The Ethics of Waste: How We Relate to Rubbish by Gay Hawkins

Reviewed by Kim Humphery

© all rights reserved

This is a wonderful book. Despite its short length and easy, inviting and often beautiful prose, it is also deceptively complicated. Gay Hawkins, with both commitment and gentleness, offers an exploration of the waste, rubbish and effluence that fills and frames our lives. She does so in a manner which moves cultural studies beyond a culturalism and environmentalism beyond a moralism while leaving the former intact as a constructive intellectual enterprise and the latter confirmed as an essential politics of the times. This is a lot to deliver, and any review of the book must inevitably be very partial.

We can start with a problematic. As Hawkins observes in the preface, waste, in moral terms, is resoundingly constructed as bad. Yet our consumption economy encourages excess, redundancy and disposal. It seems that our lifeworld is governed by two competing imperatives; ‘waste not, want not’ and ‘just do it’. Environmentalist responses to this have, Hawkins argues in chapter 1, been dominated by ‘disenchantment stories’ in which nature is seen as the victim of exploitation and contamination, and humans are seen as alienated from this natural world. In political terms this leads to a couple of dominant responses. First, the deep ecology emphasis on eliminating a sense of separateness between nature and the human in which waste (as badness) is made redundant through the adoption of an ethos of constant renewal. Second, a more incremental focus on simply changing waste practices through the development of new values and behaviours at the individual level. Hawkins does not simply dismiss these perspectives outright, but suggests that they slide too easily into modes of idealism and moralism in which nature becomes sacralized and environmentalism becomes a duty. Alternatively, they court a voluntarism, where ‘environmentally conscious’ behaviour becomes an act of free will. Such interpretative and political strategies, Hawkins argues, can lead to resentment, a sense amongst people of an ecological duty being imposed upon them, and/or immobility, a sense of resigned despair that nature is already dead. In contrast, Hawkins is concerned to explore different ways of analysing and understanding rubbish at the everyday level of social and material practice. She explores also different ways of constructing and forging a politics of waste that does not rely on ideas of transcendence, on moralism and guilt-tripping, or on a bland version of consciousness raising. As Hawkins states, ‘My concern is with our most quotidian relations with waste, what they mean and how they might change’ (p.3).

This is the key to her approach. Hawkins is intent on examining waste phenomenologically rather than ecologically; though she does so explicitly for the purposes of politically confronting the environmental consequences of overconsumption. She thus remains engaged with the pressing ecological realities of waste while skilfully interrogating its embodied connection to being human. Rather than offer a culturalist reading of the present through our rubbish bins, Hawkins looks to the manner in which our routines of interaction with waste (our waste habits) always express a particular ethics; they speak of how we conceptualise our relations to others, to the embodied self, to nature. And, while we act on waste, relating to it in certain ways, it acts on us. Hawkins is thus interested to explore ‘how waste mediates relations to our bodies, prompts various habits and disciplines, and orders relations between the self and the world’ (p.4). This task is informed by more than intellectual fascination. Rubbish routines constitute a micropolitics of everyday life and, as such, can be contested and altered – not by rejecting waste as a category or insisting on the performance of moral duty – but by cultivating different ethical and affective sensibilities of waste. As Hawkins argues, waste is not essentially bad, it does not simply contaminate culture and nature, but must be dealt with by ‘creating better ways of living with things that we reject as both different and redundant to our lives’ (p.6).

