On global waste and recycling flows

In the wealthy part of the Western world, we have come to think about recycling and resource reclamation as a something that is handled by anonymous technologies, more or less automatically, as long as we as consumers manage to put it in the right bin. Over at the always excellent The Atlantic, Adam Minter has been writing a series of posts called Wasted 7/7, which explores how much of the actual work of American recycling has been shipped abroad to Asia, where much of the labor is done by manual workers. This story can of course be told in many ways – for instance, one where the West ships its garbage to less developed parts of the world, which then have to struggle with pollution, health concerns, and labor inequalities and exploitation. And while there certainly is something to this interpretation (think, for instance of the stories of shipbreaking in India and Bangladesh), Minter wanted to draw our attention to another version of the story: “This is what happens when automobile-loving societies reach living standards so high that they can’t afford to take apart their old cars by hand anymore in order to recycle them.” Because of the surplus of cheap labor in parts of Asia, it is possible for scrap to get “recycled completely, providing a relatively clean alternative to mined, virgin materials,” and still be profitable (which is key to making business do anything green). Minter argues that China is “desperate to show environmental leadership” and that labor conditions actually are much better than one would think.

Chinese Metal Breaker. Photo from The Atlantic.

Minter tells an interesting story about how materials flow back and forth across the world. For instance, Minter notes that “recycled metal currently accounts for 25% of Chinese aluminum production, 40% of copper production, and 15% of steel production.” This gets shipped back to the US and elsewhere as part of new products. China’s scrap recycling industry has evolved into a “critical supplier of raw materials to respected manufacturers of iPhones, PCs, automobile engines, and other precision manufactured high-tech products.” In the end, Minter turns the exploitation story on its head:  “I simply can’t escape the feeling that the people being exploited are the Americans sending all that value to China.”

All in all, this is certainly worth reading. Minter is working on a book on the topic, which I am looking forward to seeing!

Here are links to all the posts in the series:

  1. The Motor Breakers of China
  2. The Plastics Shredders of China
  3. The Metal Shredders of Toyota
  4. The Metal Sorters of Shanghai
  5. The Metal Sorters North of Mumbai
  6. The Shipbreakers of China
  7. The Chinese Sample Room

Cans Recycled: The Visual Power of Invisible Things

Cans Recycled. Image used with kind permission of Jostein Skeidsvoll

This weekend I visited Lilla Galleriet in Umeå, where photographer Jostein Skeidsvoll opened his exhibit on “Cans Recycled: The Visual Power of Invisible Things”. I saw the advertisement in the newspaper and was intrigued by his description of how he was suddenly captured by the hidden beauty of a crushed beverage can. He had spent the last year taking pictures of crushed empty cans that he had found as litter. I met Jostein at the gallery and it turned out that he was a fellow Norwegian! So we had a long and interesting conversation in Norwegian about beverage container recycling, garbage as art, and on being a Norwegian in Sweden. I bought a print of the picture above – the colors are much more vibrant in the real print. I liked the colors and composition of this particular picture, and also that it was the only one of his pictures where you could see the “Pant” or deposit symbol, indicating that if the can’s original consumer had returned it in a reverse vending machine, he or she would have gotten a 50 öre deposit back and the can would have been recycled to get new life, most likely as a new can. But instead, the can became trash until Jostein saw its beauty and turned it into art. There are many ways to appreciate trash!

Postdoc in history of science, technology, and/or environment

The Faculty of Humanities at Umeå University just advertised four 2-year postdoctoral positions within the faculty’s strong research areas. I work for one of these areas – Umeå Studies in Science, Technology, and Environment – and would like to encourage potential candidates with a background in history of science, technology, and/or environment to apply for these positions.

The job advertisement is unfortunately only available in Swedish at the moment, which is somewhat unfortunate and does not really reflect the strong international character of many of the strong research areas at the faculty. I have provided a rough translation of the essentials below – I’m sure an official translation will follow in not too long. Let me repeat: this is not in any way an official translation, so please refer to the university’s website for this.

  • The Faculty of Humanities are hiring four postdocs as part of a strategic development program for the humanities.
  • To qualify, you need to have defended your PhD no more than three years before the deadline and not have been a postdoc or “forskerassistent” (a Swedish academic position) before.
  • Your application need to include a complete CV, a list of publications, and a 5-8 page research plan.
  • For official information about the history of science, technology, and environment position, contact my colleague Jenny Eklöf, jenny.eklof@idehist.umu.se, tel +46 (0)90-786 54 56 (see the official announcement if you are interested in any of the other strong research areas – you need to indicate in the application which of the six areas you apply for).

Umeå Studies in Science, Technology, and Environment is a dynamic and internationally oriented research group that is very interested in recruiting more postdocs. The core group includes six tenured or tenure-track faculty members and several postdocs and PhD students. We run several large research projects with external funding and are actively seeking new and interesting research partners and projects. We also have a bi-weekly research seminar and guest lecture series. Feel free to contact me or any of my colleagues to discuss potential ideas!

