The psychology of waste: from the desirable to the rejected

November 28, 2010 § 3 Comments

Text of talk delivered in Cambridge, UK as part of European Waste Prevention week, November 25th 2010

I’d like to start with a quote from the economist Herman Daly:

“Man transforms raw materials into commodities and commodities into garbage” Herman Daly

– and then talk first about our pre-occupation with commodities and then about their transformation – the way they cross a line from the desirable to the rejected, from new to old, from clean to dirty and what that process involves.

Too much stuff

There is no doubt that most people in the UK have too much stuff in their lives – far more than they need – but why? Why do people buy so much, and why is it so transitory, so short-lived?

The sociologist Anthony Giddens calls the current period one of ‘late’ or ‘high’ modernity, a post-traditional order characterised psychologically by doubt and existential uncertainty. It’s common for people to suffer from low self-esteem, to be pre-occupied with questions like “Who am I?” and “Where is my life going?” “Am I OK?” “Do I fit in?” “What do I want to be?”

These questions seemed incomprehensible or self-indulgent to people of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. They were bewildered by the explosion of self-interest that began in the 1960s with the so-called ‘me’ generation. What they failed to observe was the fragility and insecurity that hid behind the pursuit of self-interest and which is measured in an increase in mental health problems in the same period.

Late modernity is also the period in which capitalism has become intensely focused on consumers and how to sell to them. As old needs are satisfied, new ‘needs’ have to be created. Aggressive marketing techniques have become the norm. Commodities are created and coded around identity markers: people ‘like you’ buy this or that. People ‘like you’ will be excluded or become social pariahs if you do not. Increasingly people buy not objects but identity; they are purchasing self-confidence and a place in the social world.

There’s a neat fit between the needs of capital to sell to consumers and the contemporary fragility in people’s identities. In the past people defined themselves primarily through family relationships, geography, locality, workplace and culture – all of which remained relatively stable. In contemporary society people ‘choose’ their identity, along with their opinions, their friendship groups, their religion and beliefs. 40 years ago for example religion was something you were born into. In 2010 it can be a question of choice: Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Pagan, are all on offer to the discerning customer who cares to shop around. Identity is much more plastic, much more vulnerable and these vulnerable identities are supported by buying into the ‘right’ consumer options and life-style. People feel temporarily soothed and satisfied by their purchases.

This has serious consequences for those of us who wish to persuade others to reduce their impact on our fragile world and its resources. It means that asking people to reduce and reuse commodities can be hard. Unless you self-consciously adopt a life of voluntary simplicity, identifying yourself in a place on the fringes of society, it is hard to make do with less. It is not easy to be different, to be excluded from those objects that the rest of your social group aspire to.  So asking people to reduce and reuse can threaten one of the major ways that people find social acceptance and psychological stability, leaving them feeling fragile and unsure.

Too much rubbish

What about the other side of the transition? What happens psychologically when we come to get rid of the stuff we no longer want, the stuff that no longer fits with the social identity we aspire to?

How we feel about waste has a lot to do with how we think about the clean and the dirty. It’s one of the fundamental distinctions that cultures make and we learn to make it in early childhood. Is this clean and good? Or is it dirty and dangerous? Here’s a story:

When I was 19 I worked as an au pair looking after twins, Jamie and Lucy who had just turned three. I slept in a room with a connecting door to their bedroom and I woke one morning about 6am to hear them playing. The conversation went something like this:

“Stir it Jamie. Give it a big stir. Now feed Teddy.”
“Teddy likes cake.”
They seemed to be playing some kind of cooking and feeding game. But then a note of tension entered their chatter.
“Need more mixture. Do another one Jamie.”
“I did the last one. Your turn.”
“No you do it.”
“No, you.”
I went through to see what was going on. The twins were sitting on the floor with their potties in front of them, stirring their poo into cakes and patties and feeding this to an assorted row of dollies and teddies.

They had not yet grasped that fundamental distinction between the clean and the dirty that children learn with toilet training. In playing with their poo they broke one of the strongest taboos of our culture and when their mother came in and saw what they were doing she was ashamed and embarrassed.

Waste, in our culture, as in many cultures is seen as dangerous. It has to be dealt with through prescribed rituals, in specialised ways, according to learned rules. In certain kinds of emotional difficulty you see these rules exaggerated to the point of extreme distress. People who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder find it very difficult to be sure that they have dealt with waste safely. The usual rituals become exaggerated into compulsive hand-washing, tidying or discarding. Food that is good is thrown away. Almost new items are deemed finished.

You might find it interesting to reflect on the way you feel about something before and after it has been designated waste. The newly sliced piece of bread on your plate is designated clean. 10 minutes later the unwanted portion of it is designated dirty. There is no material change in the bread. It is no more damaged or unhygienic. It is simply been reclassified. The same might be said for the empty tin or the discarded jumper. Once something is designated as waste, it seems to change its characteristics. It feels unattractive, shameful, dirty, contaminated and must be dealt with in the proper way.

For most people, getting it wrong with regard to personal waste of any kind, whether it is faeces or any other kind of rubbish, commonly produces feelings of anxiety and shame and the fear of humiliation. (Less commonly, people show defiance with regard to the taboo and deliberately break it. If you want to challenge society, throwing rubbish around, digging up graves, smearing faeces on prison walls – as in the political protests in the Maze prison – are all ways of doing this.)

One consequence of this is that situations of ambiguity, where it isn’t clear which category something belongs in, whether something is waste or not-waste, is clean or dirty can be a source of anxiety. If you’re no longer sure whether something is waste or not – what should you do?

So changing the rules about waste is likely to produce anxiety, shame, defiance and some surprising classifications as people adjust their understanding of what is clean, what is dirty, what is pure, what is dangerous.

The introduction of recycling is a case in point. The complaints that people make are often that they don’t know what goes where, that the rules are incomprehensible, that the rules are different in different places, or that recycling is dangerous. People are being asked to move from a very simple classification – everything that is waste goes in the black bin – to a complex one where some waste is valuable and some waste is not and where different rules apply to each different type.

Those who administer recycling schemes have sometimes placed themselves in the position of a punitive enforcer – for example, refusing to take waste that is not in the right place (beside the bin and not in it or classified in the wrong way), leaving a humiliating mess outside the owner’s front door.

About 20 years ago when staying on a campsite in Germany we searched for recycling bins and, failing to find any, concluded that even in Germany campsites didn’t recycle their rubbish. We placed all our assorted waste in the one small bin we could find. Later that day the campsite warden accosted us, berated us and – having led us to the massive recycling bins hidden round the back – forced us to go through our rubbish while she watched and directed us to put it in the correct places. In her eyes no amount of shaming was sufficient for us dirty English.

People fear humiliation and are likely to feel angry if they think they have been

unfairly and humiliatingly treated when rules have been changed. Altering rules that concern a taboo subject requires special sensitivity because of the deep-seated, psychological adherence to these unwritten laws.


So what conclusions might one draw from these rapid reflections on the problems of waste from a psychological perspective? What advice can psychology offer to those trying to create this cultural shift?

Perhaps, simply to understand the intimate relationship between people, their objects and the waste they create; to recognise the potential for insecurity, shame and distress and to structure your responses to the public accordingly.


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