The Sanitization of Garbage Politics: A Case for Studying Waste at the Local, State, and International Politics in the MENA

Lauren M. Baker, Northwestern University

 

Introduction: Bag bans, global environmental politics. and sanitization

In 2016, the Moroccan government passed a law banning the production, import, sale, and distribution of single-use plastic bags. The law was rolled out just months before the kingdom hosted COP22, the annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in Marrakech. Coming the year after the landmark Paris Agreement, the major event held the potential to garner attention as well as scrutiny for the host state. While the COP meetings are most evidently sites of formal international negotiations with broad mandates to shape our global future, they also represent important moments when international, state, and local politics intersect. Event outcomes and the experience of thousands of policy makers, scientists, interest groups, and activists are shaped by the choices and leadership of the host government as well as by engagement from local communities. In 2022, Egypt will host COP27. Like Morocco did six years ago, Egypt’s Minister of Environment announced a media campaign ahead of the meeting to similarly limit single-use plastic bags, highlighting the importance of raising awareness, engaging community participation, and working with the private sector, civil society, and youth organizations.[1]

Such campaigns may seem like laudable efforts to combat the major environmental issue of plastic waste. Indeed, plastics are an especially problematic source of waste because of their indefinitely long afterlives.[2] Images of plastic bags in the bellies of marine animals and ominously growing floating islands of garbage in the ocean offer a compelling narrative to ban plastic in favor of more environmentally friendly materials. However, this tells only a partial story. Although a coalition of civil society groups had advocated for the ban in Morocco, its rollout was not uniformly well received by the population. The ubiquitous small corner stores, hanout, struggled to find viable and inexpensive alternatives, while larger international chains like Carrefour switched to thicker “reusable” plastic options and absorbed the cost difference.[3] Four years after the ban, the law appeared to have had minimal effect on plastic waste in Morocco.[4] While some 90 percent of shoppers surveyed were aware of the law and a majority agreed that plastic bags had a negative effect on health and the environment, most still used them.[5] If not effective at reducing waste or addressing the lived environmental priorities of a population, what is the purpose of such initiatives? Why do they garner such attention and accolades?

Bans like these are one example of what I term sanitization of garbage politics. As I illustrate below, garbage is always a political object: its management, or lack thereof, depends on levels of governance and control. Sanitization depoliticizes potentially mobilizing issues by performing cleaning and ordering in ways that support the political status quo. This cleaning and ordering may be discursive, such as proclamations about cleaning up streets, or material, as with voluntary beach clean-up days. States, international organizations, and civil society can all sanitize garbage politics, albeit with different goals and tactics. Like the banning of plastic bags, certain “environmental” policies may be championed precisely because they seem to avoid politics. These actions align with dominant forms of transnational environmentalism, focusing on individualized responsibility.[6] In this paper, I argue that we should study moments of continuity as well as rupture in garbage politics, using cases of interconnected garbage politics across the state, local, and international scales in the Middle East and North Africa.

Why waste?

I focus on waste for four main reasons. First, notions of inefficiency, waste, and “wasted land” have been used to justify colonial endeavors for centuries, and more recently have been employed by states and development agencies to justify neoliberal development projects.[7] Second, while often represented as outside the logic of global capitalism – or at most unfortunate externalities of it – waste, disorder, and pollution are actually constitutive of its success.[8] In other words, access to pollutable space and discardable materials enable capitalist production and consumption. Third, and relatedly, waste management reveals levels of governance. Garbage-filled streets are an obvious and odorous indication of limited state capacity. And finally, unlike other elements of environmental political action that can seem abstract and distant from lived experience, waste is intimate and tangible. Most people produce and interact with trash in some way every day, and those experiences are highly mediated by class, location, gender, and other overlapping identities.[9] Sanitization discursively wipes away these lived differences, redirecting attention from the systemic and material to the personal and abstract. If individuals are responsible for fixing waste through their consumption and disposal habits, systems need not change.

