What is waste? To whom?--An anthropological perspective on garbage explores the fact that what constitutes waste is a highly subjective notion. In Tacna, Peru, the place from where this article draws its empirical material, waste is not only seen as a risk to public health and the environment. Some find it is a mere aesthetic inconvenience, for others it is the only source of income. Yet another way of perceiving waste is as a social contagion, in which the negative qualities of garbage are transmitted to surrounding people in the eyes of others. Such perceptions of waste, it is argued, are important parts of local waste management systems, and the understanding of such perceptions might increase the effectiveness of waste management campaigns.
The generation of solid waste in urban environments in the developing world is increasing due to the inclusion of more people in the consumer economy and the uncontrolled migration from the countryside to the cities. Although notable in many cities worldwide it is often in the stressed and congested urban milieux of the Third World, where city resources seldom cope with the actual need for basic amenities, that the waste problem becomes especially acute. However, in a time and space dominated by confidence in technical remedies to this urban plague of waste, our knowledge of the relationship between people and their environment is often poor.
This article focuses on a question which points to an often forgotten part of waste management: What is waste to whom? The answer to this question should serve to better our understandings of local waste management systems. Such understandings will prove to be essential pieces of knowledge that could help us to design solutions to specific, tangible and practical problems. This article aims to explore certain ways of perceiving waste in a specific cultural context and area setting, and the implications this may have for waste management in that setting. The reader is, however, encouraged to see the wider picture and keep the above question in mind whenever preparing to make decisions involving waste and people. It is my intention to demonstrate how waste can be perceived in totally different ways depending on who you talk to. The cases and examples are taken from a field study conducted between May and July 2003 in Tacna, Peru.
The empirical material presented in this article is primarily based on observations, and unstructured and semi-structured interviews with stakeholders and persons initiated in the waste management process in Tacna, where I was very much assisted by the local NGO of Centro Mallku.
The informants were members or representatives of solid waste management stakeholder groups, as well as of citizens not involved in solid waste management; their expertise instead being 'waste production'. This second group consisted of 25 individuals, young and old, educated and uneducated, rich and poor, women and men. To protect the integrity of the sources, no real names will be mentioned. The primary interest in the research on perceptions was what people...