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What is Waste?

What do we talk about when we talk about waste? In the eyes of the circular economist waste is a resource that can become part of a sustainable future. The anthropologist on the other hand, will argue that what we consider waste depends, amongst others, on notions of dirtiness and impurity, which tells us something about cultures. The philosopher might be concerned with the being itself of waste and asks if there something like a “waste thing”, and if so, how we could distinguish that from a non-waste thing. The geographer will point out that conceptualizations of waste also depend on whether waste is kept out of sight (typical for the Global North) or whether people are forced to live with and of it (typical for the Global South). The marine biologist, however, has no problem defining waste and finds it everywhere in the form of plastics that haunt sea life. In short, what we take waste to be (also) depends on our disciplinary backgrounds.

Although we are hard-pressed to find one definition of waste to rule them all, this should not keep us from posing the question: what is waste? Not only does this question lay bare both (hidden) assumptions and blind spots within the different disciplines, but taken together an interdisciplinary approach might also point us in the direction of shared characteristics, a thread that runs through all disciplines and tells another story. Waste refers to the unwanted, the useless, the repressed, in short: to things (and people) that are denied place and time, but that persist nonetheless and demand our attention. In short: waste is forcing our thought. How to listen to what it has to say?

In this studio, we will take an interdisciplinary approach to waste and explore it from several perspectives. We will also ask if it can function as a critical tool to reflect on dominant ideologies, such as consumer capitalism in general and circular economy in particular.

Group assignment
In groups of 3-4 students – you can make up the groups amongst yourself as long as interdisciplinarity is assured – you will work on a project in which the question of waste is addressed. Groups can either choose one of the four topics below, or (in consultation with their lecturer) come up with a topic of their own:

  1. Waste in popular culture. How is waste used and imagined in popular culture and what does that tell us?
  2. Waste as a critical tool. How can waste be used to critically reflect on dominant ideology, such as the dream of a circular economy without remainders?
  3. The definition of waste. How come a clear-cut concept of waste is so hard to come by? Take an interdisciplinary approach in answering this question and in doing so also reflect on interdisciplinarity as such.
  4. Waste from a non-Western perspective. Recent studies in waste theory suggest conceptualizations of waste are too much Global North-centered. What would a Global South-perspective look like?

The results of these projects are presented in the end, either in the form of a podcast, a (series of) vlogs/blogs, a plain old presentation, a short film, or another form that suits the purpose. If all groups agree to this, the results could also be presented at a symposium. If we decide to organize a symposium, the results of the projects could also be presented in poetry, performances, and music, among others. In addition to this, all groups hand in a written reflection (1500-2000 words) on their presentation.

As a student, you have the opportunity to make suggestions for an excursion yourself (in line with the theme and in line with the educational planning). Submit a nice suggestion and we will take care of the further organization!

Lisa Doeland (Philosophical ethics and political philosophy)
Tim Houwen (Radboud Honours Academy)

Study materials
See below, the readings will be made available via Brightspace.

The meetings will take place on Tuesday evenings from 18.30 until 21.00.
(Note, the first meeting starts at 18.00)

In the first half of the studio we will familiarize ourselves with the topic. Aside from introductory lectures on the concept of waste from several disciplinary perspectives, there will also be two guest lectures and an individual assignment + presentation to help you get to grips with waste.  In the second half of the studio the ball is in your court and you will work on a project in small groups.

1. Introduction to the course: what is waste? - 28 September


  • Hawkins, Gay. “An Overflowing Bin.” In The Ethics of Waste, 1-20. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield publishers, 2006.
  • Thill, Brian. “The Beach that Speaks.” In Waste, 2-18. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. (Brightspace)

To do (afterwards):

  • “Exercise in a historical approach to waste” (guidelines can be found on Brightspace)

2. The normalisation of waste - 12 October

Guest lecture by Hervé Corvellec (via Zoom)


  • Corvellec, Hervé. 2014. "Recycling food waste into biogas, or how management transforms overflows into flows." In Coping with excess: How organizations, communities and individuals manage overflows, edited by Barbara Czarniawska and Orvar Löfgren, 154-172. Cheltenham (UK): Edward Elgar.
  • Calvino, Italo. “Leonia.” In Invisible Cities, 114-116. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1972.

Presentations by the first half of the group

3. Iconic waste: plastic - 26 October


Presentations by the second half of the group

4. Iconic waste: nuclear waste - 2 November

Guest lecture by dr. Anna Volkmar.

Workshop by Tim on interdisciplinary research

5. Waste as a monster, waste as a specter - 9 November

To read (in preparation):

6. Working on the group assignment - 16 November

Work session

7. Working on the group assignment - 23 November

Work session

8. Working on the group assignment - 30 November

Work session

9. Working on the group assignment - 7 December

Work session

10. Presentations - 14 December