Talking Trash

Judith Pajo, PhD, has brought her anthropological approach to studying the habits of New York City households and the complex ways in which society views recycling.

“Our lifestyle is paradoxically both resourceful and wasteful,” says Judith Pajo, PhD, who is studying how New Yorkers deal with trash. “Population growth does not make the waste part better. In the 1800s, the world had fewer than one billion people. Currently, we are nearly seven billion and growing.” Population growth, industrialization, and other factors, have led to pollution and global climate changes. “Our planet is getting warmer and our way of life is just not sustainable,” says Pajo, who decided to dig deeper into the topic.

Sustainability is a large research field that involves many disciplines.  And it impacts academia as well as several industries and governmental and legislative bodies.  Pajo decided to take an unusual approach. “When it comes to sustainability, many people feel the government isn’t doing enough to keep the industry in check. But I focus on consumers. We live in a consumer society,” she says. “Goods are produced because we consume them; at the heart of production is consumption.  I look at our current unsustainability as a way to understand sustainability.”

Currently, she is researching household practices within New York City. “As a cultural anthropologist I take a holistic approach to data,” says Pajo. For her dissertation, at the University of California, she studied recycling in Germany—following the path of waste from the home, to the truck, to the sorting facility in the city of Berlin, and interviewing actors from producers of waste and recycling facility workers to government and private sector experts.  In her current research, Pajo is developing further several aspects of her earlier work.  She hopes that her findings will help us understand how New York City households, and U.S. households more generally, make complicated decisions about sustainability.

“There is something peculiar anthropologists recognize during my research,” Pajo laughs. She calls it “shared stories” because many people would relate them over and over, as though they had happened to each one personally. For example, many of the people she interviewed had seen sorted recycled materials being dumped into a garbage truck or mixed together. “I thought to myself, there is something going on at a deeper level,” she says.

“The information we have about what actually happens with recycling is very simplistic.  As consumers, we want to know more about what happens to the things we recycle.  To be responsible actors, people need a complex view of the recycling process. Information about the process can help inform decisions about consumption,” Pajo explains.  Ultimately, Pajo aims to turn her findings into a book that will help individuals and households answer a question we ask ourselves: Should we recycle?

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