Approaching Waste through Environmental History: An Interview with Thomas Le Roux

This is part of our special feature, Confronting Waste.

Translated from the French by Hélène B. Ducros.

On my way to interviewing Dr. Thomas Le Roux in his office in the recently renovated Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris, I can’t help but take notice of the trash. Collective bins outside buildings—yellow ones and green ones—clothes collectors, evacuation street gutters, neighborhood glass containers, sewer drains, transparent green bags posing as public trashcans, heavy sacks of accumulated construction debris, stacked branches in a public garden, cigarette butts, Métro tickets and café paper napkins on sidewalks, and many other traces of unidentified detritus.

It suddenly strikes me how much of public space is encumbered with waste and how much of urban life is organized around the removal of excess matter. Where does it come from, where does it go, what are the implications? Thomas Le Roux explains how environmental history provides a better understanding of current trash debates, offering solutions based on how past societies circulated matter (or not) and their changing attitudes towards different types of waste as production technologies and consumption patterns co-evolved. In discussing waste and its management historically, he addresses the role of progress, markets, regulations, circularity, paradigm shifts and inequality to enable a glimpse into possible answers to the mounting problem of trash in contemporary globalized societies.

—Hélène B. Ducros for EuropeNow

EuropeNow How did you become an environmental historian and how did that bring you to waste?

Thomas Le Roux I am a historian of the environment, but my initial training was in economic history. It also included a geographic approach. Within that framework, I studied the history of Paris, examining its economic development and the associated nuisances caused in the urban environment. My dissertation addressed the history of pollutions in Paris between 1770 and 1830, and more precisely, the history of nuisances, which is a little different. This specific chronology is important because it is in 1810 that France passed a law on industrial pollutions—the first of its kind in the world. There had been regulations in various other countries before, but only at the municipal, regional, or corporation levels, whereas this was a national law. As much of the work around this law took place in Paris, it is Paris’ industrial and environmental contexts that shaped it. I then extended my area of research chronologically to the long eighteenth century and geographically to Great Britain, where I conducted fieldwork looking at the notion of industrial risk more generally. All these lines of inquiry led me to engage in the history of the environment.  I am now part of the environmental history group in France at the Centre de Recherches Historiques (within the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS)—the largest group of historians in France working on these issues. This background brought me to the question of waste, recycling, and material flows

EuropeNow Why is environmental history important in the present moment? What can historicizing ecology accomplish?

Thomas Le Roux There are two ways to approach environmental history. From the point of view of historians, this field enriches the analysis by proposing a new lens through which to ask new questions, for example, in urban or rural history, or the history of representations, or even legal and administrative history. The environmental gaze also deepens historical knowledge because sometimes it leads to unexpected results. For instance, at first, I did not expect that my research on the history of pollutions would highlight the great extent to which environmental questions were present in the eighteenth century and even earlier. There were already then solid environmental regulations, despite the fact that at the time we didn’t know much. Only recently have historians started addressing these questions (ten to fifteen years in France, a little longer in the US). The environment gives historians a new vision of the past, especially around the central question of the Ancien Régime, challenging an ancient historiography focused on the Révolution as a new political era.

Environmental history is also important to understand the world we live in because it shows that our relation with the environment is not merely a contemporary emergence. History allows us to see successive occurrences of environmental awareness, including in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, along with cycles of pushback against the environmental question, such as in the nineteenth century. This is not to say that no one spoke of the environment in the nineteenth century, but those questions were widely ignored or were denigrated. Environmental history allows us to distance ourselves from contemporary debates and to deconstruct categories (for example, environment, ecology, environmental policy vs. social policy). These concepts can be examined through many examples from the past and past choices made, allowing us to show that we too have choices and that everything is not unavoidable. It reinforces that history is not teleologically leading to an environment that can only be increasingly and unavoidably contaminated. Environmental history demonstrates that certain societies in certain parts of the world have made certain environmental policy choices with specific resulting outcomes.

