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Waste: The Dark Side of Consumption

Munich, 12/09/2013

How can we cope with our waste? Historian Christof Mauch and jurist Jens Kersten discuss recycling and rhetoric, the limited reach of legal measures, and the role of civil society in waste reduction and reuse.

Foto: airArt -

German households discard some 45 million tons of refuse annually, of which a large part is recycled. So what is still waste?

Mauch: Half a ton of solid waste per person per year. The figure has been pretty stable for years, though it is trending slowly upwards. This is well above the average for Europe as a whole. Switzerland and Denmark generate more, Poland much less. This immediately tells us that waste production reflects relative levels of prosperity and consumption. In Germany, just under two-thirds of the trash collected by municipalities is recycled or composted. This fraction has risen continually over the years, and is the highest in Europe. Almost all of the remainder is now incinerated and no longer piles up in landfills.

Kersten: The term recycling, with its implication of a closed circuit, sounds very reassuring: What goes around, comes around and is fed back into the system. There are no losses; everything is a resource. But, of course, it doesn’t work like that. We recycle a large portion, but we also shift tons and tons of waste – electrical appliances, for instance – somewhere else. We have become accustomed to leaving things like cell phones lying around in drawers at home, although they could be recycled. And the really problematic waste (such as nuclear waste) is, by definition, not included in the concept of recycling. Most of it is lying around somewhere, with no prospect of reuse. In that case, one may indeed talk of a “metaphysics of final disposal”, as the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls it.

Lots of waffle, then – rhetorical recycling, one might say?

Kersten: Indeed – the very word “waste” no longer appears in the title of the relevant act of parliament. Its short title refers to “Closed Cycle Material Management”, a political promise that is in fact untenable. Don’t be taken in by the suggestive power of the metaphors.

Mauch: There have been periods in which the relative extent of recycling was higher than it is today, out of sheer necessity. Not so long ago, practically everything was reused, from rags, blood and bones to dog feces (which were used by tanners). Only as cottage industries like the domestic production of textiles were replaced by industrial manufacturing processes did the great transformation begin, and with it came the refuse dumps. Throughout history there have been four basic ways of dealing with solid waste – throw it out, burn it, reuse it, or avoid producing it. These alternatives can be found in the history of all the societies we know, from the Maya and the Ancient Greeks up to our own time. What changed was the relative importance of each. In Germany in the 1980s, nobody cared in the slightest about the growth of refuse dumps. Only 10 years later this had become one of the central themes of the environmental debate, as the dumps had filled up to capacity. But no one worries about it anymore. The much more urgent problem is hazardous waste – nuclear waste, toxic waste.

Kersten: The city of Munich has come up with the slogan “Your Waste – Our Responsibility”, which actually points up the fact that waste processing has become a huge business. Local authorities like to dress this up with the term Daseinsvorsorge (provision of basic public services) to hint that public bodies, not private firms, should take care of waste. This is all part of a debate on the privatization of services, which has been raging for years. The slogan is also intended to suggest that the public shouldn’t worry too much about what happens to the stuff.

Mauch: By controlling the narrative, one sets the agenda. Which story of waste wins out? Waste is a cultural construct, which can vary from one society to another. It is not definable once and for all, like wood or iron. Only 150 years ago gasoline was waste, a by-product of kerosene production. Nowadays, wars are fought over access to crude oil for fuel production. The British sociologist and anthropologist Mary Douglas once said: “Waste is matter that is out of place.” What waste is depends on where it is. The shoes I’m wearing today and put out on my doorstep when they are worn out may end up in an arte povera exhibition in a museum.

And viewing the problem from diverse angles is the objective of the Research Focus at the Center for Advanced Studies (CAS).

Mauch: Yes, we bring together specialists from a range of disciplines – geology, theology, law, geography, cultural studies, bioarchaeology – but also representatives of Munich’s waste management firms, practitioners, and politicians. Such an attempt to elucidate the issue from so many different perspectives has, to the best of my knowledge, not been tried anywhere else.

Kersten: We have also applied our terminological categories and narrative models to the related phenomenon of spam and junk data on the internet.

Mauch: In order to approach a phenomenon from diverse viewpoints, narrative constructs – the stories we tell – are crucial. Stories have a potentially political dimension.

But let’s go back for a moment. Is it true that we are kidding ourselves when we speak of recycling?

Kersten: At any rate, our comforting concept of recycling has not caused us to change our ways and make products more durable. Yet I wouldn’t speak so much of a throw-away society as of a consumer society that expects things to be either cheap or free. Naturally that does not encourage us to be careful about how we use these things. Indeed, we are downright careless with food. A third of it is thrown out, often just because it is no longer as fresh as it once was.

Moderation: Nicola Holzapfel and Martin Thurau, Translation: ph

The complete conversation between Christof Mauch and Jens Kersten on waste reduction and reuse will appear in the upcoming issue of insightLMU, LMU’s international newsletter.

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