Rebecca: Here, everyone recycles. Now recycling is on the same level as spanking.
Orla: The environment and environmental causes were big from a young age in school. The whole Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It is now painful to me to not recycle something.
Rob: I do not like packaging waste and things of that nature.
Eric: Plastic is probably the thing that gets under my skin more than anything else . . . I hate how everything goes into a container and that’s the default in our culture and our stores. Container within container within container. It’s so unnecessary.
Gloria: Throwing stuff away really affects me. I don’t like throwing stuff away. It makes me feel ungracious and greedy and truly guilty. Spoiled! Because I know where it’s going. It’s never actually going away.
While I was conducting interviews for my research on household sustainability practices in Portland, Oregon, in 2017, I was surprised by the intensity of my informants’ emotions when we talked about household solid waste. Recycling was a near-universal practice that—while frustrating, conflict-provoking, and time-consuming—made my informants feel happy and like they were “doing their part” for the environment. Rubbish in the form of “packaging”, on the other hand, angered even my most laid back informants. This surprising emotional intensity left me puzzled and with many questions, which I answer in two of my recent articles—one theoretical (published in Capital & Class) and one empirical (published in Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space).
In their 1976 Monthly Review article “The Other Side of the Paycheck,” Batya Weinbaum and Amy Bridges argue that shopping for household necessities is a contradictory form of consumption work, “structured by capital and the state,” (96). What if household waste sorting represents the other side of the other side of the pay cheque—the final step in the unwaged household production process? I argue that the practice of sorting household waste into “trash” and “recycling” is an instance of what Nona Glazer (1984, 1993) calls “work transfer”—a reorganization of labour and day-to-day life by the state and industry in which production is shifted from industry into households without compensation. Households provide recyclable materials as “free gifts” to industry when they do the unwaged work of sorting this recycling from undesirable waste.
Weinbaum and Bridges (1976) write that “capitalist accumulation creates its own necessities,” resulting in contradictions between social needs and the imperatives of accumulation. Capitalist firms must endlessly produce commodities for the sake of realizing surplus-value rather than producing things as use-values to meet the needs of people. While commodities must also have use-values, they are not produced to “satisfy directly the needs of the producer, and [are] worth nothing to the producer as a use-value,” (Clarke 1991, 86). What differentiates a commodity from waste is not inherent to the physical properties or use-value of the object. From the perspective of the capitalist firm, an object is a commodity if it can be exchanged for money to realize surplus-value. This is not a permanent condition, as some items and materials may have value in one period or context, but may not be exchangeable for money to realize surplus-value in others. An extreme example of this is the devaluation of commodities that occurs “in the event of a crisis of overproduction, in which the commodity becomes worthless… and may be discarded or destroyed,” (Clarke 1991, 86).
We can see evidence of this in the global political economy of recycling, as campaigns promoting recycling and laws mandating household waste-sorting, over the past four decades, have been too successful. The current concern for municipal waste systems and waste management firms is an excess of materials in the recycling stream, as plastic and contaminated paper from the U.S. and U.K. have become an international “hot potato” (McCormick et al. 2019). This overproduction of recycling threatens the profits of waste management companies due to an oversupply of materials that industry does not want and contamination of valuable materials with other household wastes in single-stream or improperly sorted recycling.
Contemporary recycling sorting transforms household members into unpaid post-industrial rag and bone men, sifting through domestic refuse to remit valuable materials as a “free gift” to industry and enabling the sale of the products, in which this waste is embodied in the first place. In seeking to increase the quantity of these recycled materials, the recycling industry created the conditions that generated its own crisis of overproduction. Their new task is to convince and compel households to take on a more intensive process of household recycling sorting that requires additional time and knowledge so that the recycling industry can forestall crisis and maintain its profits. However, the looming crises of accumulation and waste are impossible to postpone forever. The imperative of endless accumulation which realizes itself in the overaccumulation of capital and the overaccumulation of waste can’t be counteracted by siphoning off some of that waste into new inputs for production for profit.
While my informants take many steps to “undo” environmental damage and mitigate the environmental impact of their day-to-day lives, they are compelled to purchase commodities from the market—produced in one place and transported to another for sale surrounded by packaging—in order to survive. Recycling is ultimately a state-directed process of work transfer in the form of household waste sorting which contributes to the revenues of waste management companies and forestalls crisis, but the crisis-ridden imperative of accumulation remains. The strong negative responses to packaging shared by my informants are perhaps evidence of the frustration and futility of their extensive pro-environmental practices—there is no real possibility of sustainability in capitalism, and their day-to-day survival requires collusion with the “polluters” and big corporations they despise. The crisis of recycling can only be resolved if the overproduction of production can be resolved. As I argue in my two recent articles on this topic, if the family-household was formed by capitalism and at the same time makes possible its continued existence, the path forward out of these crises must include transformations not only of the economy and society, but also of our notions of the household and family.