Trashy Women: What does Garbage Have to do with Feminism?
Each month the Feminist Justice League (formerly the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition) hosts a feminist frolic. The goal of these events are to build community, educate one another, grow in our feminism, and enjoy the outdoors. Our frolics are not well attended, but I think they are worthwhile since they challenge me to educate myself and others. This month, we will be doing geocaching and trash collection at a local park. This is a great way to learn how to geocache while engaging in environmentally focused volunteerism. However, I was uncertain about the educational component of the activity. I wanted to connect trash collection with feminism, which honestly, is not a topic that I have ever given any consideration. Thus, this essay is an attempt to unify feminism with trash.
Trash in the Context of Capitalism:
First of all, it is useful to frame the problem. Each person in the United States produces about 4.3 pounds of solid waste a day, amounting to 243 million tons a year. Of this, in 2009, 1.5 pounds of waste per person per day was recycled (Pearson, Dawson, and Breitkopf, 2012). The United States produces the most waste of any country in the world. Though, waste production and disposal is a global problem. The more industrialized and urbanized a country becomes, the more waste it produces. For instance, before 1980 in Katmandu, Nepal, 80% of household waste was derived from kitchen waste. This was disposed of through composting pits. With increased urbanization and industrialization, there has been an increase of non-compostable waste, but the country lacks the waste management infrastructure to attend to it. Thus, it ends up in rivers, roadsides, and vacant lots (Bushell and Goto, 2006). Similarly, owing to increased development and economic growth, China has become the second largest producer of waste in the year. China has a population that is four times greater than that of the United States, but still produces less waste. While we produce over 250 million tons of waste by some estimates, China produces 190 million tons. Although China produces the second most amount of waste, it is important to note that like Nepal, much of that waste is food waste. In China, 70% of the waste that is produced is food waste. Typically, in developed countries, about 20% of waste is food waste (Van Kerckhove, 2012). Thus, it can generally be said that the United States produces a lot of waste, as all developed countries do. Development can be connected to waste production. At the same time, as a country develops, the type of waste it produces changes from mostly food wastes to other wastes.
It may be easy to blame development itself on the production of waste, but this is not entirely true. Waste is the outcome of development within capitalism. Consider for a moment that U.S. supermarkets throw away 2.5 million tons of food a year. This number is obscene, considering that many people in our country go hungry or lack access to food. Why would so much food go to waste? Capitalist production seeks to produce value. This sounds a bit complicated, but consider that everything is given value from labor. Labor is invested into the production of everything, though because of alienation from labor, the labor that went into each product or service is fairly invisible to most of us. In strictly Marxist economic sense, the value of something is the amount of labor that went into the production of something. Thus, an apple’s value could be expressed in minutes or hours of labor invested in caring for the apple tree, picking the apple, shipping the apple, or arranging the apple in the produce section at a store. All of the food at a grocery store that is thrown away, certainly has use value to the hungry, but also value in the generic labor sense. Throwing out food means discarding the labor that went into it. This seems terribly inefficient in the sense that people go hungry and that this seems to squander labor. But, capitalism is a system that really doesn’t care about hunger or waste. Capitalist production is entirely geared towards valoration or the accumulation of capital. Again, this is a little complicated. Valorization entails trying to extract more value from labor by increasing production. All profits come from the excess surplus value from labor. By producing more, a capitalist hopes to extract more profits from labor. The bottom line is that meeting human needs is not the goal of capitalist production, the goal is profits. Since acquiring more profits from surplus value requires more production, capitalist production results in a wasteful treadmill of production. That is, in the interest of profits, the economy produces more than what can be sold. What can’t be sold is discarded as waste. Most products are not recycled, not because people choose not to recycle, but because recycling is not profitable. This is because recycling may involve costly inputs (constant capital) and the end product may not be made into a commodity that is sought after or imbued with as much value as the original commodity (Yates, 2015). In short, one way that capitalism seeks to increase profits is through more production and all of this production creates waste. Recycling of waste is not always profitable, due to such things as costly capital inputs and diminished value. This is why as countries develop within capitalism, they produce more waste.