EuropeNow When do societies start thinking about waste?  

Thomas Le Roux Societies have always thought about waste. I would say even more so in the past than today. Until the nineteenth century, pollutions had a strong moral and religious meaning. They equated to soiling, even desecrating. They stood as part of human societies’ great anthropological taboos, contaminating milieus such as rivers, wells, or the air people breathed. They represented a danger for local societies’ equilibrium, especially since these societies were vulnerable and unable to obtain key resources from elsewhere, such as water. Therefore, the question of waste was extremely important in past societies.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a change occurred: we started accepting some forms of pollution. Today, the scale of waste issues is such that waste is again a worry, but whether in Antiquity, the Middle Ages, or the modern era, there were already stringent regulations against pollutions. Since Hippocrates, people had generally thought that the milieu—the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil we live on—was source of diseases.  It was conceived that the milieu, with its vapors, odors, or humidity, penetrated our porous bodies. In neo-Hippocratic medicine, with the eighteenth-century miasma theory for example, people assumed that smells were vectors of contamination and that the air they breathed should be pure or else they would get ill. Since refuses often smelled bad, they were feared as potential sources of disease, much more than today, notably organic vegetal or animal wastes, which constituted the majority of waste products before the nineteenth century. At that time, scientists rightfully advanced that a decaying body from which a smell emanates is in fact not source of disease. So, people became less afraid of waste, whether solid, liquid, or atmospheric, and could then let it accumulate, for example, in pits. In Europe, until the 1800s, it was completely prohibited to dump waste into rivers. This would change during the nineteenth century. It became prohibited again in the twentieth century in various ways. In the US, regulations were based on British regulations, appearing at about the same time. In Asia, the paradigmatic change occurred a bit later, between 1850 and 1890. But roughly, from the nineteenth century on, people have been much less afraid of foul smells.

EuropeNow Why is an environmental history also a social history?

Thomas Le Roux There are differences between an environmental history and a history of the environment. We don’t investigate the history of nature without humans. Instead, we study the co-evolution of nature and humans, knowing that what we call nature is constituted by ecosystems that have already been shaped by humans, but also by animals, plants, air, and water flows. We study the history of societies in environments that other actors also influence. How are societies shaped in any given environment? Waste structures social science for several reasons. First, waste conditions many economic systems. Companies must take into account in their social, economic, or financial organization the wastes they produce. They may have to pay for waste nuisance. Secondly, waste influences social organizations because the geography of waste is linked to population geography. Throughout history, the poorest have always been the most affected by waste. This is true from the earliest medieval waste dumps located in poor areas to today’s legal and illegal global waste trade that shows that “final” waste (waste that cannot be used in any way) ends up in poor countries. Waste shapes social relations because pollutions and risks are unequally distributed across the globe. Environmental history highlights these social dynamics, linking them to other classic topics in social history like income, property, or life expectancy. We also recognize that non-humans are actors of history. For example, in France, coal transformed many social relations through its materiality and what humans have made of it, substituting one combustible with another. 

EuropeNow What is the role of “modernity” or “progress” in the history of waste?

Thomas Le Roux This is a complex question. We tend to think that modernity and progress allow us to resolve issues of waste through technology, increased efficiency, and better knowledge of recycling chains. In parallel, as we move forward in technological progress, the more waste there is. In France, the modern era starts with the Renaissance. We also speak of industrial modernity or economic modernity. Modernity means change. Any era considers itself modern, so modernity is a difficult concept. Generally, its role in the history of waste comes through the sustained paradox that we are increasingly knowledgeable, intelligent, and reflective about our actions—leading us to improved means for solution-finding—yet, waste levels increase, as does the nature of the problems they cause. Plastic comes out of modernity and progress, bringing a number of advances for the production of goods, and simultaneously becoming a source of waste, one of our most insoluble problems. Ultimately, although the opposite might seem true, progress makes the waste question unsolvable. Historians attempt to understand this paradox, debunking the idea that more technology solves the waste question, recycling being a case in point.