The university has a very good digital humanities lab (HUMlab) with which we have a very good relationship, and I would be particularly excited to see someone combine digital humanities and history of science, technology, and environment for a postdoctoral project.

I can also point out that Umeå is not a bad place to be a postdoc – in 2010, Umeå University was ranked the 4th best workplace outside the US for postdocs by The Scientist. This was for the life sciences, though many of the same reasons apply for the humanities as well.

The original announcement text can be found here: http://www8.umu.se/umu/aktuellt/arkiv/lediga_tjanster/315-127-11.html

Technological infrastructures, green energy, and consumer choices

Last night David Roberts (@drgrist) tweeted “We think of solar, wind, & geothermal as power generation. Instead we should think of them as energy infrastructure. Discuss.” Even though this was right before my bedtime, I replied that “As a historian of tech & environment, I would say that we should think of all energy in terms of infrastructure of prod. and use.” He followed up by asking “What would that mean in terms of policy?” While I made an attempt to reply on Twitter this morning, I think I need to write something more extensive to come up with a proper answer.

Historians of technology have done much excellent work on energy infrastructures and technological change, notably Thomas P. Hughes, but I would also like to mention Arne Kaijser (professor at Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology and former president of the Society for the History of Technology). We can learn much from the studies that have been done in this field

First, solar, wind, and geothermal energy can’t be discussed as if they were freestanding energy sources; we need to see them as alternatives to an established and entrenched energy system. Such systems do not change without resistance – political, cultural, material, or organizational. Hughes calls this momentum, we can also call it a combination of vested interests and the obduracy of the built environment. Fossil fuels are extremely entrenched, which is why it is so hard to transition to renewable energy sources. This not just due to ill will from the oil companies’ side. Past energy choices are built into our everyday lives, our cities, our transport infrastructure – everything. Changing the energy infrastructure of a city – a nation of cities – is no small task. Alexis Madrigal argued something along the same lines a few weeks ago, when he said that “your city – pretty much wherever it is – was built for a climate that it may no longer have.” “Cities will have to get less efficient and more resilient. Redundancies will have to be built into systems that previously seemed to work just fine. This is how climate change will cost us all money.” Green energy infrastructures should certainly be part of this discussion.

Second, we need to think of energy not just in terms of production (though it certainly matters) but also of consumption, of the actual situations where consumers, corporations, and others make their specific energy choices. This is also a mode of analysis that comes from the history of technology. Ruth Schwartz Cowan called this the consumption junction, “the place and time at which the consumer makes choices between competing technologies.” From this point of view it is possible to see all the different factors that influence consumer choice at specific points in time. (Cowan, 263)

I have thought much about this in writing my own book on the infrastructure of beverage container recycling – one of the most common environmentalist actions people do in the Western world. In other words, how can our understanding of technological change help us understand – and support – environmental actions?

Just like energy, the choice to recycle should not be understood simply as an individual action, but needs to be seen as part of a larger socio-technical infrastructure. People will generally not recycle when it is inconvenient and where the effect is hard to see. Why recycle an empty bottle when there is no deposit and the recycling station is in an out-of-the-way location? Some people have enough ideological motivation to do so, but the recycling rate is never very high in such systems. Other places, however, where most beverage containers carry a deposit and are returned at the point of purchase, in reverse vending machines in grocery stores, reach extremely high recycling rates (90-99%, depending on material type, in Norway and Sweden).

So to come back to Cowan’s point and look at the consumption junction: Why choose green energy if it is more difficult and more expensive? Why drive an electric car if you can’t find charging stations when you need it? When you’re just trying to get through the day, getting the kids to and from daycare, through the daily commute, going to the grocery store, in the famous “time squeeze“, why should you (or how can you possibly) go out of your way to be green? Offering environmentally friendly products, services, and infrastructures for such situations should be a great business opportunity. And policy should support it in any possible way.

Cowan, Ruth Schwarz, “The Consumption Junction: A Proposal for Research Strategies in the Sociology of Technology” in Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor J. Pinch. The Social Construction of Technological Systems. New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987), 261-280.

Hughes, Thomas P, Networks of Power. Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983)

Jørgensen, Finn Arne, Making a Green Machine. The Infrastructure of Beverage Container Recycling (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011)

My book is now on Amazon!

Reworking my dissertation into a real book, published with a real, international university press, has been a long and sometimes frustrating process, but it is very satisfying to pass all the little milestones leading up to the actual publication. Today I discovered that the book is now listed on Amazon, so it is possible to preorder it here: Making a Green Machine: The Infrastructure of Beverage Container Recycling (I will get a referral bonus if you purchase it through this link!)

One step closer, in other words… The actual publication date is June 20, 2011 – hopefully everything will proceed on schedule. I still need to go through the final page proofs and make an index, which should happen not too long after the new year.