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Urban Wastes, Present and Future

Lily Pollans guest-edits this series for Metropolitics that focuses on the various ways in which waste is part of the urban environment—how waste produces urban space, the local management of waste, its environmental impacts, and the forms of social justice it gives rise to.

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All cities are made, one way or another, from waste. Some cities, like the coastal cities of the northeastern United States, are literally constructed on land conjured from discards (Melosi 2020, pp. 33–37; Schlichting 2019; Seasholes 2003; Zimring and Corey 2021). Other cities are produced through complex negotiations around making, managing, and moving wastes (Davies 2008; Doherty 2021; Fredericks 2018; Melosi 2005, 2020; Millar 2018; Sicotte 2016). Just as critical geographers have demonstrated how the flows of capital constitute the uneven terrain of urbanization (Harvey 1985; Heynen, Kaika and Swyngedouw 2006), flows of materials and wastes make—physically and politically—the built and social terrain of the contemporary city.

In a global economy dependent on extraction and endless consumption, local management of waste not only determines the nature of space and social relations, but also ensures that the one-way flow of materials through the economy can continue (Pollans 2021). The ways that cities manage waste magnify the climate impacts of a consumption-driven economy and reinforce the uneven health and environmental impacts of production. Conventional municipal waste-management strategies—landfill and incineration—emit greenhouse gases and a host of toxins that unfairly impact those that consume the least (Bullard 1994; Dillon 2014; Pellow 2002; Watson and Bulkeley 2005). Cities that lack comprehensive formal disposal systems rely on unrecognized, sometimes criminalized, informal labor networks that increase risks and exposure for the most vulnerable residents, and reinforce political exclusion (Doherty 2021; Fredericks 2018; Millar 2018; Parizeau 2015; Stamatopoulou-Robbins 2019).

The pieces in this special series examine various ways in which waste produces urban space and urban society, and ways that local interventions are redefining waste and interrupting one-way material flows. Though waste is intimately tied to social hierarchies, marginality, and exclusion, the essays in this series remind us that spaces of waste are not necessarily abject. They are also spaces of innovation, production, dreams, possibility, and resistance. In Pittsburgh, Susan Ross finds a local organization that is transforming construction wastes into a creative medium for education, employment, and material reuse. In Baltimore, Nicole Fabricant spotlights youth activists who have transformed environmental-justice activism and municipal waste planning. Elise Mason reminds us of the intentionality of disposal in review of planned obsolescence, but also demonstrates its alternatives. Our review of Jacob Doherty’s Waste Worlds tracks ways formal and informal waste handling tracks with development, displacement, and world-making. We hope you’ll follow along with this series to explore these pieces—and more to come!

Articles in this series:

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  • Bullard, Robert D. 1994. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality, Boulder: Westview Press.
  • Davies, Anna. 2008. The Geographies of Garbage Governance: Interventions, Interactions, and Outcomes, Aldershot/Burlington: Ashgate.
  • Dillon, Lindsey. 2014. “Race, Waste, and Space: Brownfield Redevelopment and Environmental Justice at the Hunters Point Shipyard”, Antipode, vol. 46, no. 5, pp. 1205–1221 (first published online in 2013).
  • Doherty, Jacob. 2021. Waste Worlds: Inhabiting Kampala’s Infrastructures of Disposability, Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Fredericks, Rosalind. 2018. Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructures of Labor in Dakar, Senegal, Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Harvey, David. 1985. The Urbanization of Capital: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist Urbanization, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Heynen, Nik; Kaika, Maria; and Swyngedouw, Erik (eds.). 2006. In the Nature of Cities: Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism, London/New York: Routledge.
  • Melosi, Martin V. 2005. Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform, and the Environment (rev. ed.), Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Melosi, Martin V. 2020. Fresh Kills: A History of Consuming and Discarding in New York City, New York City: Columbia University Press.
  • Millar, Kathleen M. 2018. Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rio’s Garbage Dump (illus. ed.), Durham : Duke University Press.
  • Parizeau, Kate. 2015. “Urban Political Ecologies of Informal Recyclers׳ Health in Buenos Aires, Argentina”, Health & Place, vol. 33, pp. 67–74. DOI: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2015.02.007.
  • Pellow, David Naguib. 2002. Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago, Cambridge (Massachusetts): MIT Press.
  • Pollans, Lily Baum. 2021. Resisting Garbage, Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Schlichting, Kara Murphy. 2019. New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore (1st ed.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Seasholes, Nancy S. 2003. Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston, Cambridge (Massachusetts): MIT Press.
  • Sicotte, Diane. 2016. From Workshop to Waste Magnet: Environmental Inequality in the Philadelphia Region, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
  • Stamatopoulou-Robbins, Sophia. 2019. Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Watson, Matt and Bulkeley, Harriet. 2005. “Just Waste? Municipal Waste Management and the Politics of Environmental Justice”, Local Environment, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 411–426. DOI: 10.1080/13549830500160966.
  • Zimring, Carl A. and Corey, Stephen H. (eds.). 2021. Coastal Metropolis: Environmental Histories of Modern New York City, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

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Lily Baum Pollans, “Urban Wastes, Present and Future”, Metropolitics, 29 April 2022. URL :

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