EuropeNow What are the main kinds of refuses emerging in previous centuries? What wastes are connected to industrialization?

Thomas Le Roux Industrialization changed the nature of waste in fundamental ways (as well as its geography), greatly complicating waste management. When speaking of industrialization, I include production and consumption. Until the mid-eighteenth century, our economy was essentially organic, using simple production processes and non-composite goods. Alloys existed, but a wool blanket, for example, was a simple object, containing only wool. Waste types resulting from simple production are relatively few, non-composite, easily degradable, and tend to be distributed equally across local populations, with variations according to population density. Industrialization disrupts this because of increased volumes, increased variation in product typology and complexity (with much more content amalgams), a polarization of waste in certain zones—whether production or consumption sites—corresponding to the polarization of urbanization, and the emergence of transport networks around mining regions. It’s difficult to speak generally of “industrialization” because it went through several phases, changing in nature over the last two hundred years. In the first wave, chemical wastes from acid and lye production caused the most problems, and later on, metalworks residues. After 1860, a new phase begins, with synthetic products and the carbo-chemical industry. Dyes brought different types of wastes. Until then, in the textile or paint sectors, dyes had been essentially plant-based (sometimes with metallic pigments). Milieus self-purified. Synthetic dyes come from carbo-chemistry when coal is distilled to extract coloring matter. These products no longer self-purify. Synthetic molecules remain in, slowly transform, and contaminate milieus. This is also the time another new cycle of production emerges with electricity, bringing yet another spike in material waste. The twentieth century constitutes a new phase. First, synthetic molecules become linked to agriculture. Pesticides and fertilizers become a form of waste after several decades of use. Secondly, and most importantly, the development of the plastic industry started in 1911, with Bakelite, the first plastic produced in laboratory. By 1930, the automobile industry uses plastics in car components. After 1945, the plastic boom completely changes the waste question. Today, plastic waste has become the main issue in the waste debate.

Responses to waste also change across time. Until the 1800s, there were strict regulations concerning waste and everything was more or less reused. Final waste was scarce and was generally buried in scrap heaps and landfills. That became problematic as cities expanded and got closer to waste dumps. However, the problem had not reached the scale that it later would. After the 1800s in Europe and the United States (later in Asia), it became acceptable to reject any trash into oceans and rivers and smokes into the atmosphere. During at least one century, most scientists and engineers deemed that rivers had the capacity for dilution and self-purification. Urban history provides examples of littoral societies in England, France, and the United States that, at the beginning of the petroleum industry, discarded of a good portion of their wastes into the ocean, for example in New York.

Some eventually realized that it caused problems. In the Rhine, the most important river in Western Europe, fish were dying because of chemical dye industries rejecting their wastes there. That led to a second type of responses for certain rivers. In the last third of the nineteenth century, regulations emerged that prohibited waste dumping into a number of rivers because their ecosystems were destroyed. People returned to using landfills. By the end of the nineteenth century, incineration was also pushed forward. Incineration had rarely occurred in the eighteenth century, reserved mostly for plant-based waste, which was abundant, in the tobacco industry for example. Incineration became more frequent in the late nineteenth century in connection to the advent of electricity. People realized that they could burn trash, like they did coal, to feed the turbines to produce electricity. Incinerators were first installed in England, then the US from the 1880s. People stopped rejecting waste into oceans and rivers, favoring incinerators and landfills instead. This dual mode of waste disposal became quite regulated, with complete interdiction against dumping in water bodies, although many, like today, did it anyway.

