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Durham University

Department of Geography

Departmental Research Projects

Publication details

Gregson, N., Crang, M., Botticello, J., Calestani, M. & Krzywoszynska, A. Doing the ‘Dirty Work’ of the Green Economy: resource recovery and migrant labour in the EU. European Urban and Regional Studies. 2016;23:541-555.

Author(s) from Durham


Europe has set out its plans to foster a ‘green economy’, focused around recycling, by 2020. This pan-European recycling economy, it is argued, will have the triple virtues of: first, stopping wastes being ‘dumped’ on poor countries; second, reusing them and thus decoupling economic prosperity from demands on global resources; and third, creating a wave of employment in recycling industries. European resource recovery is represented in academic and practitioner literatures as ‘clean and green’. Underpinned by a technical and physical materialism, it highlights the clean-up of Europe’s waste management and the high-tech character of resource recovery. Analysis shows this representation to mask the cultural and physical associations between recycling work and waste work, and thus to obscure that resource recovery is mostly ‘dirty’ work. Through an empirical analysis of three sectors of resource recovery (‘dry recyclables’, textiles and ships) in Northern member states, we show that resource recovery is a new form of dirty work, located in secondary labour markets and reliant on itinerant and migrant labour, often from accession states. We show therefore that, when wastes stay put within the EU, labour moves to process them. At the micro scale of localities and workplaces, the reluctance of local labour to work in this new sector is shown to connect with embodied knowledge of old manufacturing industries and a sense of spatial injustice. Alongside that, the positioning of migrant workers is shown to rely on stereotypical assumptions that create a hierarchy, connecting reputational qualities of labour with the stigmas of different dirty jobs – a hierarchy upon which those workers at the apex can play.

Department of Geography