In 1966, anthropologist Mary Douglas argued that defining and managing dirt is an essential act of worldmaking. It is through the categorization of what is pure and what is contaminated that societies make meaning and organize space (Douglas 1984). More recently, Max Liboiron and Josh Lepawski argue that the process of world-organizing through managing dirt generally serves to reinforce social hierarchies and maintain power structures.  This thread of discards/thoughts emphasizes that conceptualizing waste is critical to social organization. How different societies define waste, where we put it, how we engage with it, who we assign to manage it—these are significant markers of values, priorities, and social power. The messages in waste are especially important to understand now, in an age defined by extraction, consumption, exploitation, and the epic generation of waste in myriad forms. Even within a global economy defined largely by consumption and disposability, Libroiron (2021) cautions us that specificity matters. Though all societies make waste, the making means something different depending on where you look, and who you are (Furniss 2017). As a matter of urban policy on the one hand, and acknowledging the vast gulfs in economic and social power on the other, it is vital to witness the specifics.
Waste Worlds, by anthropologist Jacob Doherty, is a vividly emplaced exploration of waste and wasting within the particular specificities of Kampala, Uganda. Doherty’s work weaves the voices of informal recyclers, landfill scavengers, government waste managers, politicians, middle-class residents, and development professionals together to explore how Kampala manages disposability—the designation of something, someone, some place, as valueless, or as future waste—and how disposability makes the city. Disposability as an economic strategy is orchestrated and reproduced at national and global scales; but it is incarnated through sometimes very tiny interactions, repeated and given meaning by people in particular contexts.
Echoing work on geographies of waste and waste regimes (Davies 2008; Gille 2007), Waste Worlds slides across scales, tracking the political and material linkages among hyperlocal sites (a single clogged storm drain adjacent to an informal market, for instance), municipal management, national statecraft, and global webs of development finance. In exploring these linkages, Doherty argues that “people and places become disposable not by being cast out of the city but by being held in a particular relation to it: collectively vital and necessary […] but individually expendable” (p. 26). This tension between indispensability and precarity is materialized through individual and communal relations with the city’s wastes. And it is here, in this tension, that Kampala’s waste worlds manifest.
Doherty defines waste worlds as “taking shape in the context of complicated socio-technical waste infrastructures whose materiality has changed over time, sedimenting colonial racial hierarchies, morally charged ideas of respectability, nationalist development aspirations, and globally circulating visions of urban futures” (p. 6). Waste worlds are, in other words, the many Kampalas produced through the various acts of creating, defining, and managing disposability. In Doherty’s telling, Kampala’s waste worlds stretch from City Hall to a massive municipal landfill at the city’s margin, populated by semi-authorized scavengers doing the city’s recycling work; from informal markets that bloom and disappear between police raids, to posh suburbs where the lack of street litter is a status marker; from slums poorly served, if served at all by the city’s waste collection services, to NGOs promising cleanliness as a development pathway. All these worlds are threaded together by a fleet of municipal trucks and a small army of waste workers and security personnel, sweeping streets, collecting garbage, and enforcing behavioral norms of public tidiness.
Doherty explores the waste worlds of Kampala in three parts, each of which offers a novel conceptual intervention. Part I, “The Authority of Garbage,” examines waste “as an object of governance” (p. 26). Here, Doherty introduces readers to the organizational and political landscapes of Kampala, contextualizing the various agencies—private, governmental and NGO—that claim responsibility for cleaning the city. The main character here is the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), established by an act of parliament as a way to disempower the local political opposition. In practice, the KCCA accumulated legitimacy and power through urban maintenance, organizing waste removal, ensuring compliance with maintenance regimes, mobilizing the city’s militarized security, and reproducing particular narratives of cleanliness, development, and success. KCCA’s acts of maintenance are “meant to signal historical rupture: the overdue establishment of a government concerned with, and capable of, maintenance” (p. 53). Although some residents are frustrated by its heavy-handed tactics and incomplete service provision, the KCCA has been fairly successful in “legitimiz[ing] and materially constitut[ing] technocratic-authoritarian modes of rule” (p. 54). As a result, many residents approve of KCCA’s mission, participate in its cleaning events, and appreciate its efforts to order the city’s streets and—by proxy—the city’s populations. As its legitimacy has grown, KCCA has advanced, sometimes violently, what Doherty calls “destructive creation” (chap. 3): erasures of messiness—litter, outdoor markets, informal settlements—that make space for a modern, globally relevant Kampala. In so doing, KCCA and its development partners ensure that disposability extends beyond litter to include residents at the margin of the urban economy, and the spaces they make and occupy.