Another aspect of capitalist development is that not all countries develop equally. Almost all of the world was colonized by a few European countries. Colonies developed economies that supported the development of their colonial masters by providing cheap raw materials, cash crop economies, export based economies, markets for goods, cheap labor, etc. After these colonies fought for and gained their independence, they remained dependent on their former colonial masters through institutions such as the WTO, World Bank, and IMF, as well as fair trade agreements and military interventions. These systems have stymied development in former colonies. At the same time, capitalism itself makes development challenging since these countries must compete with the already highly advanced economies of former colonial powers. It is no wonder then that more than half of the world’s population does not have access to waste collection (Simmons, 2016). In much of the world, impoverished people make a living from rubbish. In Beijing alone, 160,000- 200,000 people work as scavengers, who pick through the trash in search of recyclables they can sell. While China is the second largest producer of waste, is also the world’s largest waste importer, importing all of the waste paper products from the east coast of the United States and ⅓ of the UK’s recyclables. In turn, the United States imports 11.6 million tons of recycled paper and cardboard from China (Van Kerckhove, 2012). This phenomenon represents a few aspects of capitalism. Once again, capitalism is extremely wasteful if it is actually more profitable to ship recyclables back to China to be shipped back to the United States. Secondly, capitalism creates a lot of “have nots” in the world. These “have nots” survive from the waste produced in our country and their own.
How are these countries faring today?
Capitalism produces both waste and poverty. Poverty and waste intersect in terrible ways. For instance, uranium was mined on Navajo lands to produce nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The nuclear waste was not disposed of properly and resulted in contamination of land, increased rates of cancer, and birth defects. Various studies have found that Native American are more impacted by pollution than other groups. For example, Native Americans are more likely to live by toxic waste dumps, have their communities be targeted as sites for nuclear waste disposal facilities, and live near superfund sites than other groups (Lynch, 2014). Owing to the long history of genocide, racism, trauma, and the fact that one in four Native Americans live in poverty, they have less political and economic power to fight the outsourcing of pollution to their land and fight corporate power. All poor people, ethnic minorities, and other oppressed groups are less valued in society, have less power, and are more likely to face the negative environmental consequences of capitalism.
Another way that poverty intersects with waste is that waste recycling generates income to low income individuals, which puts them at risk of exposure to pollutants. One example of this has been the boom in electronic waste. Electronics is one of the fastest growing types of waste in the world. Although it only accounts for 5% of municipal waste, it is the most lucrative kind of waste because it can yield iron, gold, silver, copper, aluminum and rare earth metals. Thus, e-waste recycling appeals to impoverished people in need money. At the same time, the recycling process can expose workers to lead, mercury, flame retardants, and plastic chemicals. The chemicals, elements, and compounds in e-waste are known to impact brain development in children and overall lifespan, thereby wrecking not only the health of the workers but their children and communities. Once again, global inequalities shape where e-waste ends up, as the United States is the number one producer of e-waste but China and Africa end up with 80% of the world’s used electronics. There are often fewer waste and labor regulations in many of these countries. At the same time, there are incentives to have fewer regulations since it makes the labor cheaper and economic conditions more appealing to foreign investors (Heacock, Kelly, Kwadwo Ansong, Birnbaum, Bergman, Bruné, and Sly, 2016).
Poor people and poor countries are often blamed for environmental problems. Environmentalists often blame population growth on environmental problems. As such, it is easy to look to the large populations of the less developed world and see future car owners, fast food eaters, and mall shoppers. It can’t be Christmas everyday and certainly not all over the world! It is easy to look at the developing world and see waste and pollution. In the United States, our garbage is collected by professionals and carted away to some place out of the sight of most middle class white people. Elsewhere, more than 40% of the world’s garbage ends up in illegal or unregulated waste dumps (Simmons, 2016). Sometimes poor people or people from the developing world are blamed for not disposing of trash properly, perhaps because of lack of environmental education. However, in a study of 1,512 Hispanic women living in southern Texas, the women who were less acculturated, which was measured by a self-report of use of English at home, with friends, with children, etc. were more likely to be engaged in recycling. Researchers believed that perhaps this is because the women were more engaged in informal recycling in their home country, such as sharing clothes or recycling bottles for vases. It is also possible that they are more aware of environmental problems that they were exposed to in their home country (Pearson, Dawson, and Breitkopf, 2012). This is one small study, but it should be used to dispel the idea that white people of the developed world are more enlightened about the environment. We are the ones creating the most waste, despite our smaller population. Again, the problem is production not population.