In her influential 1966 work, Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas writes that: “Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements.”[10] In other words, waste management is not only a negative subtraction of the unwanted, but also a positive ordering of space and society. What is and is not considered valuable? What – and importantly – who is considered disposable?  Building on Žižek, some (Moore 2012; Arefin 2019) propose that waste is best understood as a “parallax object,” meaning that a change in position – either of the subject or object – makes it appear out of place and “disrupts the smooth running of things.”[11] Garbage collector strikes ­– New York 1911, Memphis 1968, Glasgow 2021 – can shut down a city or at least seriously frustrate residents with the newly visible, and odorous, waste. As I describe below, mobilization against waste buildup can prompt cross-class cooperation.

However, by focusing exclusively on moments of contention and collapse, we risk missing the “slow violence” (Nixon 2011) of systems operating exactly as designed. While continuity can seem a less exciting research endeavor than breakdown, both require analysis. While I focus on cases from the MENA region for this paper, slow violence and the sanitization that occludes it takes place around the world and across governance types. Studies of environmental racism and environmental justice in the United States have shown that dumpsites are disproportionately located in Brown and Black neighborhoods.[12] In their ethnographic study of environmental suffering in the shantytowns outside Buenos Aires, Ayuero and Swiston (2009) posit that “the poor do not breathe the same air, drink the same water, or play on the same soil as the nonpoor do.”[13] Tracking environmental harm that accumulates gradually and occurs in the margins of societies present challenges but are no less important than environmental catastrophes with easily identifiable culprits and victims.[14] As anticolonial geographer Max Liboiron cautions, focusing exclusively on the harms, or effects, of pollution, risks obscuring the violence caused by polluters.[15] End of line policies aimed at changing consumer behavior and punishing deviance do not improve environmental and health problems, but they do dangerously redirect attention. 

State, local, and international politics of waste

Studying waste is a uniquely informative lens through which to examine politics because its management is so closely connected with local governance, state capacity, and globalized patterns of production and consumption. Unlike other public services, waste management does not concern allocation of a finite natural resource or good, but instead the removal of ever-increasing byproducts of consumption. As IR scholar Kate O’Neill articulates, this can generate perverse incentives, rewarding collection but ignoring where the waste ultimately is put.[16] Therefore, a comprehensive political analysis of waste in a global world is necessarily cross-scalar, considering waste’s long afterlives as well as policies and contestation around its collection at the local, state, and international levels.

State waste politics: Governance, order, and slow violence

The management of waste is widely recognized as one of the most basic tasks of a state. State-level actors can sanitize the politics of waste to legitimize their own rule to domestic and/or international audiences.  Inability to collect garbage leads quickly to perceptions of state incapacity and even failure. In 2015, garbage began piling up on the streets of Beirut. Following the closure of a dump that had received the capital area’s municipal solid waste, the non-functioning Lebanese government failed to find an alternative dumpsite, causing trash to accumulate at alarming rates. The crisis made international headlines and prompted previously unseen cross-sectarian and cross-class mobilization to protest not only the immediate garbage crisis, but also the broader political incompetence and problems of the state.[17] Slogans like #YouStink (طلعت_ريحتكم) made pointed comparisons between government corruption and the decay of trash.[18] Incompetence to perform this most basic function was proof of state failure. On the other extreme, evidence that ISIS picked up garbage has been listed alongside its taxation efforts as proof that it acted as a “state of administrative efficiency.”[19]

In short, modern states must manage waste.[20] In her 2019 work Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine, anthropologist Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins shows how people’s experiences with waste and the infrastructures used to manage it are inseparable from their experiences of the state.[21] However, because of its “murky indexability” – i.e. the difficulty in precisely tracing origins – actors can and do attribute responsibility and blame for waste problems to a wide range of actors depending on the context.[22] In the case of Palestine, engineers and the Palestinian Authority have to “perform” competencies of a state for the international community, despite not being recognized as such.[23]