In Part II, “Away,” Doherty explores “waste as an object of labor” (p. 26). He offers the concept of “para‑sites”—the informal, extralegal network of sites and activities that allow the formal systems of the KCCA to work. These include the stalls of scavengers and recyclers; the storm drains and bogs into which the residents of informal settlements throw their waste in the absence of formal collection; and the backyard burn pits used by many Kampala residents to reduce their waste before tossing it. Though the KCCA criminalizes many of these activities, it also has failed to offer comprehensive infrastructure for waste collection, essentially demanding compliance with nonexistent systems. Without these para‑sites, Doherty shows us, the KCCA would be too overwhelmed to function. Doherty’s articulation of para‑sites renders visible the violent, messy, contradictory nature of postcolonial urbanization, while simultaneously demonstrating that waste worlds are not abject; there is life, creation, and sustenance there too.
KCCA’s efforts to engage everyday residents in the work of cleaning the city is a particularly fascinating component of waste work. KCCA uses advertising, public events, and sometimes force, to “sensitize” the city’s poorest residents against visible wastes. Development organizations have shown interest in funding this kind of self-help activity that encourages residents provide their own waste infrastructure, without the funding or support of the government. These efforts echo the neoliberal push to individualize problems of waste and consumption in other contexts, like the United States (MacBride 2012; Elmore, 2015), and seem to serve many of the same political economic interests. The role of the large corporations, like Coca-Cola, that produce the materials that residents are then charged with clearing up is a tantalizing element of the story that Doherty does not take up directly. But it offers connections to other bodies of work on development, corporate funding, and neoliberal exploitation (Patel and Moore 2018; Nixon, 2011).
Finally, in Part III, “Racializing Disposability,” Doherty connects the threads of postcolonial urban development, waste management, and white supremacy, showing how acts of urban cleaning within Kampala’s waste worlds reproduce postcolonial racial hierarchies. Giving brutal specificity to Liboiron and Lepawsky’s observation that waste management is used to fortify existing power relations, Doherty explains how KCCA, NGOs, and others involved in formal urban maintenance rely on “infrastructures of feeling,” messages and activities that instill a sense of pride in cleanliness, and shame at messiness, to motivate the particular labors necessary to make Kampala globally modern. These infrastructures of feeling serve to reinforce marginality, as the city’s poorest—lacking infrastructure, service, or space for “proper” waste handling—are cast as part of the city’s waste problem; unable to keep their own spaces clean, they are themselves disposable, and subject to the constant threat of displacement.
This book, with its ethnographic specificity, will be of interest to anthropologists who study urbanization, development, and waste. But it will also be of interest to waste scholars across disciplines as it reveals the frequently unexamined power granted to those who govern waste. Though many have explored this topic, including myself, Doherty’s account shows so clearly how KCCA’s strategies of maintenance legitimize violence, dispossession, and displacement, while still maintaining broad public support, even among some of those threatened by its actions. In terms of teaching, the monograph would work well in graduate seminars, but could be too dense for undergraduates. Luckily, the book is beautifully structured, lending itself to a bit of chopping up: single parts or individual chapters could be illuminating complements to undergraduate syllabi on waste, infrastructure, development, sustainability, urbanization, informality, postcolonial cities, or any number of other topics.
- Davies, Anna. 2008. The Geographies of Garbage Governance: Interventions, Interactions, and Outcomes, Aldershot/Burlington: Ashgate
- Douglas, Mary. 1984 (1966). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, new ed., New York/London: Routledge.
- Elmore, Bartow J. 2015. Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
- Gille, Zsuzsa. 2007. From the Cult of Waste to the Trash Heap of History: The Politics of Waste in Socialist and Postsocialist Hungary, Bloomington: Indiana University Press., 2007)
- Furniss, Jamie. 2017. “What type of problem is waste in Egypt?”, Social Anthropology, vol. 25, no. 3, August, pp. 301–317.
- Liboiron, Max. 2021. Pollution Is Colonialism, Durham (North Carolina): Duke University Press.
- MacBride, Samantha. 2012. Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States, Cambridge (Massachusetts): MIT Press.
Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Cambridge (Massachusetts): Harvard University Press.
- Patel, Raj and Moore, Jason W. 2018. A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet, Berkeley: University of California Press.