To summarize these points thus far, capitalism is driven by profits rather than health and human needs. It is also driven towards production in the interest of generating more profits. This is inherently wasteful. Not only is capitalism wasteful, it creates and supports inequalities on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, etc. It also creates and supports inequalities between entire nations, in which a few countries are highly developed, but the vast majority exist on the periphery as supports to more advanced economies. Poor people and poor nations are more likely to endure the negative consequences of the world’s waste, even if they are not the world’s biggest producers of waste. As a final point on the topic of capitalism, it is important to note that many environmentalists blame consumers and consumerism for the amount of waste. Certainly consumers do play a role in buying and discarding products. However, this framework ignores capitalist production, which arguably seeks endless productive growth and by extension, endless waste. Products themselves are not designed to be long lasting or durable. This phenomenon is called planned obsolescence and means that production will always chug along because nothing lasts, parts can’t be replaced, and nothing remains trendy in capitalism. Planned obsolescence is not a term invented by anti-capitalists, but by capitalists themselves who noted that production must continue to avoid economic stagnation. Goods are created to be replaced. This is why a car only lasts for 150,000 – 200,000 miles. It is not because it is impossible to design a better car, but that the effort to design such a car is not incentivized by capitalism. It is better to produce a car that lasts a few years and then must be replaced by a newer model. In addition to the waste generated by the drive towards more and new products, corporations spend trillions of dollars on advertising to convince people to buy things. This results in wasteful products, packages, ads, and production. Finally, while consumer waste is astounding, it pales in comparison to industrial waste and military waste. Household waste only makes up 2.5% of U.S. solid waste. 97.5% of the waste actually comes from businesses and the government (Butler, 2011). The military plays an important role in destroying competitors, opening up new markets, consuming products, providing jobs, silencing countries and groups who do not agree with our way of things, and other functions that help capitalism continue. It can easily be said that the production of waste is not only a side effect of capitalism, it is in many ways central to its functioning.
Trash in the Context of Patriarchy:
Today, the Feminist Justice League is collecting trash. I would like to dissect that for a moment to understand the role of patriarchy in all of this. I have already established that capitalism creates waste and that minorities and poor people are affected more by this than groups with more power. At the same time, globally and in the United States, women are more likely to be poor than men. Women have less social and political power and are less valued in society. Because of oppression, women are also more susceptible to the negative impacts of waste. For instance, Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs are flame retardant compounds used in construction, electronics, motor vehicles, furniture, etc. They have a tendency to accumulate up the food chain, resulting in higher levels of PBDEs in human beings. As such, the European Union and United States have banned the use of some of these compounds. This is not the case in the developing world, again, because of global economic pressures which reward government deregulation in lower income countries. It is estimated that 20-50 million tons of electronic waste is produced throughout the world each year. A single electronics recycling plant in Taizhou, China dismantles over two million tons of electronics alone and employs over 40,000 people. As a result, snails, mud, poultry, plants, and the air around the facility had significantly high levels of PBDE’s. When researchers took breast milk samples from women living near the facility between 2012 and 2013, they found that their PBDE levels were twice as high as samples from developed countries, higher than other parts of China, and even higher than women living near other recycling plants. Infants exposed to higher levels of PBDEs can have reduced memory and motor functions (Li, Tian, Ben, and Lv, 2017). In China, migrant workers from rural areas and ethnic minorities are groups often involved in this kind of labor. However, in India, women of the Dalit caste may find themselves living near waste sites or engaged in recycling. Women are the lowest of the low in both social contexts, so they are more likely to find themselves doing low paying, highly exploited work. In addition to problems that infants exposed to chemicals face, women may experience fertility issues, cancer in reproductive organs, autoimmune disease, and spontaneous abortion if exposed to heavy metals, flame retardants, and other toxins (Mcalister, Mcgee, and Hale, 2014). Pollution itself has also been linked to the shortening of telomeres. Telomeres appear at the end of strands of DNA and serve the function of protecting chromosomes. Traffic pollution, fine particles, and smoking is linked to shorter telomeres. Telomeres naturally shorten with age, but pollution accelerates this process. In a study of 50 blood samples collected from pregnant women (controlling for age) living in a polluted area near Naples Italy compared to 50 samples from a less polluted area in Avellino, Italy, found that the women near Naples had shorter telomeres. Telomere shortening has been connected to the aging process and to cancer (De Felice, Nappi, Zizolfi, Guida, Sardo, Bifulco, and Guida, 2012). In sum, women are certainly impacted by the waste in the environment, especially when gender compounds with class, ethnicity, or caste in the case of India. Because women have less economic power, they may have less access to health care. Finally, women are responsible for producing the next generation of human beings. Unhealthy women may give birth to unhealthy babies or may be unable to reproduce at all. Historically and in many parts of the world, a woman is valued for her reproductive ability. Fertility issues compromise the already shaky position of women.
