Environments of Disposal

Moralities, Practices and Localities of Waste (1880-1930)

Björn Blaß (PhD Project)

Waste, being constantly caused by humanity, is not merely a material artifact, but also a challenging social problem. As such, it is the subject of shifting moral, economic and political constructions and is not a fixed objective entity by itself. Which meaning is applied to waste depends on the socio-economic status of the observer as well as his or her moral attitude towards the act of disposal itself.

By the late nineteenth century and in connection with the advent of novel patterns of consumption, waste evolved into a social and metropolitan problem of unprecedented scale, accelerated by the entangled processes of migration, urbanization and industrialization. The urban masses and their wretched living conditions fueled theories of moral degeneration that were projected on the city itself. Waste ranked high on the list of metropolitan scourges, as refuse and garbage were visible landmarks of disorder and regarded as a threat to public health. But how was this growing problem addressed and how were attempts made at solving it?

Driven by the development of higher public health standards, capitalist efficiency and technological advancements, traditional notions of waste and everyday practices of sorting, reusing and disposing it came under closer scrutiny. The arguments put forward by different expert groups were not merely of a technical nature but were also morally charged, as they communicated convictions of an ideal hygienic city. Public pressure from social reformers and the appalling living conditions in the cities eventually put waste on the political and administrative agenda, equally transforming urban infrastructures, shaping humane living conditions and policing everyday practices of disposal.

This project investigates the moralities, practices and localities of waste between 1880 and 1930 in Berlin, Buenos Aires and New York. By comparing the development of different waste regimes, the study aims to identify the competing moral definitions, embattled practices and leading actors in the sphere of waste and the development of municipal waste management.

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