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Durham University

Department of Geography

Departmental Research Projects

Waste of the World

A research project of the Department of Geography, part of the Economy & Culture research group.


To paraphrase Levi Strauss, waste - like food - is good to think with. This research programme, however, begins from a stronger imperative: that waste is something UK social science must attend to now and in different ways. The case is compelling, substantively and conceptually. As the work of NGOs and investigative journalists highlights, how and where we turn things to waste, and how we deal with the increasing amount and complexity of rubbish that is the product of mass urbanisation and consumption, pose some of the most pressing contemporary global economic, political and environmental dilemmas. Addressing such questions is vital, but not just to further understandings of waste and how we might deal with it. Instead, to examine waste provides a vehicle for considering and transforming approaches to some of ESRC’s core concerns, notably globalization and economies, risk, regulation and power. Yet, paradoxically given its purchase, waste is something social science has been reluctant to attend to, its absence from core agendas made even more striking when compared with the attention it has received in the physical sciences, particularly engineering, and in the arts and humanities.

This programme of work under the ESRC large grant scheme will be conducted by academics based at the Universities of Sheffield, London and Durham.


The programme of research comprises three strands:

  • Waste economies, value and spatial divisions of labour
  • Materialising commodity chains: the surplus and loss in production
  • The destruction of excess: burning, burial and decay, and reincarnation

The strands are informed by three over-arching principles. First, we do not start from a position which presumes to know what waste is. Our concern is with how things, objects, even matter itself, become ‘waste’ and the processes and practices that move these simultaneously physical and meaning translations along. To borrow a phrase from the study of natural resources,“wastes are not, they become”. Secondly, our focus lies beyond the domestic sphere and its close attendant, household waste and governance strategies for its management. Household waste is a tiny fraction of the matter handled by the waste management industries per annum. Instead, it is the generation of waste in productive activities that constitutes much of the material for an increasingly global and lucrative waste processing industry, based on revalorisation rather than reuse. Our third point concerns geographies. Extant research either locates waste within a regulatory framework that is national-regional-local in its orientation (with a focus on the regional-local end) or it uses spatial metaphors as its primary explanatory vehicle. Neither suffices. Rather, what is required is a thoroughly entangled, international, yet not exclusively global, approach, that examines why certain places are becoming key nodes in the global waste economy, dealing with the breaking of (often hazardous) things, not their fabrication. Or, expressed slightly differently, what is the effect of entanglements that turn things to matter, that are the mirror of commodity fetishism, and that are not just out of sight but which render things beyond sight?


These aims inform six projects each have particular aims:

Project 1 (Durham based)

Examines how ships are broken-up, in different ways, under different regulatory regimes, and with what implications for the ways in which wastes are treated, generated and disposed of. It achieves this through two case studies of shipbreaking, in Hartlepool (England) and Chittagong (Bangladesh).

Project 2 (Durham based)

Provides an examination of the international trade in nuclear wastes from the 1950s to the present day, and an analysis of how used nuclear fuel is moved around the world and within one nuclear reprocessing plant.

Project 3 (Durham based)

Examines the ways in which materials and waste are generated in the processes of steel manufacture in different parts of the world (NE England, India and the US); how production processes have been altered to minimise waste; and strategies to revalorise waste.

Project 4

Provides an examination of how waste is generated and managed within various sectors of the UK food processing industry: salad crops, root vegetables and convenience foods.

Project 5

Examines the disposal rituals surrounding the wasting of materials through the technologies of landfill, incineration and anaerobic digestion in the UK. It provides a comparative study between the UK's historic reliance on landfill and Denmark's adoption of incineration technologies; and explores the haunting capacities of old landfill sites in the UK.

Project 6

Examines the management of economic excess in one of the fastest growing consumer economies in the world, India, exploring the effects such changes are having on more traditional forms of recycling practice.


From the Department of Geography

From other departments