just picking from open boxes.

I love the bag system. The bags give off a lot of information. You can tell by the shape of them, by the color of them, the quantity of them. But when you have these giant dumpsters, there’s not much information you can glean from that.

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What are some things you’ve learned from doing this?

I feel like I kind of know these people in a weird way. Even though I don’t really but I know parts of their story. Often times they’re passed on or whatever. It’s kind of a strange thing. To develop attachments to garbage or people who provide it. (There’s a long pause.) That’s the most interesting part about it, learning these stories and finding this cool old stuff. Because I’m also interested in history, and the history you find when trash picking is pretty interesting.

I’ve learned a lot about how much privilege rich people have. How much different the lifestyle is between rich and poor. Especially when I’m going through this kind of neighbourhood. The kind of things that rich people casually toss away is unbelievable for someone in my position. I remember when I was growing up we needed this special calculator for this high school class, the TI-83+.

They were so expensive!

Yeah. It was actually a stressful family expense, to buy these calculators. Then at a place in Westmount, I found two. Just thrown out. Just another world. The craziest thing to me might be the guy in Westmount who threw out a jar of change, of 56 bucks. This jar of change. This guy just didn’t have the time to… He worked at the bank, actually. He was a banker. At a certain point that’s just junk change to you. And I just can’t, it’s so hard to imagine a situation, where I would even throw out 50 cents. 50 dollars is just insanity.

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It’s like we live in a world of disposability.

And privilege. I can spend a dollar on something and not worry too much about it. If you’re making $2 million a year, you can spend $100 and not worry about it. It’s just different, a totally different scale. (A pause.) The only difference I guess is that I’m spending a dollar on candy instead of throwing it directly into the garbage.

[We pass by a street sign I recognize.]

That street is called Algonquin.

They used to live around here, didn’t they?

[We both think about the Indigenous people who continue to fight against the colonization of their unceded land, and how strange it is that a street was named after them in this rich neighbourhood.]

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Why do you think there aren’t more people who do this kind of thing?

I think anyone can do what I do, it’s just that there’s a lot of obstacles. A lot of it is social obstacles too. I guess for some people, it’s sort of a social stigma, people don’t want to be seen looking through trash bags at all.

Are you not concerned about that?

I’m not too concerned about it. [But] its pretty much the symbol for undesirable material. The black garbage bag. With some stink lines coming out. Like basically, I’m looking through the actual symbol for all that’s disgusting and filthy and all that. I’m sure there’s more to it, but people definitely get caught up in the symbol.

Are there moments when you do dig through stuff and are just like… oh my god this is the absolute worst.

(Laughs). Oh yeah. Once in a while people decide to mix in the good stuff with just kitchen waste or kitty litter and I’m just like “oh god.” If it looks interesting enough and I can clean it off then I’ll look through pretty much anything. I remember one person dumped a jewelry box into some kitchen waste and chicken bones so for the next half hour I was looking between the chicken bones and all that trying to hopefully find some gold.

Did you?

Ummm. I don’t think I did from that bag. I found some jewelry in a different bag that didn’t have chicken juice in it. That’s why I was so dedicated to that bag. I found some really nice gold cufflinks actually. But that particular bag wasn’t that great. (Long pause). Yeah you have to be willing to get your hands dirty. A lot of people don’t really want to get dirty at all. But I feel connected to it for whatever reason.

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Have you had any narrow escapes with the police or security?

There was this one time. I was checking out some trash and this security guard stopped. He asked me what I was doing. I said, “Well, I’m looking through the trash.” He was like, “I’m going to give you a ticket.” I was like, “Whatever, fuck you.” I just got into my car and drove away but he followed me and I left Hampstead and I’m pretty sure he can’t follow me out of Hampstead. (Laughs). That was my moment of badassery. I didn’t face any repercussions for that. I stopped going to Hampstead during the morning. Then I started going at night. Just to avoid that guy, who most certainly hates me now.

I think that’s the only reason why there’s not many trash pickers in TMR. One time I saw a guy. He was an Indian-looking guy, probably from Parc-Ex, on a bike. I never saw him again. I’m pretty sure TMR security takes care of them. (He laughs.) Anyone who doesn’t look like they belong. You know. You know all about power and all of that stuff.

Do you think doing this has kind of influenced or changed how you see those things?

Not too much. I already had kind of a picture. I think more I’ve just come to see the, uh, differentiation between rich and poor is more vivid in my mind now. Before I knew. But now I feel. I guess that’s the difference. I guess I always knew that authority was a weird thing. (He laughs.)

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What did we find, you ask? In an email, Martin broke down the proceeds from that night’s trash run:

“I didn’t have the cords for the PSPs, and the Gameboy had a pretty dark screen but I sold them ‘as is’ on eBay for a profit of 65$. The Expo 67 pamphlets (from that spot with the old books) sold recently for 50$ + shipping. The old books await yard sale season, though I did barter a few on the Bunz Trading Zone Facebook page for beer / food. All in all, a solid if unspectacular night (I find about 80$ worth of stuff on an “average” night, but sometimes I’ll find much more or nothing at all).”

(He doesn’t mention the electric can-opener, the solid metal vase, and the in-working-order brand-new stereo system I took home that night.)

Aaron Vansintjan is a co-editor at Uneven Earth and is currently pursuing a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London. He writes about gentrification, food politics, environmental justice, and contemporary politics.

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The garbage-loving environmentalist

by Cassandra Kuyvenhoven

I’m an open kind of person and I don’t mind sharing stories. I love stories. I think it’s so interesting to collect stories. Often at an art opening, somebody will read a story in one of my books and they’ll say, “that reminds me of…” and then people tell me more stories—their own stories! I collect stories. I collect stories, I collect garbage, I collect fabrics, I collect art: I am the ultimate collector.

-Lise Melhorn-Boe

Lise sits in her living room and proudly points to a large oil canvas that she traded for two of her handsewn cushions. I am captivated. A soft-spoken woman, Lise becomes extremely animated when reading from her treasure trove of books. Amidst the piles of fabrics and refuse, I lean forward to listen to Lise recount stories about dishwashers and used teabags and shockingly sexist nursery rhymes.

