Refuse and Refusal: The Radical Potential of Waste

Sarah A. Moore

5013 Vilas Hall
@ 12:30 pm - 1:30 pm

Headshot of Sarah Moore
Sarah A. Moore

Sarah A. Moore is Professor, Associate Chair and Director of Graduate Studies Geography. She researches policies, practices and economics of waste. She is co-author of Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction (3rd ed. 2022).


More than one million tons of hazardous waste are traded among Canada, Mexico, and the United States each year. In addition to managing a significant proportion of their own waste, all three North American countries are now net hazardous waste importers. In this talk, I examine how hazardous waste is managed both a risk to local communities, governed by local, state/provincial and national institutions and an internationally traded good, the transboundary movement of which is facilitated by supranational agreements such as NAFTA. I trace how this imbrication of environmental risk and economic value help to produce distinct flows of hazardous materials across North America.

More broadly, I draw on Marxist and psychoanalytic analyses to connect refuse and refusal and argue that, rather than an afterthought, waste is a necessary component of modern capitalism whose necessity is denied by claims about recycling and circular economies; repressed by distancing and removal (out of sight, out of mind); and dismissed as an unfortunate externality. I further argue, that it is in part these processes of denial, repression and dismissal of the fundamental importance of waste that positions it as a site of radical political potential for environmental and social justice.