To these responses can be added recent solutions to the question of storing hazardous waste stemming from nuclear or chemical industries. Those are toxic products with long decontamination periods. Since the 1980s we have mostly buried them. Burial sites are akin to landfills but deep—600 meters in depth in France in the Bure project for nuclear waste disposal (Meuse). Presently, nuclear waste is conditioned on the surface or at shallow depth and covered with a clay slab or buried in pits only 10-20 meters deep, and monitored until it can be stored elsewhere. There are several sites in France. In Germany, nuclear waste is treated at 700 meters deep. La Hague (Normandy, France) is a case of recycling internal to the filière. It is one of the most important sites in the world where nuclear waste gets treated to become a new nuclear combustible. This case has its own problems; and it only concerns one part of radioactive nuclear waste. Moreover, there are several levels of radioactivity, each with its own shelf life depending on isotopes, etc. It is very complex. Responses to the issue of waste have thus been different in history depending on the type of waste.

EuropeNow Were there markets for waste in past centuries?

Thomas Le Roux Pre-1800, there were very few final wastes and they were buried. Others emerging out of various activities were valorized to be used one way or another. An activity’s waste products became raw materials for another. For instance, wood ashes were sold to the laundry sector. Before industrialization ashes were the main type of waste, representing one third of the total weight of trash in urban economies globally. Human waste -like excrements were also sold. Farmers bought, collected, and transported them to fertilize soils. There were valorization chains, but with time the proportion of final waste grew because materials became increasingly composite and difficult to reuse. Chemical wastes can rarely be reused in another industry. Recycling chains were set up as early as the nineteenth century. Throughout history, industries have tried to valorize waste because there is a cost to waste. Even pre-1850, there were specialized businesses that collected waste to valorize or transport it to landfills. An interesting movement emerges when all waste valorization activities are taken over by the collective, in Europe and the US. This greatly raises operating costs for cities. In some countries private enterprises are preferred.

EuropeNow Were the post-1830 regulations you mention aimed at individuals, localities, or businesses?

Thomas Le Roux Different things happened. In Marseille, for example, most of the trash thrown into the sea was industrial waste, but individuals participated too. There were many soap factories that required large amounts of raw materials and produced large quantities of waste. When soap production started using mineral over plant-based lye (artificial soda), it yielded large tonnages of waste and the milieu could no longer self-purify. The fundamental shift occurred in the 1800s. Industrial soap-makers bought boats on which they loaded waste to dispose of it 300 meters from the coast. With the authorization of local authorities, they also used it as backfill for embankment. The piers of Marseille’s port were built on the backfill of the soap industries’ waste. In the metalwork industry in Middlesbrough near York, a colleague in the UK also showed how waste was thrown out to sea, allowing the construction of jetties extending the natural coastline by several hundred meters out. The port of Middlesbrough was built on industrial waste. We can also think of Tokyo today. In many coastal cities, airports were built on trash. As filler, it creates a support that is then covered with concrete.  Still, there was much illegal maritime dumping until the twentieth century, in spite of strong policies and controls.

EuropeNow What is the relationship between urbanization and waste, as trash but also as wastefulness? In this context, can you further explain the concept of nineteenth century metabolic rift and why it is important to take into account?

Thomas Le Roux The metabolic rift has been highlighted by several historians. Economists like Marx had already noted it, or chemists like Liebig, while it was happening between 1850 and 1880 in Europe. Basically, until 1850 the city absorbs the production of the countryside to feed itself or get materials for building or clothing. Waste products are then reused by the city or the countryside in the form of fertilizer. For example, human excrements, a final form of waste that is not linked to industry, are reused massively to fertilize soils (with variations depending on which city and the type of agriculture). Manure, sludge, accumulated dusts and sweepings, or anything that ended up in the streets was used in fields as fertilizer. Matter circulated. Metabolism relates to digestion. The city digested something, discarded it, and the countryside absorbed it. That was the pattern, with local variations. But, it was not quite complete because there remained garbage dumps for certain final wastes. For example, what to do with oyster shells? They were not reused.

The metabolic rift of the nineteenth century represents the interruption in material circulation. The chain is broken. The city now absorbs and digests materials from the countryside, but does not reject them back to it, instead throwing them away in rivers and trash dumps, or burning them. This rift would accentuate in the twentieth century since today we don’t restitute any of the city’s materials to the countryside anymore and we get fertilizers from the chemical industry.