There’s something luxurious about being able to touch her books, feel the fabrics, and immerse yourself in the story. As Lise reads me her stories, I am fingering pieces of her old garbage that she has collected into a series entitled Garbage and More Garbage. Sewing her garbage into small mesh bags, Lise has created tiny time capsules that show her life in 2007 and again in  2010 when she was drinking Rice Dream, cooking chicken (she assures me that the bones were triple washed before being sewn into the book) and applying for a new passport (having decimated her old passport into a makeshift cover for the book).

The tactile experience of touching (but thankfully not smelling) her waste-books feels like you’re breaking a taboo—oftentimes waste is meant to be out of sight and out of mind. But Lise is not the type to keep anything hidden: her art is deeply personal and complex.

Oftentimes waste is meant to be out of sight and out of mind. But Lise is not the type to keep anything hidden: her art is deeply personal and complex.

I first met Lise at an art gallery in Ontario, where I was giving a talk on waste transportation in conjunction with an environmentally-themed art exhibit. As my talk ended, a willowy woman rushed up to me and said she was an artist who loved garbage, and that I should call her sometime to talk trash. She pushed a rather plain-looking card into my hand and quickly scurried off, leaving me in a stunned silence. If she told me her name at the time, I can’t recall.

But I held onto that card for several years, fascinated by the strange encounter. Having thought of Lise after seeing a particularly artful bundle of trash on the street during the winter thaw, I looked her up on her website and was pleased to see that she loved more than just garbage. One of her pieces, There Once Was A Little Boy/Girl, consists of handmade paper outfits for that are rubber-stamped with nursery rhymes about girls and women, and boys and men. The final nursery rhyme for boys says:

Tommy Trot, a man of law

Sold his bed and lay upon straw.

Sold the straw and slept on grass,

To buy his wife a looking glass.

In contrast, the nursery rhyme for girls reads:

See-saw Margery Daw

Sold her bed and lay upon straw

Was she not a dirty slut

To sell her bed and life in the dirt.

I was shocked when Lise read me the rhyme—in part because of the language (they let children read these rhymes?) but also because of the shamefulness of a woman getting dirty in her environment. I asked Lise why she thought it was commonplace or noble (in the context of the rhyme) for a man to lie on the ground and what made the same action unclean for a woman. She said that there is a stark contrast between what is acceptable for a woman to do in her environment—how she is able to relate to nature and her surroundings—and what a man can do in his environment. We sat quietly, pondering this dichotomy. That is what’s so special about Lise’s work—she reveals the complex factors and processes that shape women’s lives and their interactions with the environment, while also challenging the audience to question their opinions and beliefs about how individuals experience nature. In exploring these ideas, Lise tells an accessible and engaging story that you just can’t help but put your hands on.

 

Could you speak a little bit about how your relationship with the environment has influenced your art?

The series about the relationship between environment and human health started when I got breast cancer. I went out to British Columbia to see a naturopath who had a live-in program—I went for 10 days. He did a medical history, a life history and found out that I had grown up in a mining and smelting town in north-western Québec and then attended high school in Copper Cliff1, Ontario—another smelting town which has the Inco Superstack2. As soon as he found this out he said, “I’m going to do a heavy metals test”. And I did indeed have very high levels of lead and mercury and all kinds of heavy metals. So he believed that the heavy metals in my body were quite possibly the cause of my breast cancer.

So then I thought that there must be other people who are being affected by the environment too, and I was lucky enough to stumble upon a residency at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario—so I spent four months as an artist in residence at Queen’s through the Principal’s Fund. I didn’t actually make any art; I just did research in the libraries! I found out as much as I could about how our environment is affecting our health. And so one of the things I came across was the garbage. I did garbage first.

 

As a waste researcher, I am absolutely obsessed with waste. I am the person that you’ll see on the sidewalk stooping into people’s trashcans to get the perfect garbage picture. How did you start thinking about integrating garbage into your art?

My garbage series began with a piece that I made in 2007 called Garbage, where I put all of my daily garbage into individual mesh bags. Each bag contains one day’s worth of garbage. Now, this obviously does not include personal wastes with any bodily fluids. And it’s nothing that I could compost or recycle—so this is what is left, what remains. Mostly it is plastics. There are some bones that were washed carefully and bleached—even though that’s maybe not necessarily all that environmentally friendly in itself.  

These purple plastic mesh bags that I used—one of the grocery stores in North Bay had just started carrying organic produce and when I bought the organics, they were putting it in these mesh bags! I didn’t throw any of them out; I saved a whole bunch of them and gave them to my friend who was a weaver because she thought she could try using them to weave grocery bags.

But then I was collecting more and more of these plastic mesh bags, so I thought they would be the perfect vessel for even more plastics. I made these bags—it’s an edition of five. For five weeks in the summer, I had all of these little plastic bags scattered around my studio floor. And then, as you can see, I’ve quilted the waste with a sewing machine to keep the contents together. Then I’ve hand-sewn the text on.

Garbage. Photo: Lise Melhourn-Boe
“Garbage.” Photo: Lise Melhorn-Boe

 

What does the text say?

The text is about what we’re doing with our garbage and how it’s impacting us. One text says that:

Unmixed streams of plastic can actually be refashioned into bottles or containers. But there isn’t much demand from their makers for recycled plastic. Virgin is so much cheaper.

“More Garbage”. Photo: Lise Melhorn-Boe
“More Garbage”. Photo: Lise Melhorn-Boe

I took that text from Elizabeth Royte’s book called Garbageland. Another of the texts says that:

Canadians produce more garbage than anyone else. Each of us generates a staggering 383 kg of solid waste annually, according to Statistics Canada. In 2006, we created 35 million tonnes of trash (up eight per cent in two years).

