Publication Date

April 2015


Elizabeth Traube




English (United States)


This essay aims to examine the social notions of waste in juxtaposition to the historical trajectory of waste and waste management in the United States as an attempt to reconcile the functional, factual and social realities and limitations of our current waste systems. While it may seem that waste management is a system guided by environmental science research and various engineering technologies integrated into our systems of municipal solid waste and recycling, it also relies heavily on social notions constructed by ideals and principles deeply embedded in our cultural structure. The way in which we as individuals of this social structure interact with waste management allows us to feel confident in our narrow practical, functional and factual perceptions of trash without having to address the ickiness of waste and the full system of waste management itself. This essay engages with the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas to show how our social consciousness and cultural taboos regarding items of waste have guided and in some ways limited the citizen’s understanding of waste management. By grounding our notions of waste in social and historical contexts from colonial times to the recycling movement this essay constructs a holistic analysis of the United States citizen’s (dis)connection to the reality of their waste today.



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