Cultural Economies of Hard Rubbish – a report for Moreland Council

hard rubbish

Hard rubbish left out for collection in Moreland (photo: Tania Lewis)

Together with colleagues from Swinburne University, Rowan Wilken and Malita Allan, EC team members Tania Lewis and Paula Arcari have prepared a report for Moreland Council in Melbourne’s inner north following ethnographic research conducted with residents who ‘glean’ from hard rubbish left on nature strips for collection by council contractors. This way of repurposing discarded goods is a form of ethical consumption, with a variety of concerns related to the environment, alternative forms of commodity consumption, and social responsiblity driving the practice. Below is the final ‘executive summary’ of the report, but the full report can be downloaded from Australian Policy Online. The document also includes a number of recommendations that the team makes to Moreland Council.

Executive Summary: Previous research in Melbourne has suggested that informal practices of hard rubbish reuse (or ‘gleaning’) by households may significantly decrease the amount of landfill (Lane et al. 2009; Lane 2011).  Despite this, many municipal councils throughout Melbourne have sought to make gleaning illegal. Those councils, such as Moreland, that have supported personal gleaning, have expressed concerns around managing issues of dumping and ‘professional’ gleaning. This qualitative study of 15 households in the Moreland Council region aimed to provide more in-depth knowledge of why and how people glean. Building on previous work on the political economy of hard rubbish, we saw a need for a more culturall-inflected understanding of this lifestyle practice in relation to wider consumption practices, cultural perspectives on commodities, and perceived changing norms and values around responsibility and ownership, ‘waste’ and value, and environmental or ethical consumption (Lewis and Potter 2011).  By providing a more complex understanding of the culture and practices of gleaning our concern has been to locate the potential ‘place’ and role of gleaning activities, particularly for domestic reuse, within councils and communities and indicate the social, economic, and other implications and potential limitations of current strategies and policies to manage and control hard rubbish reuse. The study reveals the practice of gleaning as characterised by, and as allowing, the expression of positive values associated with not-wasting, caring for others, and social responsibility.  What the study found was that it fosters a sense of connection across generations and with the wider community.  Interviewees associated the opposite values of wastefulness, selfishness, and social isolation with mainstream consumerism; gleaning is explicitly characterised by study participants as an active and performative rejection of this. The report concludes, in light of these study findings, with a list of recommendations for Moreland City Council.”