So those are two examples from some of the text that I sewed into these garbage pieces. The concept of the garbage came first—before/then? the text—and then the collection of the garbage came after. Not that it was very difficult, there’s so much garbage. More Garbage in 2010 was just garbage that I had collected on the sidewalks, in intersections—and mittens. I found this fabulous mitten in the spring; everywhere in North Bay after the snow melts there are mittens.

 

If you were to do this garbage series again, do you think you would have similar things in your mesh bags almost ten years later?

Well, probably not bones and probably not the Rice Dream containers. Here in Kingston we can recycle them—Kingston says “all plastics”. So it would probably be less.

 

You’ve said that your garbage series was inspired by your personal health crisis—finding out you had lead toxins and other hard metals in your system and suspecting that it had caused your breast cancer. Were there any other pieces that came out of your experience with cancer?

The first book I showed to the committee to become an artist in residence at Queen’s—I was doing an art exchange with a gallery in Toronto and somebody had picked the theme of ‘landscapes’. And I thought, “I don’t do landscapes”. But I wanted to be in a show on Queen St. West in Toronto, so I had to come up with something! I ended up doing this book—this is a rock cut because I love the rock cuts along the highways up north. People do often put graffiti on the rock cuts, so my graffiti on this ‘rock cut’ is all the heavy metals that are in my body and the size of the lead and mercury are much bigger because I had a much higher concentration of those than say, tin.

I am part of these rocks, these rocks are a part of me. This is my personal landscape and it’s my body and its intersections with the environment, with nature, with rocks, with metals.

To visualize—this book is cut out in the shape of me lying down on my side, with my leg stretched out. It connects to the quote down at the bottom, which is: “there is no separation. We are the environment. So whatever we do to the environment, we do to ourselves” and that’s David Suzuki. So I am part of these rocks, these rocks are a part of me. This is my personal landscape and it’s my body and its intersections with the environment, with nature, with rocks, with metals. The rest of the garbage series came out of my research.

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“No Safe Levels”. Photo: Lise Melhorn-Boe

There’s another in the series that demonstrates this intersection of environment and bodies. And this one is not environmentally friendly at all because it’s computer printed—although the original was on handmade paper. My then-husband photographed me and then I blew up the photos and cut them out and glued them onto the handmade paper, wrote the text, and then had the whole thing scanned and printed in one piece.

It’s called Body Map. The text on my body discusses specific things about my body or things that I was doing in my life. The text outside of my body is more general environmental information—so, like, the text by my chest shows the environmental factors that might relate to breast cancer. Mercury vapour in the air—mercury is linked to food allergies, impaired immune systems, and thyroid malfunction. Well, I have an underactive thyroid, so I wrote this close to my thyroid. There are connections with the environment and me. Some of them are just funny—like, in 2005 I wrote that I “began to get old lady wrinkles on my knees”. I don’t think I can blame that on the environment!

“Body Map”. Photo: Lise Melhorn-Boe
“Body Map”. Photo: Lise Melhorn-Boe

So this is your gendered experience of the environment. Thinking about environmental contaminants that are impacting bodies, they don’t impact all bodies equally.

Yes, absolutely. Women have more body fat and so the contaminants affect us more because a lot of things go to the fat. There is a difference. And then things affect children differently because they’re so much smaller, so contaminants are more impactful. I grew up in Rouyn-Noranda in Québec with the smelter belching out smoke for my entire childhood. There were days where we weren’t allowed out for recess because… well, we never had snow days or rain days. We had bad air days.

I grew up in Rouyn-Noranda in Québec with the smelter belching out smoke for my entire childhood. There were days where we weren’t allowed out for recess because… well, we never had snow days or rain days. We had bad air days.

Anyways, since I was thinking about the environment, that made me think more about the materials I was using in my art. And so I began to make a conscious effort—at least in some of the pieces—to recycle or use up materials that I already had in my possession or that I could find at charity shops. In some of the pieces, I used materials that were left over from previous art projects.

 

Can you show me an example of one of your recycled projects?

I had been using tablecloths for another project, so I made a meander book [a meander (or maze) book gets its name from the way the paper is cut and folded to make the pages] called What’s For Dinner? It was a tablecloth and it opens up for display into the whole tablecloth in a spiral sort of way. Each place-setting on the napkin, I’ve hand-printed something that concerns me in my environment, in our environments.

Like, this place setting talks about factory farming and antibiotics. This place setting discusses genetically modified crops. This one is about fish farming and this one in the center has to do with colour, fake colour in foods. Another place setting deals with produce that has pesticide residues.

This was really fun to do. I did several copies and they’re all different—they are all tablecloths that I’ve found and reused. Quite a bit of the stuff that I used on the place settings is things that I had around the studio. I didn’t actually have to go out and buy too much material. I’ve been keeping plastic utensils for years. If I’m travelling and I end up eating out, I’ll bring the plastic utensils home.

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“What’s for Dinner?”. Photo credit: Lise Melhorn-Boe

 

You’ve obviously made a conscious effort to recycle and reuse your materials—especially fabrics like the tablecloths. You must be very adept with a sewing machine!

I separated from my husband about five years ago and we had been living in North Bay until that time, it was much cheaper to live up there. We owned our house outright so we didn’t need a lot of money. I just worked as an artist. But once I was on my own, I needed more income so I was searching around for different ways to make a living. And somebody gave me a serger, which is a sewing machine that does a double-stitch.

So I started making these t-shirts—used t-shirts that I was cutting up and repurposing them, rejigging them. I really liked them, but it wasn’t really making money for me. It was pointless. I wasn’t making any art because I was spending all my time repurposing t-shirts and they weren’t making much money anyway, so I thought I might as well make art and not make any money.

Anyway, I gave away any t-shirts that I hadn’t cut up yet. But I had lots of pieces and so I started making The “Re” Books and I’m playing with the idea of reduce, reuse, recycle. All the books have just three words in them and they all start with re. All of the words are made out of recycled t-shirts and they’re so much fun to make—like balloon animals! Except for some of the stiffening in the letters, I didn’t have to buy anything to make these pieces.