From the 1850s onwards with the metabolic rift and urbanization, it got harder to organize trash flows. Incoming flows remained organized because they were vital, but outgoing ones were disorganized because of cities’ growth, which complicated trash management. That’s the time when people find it practical to discard everything in rivers. Moreover, although manure was still used, agriculture started using other types of fertilizers, such as mineral or fossil organic fertilizers. During that time of rupture, European agriculture used nitrogen-rich guano coming from birds’ feces that had accumulated in thick layers in Chile. Guano was mined and transported to Europe by hundreds of thousands of tons in order to fertilize fields. It was a massive commerce substituting for natural organic waste that had been used until then. Additionally, with the appearance of toilet flush that evacuated everything in sewers and rivers, human excrements were no longer collected in reservoirs nor redistributed to farmers. Agriculture needs nitrogen, so without this source it started massively using other fertilizers: guano or mineral sodium nitrate, both traveling from Latin America.

EuropeNow Is organic agriculture precisely about solving the metabolic rift?

Thomas Le Roux That’s the idea. It’s about resetting the material cycle, for example with urban composting. The metabolic approach is an analysis of material flows. The logic of composting is to reinstitute this circuitry, but we can only but notice that it remains marginal. In Oxford, where I lived, there is municipal composting and lots of parks and gardens where they can use compost. Collection bins are attended to by the municipality. I don’t see this happening in France, although there are projects in some areas. Paradoxically, countries with the most aggressive techniques in terms of production and consumption are those that implement composting. Agriculture in England has been extremely intensive in chemical use and that is where the metabolic rift happened the fastest. It’s one way to explain why it’s also in England that the most assertive forms of composting have been implemented.  

EuropeNow Historically, who have been the actors involved in waste management? What ancient trades may have been tied to waste management?

Thomas Le Roux When it comes to waste management, public services are the main actors usually responsible because wastes affect public spaces and the commons, whether landfills, streets or rivers. Industries are actors too when they seek to valorize waste to minimize cost. There are also engineers who specialize in questions of recycling starting in the nineteenth century when it becomes a technique rather than a social habit. In the twentieth century, the media and militant organizations could also be identified as actors. We can also point to the garbage can that appeared because people were no longer reusing things. It was seen as progress, but rather than signifying better hygiene, it shows that the share of final waste was growing. In France the trash bin appears in 1884 (in French poubelle, the name of the Préfet who implemented it), but it’s a Europe-wide urban movement.

Ragpickers were affected by the metabolic rift, at the completion of which they disappeared because they no longer had any social utility. They were in charge of collecting a certain amount of waste, sort it and sell it. They picked up old clothes that were used to make paper pulp. Paper was linked to textile until wood-based paper came about in the nineteenth century. They also collected glass that was sold to be melted, as well as metals, which had the most potential for monetary value. In the economies of precarity of the Ancien Régime, the minutest item had value. When societies became richer and people had more income, waste lost value and became insignificant. The metabolic rift is the moment in which people start loosely throwing away more and more things. This is linked to the birth of the consumer society. Historically, the link exists between increasing wealth and increasing waste. If we can buy something else, waste has no value. The problem of contemporary societies is that they have money to buy new things while in the past poor people would manage to repair or reuse, thus staying in the same economic network. The ragpickers’ demise led to the emergence of new activities connected to the valorization of waste products, from collection to destruction or incineration, the latter partaking in the same movement as the poubelle.

EuropeNow Historically, when do the most important paradigm shifts about waste emerge?

