As a way to (re)organize social life, including ethics, values, and norms, degrowth has the capacity to redefine waste. What would new ethics, values, and norms for waste look like if production was not premised on economic or material growth? How would we deal with left overs, excess, externalities, and by-products? Growth and surplus are two different things: sometimes it is a good idea to have a surplus of food or other materials, such as in preparation for winter or drought. Growth, however, is the idea that surplus, whether in the form of profit or production of goods (or both), is the primary goal of economies and an inherent measure of a healthy or “good” economy, rather than one of many ways of organizing goods in a variety of economic systems. There can be surplus without accumulation. This brings us to dépense, one of the keywords in D’Alisa, Demaria, and Kallis’ Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era (2014). Originally signifying the expenditure of excess energy in the writings of George Bataille (1933), under degrowth the term dépense has come to highlight how some forms of wasting can be celebratory, ethical, and at the very least thought about in terms of what positive social values wasting might engender.

Let’s say you’ve saved up some food for the winter, and the winter was shorter and warmer than expected, leaving you with extra stored food at the end of the season. What do you do with it? Proponents of degrowth might say: “waste it!”

D’Alisa et al mention the practice of potlatch by Indigenous peoples of the Northeast coast, a combination of consuming, gifting, and destroying goods in a celebratory feast. We could also consider the Freedomite Doukhobor‘s practice of burning all possessions, including houses and clothing, every few years as a protest against materialism. In Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, the point of thinking about dépense is that, “[t]he different patterns of excess energy use [or wasting] characterize and distinguish different types of societies across space and time. Excess can be spent on sacrifice or festival, in war or in peace. … How should we go about the removal of the problem of energy and excess?” (87). How should we waste?

What would happen if we paired an ethics of surplus, where accumulation was always temporary and not the goal of economic production, with processes of wasting that enacted positive social values? In this situation, we might have a right to waste. If human rights are moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of behaviour, and degrowth has ushered in a new ethics of surplus, then celebratory, ritualistic, generous, thoughtful wasting may very well become a social norm that would gain the status of a right.

Of course, this assumes that wasting doesn’t cause harm to health or environment. It also doesn’t address what to do with the already existing surplus of legacy wastes we have to manage, from nuclear waste to plastics. That is, an ethics of surplus and the right to waste necessarily involve a material transformation of production as well as a social transformation. This is precisely the power of the concept of degrowth: it is an economic imaginary, a politics of possibility, that can allow us to look at old questions with new frameworks. It can provide a logic to transform practices, the circulation of goods, and the materiality of objects.

“But wait,” you might say. “Under the current economic system, we do have an ethics of wasting.” In fact, according to discard studies theorist Gay Hawkins, there is a “ubiquity of ethical work” (Hawkins, 2006: 13) around waste and wasting in terms of moral frameworks that dictate the inherent good of sorting recyclables, feeling badly about wasting, and a moral imperative for purity and cleanliness. But there are two problems with our current ethics of waste. First, recycling isn’t an environmental good and actually fuels the growth economy. Secondly, these ethics of waste don’t scale well.

Even while using recycled feedstock over virgin feedstock to produce materials uses less energy and resources, in its current form the recycling system is not a net environmental good even though it is constantly represented as such (Liboiron, 2010). Recycling is not even a circular economy. Recycling in the industrial process of breaking, shredding, or melting down previous commodities into raw stock materials for new ones. The process requires energy and virgin materials such as water and chemicals, and it produces waste, some of which is hazardous. Recyclables are rarely, if ever, in as pure a form as virgin feed stock, and so materials made of recyclables are usually “down-cycled”, used to make materials that are less robust than their original forms (McDonough and Braungart, 2002: 56-60; Ackerman, 1996). Yogurt containers become speed bumps. Bond paper becomes newspaper. However, many recyclables, particularly plastics, are not recycled at all (MacBride, 2012). When market prices drop, they can be buried, burned, or shipped overseas, where the less economically viable materials are buried, burned, or abandoned (Rogers, 2006: 176-179). Yet most importantly, recycling is a moral “out” for disposability. The recycling symbol itself was sponsored by the Container Corporation of America (Rogers, 2006: 171), and recycling programs are often supported and even underwrite by industry ( MacBride, 2012; American Chemistry Council, 2010) because it means that the every growing production of disposables can continue. In 1956, Lloyd Stouffer, editor of Modern Packaging Inc., famously declared: “The future of plastics is in the trash can” (Stouffer, 1963: 1). He and other leaders in the packaging industry explicitly developed disposability through planned obsolescence, single-use items, cheap materials, throw-away packaging, fashion, and conspicuous consumption as a strategy for industrial economic growth (Liboiron, 2013). These changes were supported by a regimen of advertising and, now, recycling. Disposable containers are an ideal way to externalize costs for industry and support continued growth; consumers and municipalities perform the labor and pick up the bill for recycling and trash, and the treadmill of production can continue as new disposables are needed, regardless of whether they are made from recycled materials or not. In short, the moral imperative to recycling is an economic good premised on growth rather than an environmental good premised on a circular economy or steady-state. Recycling as it currently operates is not suited to a new ethics of surplus nor a right to waste.

Secondly, as Gay Hawkins writes in The Ethics of Waste, “[g]uilt, resentment, and anxiety [the main emotions of the current ethics of waste] are not politically productive. Sure, they may have mobilized people to change their habits, but they inhibit other responses and possibilities, other ways of being with waste” (2006: 38). Hawkins calls for a embodied relation to waste that can change ethics, since for her and many other scholars, “ethics revolve around embodied practices and micropolitics of the self. They are grounded in actions and bodies rather than transcendent moral codes, and this incessant activity foregrounds the perpetual instability and ambiguity of norms, morality, and identity” (2006: 15). The question then becomes how to scale the personal to the economic system. This isn’t to say that the personal isn’t political (Hawkins 6-7), but like other individualized, embodied practices, personalized action is immediately confronted with a problem of scale.

That is why this is a call for an ethics of surplus rather than an ethics of waste. With a degrowth-based ethics of surplus, where social relations between people and things can be other than those premised on growth, some surplus will have to be wasted. And then wasting is suddenly not about guilt, resentment, and anxiety, and instead becomes dépense. This is about the logics and values of an entire economic system and what it does to waste, rather than the reverse.


Ackerman F (1996) Why Do We Recycle? New York: Island Press.
American Chemistry Council (2010) Plastics Industry Testifies in Support of New York City Recycling Program Expansion. ACC News Release, April 27,
Bataille G (1933) La notion de dépense. La Critique Sociale 1: 7.
D’Alisa G, Demaria F, and Kallis G (2014) Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era. London: Routledge.
Hawkins G (2006) The Ethics of Waste: How We Relate to Rubbish. Lanham, UK: Roman & Littlefield.
Liboiron M (2010) Recycling as a Crisis of Meaning. Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies 4: 1-9.
Liboiron M (2013) Modern Waste as Strategy. Lo Squaderno: Explorations in Space and Society 29: 9-12.
MacBride S (2012) Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
McDonough W and Braungart M (2002) Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things. New York: North Point Press.
Rogers H (2006) Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage. New York and London: New Press.
Stouffer L (1963) Plastics Packaging: Today and Tomorrow. National Plastics Conference, The Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc, Chicago.