I will be having a show at Modern Fuel, a local Kingston gallery, next spring and I hope to have an entire room filled with these books. I also do sewing for homes—I make upcycled cushions. I’ve been making these cushions from leftover pieces of upholstery fabric because I have done some upholstery for people—sewing slipcovers and cushions. I have lots of fabric and it’s all just small pieces. Perfect to reuse! I’ve been having fun with the fabrics. It grew out of thinking about recycling and how recycling has become the medium.

 

Even though there is a range of topics that you tackle in your art, there always seems to be some sort of repurposing and recycling of materials. And the theme of memory is often recurring.  How do you think memory and remembering fits in with the environment, with your environment?

That’s a good question, I’ve never thought about that! I suppose if we remember a bit more we might be more conscious about what we are doing. Of course, it’s also thinking about the future maybe in a way more than the past. Thinking, “if I do this, how is it going to affect someone down the line?”.

 

I always feel that—especially with garbage—there is a conscious forgetting that happens. A reactive forgetting that as soon as you disavow something as ‘garbage’—as soon as you finish with your apple or no longer need your coffee cup, it goes out to the curb and it becomes forgotten. Maybe not for others and maybe not for others who have to deal with the garbage where it ends up—but for you, it’s gone.

It’s gone and it’s wiped away. On the other hand, just looking at someone else’s garbage is a memory right there. Garbage can tell a story. And I love telling stories.

 

Lise Melhorn-Boe has been working with books as an art medium for over forty years. She is especially drawn to women’s political and personal experiences and environmental concerns as they relate to human health. Lise plays with humour and adopts a playful visual aesthetic to explore more serious feminist and environmental issues.

Cassandra Kuyvenhoven is a doctoral candidate in the School of Environmental Studies at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Her interests include waste management, governance, knowledge controversies, and sustainable alternatives to waste transportation.

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Plastic and the city

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by Thérèse d’Auria Ryley

The burden of single-use plastic bags on urban infrastructure has been a focus of the environmentalist movements and urbanist thought in the 21st century. Single-use plastic bags, however, are not the only plastic that becomes entangled in the cityscape. In fact, plastic in all its forms is so integrated into cities that it is not possible to imagine urban infrastructure without it.

Plastic in all its forms is so integrated into cities that it is not possible to imagine urban infrastructure without it.

In the urban context, plastic is ubiquitous. Like the concrete, steel, and tar that compose the urban landscape, plastic is integral to the form and function of urban space of the 21st century. Plastic piping carries water from dams to cities; plastics encase fiber optic cables and electrical wires. Plastics are necessary to power electronics, maintain the shelf life of foodstuffs, and move goods quickly across oceans in vast quantities from one node to another. And while each of these differs in chemical composition, once discarded, they all are obstacles to urban waste management systems.

Urban dwellers differ by origins of class, place, occupation, race, and so on. And so they also differ in ways by which they engage plastic objects.

What follows is an exploration of the intertwined social and material landscapes of Dakar – the bustling capital of Senegal. Senegal banned plastic bags one year ago, in April 2015, as a means to curb environmental and infrastructural damage particularly severe in the nation’s capital. The vignettes capture social interactions in which plastic objects transcend material stagnancy and figure dynamically in the social lives of Dakar’s inhabitants. Urban dwellers differ by origins of class, place, occupation, race, and so on. And so they also differ in ways by which they engage plastic objects

These vignettes highlight the ambiguity of this material, and the challenges that such ambiguity poses to reimagining urban infrastructure in a way that meets the social and material needs of diverse inhabitants. Ultimately the social world of the city complicates the 21st century politics of plastic.


 

Madické calls himself a true ecologist. He does so several times during our conversation. He lives in a French military bunker, long abandoned, at the top of a steep hill. His artwork hangs everywhere, along with other things that I assume serve as artistic inspiration. Madické’s work features recycled materials—trash, really. He repurposes cellphone cases, old water bottles, anything commonly found in the city’s litter. He sells his works at Gorée Island, one of Dakar’s major tourist attractions.

Tourists come to see the Museum of the Slave House, and then meander the island to buy souvenirs, like Madické’s art. From Madické’s home one can observe European visitors, unconditioned to the Sub-Saharan sun, huffing and puffing up to the hilltop with red faces. Madické is passionate about his work,  that much is clear. He tells me so as he balances himself on his plastic chair, whose spines are broken. His balancing act gives him an air of stoicism as he speaks, slightly leaning forward, quietly bracing against the precariousness of the chair.

Madické calls himself a true ecologist. He does so several times during our conversation. He lives in a French military bunker, long abandoned, at the top of a steep hill.

He talks about what he incorporates into his work, how he finds these items, and the ecological message he tries to convey. He uses cigarette butts for mud huts, discarded cellphone cases for human torsos, spoons for legs. He is moved by the tragedies he sees in Dakar. Seeing young boys begging in traffic sickens him, he tells me they often get hit by cars. Society treats them like trash, he says. We converse for a little over an hour, with mostly Madické speaking intensely about the social problems he sees, and how he wields his perspectives into art. He needs a break. He pulls out a little bag of weed and another little bag of tobacco and rolls a spliff.

He moves the dilapidated plastic chair to the entryway for me to sit.

Source: author


 

I went to see Moustapha. We met at the tea shack, and he expressed an interest in speaking with me. I sat down with him, and began our conversation with the following question: why do you make this art from recycled materials?

He shrugs, what an easy question. “Because white tourists like to buy it.”

Moustapha took me to see his other works, all the while carrying on about all the European tourists who want to buy art made out of trash. It really cuts down on overhead costs, he says, to use discarded items found in the street rather than purchasing materials from an art supply store.


 

The first time I bought one of Modou’s wares, I tried to begin the conversation in Wolof, but he quickly changed to French. He doesn’t speak Wolof. Modou is from Guinea. He must be in his 60s. I walk by the corner where he sells his fans and woven baskets almost every day to get to  my office, to go to the grocery store, to the bank. His stand is placed in a perfect thoroughfare, with lots of foot traffic, but right at a corner where pedestrians naturally have to slow down and observe surroundings to safely navigate the intersection. I imagine his small business does well. He always says hi, and I always say hi. It is a nice feeling to see this familiar face in the neighborhood on my way to work and on my way home.