Within the United States, women are less likely to work directly with waste management. In fact, feminists who demand equality to men are sometimes told that they really don’t want equality as this means they will have to do hard, dirty work, like garbage collection. Within the United States, men tend to dominate this field. In New York City, there are 7,000 trash collectors. As of 2008, 200 were women. These women were honored during Women’s History Month and at least one had been working as a garbage collector for thirty years (Horan, 2008). American women may not be socialized to look at garbage collection as a career, or perhaps, since it is viewed as a male dominated space, women are less likely to apply to those jobs. Nevertheless, women are perfectly capable and willing to do this kind of hard work. For example, Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, has an all female garbage collection team. The women drive trucks, but must also lift heavy garbage cans as the job is not as mechanized as in the U.S.. The women were hired as part of an initiative to attain gender equality among various sectors of the economy and serve the area of Warren Park, a low income community within Harare. The women seemingly took pride in their work and reported they were treated well because of their good customer service and that they were not harassed by their male counterparts (All women garbage collection team cleans up Harare, n.d.). The picture is not as rosy for women and girls in Mogadishu, Somalia. Two decades of instability left the country unable to institute basic governance over such things as garbage collection. The federal government formed in 2012 sought to tackle the massive amount of garbage that amassed over the years of chaos. To this end, it hired private contractors to clean the garbage. Most of the people hired by these private companies are women and girls. They are regularly sexually harassed and harangued as they work. For instance, they are told that they should be cleaning their homes, not the streets. The women may begin work at 5 pm and end work after 9 in the morning. They are paid $3 a day for their work and if they do not work hard enough, their supervisor may deduct $1 from their pay. In November 2008, a bomb planted near a pile of trash took the lives of 21 women street cleaners (Mogadishu’s unsung garbage collectors, 2016). Even under the threat of violence and constant harassment, the women dutifully worked as there were few job opportunities available to them.
Around the world, women play a unique role in waste management, even if this is not always evident in paid labor. For instance, women are often in charge of household waste disposal, as they are more likely to manage household chores such as cooking and cleaning. Women are often important consumers of products, as they may conduct shopping on behalf of the family. This can determine the kinds of waste that a household produces. Women often socialize children and are involved in education, which means that they play a role in promoting and passing on social values, such as recycling. Globally, women participate in the economy as waste pickers, sweepers, and domestic workers but are less likely than men to have secure, full time employment in waste management. Women have also been more involved than men in grassroots initiatives in solid waste management, perhaps because waste has a greater impact on their role in the household(Beall, n.d.). As example of this, women in Kathmandu Nepal noticed all of the trash that was accumulating in their city and started up a project called Women for Sustainable Development. One of their projects was a waste management initiative which encouraged paper recycling and pressured shop owners to move away from plastic bags (Bushell and Goto, 2006). Similarly, in 1997, a small group of women from Dzilam de Bravo in Mexico organized to begin collecting trash and seaweed from the beaches in an organization called Las Costeras. They wanted to beautify the beaches for tourists and turn the seaweed into compost, which they could sell to farmers. By 2011, the group had inspired other coastal garbage collection organizations, involving over 400 participants. The women receive small sums of money from the government for their work and also receive vegetables from farmers. However, the women expressed that they felt stigmatized by others, since it was dirty work. The soil of the Yucatan Peninsula is made of karst limestone and very permeable, so their composting project has actually helped to improve agriculture (Buechler and Hanson, 2015). There are many similar examples of women all over the world who have organized in their community to clean up garbage and recycle trash into art, jewelry, or purses that they can sell.
