Waste and power

“Solid waste is a fact of life. Waste production is an inevitable function of all living organisms,” – David Naguib Pellow, Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago

If we take the idea of metabolism, one of its predominant features is the production of waste. Similarly, we observe the same natural process in cities. However, for thousands of years the humankind has struggled with challenges associated with waste disposal and pollution cause by it. Now more than ever with the rapidly rising world population and blossoming capitalism in numerous countries, high per capita waste generation, landfill closures, rubbish disposal is becoming more problematic. Hence, Zizek (2006:17) characterizes waste as a hazard, ‘that which objects, that which disturbs the smooth running of things’. This concept uses waste as a prism for studying unequal distribution of waste disposal facilities as well as environmental pollution and injustice, which I am going to be looking at in my blog.

Chicago doesn’t not only have more landfills per square mile than any other city in America but also it is currently only diverting 9% of residential waste away from landfills. That’s worse than the 9% rate in 2018, but better than 7% rate in 2019. To compare its recycling rate to other major cities in the US, San Jose, for instance, is recycling 79% of its waste (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Residential recycling rates in major U.S. cities (source: https://projects.bettergov.org/2018/recycling-chicago/#:~:text=Mayor%20Rahm%20Emanuel’s%20administration%20has,Government%20Association%20investigation%20has%20found.

In 2018, Better Government Association’s investigation has discovered that administration of Chicago’s previous mayor Rahm Emanuel has permitted a private urban recycling company to take tons of plastic and paper from residential buildings to the company’s owned landfills, costing taxpayers twice as much and aggravating Chicago’s worst-in-the-nation recycling rate. Moreover, the same company called Waste Management, appears to be the only recycling hauler operating a for-profit landfill.

The BGA states that only Chicago gives private companies the right to decide which garbage is recycled and which garbage is dumped. Unlike Chicago, other cities across nation have strict municipal regulation of the process, not allowing the involvement of private companies. Since 2014, Chicago’s private and municipal waste disposal teams have inappropriately marked at least 577,886 dumpsters as “heavily contaminated”. Of these, 514,239 people – almost 90 % – were assigned Waste Management workers, even though the company’s green trucks only cover half of the city (Figure 2). However, this was not an unheard of issue.

Figure 2. Waste Management services map of Chicago (source: https://projects.bettergov.org/2018/recycling-chicago/#:~:text=Mayor%20Rahm%20Emanuel’s%20administration%20has,Government%20Association%20investigation%20has%20found.)

A few decades back, a husband of a famous activist Havel M. Johnson, otherwise known as the “Mother of Environmental Justice”, has passed away from cancer at an early age among a lot of other people from her neighbourhood of South Side Chicago. Since then Ms. Johnson began to wonder as to why this was happening. Through research she has found out that South Side area had the most cancer related deaths compared to other neighbourhoods in Chicago, moreover, many people also had asthma and other health complications. The reason for that was South Side’s multiple hazardous waste sites and linking underground storages causing pollution. Later, she set up a non-profit organization called People for Community Recovery (PCR), working to this day, to bring environmental justice to their community, as the same problems still continued to exist. Despite numerous complications and challenges thrown its way, PCR has now been working for more than 40 years carrying on the legacy of Havel M. Johnson to advance the cause of social and environmental justice. The organization’s mission is to improve citizens’ quality of life living in communities affected by pollution.

A clip below is an official trailer video for PCR organization.

In this blog I have chosen to look at waste as a hazard (to the environmental and social public health), something that gets in a way of life in the city. Similar to my previous blog’s findings, we have discovered here the unjust power relations concerning waste distribution in the city. We have also learned that the environmental racism and inequality have been a recurring problem in Chicago for years. Even though there are nonprofit organizations helping communities affected most by waste pollution, it is a problem deeply embedded into American landscape and thus needs a more fundamental approach.


Moore, S. A. (2012) ‘Garbage matters: Concepts in new geographies of waste,’ Progress in Human Geography36(6), 780-799.

Pellow, D. N. (2004). ‘Garbage wars: The struggle for environmental justice in Chicago,’ The MIT Press.

Zizek, S. (2006) ‘The Parallax View. Cambridge,’ MA: The MIT Press.

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