We are both foreigners in Dakar, but in different ways. Modou explained that he had been a basket weaver all his life, and that he had lived in the capital cities of countries in the region like Guinea and Sierra Leone before making his way to Senegal. I asked where he got the long spools of colorful plastic thread with which he crafted baskets, fans, and tote bags. As he speaks, he reaches to touch fans hanging from thread in the acacia tree, directing my gaze at different items. Modou has only ever used plastic twine to make baskets in Senegal; in the other countries he used natural fibers, like raffia.


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I walk down one particular road often. It is just adjacent to the main road, but it’s so quiet. It is narrow, and it has not been repaved in a long time. In fact, it looks like someone started repaving it and had removed the top layer of tar to do so. Two buildings on the street are currently under construction, and piles of mixing sand pour into the weathered city street. There are rarely people out on the street. Sometimes the neighbor kids play soccer, and the soccer ball ricochés off the divets in the road and bounces  back and forth between the tight walls. It looks like much more fun than playing on a flat pitch; exciting in its unpredictability.

This morning, I walk down the street on my way to work. Near the bend, there is a large plastic water container in the road. There is a calm breeze, and the container skids back and forth on the unpaved road. It is scuffed from this friction, but it still catches the sunlight in a few places as it rolls. On this quiet street, the only sound is of the container’s movements against the concrete.

Bump bump bump. Bump. Bump bump. Then a thud, when it hits against the curb.


 

Nabu passed us by on the street. She was carrying a large bucket on her head and we couldn’t see all of what was inside–just a few plastic bottles peeking out of the top. But it seemed  heavy by the effort that showed in her face and her gait.

“Women’s work is very hard.”

Pierre said this in a pensive but stoic way as she passed.

Nearby, in Nabu’s small home, I sit with her, her cowife, and her husband, who is sprawled across the bed. We are in their bedroom, and a t.v. in the corner is playing Senegalese sit-coms. I began to go through the consent process prior to beginning our interview and she just begins to tell me about her work. She, with great enthusiasm, told me everything I wanted to know. I didn’t ask a single question. She makes juice for the mechanics that work on taxis. Her stand is right next to the gas station. She puts the juice in these used plastic bottles, which she buys at the market.

Yes, there are these people who collect used plastic bottles and then they resell them at the market. Only 25CFA per bottle! It’s a great deal!”

Nabu passed us by on the street. She was carrying a large bucket on her head and we couldn’t see all of what was inside–just a few plastic bottles peeking out of the top. But it seemed  heavy by the effort that showed in her face and her gait.

Less than 5 cents USD a bottle. Nabu runs out of the room, and comes back with a large clear plastic trash bag filled with empty plastic bottles. The bottles were all used – old plastic coca cola bottles, fanta bottles, and so on – but in good condition, and well cleaned.

“Look, I buy them all at the market!”

Nabu’s colleagues – the market vendors – collect the discarded bottles mostly from restaurants and corner stores, and resell them to Nabu and other juice makers, who then resell them filled with juice.


Plastic 1

Ali met Moussa and me at the entrance to the waste dump. He is very energetic and I am not because I’ve been sick. Moussa is calm as always, and Ali’s intensity stains our quiet. After a bit of awkward formalities at the Waste Pickers Association’s center, Moussa puts the car in gear and we move slowly into the heart of the waste dump, Moussa careful to protect his tires from the compacted debris below.

I wasn’t prepared for the familiarity of the waste dump. Looking down at my feet, seeing limbs of the plastic chairs in which I frequently sit, the empty crunched water bottle—was that my water bottle? All the things that nobody wanted anymore, and wanted out of their personal space, found its way here. All of this below our feet, as we stood atop a large hill made entirely of trash, the integrity of its structure maintained by non-biodegradable discarded plastics. I began to mentally catalogue my contributions to this trash mountain since arriving in Dakar earlier that summer, since May. How many plastic bottles? A shampoo bottle maybe. I sometimes indulge in a Coca-Cola, but they are always in glass bottles, whichI return to the butik once I’ve finished. So, no Coca-Cola bottles. But perhaps a plastic bag or two, or three? Definitely an empty ibuprofen bottle.

I wasn’t prepared for the familiarity of the waste dump. Looking down at my feet, seeing limbs of the plastic chairs in which I frequently sit, the empty crunched water bottle—was that my water bottle?

Ali’s job, and the job of his fellow workers, is to search through the trash, pull out plastic objects, sort it, and then sell it to plastic companies to melt down and make plastic pellets or plastic reams. New things will be made from these old worn plastic things. But most of these old worn plastic things will just remain in the waste dump.

A man walks by with a horse cart overflowing with mesh bags full of single-use plastic bags, the kind you get at the grocery store. I watch as he trudged through the waste, leading his tired horse, on his way to sell all the dense bundles of plastic bags.


 

There are a lot of tubaabs in Dakar. The presence of tubaabs – white westerners – is just one feature of Dakar’s international fabric. Dakar is a cosmopolitan city and its urban dwellers hail from across the globe. These foreign diplomats, dignitaries, NGO workers, interns, and volunteers are sprawled throughout the city. They tend to congregate in certain spaces more than others. Mark’s potluck brunches are one of these spaces. At these events tubaabs tend to talk about ‘back-home’ as though Europe and North America are planets in a distant galaxy and not one nonstop flight away.

Mark is younger than most of his guests, a charismatic undergrad from a prestigious university whose social finesse makes him seem much older and more refined than his counterparts. As we prepare the meal, Mark asks if anyone would like some water.

There are different degrees of bottled water reliance that must be addressed during the ritual: Do you wash your teeth with bottled water or with the tap water? Do you dare to even let the tap water rinse your mouth for fear that some small yet mighty battalion of bacteria might advance to the deepest recess of your intestines? What happened when you visited that rural village?