Thomas Le Roux Paradigm shifts are based on changes in the nature of waste products. Several shifts can be identified, although one moment does not necessarily replace another completely. The first paradigm shift comes about in the 1800s in Europe, when it becomes acceptable to discard waste in the environment based on the belief that water circulates and dilutes it. This is also the time when most scientists stop considering foul smells as sources of disease and waste as dangerous. The second shift is the metabolic rift, with the end of daily recycling and the acceptance of final waste products to be landfilled or burned. In the twentieth century, we note technical obsolescence and the emergence of disposable goods and the consumer society in 1930s in the US, where the first theory on waste and obsolescence arose. Then, the irruption of plastics brings us to a new moment. But I don’t know if it can be called a new paradigm or it simply involves a question of waste management. The products that are disseminated are now much more composite and take longer to self-purify (with final nuclear waste having the longest temporality). Today, we are still in the 1800s paradigm that sees technical progress as a solution. We stick to the narrative of industrialization that has its sources in the first wave of industrialization and the first paradigm shift. Sure, recycling technologies are being organized and we try to attend to ecosystems, but it’s marginal. In the case of global warming, we have not managed to reduce greenhouse gases emissions, even though we have been speaking about it for thirty years. Many interesting local micro-experiments are taking place, but the system has not changed yet.

EuropeNow When and why did waste and pollution become major national political issues rather than local nuisance problems? What brought about the change in scale?

Thomas Le Roux The change in scale was gradual, linked to industrialization processes, and dependent on the nature of waste materials. In France, waste became a national affair and a political issue with the 1810 law, a sovereign act of Napoleon’s central executive power applicable to the entire territory. It resulted from many conflicts about smokes and gases being rejected everywhere. In many countries the question of waste became a national issue with the metabolic rift at the end of the nineteenth century when incineration started—which is also linked to electricity—and waste was still ending up in water bodies. In the twentieth century, the change in scale related to the increasing volume of waste and the realization that waste did not have borders anymore. Multinational and international regulations replaced national laws in Europe and beyond. In 1975, the London Convention took effect to prohibit waste dumping in the ocean. Many more international regulations have emerged. Today, waste trading is also very controlled, especially for toxic wastes.

The move from local nuisances to a general phenomenon mirrored how we have apprehended waste. Local nuisances have social implications for communities and, since responsibility can be attributed, a social solution is found, sometimes through regulations so that societies return to equilibrium. When we scale-shift, the nature of responses also changes. We reach techno-economic solutions rather than social ones because it is much harder to impute responsibility when it’s diluted.  Solutions are found in the market, the price of materials, regulations, or chemico-physical and technical norms, but no longer in society. This change is not neutral economically nor socially because it also means the birth of the scientific expert who dispossesses citizens of their expertise. At the global or multi-continental scale, local and identifiable actors who know each other and can intervene are replaced by scientific experts.

EuropeNow What is the “circular economy?” When do we start explicitly conceptualizing it? Is it a solution in the context of twenty-first century consumption habits?

Thomas Le Roux People start speaking explicitly of circular economy quite early. I found traces of it as early as 1800-1820 when chemists theorize about material flows and the chemical industry sells its residues to other industries. Early considerations, such as those of the chemist and statesman Chaptal, held that before chemistry, matter was lost. However, this was not the case. Matter still contributed to the economy since new chemistry allowed for its revalorization (ammonia, for example).  By highlighting the new role of chemistry in reshaping industrial processes, Chaptal criticized its previous non-commercial uses. Afterwards, technicians and engineers revived the desire to reuse discarded matter through industrial technology. In 1926, the word “recycle” surfaces in England with the meaning we know today. The word arrives in France in the 50s-60s. When using the word, we also conceptualize the phenomenon. Paradoxically, the more waste we have, the more we conceptualize recycling.

