Julia Perczel, ‘Extended producer responsibility as ecological thinking’

All images courtesy of the author.

Ecology of waste awareness at the Cambridge market. 

Waste is ecological. So is waste management. This might be counter intuitive as when waste is evoked in ecological terms in common parlance, it is presented as a threat to the ecology. I argue that the apparent contradiction lies in the indeterminacy of waste as a harmful product of capitalist consumer culture and as a visible material substance that draws attention to pollution in nature. Waste at the same time is also a material that straddles uncomfortably the nature/culture divide. To understand its uneven effects across the planet ultimately it requires it to be recast as a ubiquitous material substance that mediates and redraws the relationship with life structured by capitalism.

Making polluters pay for the growing problem of waste through extended producer responsibility (EPR) is one of late-capitalism’s preferred policies to deal with waste. Currently the UK is implementing a new EPR law in packaging to come into effect from 2025. Yet, EPR often has little resemblance to what gets treated as ecology in anthropology. Once one gets down to the nitty-gritties of putting EPR into practice, the observer immediately loses her way in laws, targets, volumes of inorganic material, companies, calculations, machines, and pricing. None of which sounds much like anthropologist’s preferred way to think about ecology. Rather, waste often falls under the remit of studies that look at local or national governance and, even if considered, it is classed under an issue of urban political ecology with more of an attention over who gets to revalue waste in the urban setting (Rademacher 2015; Gidwani 2013).

At the same time, EPR, in as much as it mandates producer brands to raise awareness among consumers, leads to the infinite (re)production of pictures of waste in nature to create evocative images of the detrimental effects of today’s unecological consumer. Perhaps, due to the ubiquity of images as well as the mounting evidence of the geography forming effects and habitat change due to waste it might be high time to refocus anthropological attention on how waste is becoming part of interlocking ecosystems of nature, industry, and business. With such an approach, it might also become possible to start thinking of alternative approaches to waste management that does not harken back to the image of pure unpolluted nature.

Two contrasting images might be used to drive the continuing attraction of the nature/culture dichotomy home:

In 2018, I visited Skomer Island off the Pembrokeshire coast in West Wales to look at puffins. What we ended up looking at were not just the birds but the plastics that puffins, Manx shearwaters, and seagulls collected from far away and carried back to make their nests. Such phenomena become effective in highlighting the devastation caused by plastic, but the inescapable reality now is that plastic and other wastes have now gotten swept up in the vitality of life and became an inextricable part of nature.

The experience appears to be continuous with the one from the following year, on my fieldwork in the dense urban sprawl of northeast Delhi, India. Roaming the streets of the neighbourhood where the e-waste market was located imparted a distinctly ecological experience. E-waste markets across the world as well as in Delhi are often described as toxic hellscapes by outside visitors—researchers of environmental advocacy groups, journalists, environmental practitioners—but locals describe them as a family place (Perczel 2021; 2024). It is also an unlikely site of urban nature, where water canals are said to have acidified to the extent that there are no mosquitos. And encounters with a smellscape of human and animal faeces in the open sewers and emanating from dark, ground-floor rooms indicates the presence of humans, buffaloes, chicken, and goats in the midst of heavily built-up urban sprawl. Urban political ecology often focuses on the use of open spaces, the state of reserves and waterbodies, and the power inequalities, struggles, and exclusions that push particular sections of urban society to live in such polluted environments (Rademacher 2015). Yet, flooding streets, acidified sewage canals, and rotting offal and animal hides in open urban dumps after Bakr Eid celebrations are also manifestations of urban ecology for they reassert the link with the vitality of life in the midst of dead concrete (although for the vitality of concrete see Harvey 2019).

Smellscapes of decomposing offal in an open dump. 

The presence of organic waste in concrete and bitumen worlds and plastic in seabirds’ nests invokes the knee-jerk reaction of “matter out of place”. The phrase is attributed to Mary Douglas who developed it for anthropology in the book Purity and Danger: An analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966). Although Richard Fardon (2013) observed in a curious exercise of tracing misattributions that the adage was in fact a current one in the 19th century but got largely forgotten by the twentieth century when Douglas gave it new life.

The phrase and Douglas’ theory responded to and became influential in organising thought around waste. The idea that waste is waste only in its wrong place, while it would be a valuable object somewhere else is a surprisingly all-pervading one. There have been attempts to decouple conceptions of waste from “dirt”, with Liboiron arguing that even Douglas didn’t think the two were interchangeable (Liboiron 2019; Liboiron and Lepawsky 2022). In fact, waste means that from the essential indeterminacy of things (Alexander and Sanchez 2018), certain materials have been categorised as value and were put in their place, the bin, the dump, the waste processing unit.

Thus, wastes are not out of place in the same way as dirt for they do not by themselves pose a danger to political order. Although they can also do that, as Baviskar’s (2003) notion of “bourgeois environmentalism” illustrates, where middle-class perceptions of cleanliness may become cause for brutal violence against Delhi’s poor who may be forced to defecate in the parks of middle-class neighbourhoods. However, what these notions of cleanliness, environmentalism, and the striving for purity do is to reinforce the notion of pure nature. Thus, Douglas’s argument illuminates why waste as a problem continues to have a powerful hold on the imagination.