And so the grand drinking-water debate is initiated. A ritual really, amongst tubaabs in Dakar, between tubaabs in Dakar and their loved ones on Skype. The debate centers on whether or not one is either brave enough, or stupid enough – depending on who is holding court – to drink the local water, rather than buy endless supplies of bottled water. Once a tubaab divulges his or her personal practices pertaining to one’s bottled water use while in this Sub-Saharan African city are discussed, you will know which tubaab sub-group you belong to.

There are different degrees of bottled water reliance that must be addressed during the ritual: Do you wash your teeth with bottled water or with the tap water? Do you dare to even let the tap water rinse your mouth for fear that some small yet mighty battalion of bacteria might advance to the deepest recess of your intestines? What happened when you visited that rural village? A woman offered you some water from the ndaa upon seeing how uncomfortably hot you were, red-faced and sweating profusely under the Saharan sun. You found an acceptable way to reject her offer, or you boldly accepted, sacrificing your health and maybe even your life to maintain social graces.

Mark drinks the tap water exclusively. He is willing to face typhoid head-on, daring microbes to defy his immune system.

As we chop potatoes together at the dining room table, a young woman quietly comments to me that she only drinks bottled water. With furrowed brow, she pauses to share with me her frustration over the hassle of making so many trips to the corner store to buy bottled water. She doesn’t know what to do with all these bottles.

 


 

In April 2016, one year after the announcement of the ban on single use plastic bags, the absence of plastic bags at checkout lines and corner stores is more and more tangible as store clerks hand out the last of the plastic bags. Social interactions begin to mold not around the presence of plastic items, but their absence.

“I don’t carry plastic bags anymore”, the clerk of the corner store told his customer. This small neighborhood corner store is filled from floor to ceiling with all kinds of food items, beauty products, and sundries. There is just barely enough space for the clerk and his customer to occupy either side of the counter, and I stand on the threshold waiting for this transaction to be settled so that I can buy credit for my phone. The rusted doorway, contrasted with the colorful packaging of the stocked items, has an aesthetic quality, serving both to beautify and define Dakar’s residential neighborhoods. By the casualness of their body language, it’s obvious the clerk and his customer know one another. His customer must have come to his shop several times a week for who knows how long – sometimes a morning coffee, an evening cigarette, a bottle of soda on a hot weekend afternoon.

In April 2016, one year after the announcement of the ban on single use plastic bags, the absence of plastic bags at checkout lines and corner stores is more and more tangible as store clerks hand out the last of the plastic bags. Social interactions begin to mold not around the presence of plastic items, but their absence.

The customer was not pleased. He bought a small bottle of juice, a bag of potato chips, and a card of phone credit. The items were displayed on top of the glass counter, and the clerk gestured to each one, silently mouthed their individual prices, paused to mentally tally, and then finally announce the total out loud.

“We don’t carry them anymore; they stopped making them.” He explained as he took his customer’s crumpled bill and searched for change in the cashbox.

His customer became more vexed. The customer had not been aware that the government banned single-use plastic bags almost a year ago. He held the clerk accountable, and pressured him to explain how one is to conceal purchases. The thought of walking through the neighborhood with his – the customer’s – purchases exposed is an indecency that disturbed him. In so doing, he would be inviting the curiosity of his neighbors, who would see this open display of consumption as an equally open invitation for them to engage in additional social faux pas in the microcosm of the neighborhood. What a gross negligence on the part of his trusted neighborhood clerk to not provide him with an opaque black plastic bag, a requisite for appropriate public behavior and consumption, however insignificant they may seem at times.

He gathered his purchases, and with a disgruntled sigh shoved the snack in his pants pocket, taking extra care to pull his shirt over his pockets to conceal his purchases from onlookers.


 

Plastic has always been meant to be molded, bent, melted, into many forms. At times plastic catalyzes new social arrangements, at other times it disrupts these arrangements, and still at others its presence is barely significant. Plastic often factors into social engagements as a central topic of inquiry – whether that involves debating whether or not to consume bottled water instead of drinking the potentially contaminated tap water, or making  political statements through art about the intersections of plastic pollution and social ills.

Yet the very objects that cause us to take pause and question the damaging ways in which they affect urban lives are also the very same objects that in other ways uphold that life—offering a chair for a friend to sit in, a cup to drink from—without reference to or acknowledgement of the fact that these items are as much a part of the industrial economics of plastic materials in urban circulation as that notorious plastic water bottle and single-use plastic bags.

While our environmentalist conversations focus on plastic bags, we often ignore the fact that plastic is present everywhere and in many different forms. Because of its ubiquity, it more often than not occupies an ambiguous and contradictory role in social life. It plays an important role in social lives and urban spaces, but also results in challenging impacts on city infrastructure. Its benevolence is counterbalanced by its own malevolence. As urban spaces like Dakar phase out plastics and turn towards alternative materials and systems to mitigate problems, questions of the benevolence of those materials will continue to arise.

All photos by Thérèse d’Auria Ryley.

Special thanks to Dr. Richard Kernaghan. His ethnographic writing workshop was the catalyst for this piece.

Thérèse d’Auria Ryley is a design anthropologist whose work explores the nexus of environment, urban infrastructure, and public life. Her work explores the impact of modern living on urban space in Philadelphia, USA and Dakar, Senegal. She is a proud Philly native. She tweets at “@thérèsedauria.”

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An ethics of surplus and the right to waste?

Sign at the UConn Public Surplus Store.

by Max Liboiron

At the most recent Association of American Geographers (AAG) meeting in Chicago last month, Josh Lepawsky and I coordinated a pair of panels on discards, diverse economies, and degrowth. As a concept, degrowth has taken off since the last global recession. At its most basic level, degrowth is about production without economic or material growth, and it encompasses a great diversity of types of economies that might achieve this: steady-states, gift economies,community economies, solidarity economies, and so on. As such, degrowth is also a way to organize social life, including ethics, values, and norms, as well as the systems of worth and circulation at the core of economics. In Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, authors write that: “‘Simplicity’, ‘conviviality’, ‘autonomy’, ‘care’, ‘commons’ and ‘dépense’ are some of the words that express what a degrowth society might look like.”