The circular economy can function if we reduce the share of compound products. Only 20 percent of plastic types are recyclable, while 80 percent are so composite that we cannot separate molecules once assembled. A tire contains rubber—an already complex molecule—but also metals, sulfur, and chemical substances. So, like many other complex products, tires are very hard to recycle. Recycling is so expensive that, even when possible, in the current economy it’s a false solution unless we revisit our modes of production. History casts light on recycling, showing that it works when materials are simple and that in today’s production framework it doesn’t function. Also, parts are getting so small that too much labor, time and advanced technologies are necessary to separate and salvage complex metal alloys to get pure metals again.  Before, with bronze it was simple; we used acid to separate copper and tin. Nowadays, there are so many different metals in a smart phone or a computer that even if recycling is possible, at what cost? For glass and paper, it works well, but at the cost of new residues, wastes and pollutions. Recycling paper requires complex operations to remove acids and chlorine, also demanding energy and water. Recycling is not a neutral activity. It remains a partial answer that doesn’t solve the general problem. 

EuropeNow What is wastefulness? Could you comment on the link between consumption and waste?

Thomas Le Roux I am working on wastefulness at the moment, interrogating when the notion arose and its development up to the 1940s. The concept appeared at the end of the nineteenth century and was first theorized starting in the 1930s in the US, essentially in relation to disposable goods. With the beginning of the metabolic rift, people saw that trash that could have been reused ended up in nature. People and companies got too rich to reuse. The cycle broke. They preferred buying pure products anew. Wastefulness emerges out of material obsolescence (whether programmed or not). It holds moral value with powerful social implications, because it’s linked to the 1930s crisis in the US where overproduction paralleled great poverty. Food stocks were destroyed while people were hungry. Wastefulness links to the consumer society, advertisement, the throwaway mentality, the superfluous, and the idea that we can consume things we don’t need.

EuropeNow Do you think that the new concept of the Anthropocene is a useful approach and label for your work and that it advances the waste question?

Thomas Le Roux For environmental history, the concept is essential, and even more so for the history of wastes and pollutions. It concerns the relations between humans and their milieu and interrogates how humans create a new geological era. One way to define the Anthropocene is to examine wastes accumulated by sedimentation, such as radionuclides that have been dispersed in the atmosphere and have landed everywhere. Micro-particles stemming from plastic wastes accumulate everywhere on oceanic floors, so that almost all marine living species contain plastic. After they die, they sediment into a new geological layer. Humans drive this.

The notion has been under attack in social science, accused of re-naturalizing evolution by ignoring social dynamics. For me, it enriches debates, allowing a repositioning of social relations within a system that is not simply made of social relations (human societies relating to one another), but that instead must be understood in an environment where there are non-humans. Humans have always influenced their environment, but animals and plants have too, autonomously. There are a few important landmarks: the use of fossil combustibles, the different shifts we talked about—coal (roughly 1800) and petroleum (roughly 1900). The Anthropocene allows us to trace the history of wastes: the first metabolic rift, plastics, radionuclides, and different forms of waste that appear at different times. It could have started in the Neolithic, as some assert, or Antiquity, or with the first cities, or in 1780, or 1950… All periods’ specialists are right because these are successive stages and it’s a question of impact, which is difficult to measure. Surely the beginning of agriculture had a great impact on the planet, but it was slower than the impact of industrialization. I think it advances our topic because it allows us to ask different questions. 

EuropeNow In your opinion, are we truly seeking global solutions or simply moving the problem around, for example, towards the global South? How is environmental history also a history of social (in)justice reflecting a global geography of inequalities before pollutions and wastes?

Thomas Le Roux Wastes have always had social implications, which have intensified with the polarization of activities and flows. Until industrialization all human communities had been concerned with wastes in ways that depended on population density. Today, the impact on lives is different. Wastes create more issues in poor countries because overall they lack the means to collect or recycle. In those places, wastes are dispersed in nature, contaminating milieus like rivers. In Asia, many rivers are cluttered with trash. Trading waste is legal, although extremely regulated. In certain sectors, wastes cannot be traded and instead must be treated in the country of production. There is a new global metabolism for wastes: poor countries produce for rich countries that produce wastes, which get back to poor countries for treatment. When risks are redistributed, it creates inequalities in places where wastes land. Nuancing this argument, it must be realized that wastes come back to us in a boomerang effect. Oceans are the main problem of the twenty-first century; it touches everyone and especially rich countries where people consume fish. Many populations that had gotten rid of their wastes get them back in other ways. So, even if there is a differentiated geography of waste translating environmental injustice, the damages are broad-ranging. Global warming is another example. It affects everyone at various levels, although the most vulnerable populations are the most touched by atmospheric emissions (if we consider smokes as wastes). But, even though there is a global dynamics, waste circulation remains differentiated. The richest countries and richest populations within them can always distance themselves from wastes.

