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Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies


This research project is part of the waste and management theme within the UKRI funded programme at The Cambridge Centre for Circular Economy Approaches to Eliminate Plastic Waste (CirPlas). The sub-theme of plastics in consumer societies involves work with the local community, but with an international, comparative perspective. The ‘plastic waste problem’ is a global one; gaining an insight on what people in other countries do, may provide us with useful ideas of how to tackle the problems at home. It will also allow us to understand better the social and cultural embeddedness of our own daily life habits. As social anthropologists and area studies scholars in this project, we try to understand the inside perspective of consumers and local communities. When it comes to plastic, the question of why and how we use and choose packaging and how we consume food and drink are perhaps the most relevant issues. In addition to the following case studies, scholars working on questions related to the social life of plastic are invited to participate in an international workshop.

Japan (Lead: Dr Brigitte Steger, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies)

In Japan, the sorting is done by individual households, following instructions given by municipal authorities (posters, brochures, websites) and information written on packaging. The categories are broadly divided into ‘waste’ and ‘resources’. Waste is further divided into ‘burnable waste’ (which is taken to incinerators) and ‘non-burnable waste’ (which is taken to the landfill). Resources are usually categorised into ‘glass’, ‘cans’, other metal, ‘PET bottles’, ‘newspapers’, ‘magazines’, ‘cardboard’, ‘miscellaneous papers’, ‘milk packs’ and ‘food trays’, as well as various other kinds of plastic. Waste disposal is costly, but these ‘recyclables’ are an important economic factor in Japan’s economy. Sorting rubbish is, of course, just one stage during which we classify our environment and attribute meaning to the things around us and to our actions.


'It is forbidden to take recyclables away', Suita City, Osaka (Photo B. Steger)

Uruguay (Research Associate: Dr Patrick O’Hare)

Informal-sector waste pickers in Uruguay are called ‘clasificadores’ or classifiers They are responsible for saving thousands of tonnes of materials from landfill every year, and have faced years of repression and dispossession, with efforts at social inclusion only recently prioritised. The current Uruguayan government has also sought to shift the burden of separating waste from classifiers onto consumers, instituting an infrastructure of differentiated collection. This research will focus on the changing relationship between citizens and plastics as a result of this change. Are households getting their hands as dirty as waste-pickers do? Is the new recycling infrastructure being used correctly? What are the cultural, gender, and class bases of engagement with plastics in Uruguay? These questions wills be explored through an ethnographic case study of a large housing cooperative in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo.


Clasificadores at Montevideo's Felipe Cardoso landfill, 2014' (Photo P. O'Hare)

South Africa (Research Associate: Dr Teresa Perez)

Interactions with consumers regarding their use and recycling of plastic are complicated by post-Apartheid social dynamics. The problem of how to manage waste in a way that avoids entrenching racial and spatial inequality has persisted, particularly in Cape Town. At the moment, most household plastic has to be driven to drop-off facilities in the absence of a city-wide kerbside collection scheme. This research asks, could the unprecedented global attention on ocean plastic be leveraged to meet South Africa’s socio-economic and environmental goals? The research will explore the theory and practice of designing an intervention to raise awareness of plastic pollution. The evaluation of interventions will foreground the analysis of micro level power relations, paying attention to stigmatised identities; purity and danger; waste work; and interpretations of beaches as symbolic spaces in connection with historical injustice and segregation.


Recycling ‘drop off’ facility in Hout Bay run by a local co-operative (Photo T.Perez)