Lepawsky and I are interested in degrowth because of what it means for waste. Accounting for and with waste will ground-truth new economic imaginaries: how do they deal with left overs, excess, externalities, and by-products? How do they manage toxicity that is already permanently on the planet, and how do they avoid creating new toxicants? At the same time, discussions of new systems of value and circulation can vitalize discussions already underway in discard studies around surplus, valuation, reuse, scale, and the social side of technical systems.

In this post, I want to focus on surplus and dépense in particular. Growth and surplus are two different things: sometimes it is a good idea to have a surplus of food or other materials such as in preparation for winter or drought. Growth is the idea that surplus, whether in the form of profit or production of goods (or both), is the goal of economies, rather than one of many ways of organizing goods in a variety of economies. There can be surplus without accumulation being the main driver of production.

This brings us to dépense. Let’s say you’ve saved up some food for the winter, and the winter was shorter and warmer than expected, leaving you with extra stored food at the end of the season. What do you do with it? Proponents of degrowth might say: “waste it!”

Historic Doukhobor 1895 Arms burning sketch by William Perehudoff, artist from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Historic Doukhobor 1895 Arms burning sketch by William Perehudoff, artist from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Source: Discard Studies

Originally signifying the expenditure of excess energy in the writings of George Bataille, under degrowth the term dépense has come to highlight how some forms of wasting can be celebratory, ethical, and at the very least thought about in terms of what positive social values wasting might engender. Authors of Degrowth mention the practice of potlatch by Indigenous peoples of the Northeast coast, a mix of consuming, gifting, and destroying goods in a celebratory feast. We could also consider the Freedomite Doukhobor‘s practice of burning all possessions, including houses and clothing, every few years as a protest against materialism. In Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Erathe point of thinking about dépense is that “The different patterns of excess energy use [or wasting] characterize and distinguish different types of societies across space and time. Excess can be spent on sacrifice or festival, in war or in peace. … How should we go about the removal of the problem of energy and excess?” (87). How should we waste?

What would happen if we paired an ethics of surplus, where accumulation was always temporary and not the goal of economic production, with processes of wasting that enacted social values? In this situation, we might have a right to waste. If human rights are moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of behaviour, and degrowth has ushered in a new ethics of surplus, then celebratory, ritualistic, generous, thoughtful wasting may very well become a social norm that would gain the status of a right.

Of course, this assumes that wasting doesn’t cause harm to health or environment. It also doesn’t address what to do with the already existing surplus of legacy wastes we have to manage from nuclear waste to plastics. Yet this is precisely the power of the concept of degrowth: it is an economic imaginary, a politics of possibility, that can allow us to look at old questions with new frameworks.

Max Liboiron is an activist, artist, and Assistant Professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland researching plastic pollution.

This piece was originally published on the Discard Studies website.

Should we force supermarkets to send food waste to charities?

Food bank staff member loads supplies from Canadas largest food bank warehouse, Moisson Montreal. Photo: Aaron Vansintjan
Food bank staff member loads supplies from Canadas largest food bank warehouse, Moisson Montreal. Photo: Aaron Vansintjan

by Aaron Vansintjan

I’ve been seeing a lot of news about food waste recently. In February, a report revealed that governments could save up to US$300 billion per year by cutting food waste. In March, it was announced that Loblaw’s, one of Canada’s major food retailers and supermarket chains, will start selling ‘ugly fruit’ at a discount. Then came the stories about start-ups in the US who are trying to source discarded vegetables from farmers, re-using them for other products.

And last week, many people excitedly posted the news from France: the government will force supermarket chains to send their food waste to charities. This announcement led several to suggest that the UK, and even the whole world, which tops EU in food waste, should follow France’s example. And now, I’m reading stories about a new ‘social movement’ in Germany, where people volunteer to pick up and redistribute food from grocery stores, food retailers, bakeries, and restaurants.

I recently completed a three-year research project where I studied the food waste system in Canada. Specifically, I interviewed food bank directors and researchers, trying to piece together the history of how food banks evolved. Knowing this, friends and family enthusiastically send me articles describing these new ‘solutions’ to food waste, thinking I’d also be excited. However, having studied the food waste system, I find it difficult to respond without being too much of a downer: it won’t work.

Don’t get me wrong, I think these are all promising developments. Sending surplus food to charities will mean that supermarkets will bear part of the costs of the food waste they produce, and that the poor get access to more food. Selling ugly vegetables will mean landfills don’t get filled with perfectly good produce. In short, they mean that we are in part succeeding at making our food system smarter. However, I don’t think this is really a cause to celebrate.

“If you care about changing the food system, then selling ugly fruit or forcing supermarkets to send the food to charities is not the answer.”

A story might help explain why I don’t think such efforts will address the food waste problem. Any discussion around food brings up a lot of feelings, so I’ll use a proxy. Say you own a major retail company, selling toys. You sell toys at really cheap prices, allowing as many kids as possible all over the world to get them. But some kids, because their parents don’t have any money, don’t get the toys. Meanwhile, because you try to produce as many toys as possible, for as many different kids (and parents) as possible, you will make a lot of toys that no one wants to buy. Also, accidents happen, and often. A pallett of dolls falls to the ground, breaking the boxes. A whole line of toys gets mislabeled. Because toys are quite cheap to make, it’s actually less expensive to dump these toys in the landfill than to pay someone to unbox them, sort them, re-label them, and so on.

But say a bunch of concerned citizens realize all these toys are being thrown out. This is ridiculous–kids all over the world are crying because they don’t get toys (and for many other reasons too, but let’s put that aside). So they approach one of your store managers and ask, can we take your broken toys and give them away for charity?

At first, your store manager isn’t into it. It will be annoying to let these people into the warehouse and rummage around. But they say they’ll make it easy for her: volunteers will drive in, pick up all the toys really fast, and drive out. She also concedes that, actually, it is a real shame that all these toys are being thrown out. So she agrees.

