New article in Contemporary European History

I have a new article out in Contemporary European History – this is a theme issue on “Recycling and Reuse in the Twentieth Century” edited by Heike Weber and Ruth Oldenziel. My article has the rather long title “Green Citizenship at the Recycling Junction: Consumers and Infrastructures for the Recycling of Packaging in Twentieth-Century Norway.”

Here’s the abstract in English, French, and German!

Read more

A new The Atlantic piece!


I wrote another article for The Atlantic this week, on the historical background of the New York bottle deposit, and of course based on my book. I used the Academy Award nominated documentary short Redemption as my starting point here – see the trailer below. It didn’t take long to get the article published this time – I discovered the documentary on Saturday, wrote up the text in the mornings in San Francisco and at Stanford (while still sick), and sent it in.

Read more

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!

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.