Nuclear waste is specific in its regulation and lifespan. No one has solutions for plastic wastes. Electronic wastes are worrisome because there is such a dissemination. Electronic cells are everywhere all the time in all aspects of life: cars, telephones, computers, even in supermarkets for price display. It’s akin to lead in nineteenth century paint, with saturnism problems everywhere. Touching electronic materials does not contaminate us, but these compounds wind up somewhere in a global dissemination pattern.

Today, not only is the problem moved in great part to the global South, but it is apprehended in ways that don’t call the economic system into question, even though it is clear that the problem stems from production, consumption, the types of products consumed, and the lack of possibilities for recycling materials like plastics. History shows that within our economic framework there is no solution. Already one-hundred and fifty years ago, when oceans were not even as contaminated as today, people worried about wastes and counted on technology to find solutions, for example in recycling technology, but in reality it is the product of technology that has resulted in the general situation of massive air and water pollution.

In France, it appears that trash tonnage is stagnating or slightly decreasing, maybe due to less packaging compared to five or ten years ago. Globally, that trend is linked to particular populations, essentially European, as world tonnage increases yearly. As with greenhouse gases, we have long claimed that we would take measures, but nothing much has happened. We could consume differently. Some households are attentive, still consuming as much but managing to reduce waste, sometimes to “zero-waste” extremes. Often sacrificing socially, they show that it is possible and that filières can be organized differently. We used to get milk in returnable bottles; now illogically we throw bottles away. If industries were legally bound to produce in returnable packaging, and people got a small return every time they brought back a bottle, production chains would be reassessed. It is technically possible. There are no reasons why the human genius can’t make it happen. Instead, individuals are made to bear the burden of waste reduction at the cost of sacrifices and daily complications. We managed well before without packaging. Today, when I present my own boxes to caterers, they gripe about having to weigh them so I only pay for the content, and people in line fuss. If bringing our own containers were compulsory, obstacles would be fewer. It’s a constraint, but only a question of organization.

Thomas Le Roux is a researcher at the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) and he is currently appointed at the Centre de Recherches Historiques (within the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Social (EHESS)), of which he is the director. His works deals with the impact of early industrialization on the environment from 1700 to 1850, focusing on pollution, nuisance, risk and occupational health. His publications include Le laboratoire des pollutions industrielles. Paris, 1770-1830, Paris, Albin Michel, 2011; La contamination du monde. Une histoire des pollutions à l’âge industriel, Paris, Le Seuil, 2017 (with François Jarrige); Recycling: The Industrial City and Its Surrounding Countryside, 1750-1940, Journal of the History of Environment and Society, n° 2, 2017, p. 1-24 (with Laurent Herment); Chemistry and Industrial and Environmental Governance in France, 1770-1830, History of Science, vol. 54, n° 2, 2016, p. 195-222.

Hélène B. Ducros is Chair of Research and Pedagogy at EuropeNow. She holds a JD (Law) and PhD in human geography from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Looking at cultural landscapes historically, she has been interested in wastes and vestiges as cultural objects and traces left behind. Through her travels around the world, she has been fascinated by creative reuse, recycling, upcycling, whether functional or artistic, and is interested in people’s inventiveness at giving materials renewed meanings. At UNC-Wilmington, she created and designed the interdisciplinary course on “Global Garbage, Trash, and Solid Waste.”

Published on May 7, 2019.


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