Waste Pickers are Not Disposable

June 07, 2024

Historically, our dumps used to be open air and host to all manner of waste picking and gleaning, so processes like enclosure have happened here and continue to happen here. Waste workers everywhere are devalued, stigmatized, even reviled. I hope policymakers that are shaping the future of Mbeubeuss and other wastescapes will begin to see reclaiming as expertise and heed the waste pickers’ demands to “keep the waste in their hands.” I hope the Senegalese public will begin to see waste picking as dignified labor and waste picking and recycling as environmental stewardship. Questions at stake in The Waste Commons are the very questions at the heart of environmental justice and urban citizenship. We are currently in the planning stages for a screening at the UN Plastics treaty negotiations in Seoul, South Korea, in November and Dakar waste pickers featured in the film will likely attend.

How does the situation in Mbeubeuss compare to how the U.S. handles sanitation?

Historically, our dumps used to be open air and host to all manner of waste picking and gleaning, so processes like enclosure have happened here and continue to happen here. This is well documented in the history of New York City and other places across the country. I think the broader connections have to do with waste labor and disposability. Waste workers everywhere are devalued, stigmatized, even reviled. My colleague Robin Nagle’s work right here in NYC shows this to be the case with New York City Department of Sanitation workers. So, we as discard studies scholars are aiming to call attention to that—how waste is a language of power that gets yoked to race, class, and other forms of difference—and to illuminate and hopefully disrupt those patterns of disposability.

Waste—whether toxic pollution running through our bodies, transformed atmospheres, or the afterlives of this incredibly unsustainable consumption we are caught up in—is at the heart of these dynamics. This is particularly relevant to the U.S.—the most wasteful country on Earth. Bringing waste ecologies to the heart of public attention is an important step toward exploding this “out of sight, out of mind” logic that allows us to keep consuming at a rapacious pace while also dumping it on marginalized others, in this country and beyond.

What do you want viewers to take away from the film?

I hope policymakers that are shaping the future of Mbeubeuss and other wastescapes will begin to see reclaiming as expertise and heed the waste pickers’ demands to “keep the waste in their hands.” I hope the Senegalese public will begin to see waste picking as dignified labor and waste picking and recycling as environmental stewardship.

For academic and lay audiences, I hope the film makes them interrogate their stereotypes about African cities and to think in a more nuanced way about the place of the poor in urban development. Questions at stake in The Waste Commons are the very questions at the heart of environmental justice and urban citizenship. It centers waste in conversations about the climate crisis to illuminate the stakes of a just transition to a post petroleum economy for large numbers of the global poor who survive through revaluing discards. I’m referencing here the global treaty to reduce plastic pollution currently being negotiated at the UN. Waste pickers—including from Dakar—have a seat at that negotiating table. Will the poor be adequately taken into account in future economic and environmental policy?

We are currently in the planning stages for a screening at the UN Plastics treaty negotiations in Seoul, South Korea, in November and Dakar waste pickers featured in the film will likely attend. The idea is to really foreground these questions in those international negotiations.

The source of this news is from New York University

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