Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Garbage matters: A comparative history of waste in East Asia

Cwiertka wants to investigate how waste is produced and disposed of in modern East Asian society. With her research group she will be carrying out a comparative analysis on two levels: the international level (between China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) and the inter-regional level (between East Asia and Europe).

2013 - 2018
Katarzyna Cwiertka

This project examines household garbage in contemporary East Asia, and explores the historical shifts behind the transformation of practices related to the 'production' and disposal of waste since the Second World War. A comparative analysis, applied at two levels - intra-regional (between China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) and global (East Asia versus Europe) - forms the overarching framework of the project.

My point of departure is the premise that garbage is not simply a 'matter of waste', but a social phenomenon reflecting modes of production and consumption, and dominant social values in a particular cultural setting. In the context of the material affluence of consumer capitalism, garbage serves as an effective research tool for understanding the social reality. By approaching waste from historical and comparative perspectives, my research team confronts contemporary life across East Asia in its totality, illuminating the conflicting commercial, aesthetic, spiritual and ethnic values at play. 

Waste management itself, although greatly influenced by globally disseminated technologies, is a local phenomenon conditioned by factors that are, in essence, culturally specific. My hypothesis states that effective environmental policies can only be achieved through a deep understanding of the routines of disposal in a particular cultural context, and the historical trajectories through which waste-management policies, public attitudes towards garbage and the practices of recycling came into being. Gaining such knowledge is the overall aim of the project.

This project is the very first attempt to systematically examine waste as a social and cultural phenomenon beyond the European and North American contexts. As the third largest consumer market in the world, East Asia has the potential to enrich the existing Western-centred scholarship. Moreover, the project has a strong capacity to demonstrate the public value of the humanities, and how it can contribute to tackling some of the big challenges of our time."

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