About The Garbage Matters Project

Research Project Funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, NWO (Vici Grant, 2013-2018)

Garbage Matters: a Comparative History of Waste in East Asia


The overall aim of this project is to examine waste as a social phenomenon in contemporary East Asia (China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan), and to explore the historical shifts behind the transformation of practices related to the ‘production’ and disposal of garbage since the Second World War. Rising affluence, represented by growing levels of personal consumption, played a critical role in this transformation. It fueled a successive expansion of the mass availability of consumer goods, and was accompanied by the overpowering encroachment of the food-processing and packaging industries. These, and other, developments contributed to a makeover of the everyday practices of shopping and housework, as the culture of scarcity and the ethos of frugality gradually gave way to the veneration of material comfort and convenience.


1. Document social and cultural transformations

The first objective of this project is to document the social and cultural transformations that have accompanied, and have often been triggered by, economic growth across East Asia during the last half century. Are they different from the shifts identified in the European and North American contexts? To what extent were they influenced by global developments and/or regional trends?

2. Explore forces behind waste disposal practices and attitudes

The second objective of this project is to explore the forces behind the contemporary practices and attitudes related to the disposal of waste across East Asia. The focus of our analysis is on the garbage generated by ordinary households, known as ‘municipal solid waste’ (MSW) in the jargon of waste management professionals. This consists of everyday items discarded after use, ranging from cans, bottles and other product packaging to rags, newspapers and leftover food. The fact that MSW is comprised of a variety of materials in different shapes and quantities contributes to the complexity of its recycling. In comparison to agricultural and industrial waste, which can be tackled through legislation aimed at producers, MSW is intricately connected to the personal practices and attitudes of individual consumers – at least, this is the reasoning of waste-processing professionals and policy makers.
Yet, as innovative studies on domestic waste practices have convincingly demonstrated, the daily routines surrounding the ‘production’ and disposal of household garbage involve only a limited degree of individual agency. Instead, they follow a set of procedures and principles that govern ‘normative’ conduct within a particular cultural setting. Thus, the groundwork of the current garbage problem goes beyond a mere proliferation of the ‘throwaway’ mentality. We get rid of specific sorts of things through particular channels by endless reiteration of certain practices, rather than through consciously contemplated decisions. Meticulously recording the details of garbage disposal in contemporary China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan will be important for achieving the second objective of this project, as they are involved in the construction of everyday routines. How is household garbage being disposed of, and how is it being collected? Are there considerable differences in waste collection practices between municipalities? Is there social pressure involved in relation to the sorting of garbage?

3. Exploring cultural origins

The third objective of this project focuses specifically on exploring the cultural origins of the routines of value formation and destruction carried out in contemporary China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – processes that are directly connected with the practices of disposal and recycling. No objects become ‘waste’ through their intrinsic qualities – even excrement may be useful as manure. Rather, it is by human design that things come to be considered as ‘worthless’. The daily routines of disposal entail habitual value judgements: excess objects are sacrificed to make room for new desires and their material gratification. Such processes of value formation and decline are strongly embedded in cultural traditions, even in the contemporary context of global consumerism.
One area of inquiry that will be critical to exposing the role of cultural context in the formation and destruction of value is that of practices of recycling. Is recycling widespread in China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan? What are the alternative channels for disposing of unwanted material objects beyond the municipal waste collection? Are there any taboos or other cultural obstacles to the proliferation of recycling practices? How is waste represented in the popular media? Are public attitudes towards recycling changing, and what are the factors involved in these shifts?
As the global burgeoning of waste-processing industries, second-hand economies and garbage art evidently testify, material objects destined for the dustbin can generate considerable profit by re-entering the all-embracing conduit of production and consumption. Yet, the valorization of waste does not follow the same dynamics in different cultural contexts. Long-standing concepts of pollution and disgust, as well as other habits that have long influenced people-object relations in East Asia, tend to retain strong relevance, even today. They are often guided by religious and philosophical traditions, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Feng Shui, Korean Shamanism, Shintō and Taoism.

Local Embedding and Collaboration

The Leiden University Institute for Area Studies (LIAS) functions as the base for this project. LIAS is the hub for the study of East Asia in Europe, currently employing over 50 scholars with first-rate expertise in this region, ranging from archaeology and religion to economics and media. Since this collective knowledge is unique in the world, the institute will function as an excellent sounding board for the ideas generated by the research team.

The two main external partners of this project are The Environmental Policy Group of Wageningen University and the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester. Their strong emphasis on social theory and sociological methodology will greatly complement the humanities orientation of the Leiden team. For the three PhD students, in particular, the collaboration with both institutions will provide a unique opportunity to combine methodological and disciplinary grounding with area-studies expertise.

The Environmental Policy Group (ENP) in Wageningen is a leading centre of expertise and research on environmental governance and management, built around three core themes: 1) Sustainable Consumption and Production, 2) Sustainable Natural Resource Use, and 3) Global Environmental Change. We will collaborate with scholars involved in research falling within the first theme, especially those working on the analysis of consumption routines.

The Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI) in Manchester is an interdisciplinary research institute established in 2008 with a grant from Tesco to undertake research in environmental sustainability and consumption issues. The aim of the institute to assist households, businesses, governments, charities and NGOs to propagate more environmentally sustainable living. The University of Manchester ranks among the top five British universities, and the SCI maintains strong links with the industry and other stakeholders beyond academia.

Finally, in the course of this VICI project, we will establish ties with waste management experts and policymakers in East Asia itself.


The project will consist of five sub-projects (sub-projects A-E), with varying degrees of complexity and complementary geographical scope, conducted in different cultural contexts across East Asia. The comparative dimension of the entire project will emerge from the synthesis conducted in sub-project E. While sub-projects A-D are valuable in their own right, their innovative added value will be multiplied due to their contribution to the comparative analysis.


The comparative analysis will be conducted on two levels: intra-regional (between China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) and global (between East Asia and Europe). The structural and methodological similarities of sub-projects A-D will not only ensure the best results in terms of intra-regional comparison, but will also help the three PhD candidates to work as a team.


More information on the individual sub-projects will follow in due course.

  • Sub-project A: Japan
  • Sub-project B: Taiwan
  • Sub-project C: South-Korea
  • Sub-project D: Mainland China
  • Sub-project E: Europe – Comparative Analysis & Synthesis