Discard Studies” argues that “social, political, and economic systems maintain power by discarding certain people, places, and things

Last month I wrote about Wastiary: A Bestiary of Waste and I’m thrilled to share another terrific free book about the politics of (over)consumption, trash, waste, and consumer capitalism. It’s called Discard Studies and was written by Max Liboiron and Josh Lepawsky, both Professors in the Department of Geography at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

I’m currently reading it to learn more about what happens to my trash once it’s conveniently picked up and carted away in a garbage truck each week. So far I’ve learned that what many folks think of as “trash”—municipal solid waste, i.e. household waste, recyclables, commercial waste, construction/demolition waste, medical waste—is only a very small percentage of the massive amounts of waste generated across the globe. Liboiron and Lepawsky explain that “The vast majority of waste by weight, by volume, and by toxicity is industrial solid waste (ISW). Some statistics say that 3 percent of all solid waste produced is municipal solid waste and the other 97 percent is industrial solid waste” (p. 9). I still believe that individual decisions about and practices of consumption and trash are important, but clearly we need to overhaul entire systems to make significant changes.

The book was published in 2022 by the MIT Press, which provides this description:

Discard studies is an emerging field that looks at waste and wasting broadly construed. Rather than focusing on waste and trash as the primary objects of study, discard studies looks at wider systems of waste and wasting to explore how some materials, practices, regions, and people are valued or devalued, becoming dominant or disposable. In this book, Max Liboiron and Josh Lepawsky argue that social, political, and economic systems maintain power by discarding certain people, places, and things. They show how the theories and methods of discard studies can be applied in a variety of cases, many of which do not involve waste, trash, or pollution. 

Liboiron and Lepawsky consider the partiality of knowledge and offer a theory of scale, exploring the myth that most waste is municipal solid waste produced by consumers; discuss peripheries, centers, and power, using content moderation as an example of how dominant systems find ways to discard; and use theories of difference to show that universalism, stereotypes, and inclusion all have politics of discard and even purification—as exemplified in “inclusive” efforts to broaden the Black Lives Matter movement. Finally, they develop a theory of change by considering “wasting well,” outlining techniques, methods, and propositions for a justice-oriented discard studies that keeps power in view.

Discard Studies is available for free download here. Read it and talk trash with me, please!


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