Local waste politics: Municipalities, local organizing, and informality

While the ability or failure to deal with waste may reflect levels of stateness and governance, municipalities are most often practically responsible for managing it. In an analysis combining municipal leaders’ interviews and surveys of municipal candidates and Tunisian citizens, cleanliness and waste disposal (النظافة وتصرف النفايات) were among the top concerns for both citizens and their leaders alike, with several mayors listing cleanliness as the primary responsibility for a municipality.[24] Regardless of where it ultimately ends up, waste is initially always a local concern. Returning to the case of Lebanon, while striking images of garbage piling up in the capital and pithy hashtags made headlines around the world in 2015, residents of the community adjacent to the Naameh dump that received Beirut’s waste had actually been organizing against it since its opening in 1998 to no avail.[25] One reason the garbage crisis took so long to resolve was that no other municipalities would agree to host the new dump.[26] State level analysis risks missed the subnational variations, micro-level encounters with governance, and local forms of resistance.

Local populations can also organize and sanitize waste politics in ways that reinscribe the status quo as well as oppose it. The day after the ouster of longtime Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the streets were again filled, but this time with cadres of citizens armed with trash bags, brooms, and gloves, picking up garbage and cleaning public spaces in the wake of the successful revolution. Anthropologist Jessica Winegar termed this organized cleaning effort aesthetic ordering, which “reproduced both the civilizing, exclusionary tendencies of that state ideal, in which middle-class people are the exemplary citizens, and, inadvertently, also reproduced neoliberal exclusions based on individualist, consumer citizenship.”[27] Individual subjects can resist or participate in the sanitization of garbage politics.

However, processes of sanitization are neither totalizing nor uncontested. As in much of the world, local waste management in parts of the region has long depended on the labor of informal waste pickers, who continue to supplement the formal private sector. Perhaps the best known case is the zabaleen in Cairo, the predominately Coptic Christian informal garbage collectors who have been essential and efficient parts of Cairo’s waste management system since the 1940s.[28] Various attempts to formalize and render trash collection profitable in Cairo have constrained and oppressed but not eliminated the deeply embedded zabaleen.[29] Neoliberal sanitization efforts to replicate European models of waste management failed to account for local practice.

International waste politics: Externalizing hazards, trading resources

In addition to illustrating state capacity and local politics, contemporary waste management is deeply connected to international political economy. O’Neill argues that: “Waste needs to be re-imagined as a global resource, not a local problem. Making this frontier visible is the only way to create effective governance mechanisms that enable the reuse of these valuable resources while mitigating the magnified risks.”[30] But the distinction between hazard and resource is not always clear. In July 2016, Moroccan media began reporting about an Italian ship carrying some 2,500 tons of waste arriving in the Atlantic port city of Jorf Lasfar as part of a deal set up by the Ministry of Environment to accept 5.5 percent of Italy’s annual waste.[31] Rumors and reports suggested that the waste was toxic. Minister of Environment Hakima El Haite argued that it was instead part of Morocco’s broader needs to import 450,000 tons of foreign waste a year to meet its domestic energy demands. However, the public outcry persisted, the shipments were – at least temporarily – halted, and the minister eventually resigned. El Haite had been an influential diplomat at the COP22 climate negotiations in Marrakech the same year as the scandal. In an interview in November 2016, she said that public opinion had been manipulated and maintained that importing the waste was essential to maintain Moroccan industry.[32] Depending on one’s position, the same waste can be a toxic hazard or an essential resource. A change in perception can drastically shift how disruptive or visible waste can be.

Regrettably, but perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the international politics of waste occurs in these types of exports of waste from richer to poorer states. In a now infamously frank internal memo, former World Bank president Lawrence Summers described the “impeccable” economic logic of dumping toxic waste in the least developed countries: “I’ve always thought that countries in Africa are vastly under polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles.”[33] While most public-facing development rhetoric is not so blatant in its assessment, the externalization of hazards like waste and pollution is nothing new. However, as the Moroccan case illustrates, recipient states do have some amount of agency. Additionally, waste trade is not exclusively unidirectional. O’Neill describes how “South to South” e-waste trade, including refurbishing and reselling, is increasingly common and how poorer countries are refusing to accept waste and “recyclable” materials of dubious quality from richer countries.[34] Sanitization requires removing perceived dangers of waste; the violence of sanitization is that it must go somewhere. International waste politics may initially seem like a familiar story of rich and powerful states externalizing hazard, but more nuanced investigation reveals the many opportunities for disrupting this process.