The various chapters explicating these ideas sit independently as essays on rubbish, effluence, abandoned cars and other detritus, but interconnect to cohere as an overall thesis. In ‘Plastic Bags’, which begins to ground her argument, Hawkins explores the forces of capitalist commodity culture that have produced habits of waste and an ethos of disposability. She dissects also the assumptions of public recycling campaigns and, most interestingly, looks at alternative responses that emphasise, not simply the inculcation of ecological morality and self-discipline, but our lived interconnection with waste and the manner in which new responses to it can be pleasurable and full of embodied affect. Here, changed dispositions and sensibilities concerning what constitutes rubbish and how to handle it come through a sense of actually enjoying relating to waste in different ritual ways and of expressing a different ethics of being in the world and relating to its materiality. Hawkins uses the practice of putting out the rubbish and the new routines of sorting it into its various components for recycling as potentially being phenomenologically rewarding, but we could equally invoke what we might call the ‘bucket phenomenon’ where many people (not simply the usual environmentalist suspects) clearly gain pleasure from participating in the newly arrived (and unclothed-embodied) ritual of saving water in the shower. For Hawkins these kinds of new routines gesture at a politics that moves beyond emphasising either guilt or mastery as reasons for adopting different waste practices. Change is seen as that which can be intertwined with and productive of life rather than deriving from a particular framing of consciousness or moral perspective.

There are further essays here that take us deeper into the phenomenology of waste and the possibilities of deriving an environmental politics from disturbing and remaking how we sense waste, and integrate it into and separate it out from our lives. Hawkins writes wonderfully well on the politics, privacy and publicness of effluent (‘Shit’), on the thingness, or materiality, of discarded commodities (‘A Dumped Car’), and on the cultural emergence and framing of recycling processes (‘Empty Bottles’). There are many ideas bursting out here and productively influenced by theorists such as Bill Brown, Bruno Latour, Brian Massumi, Rosalyn Diprose, William Connolly and others; ideas concerning how a greater recognition of discarded things as things might transform our relations with the material world and how recycling can be construed and experienced as a performance of generosity towards others and the environment.

Inevitably, given the scope of the subject tackled, the book leaves paths unexplored and ideas hanging. One minor point of irritation is the ‘in-houseness’ of the sources utilised. Lots of great cultural theorists get a guernsey, but I was left wondering why other ecologically and sociologically oriented work on waste and routine did not (the work of Jennifer Clapp or Elizabeth Shove, for example).

More substantially, I was itching for more of an exploration of what Hawkins refers to in several places as a ‘new materialism’ – by which she means a different way of living with things, a different sensibility and disposition towards materiality. This idea is explicated to some extent in her discussion of the thingness of things and more generally in the exploration throughout the book of the potential pleasures of disrupting and remaking the routines and mentalities through which we relate to waste. But, having a keen interest in this notion myself, I was – perhaps a little selfishly – wanting a more extended discussion of this concept.

Finally, in focusing on the everydayness of waste practices and their role in cultivating a self, Hawkins is careful not to simply reinstate a notion of the quotidian as somehow resistant or subversive ( a la Michel de Certeau). Rather, she makes a good case for an attention to these practices as a micropolitical realm where habits are entrenched but can also be remade. On finishing the book, I did however sense that certain dichotomies were being unintentionally rekindled here between the politics of structure and the politics of the everyday, between morality and ethics, and between the abstract and the lived. This is certainly not the book’s intention, and Hawkins well recognises the limitations of the political strategies she proposes. Nevertheless, any new way of living with the material world beyond our present mode of overconsumption will inevitably involve many changes of habit that are not in fact rewarding in terms of the cultivation of the self or of new forms of enjoyment – and this reality, to my mind, needed further discussion. In this respect, a sense of moral obligation and of structural critique remains inescapably central to any politics of change in relation to the ways in which we consume and waste.


These comments are offered as responses, not criticisms. They in no way detract from this marvellous book. Hawkins is a lovely writer with an agile mind and a preparedness to rethink current political responses to commodity capitalism beyond the frustrating simplism of some forms of environmentalist and anti-consumerist politics. Right now, we need scholarship like this.


The Ethics of Waste: How We Relate to Rubbish by Gay Hawkins was published by Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham in 2006 (ISBN 0-7425-3013-2)

Kim Humphery teaches history and social theory in the School of Global Studies, Social Science & Planning at RMIT University. He is currently completing a book based on an ARC research project on ‘anti-consumerism in the contemporary West.’

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]