This creates a situation where it is hard to talk of waste as anything other than things caught up in human capacities for symbolic valuation (Reno 2014). This means that a wayward plastic back in a forest will be a sign of human artifice as much as the same plastic bag travelling through the recycling process and being re-valued into energy. However, plastic as much as any other substance, whether organic or not, has affordances to enter into relations with a host of forces other than human owing to its material indeterminacy (Gabrys et al. 2013; Alexander and Sanchez 2018). Waste in fact is not only a sign of life (Reno 2014), but it also makes place and becomes a sustainer of life (O’Hare 2019).

On the one hand, waste provides many with livelihoods. But on the other, new geographic formations like the North-Atlantic plastic patch, perhaps the epitome of wastes’ environmental detriment, are also becoming hosts to coastal and oceanic life allowing species to exist in deep sea and travel longer distances (Haram et al. 2021). While this is not to say that such changes to marine life are an innocent process, they indicate the inextricable entanglement of manmade materials with non-human lifeworlds.

The problem with wastes is ostensibly that they are of human origin but end up in nature, or that they are prevented from becoming one with nature because of the human-built environment. Wastes are the result of economic life, consumer desires, and the potency of science to mix substances to the extent that they become inextricable from each other. Even if the wastes are of an animal kind, if it is found “out of nature” in the midst of constructed landscapes like the dense peri-urban sprawl of New Delhi, the problem is defined as “of human processes of valuation, or devaluation”. Material hybrids that cannot be broken down without further human interventions, scientific discoveries, and the reorganisation of social and political life.

Are trees matter out of place in a toxic e-waste market? 

Wastes, thus, seem to reinforce the nature/culture divide. And the root of the seeming contradiction of wastes as ecological may lie in Western thought’s deep-seated acceptance of the divide. Accordingly, wastes, especially human made, are unecological as they leave a detrimental impact on the environment turning up in places where they don’t belong. Still, the arguments against the deep-seated nature/culture rarely are directed towards naturalising the way in which material hybrids are now found in the farthest reaches of the earth. These processes are little different from arguments that emphasise that landscapes of beauty, or or resource extraction, are often also the sites of culture and sacred geographies. The argument thus presupposes a prior existence of pure nature which precedes human interaction, yet facing up to the fact of an irrevocably toxic world is less and less avoidable (Shotwell 2016). It is much rarer to encounter the argument, following Shotwell, that what appears as the epitome of human artifice, permanently changed landscapes as a result of wastes of all kinds—carbon emissions, greenhouse gases of all kinds, plastics and toxics, and other hybrid material—are in fact constituting of the ecology today.

Although EPR may be about reprocessing discarded materials e-wastes, plastics, care tyres, or mattresses, it is also about fundamentally redrawing the links between capitalist mode of production and the environment. It is about reckoning with the fact that capitalism operates in the web of life (Moore 2015). This is one of capitalist environmentalism’s attempts to shape the political economy to adapt to the changing demands of planetary futures.

Countries like India, when attempting to make producers responsible, follow established systems in Europe and if it were to be achieved it would bring the country one step further to the circular economy decoupling production from natural resources. The first legal framework to be put in place was regarding taking responsibility for electronic discards by defining the obligations of each stakeholder and defining their relations towards each other. In the course of a year-long fieldwork, I found that although the aim is to link the effects of production, consumption, and eventually discarding to ecological impact, the day-to-day life of compliance requires bureaucratic enforcement of the law, the creation of documentation, engagement with licensing, and fulfilling legally defined industrial conditions. The sum of these were described by my interlocutors curiously as an “e-waste ecosystem” a phrase that in fact refers to the market through which responsibility is fulfilled. This is a radically different way of imagining ecology from the environmental movement that brought about the need for change in the ecological imagination of capitalism.

Thus, I argue that wastes are not only ecological but they shape local and planetary ecology, similar to how Morton argues in Being Ecological (2018). He shows how the act of turning the ignition key in a car is the way in which most people across the planet engage with ecology. This apparently insignificant individual activity gathers the force of planetary change when millions of people turn on their car at the same time. In a similar way, the engagement with waste, its categorisation, placement, legal arrangements for its management, and processing can have cascading effects and recast human’s and non-human relationships and their environment.

Julia Perczel is an ESRC Research Fellow at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Her research deals with the question of making profits while striving to save the environment through the ethnographic example of an e-waste startup in Delhi, India. As part of these explorations she had published on representations of toxic places, e-waste as a sci-fi plot, and the practicalities of putting the circular economy in practice.


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———. 2024. ‘E-Waste Is Toxic, but for Whom? The Body Politics of Knowing Toxic Flows in Delhi’. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space 42 (1). https://doi.org/10.1177/23996544231188653.

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