Pretty soon store managers at different locations are telling you the same thing. People are picking up toys and giving them away… all for free! You didn’t have to lift a finger. What’s more, they’re minimizing the costs of sending more things to the landfill–which often is calculated by weight. So you call in a bunch of these benevolent citizens and you tell them, “Listen, what you’re doing is great. We want to help you. We’ll give you funding, and all the broken toys you want. We’ll make it easier for you, so you don’t even have to ask a store manager anymore. We’ll also organize country-wide advertising so that consumers can give away their toys and know about all the good work you–and my company–are doing.”

This is an offer they can’t refuse–the toy-charities were quite expensive to maintain, since the amount of refused toys just seemed to keep increasing. Volunteers, many of whom take the toys home themselves, are tired, and any less work is appreciated. They are glad to get the extra support.

In order to cut costs even further, you put some of the broken and ugly toys in your store–advertising them as a new, smarter way to cut waste. You might also send some of your new designs to the charities as test products, to see if any of them catch on–a cheap way to do consumer product testing.

Eventually, your efforts are rewarded. The ugly toys campaign turns out to be an excellent public relations strategy, at very small costs to you. Soon enough, the government mandates that all toys should make their way to charities, which you helped create in the first place. While this will incur some costs–you’d have to make it easier for charities to pick up the toys, which will mean hiring more staff–you still benefit from the publicity you receive from the charity efforts, and you won’t really need to change your production line. So in the long run, not a big deal.

But what’s the problem here?

  1. Even if you sponsor these charities, the financial support they receive doesn’t nearly compare to the amount of labor involved. Essentially, you’re shifting toy-waste-processing costs onto volunteers, who are doing the work that your company really ought to do. In the field of ecological economics, this is called cost-shifting, and it is one of the primary tools corporations use to increase their profit margin at the expense of society.
  2. Many of these volunteers are there because they themselves can’t get access to toys. Or they need to fulfill community service hours because of a sentence. Or they don’t have anything else to do–they live lives of isolation. While you’re making the profits, these (mostly marginalized) people are paying the price of sorting your toys.
  3. It’s not the waste that’s the root of the problem. It’s the production line. You’re producing cheap toys that break easily (endangering children), paying your workers minimum wage, and you constantly produce new toy designs that may not be bought but fill up the shelves nonetheless–guaranteeing a satisfied customer who’ll keep coming back for more.
  4. While the government may mandate that you send your toys to charities, they do nothing to support the charities–already over-worked and under-budget–that have to process the toys. At the same time, the government gets to cut costs on its welfare programs, since it is argued that the poor now have access to the food they need from charities.
  5. Even if you were to send the toys to charities, and if you were to pay the charities to process these toys, would it make things better? We’d just be making an extremely wasteful system more cost-effective, essentially subsidizing the production of crappy and wasteful toys.

“Forcing supermarkets to donate their food waste is really just part of the neoliberalization of the food system — where both the food industry and the government cut costs, while society has to pick up the slack.”

Extend this situation to the food retail industry, and it gets much worse. Because of the highly efficient production line, the agricultural process is incredibly environmentally hazardous, relying both on high inputs of fossil fuels and the use of toxic pesticides. The food industry relies on unjust migrant labor to drive production costs lower. This industry makes most of its new products from all the same ingredients, just packaged and shaped differently. For this reason, most food donated to food banks is highly processed, and quite unhealthy. Unlike with toys, volunteers often rely on the food they hand out. Food rots, so it is incredibly difficult to store and sort. With little funding and no municipal support, food banks rely more and more on volunteer service, while being increasingly bound to the continued existence of the industrial food system.

Because of these combined problems, forcing supermarkets to donate their food waste is really just part of the neoliberalization of the food system–where both the food industry and the government cut costs, while society has to pick up the slack, leading to the privatization of social safety nets through the establishment of food charities.

If you care about changing the food system, then a ‘smart’ approach to food waste, such as selling ugly fruit or forcing supermarkets to send the food to charities, is not the answer. In addition to forcing supermarkets to send food to charities, there are several things that would be much smarter.

  1. Fine the corporations for the amount of food waste they produce. This will disincentivize a system that relies on charities to bear the costs of food waste processing. It will also ensure that the industry no longer makes most of its profit from endless lines of new products, which is one of the key drivers of food waste.
  2. Clarify governmental rules and regulations around food waste, in favor of community groups. This might involve legalizing dumpster-diving, encouraging networks of citizens who wish to harvest food waste, and allowing the safe and hygienic processing and sale of food waste by non-profit community organizations.
  3. This may sound crazy, but not only have food banks developed incredibly complex and efficient systems of dealing with food waste, they also aren’t just charities. They often are crucial spaces for poor, isolated people to meet others and break their loneliness, while learning how to cook food. But even though food banks have the will to run more community-oriented activities, they often don’t have enough funding, staff, or time. So create a fund that encourages food banks to start collective kitchens, cooking workshops for single mothers and migrants, urban gardens, compost programs, and community food events. This will generate local food systems and more inclusive, safe neighborhoods. It will give those who otherwise couldn’t buy at the supermarket support structures so that they too can access acceptable food. It will help shift food banks from disempowering, demeaning, top-down, bureaucratic organizations to ones that are engaged in their community, empowering, and fun. Furthermore, it may help deal with the other 95% of food waste not created by supermarkets.
  4. A bit more challenging: align the goals and activities of governmental departments. Why does one arm of the government fund employment in the community food sector for marginalized residents, when another agrees to free trade deals, leading to a food industry that relies on cheap migrant labor? Why does one department fund research on carcinogenic food, or ban toxic chemicals, when another turns a blind eye to destructive farming practices? In most countries, health, sanitation, agriculture, trade, and municipal policies are often misaligned and should be joined up, otherwise food waste–and injustices–will just keep piling up.

These policies–most of them quite simple to implement–would ensure a safer, efficient, more just, and smarter food system. They wouldn’t only force supermarkets to limit their food waste. They would allow for a transformation from a food system oriented towards the bottom line to one that responds to people’s needs.

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.