 Conclusion

Waste is universal but experiences of it are not. Sanitization offers a façade of environmental progress, while failing to address systemic causes of problems. However, the hypocrisy between discourse and lived reality can prompt action despite efforts to depoliticize these issues. Days before the COP22 in Morocco, a fishmonger was crushed to death in the back of a garbage truck while attempting to retrieve a valuable swordfish confiscated because it was out of season.[35] In a context where unsanctioned protest is illegal, demonstrations were nonetheless held across the country, with protestors holding signs like: “Welcome to COP22, We Grind People Here.”[36] International attention can be leveraged not only by the state but also by organizers to draw attention to the hypocrisy of greenwashing. Studying the politics of waste with careful attention to both the local context and international linkages illustrates how actors across scales create and contest value.

 

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[1] الوطن, December 19, 2021. https://www.elwatannews.com/news/details/5864614.

[2] Liboiron, Pollution Is Colonialism. See in particular Liboiron’s discussion of how plastics challenge notions of temporality in the section “Otherwises and Alterlives” p 16-22 and the importance of disaggregating terms like plastic and even single-use plastics, which can have a variety of uses that make the world inhabitable for disabled people in section: “Plastics’ Specificity” p 27-28

[3] Ennaji, “Zero Mika.”

[4] Ghallab, “Zero Mika or the Difficulty in Getting Rid of Plastic Bags in Morocco.”

[5] ibid

[6] I am choosing to use “dominant” rather than “Western,” which is a generally recognizable yet problematic shorthand that is not only inaccurate but also elides analytically important distinctions. Not all forms of Western environmental knowledge and practice are dominant, and the geographic distinction breaks down the moment interrogated. Western of what? What of Indigenous communities? Here I follow Liboiron, who uses “dominant science” rather than the more common “Western science” to 1) “keep the power relations front and centre” and 2) remind readers that not all Western science is dominant, citing practices like midwifery and preventative medicine (see Liboiron 2021, p. 20-21 note 77).

[7] Davis, “Neoliberalism, Environmentalism, and Agricultural Restructuring in Morocco.” See also Bengezi in this collection for a description of historical and contemporary examples of environmental orientalism.

[8] See: Mitchell 2002, Rule of Experts, 242; see also: Liboiron 2021, Pollution Is Colonialism.

[9] Much of this work is informed and inspired by the nascent transdisplinary field of discard studies, which centers the construction of the categories of waste both materially and discursively: “The field of discard studies is united by a critical framework that questions premises of what seems normal or given, and analyzes the wider role of society and culture, including social norms, economic systems, forms of labor, ideology, infrastructure, and power in definitions of, attitudes toward, behaviors around, and materialities of waste, broadly defined. As its starting point, discard studies holds that waste is not produced by individuals and is not automatically disgusting, harmful, or morally offensive, but that both the materials of discards and their meanings are part of wider sociocultural-economic systems.” Liboiron, “ABOUT | Discard Studies.”

[10] Douglas, Purity and Danger; an Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, 11–12.

[11] Žižek, The Parallax View, 17. Žižek elaborates: “The philosophical twist to be added, of course, is that the observed difference is not simply ‘subjective,’ due to the fact that the same object which exists ‘out there’ is seen from two different stances, or points of view. It is rather that, as Hegel would have put it, subject and object are inherently ‘mediated,’ so that an ‘epistemological’ shift in the subject’s point of view always reflects an ‘ontological’ shift in the object itself.”