Not only are women more vulnerable to environmental problems, studies suggest that women may be more involved in more formal and informal environmental activism than men. This is despite the fact that women have more barriers to involvement in activism in general, due to unequal pay with men and the unequal burden of unpaid labor. Historically, women have been more involved in environmental activism than other kinds of activism. Research has also suggested that women are more likely to be concerned about the environment than men. Women are socialized to care for their families and be nurturing, which may lend itself to greater concern for the environment. Of course, gender inequalities do shape how women choose to engage in activism. In a survey of British Colombia women involved in three social movement organizations, researchers found that women were more engaged in the organizations. The women were more likely than men to engage in recycling at home, plant trees, reuse items, compost, avoid disposable cups, buy environmentally friendly cleaning products, buy organic produce, and conserve energy. Men did outscore women in a few areas, such as being more likely to bike or walk to work, recycling at work, and helping to maintain nature reserves or parks. Men were more likely to sign petitions, attend protests, attend an educational lecture, do a lecture, attend a community meeting, and write letters to politicians, though women were more likely to engage in more individual activity such as donating money to organizations or buying their products. The study found that women were more engaged in environmentally friendly behaviors, but less involved in social movement activities. Perhaps the women did not have as many opportunities to engage in community activism or did not feel confident in taking a public role in their environmentalism (Tindall, Davies, and Mauboules, 2003).
It seems that women may take a more lifestyle approach to their activism. A 2012 UK Survey found that single women recycle more than men. 70% of women were engaged in environmentally friendly waste disposal as opposed to 58% of single men. 80% of couples engaged in environmentally friendly waste disposal, though women were believed to be the catalyst behind this activity. This may be because of the gendered division of labor in which women are more likely to wash out cans, remove lids, and sort waste. Buying and cooking food consists of 60% of household waste and is traditionally done by females (Levy, 2012). In another study, data collected from 22 nations through the International Social Survey Program (ISSP) was analyzed to understand how gender shapes self-reported environmental engagement. The study found that women were significantly more likely to engage in environmentally minded behaviors such as recycling and driving less. All individuals in the study were more likely to be engaged in private environmental behaviors than social activism. Even in lower GNI countries, women were more engaged in private environmental behaviors. In higher GNI, this becomes more pronounced as women had more ability to engage in these behaviors (Hunter, Hatch, and Johnson, 2004). Thus, it can be concluded that women are on a daily basis more engaged in lifestyle activism. It is alarming that both men and women prefer not to engage in social movement activism and if they do, men are more engaged in this. Social movement building is important in challenging the structures of patriarchy and capitalism which create waste, environmental destruction, and social stratification to begin with.
The fact that we chose to collect trash as a feminist group aligns with the norms of being female. It is a nice gesture. It is a nice way to beautify our city. But, the lesson that should be drawn from all of this is that the problem of waste is global and systemic. Small groups of volunteers can certainly play a small role in making the world a better place, but to truly make the world a better place, we need to challenge the logic of capitalist production. There will always be more waste to pick up since capitalism creates waste in pursuit of profits. The most vulnerable groups in society will always be impacted the most by waste. Social movement activism is important to realizing our collective power to challenge capitalism. No amount of recycling, buying organic, or composting will overthrow capitalism. These are good things and should not be shunned, but they do not challenge how capitalism operates. Capitalism operates globally, perpetuating war, inequality, and environmental destruction. Protests, petitions, strikes, boycotts, educational events, etc. are all tools that should be in our activist tool box. Feminists should support and unite with other social movements such as anti-racist movements, movements for indigenous rights, and the environmental movement, as each of these challenge capitalism in their own way and we are stronger if we work together. Picking up trash is fine, but the goal should be to throw capitalism into the dustbin of history.
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