[12] A major 1987 United Church of Christ report on toxic waste argued that this correlation between communities of color and toxic waste location was intentional. While a variety of statistical analyses have found conflicting interpretations of the causation – for example: were dumps intentionally sited in places where there would be little viable political resistance? or do poor and marginalized communities have fewer resources and opportunities to relocate? – there is still a strong correlation. For an overview of these debates see: Heiman, “Race, Waste, and Class: New Perspectives on Environmental Justice.”

[13] Auyero and Swistun, Flammable, 18.

[14] As Nixon articulates: “In an age of degraded attention spans it becomes doubly difficult yet increasingly urgent that we focus on the toll exacted, over time, by the slow violence of ecological degradation.” Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, 13.

[15] Liboiron, “Not All Marine Fish Eat Plastics.” Importantly, polluters here does not refer to individual consumers but the broader stream of production

[16] O’Neill, Waste, 39.

[17] The causes leading up to the 2015 Beirut garbage crisis are more complex than often portrayed and while briefly united different factions had both different framing strategies and demands. However, the case still represents a telling example of waste as a mobilizing factor. For context see: Arsan, Lebanon; Atwood, “A City by the Sea”; Civil Society Knowledge Centre, “Social Movement Responding to the Lebanese Garbage Crisis”; Louthan, “From Garbage to Green Space.”

[18] “Corruption” in Arabic (فساد) can also refer to a foul odor, making the comparison all the more readily available. See Ekdawi, “Beirut’s ‘You Stink’ Movement.” For more on Lebanon, see Khneisser and see Langlois and Daoudy in this collection.

[19] Callimachi, “The ISIS Files.” Note: the “ISIS files” project of articles and podcasts from the New York Times has been widely and rightly criticized for removing documents without Iraqi permission and for contributing to neo-imperial extractive knowledge production. See for example: Brand and Tucker, “‘The ISIS Files.’” I include the reference here as an extreme example of the perceived importance and centrality of waste management to state-like functions, but not without qualification.

[20] This was not always the case. For one account of how waste management gradually became a duty of the state in France, see: Laporte, History of Shit. Originally Published as Histoire de La Merde (1978) In many ways this centralization of control mirrored the development of the modern state itself and its need to create public order and governable spaces.

[21] Stamatopoulou-Robbins, Waste Siege, 4–5.

[22] Stamatopoulou-Robbins, 8.

[23] Stamatopoulou-Robbins, 6.

[24] Blackman, Clark, and Sasmaz, “Local Political Priorities during Tunisia’s First Democratic Municipal Elections.”

[25] Arsan, Lebanon, 375.

[26] A classic example of the “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) challenge of environmental politics: even if people support an initiative in theory, they may oppose its proximity to their own residences.

[27] Winegar, “A Civilized Revolution,” 611.

[28] Kuppinger, Hourani, and Kanna, “Crushed?,” 624.

[29] Kuppinger, Hourani, and Kanna, “Crushed?”

[30] O’Neill, Waste, 10.

[31] Chalfaouat, “Morocco’s Political Tensions Play Out in the Media.”

[32] Benargane, “Hakima El Haité se dit fière de la COP22 et veut oublier la polémique sur les déchets italiens [Interview].”

[33] 1991 confidential World Bank memo, cited in Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, 1.

[34] See Chapter 6 in O’Neill, Waste. In 2018, China stopped accepting scrap materials from the United States in an effort known as “Operation National Shield,” which disrupted the entire global system. Recycling and other waste materials were redirected to smaller recipient states such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam (O’Neill 160), but even some of these states began refusing the subpar materials as well. See for example, This is an important note because it complicates the notion that poorer countries lack agency in these waste-trade relationships and highlights how the rejection of waste can powerfully disrupt global capitalist systems.

[35] Chalfaouat, “Anger over the Crushed Fishmonger Continues, but Are Officials Listening?”

[36] Bouhmouch, In Echo of Arab Spring, 1000s Protest in Morocco After Garbage Truck Fatally Crushes Fish Seller.