n May 2022, during a field trip with 16 students, we walk through the Southern Industrial Zone in the Croatian city of Sisak. Our group comes to a sudden halt as we encounter hundreds over hundreds of waste bales piled in layers all along the confines of the industrial compound of a former iron mill. Our informants tell us that they have accumulated there for some time. As we come closer to one of the waste bales near us, we suddenly smell the scent of the sea (Sisak is 200km away from the Croatian coast).

Waste bales in Sisak’s Southern Industrial Zone, May 2022 (Source: Nicolas Schlitz).
Signboard indicating the source of bales of mixed wastes stocked in Sisak’s Southern Industrial Zone, May 2022 (Source: Danko Simić).

Piled in layers, always in multiples. Peculiar voluminous cubes and cylinders covered by plastic foil-coating (mostly polyethylene) appear in large numbers along marginalized areas of the European periphery, inhabiting especially industrial ruins. They resemble silage bales found around agricultural land designated to feed livestock.

Waste bale piles in Sisak’s Southern Industrial Zone, May 2022 (Source: Nicolas Schlitz).

In fact, they don’t just resemble silage bales visually. They are such bales in the most literal sense, although filled with a different kind of feed: waste to be incinerated, to become fuel. These bales are standardized units of waste - often mixed residual fractions of municipal solid waste with high calorific value - designated as refuse derived fuel (RDF) for waste-to-energy (WtE) facilities.

Torn Waste bales reveal the mixed waste content matter, May 2022 (Source: Danko Simić).

In this essay, we want to draw attention to the ways in which the appearance of waste bales marks the inherent ambivalence of modern waste management in Europe – and the continuation of Europe’s modern waste crisis. Capitalist modes of production and "imperial modes of living” (Brand and Wissen 2012) lead to an exponential growth of waste and to an increasing complexity of wasted materials - this is what MacBridge (2011) describes as “modern waste“. Since the 1980s and 1990s, the negative environmental impact of the growing amount of modern waste has been problematize by environmental movements as waste crisis. Environmental protection legislation in Europe has addressed this waste crisis by gradually favoring recycling over landfilling and incineration. However, due to constantly increasing energy demands and the political influence of lobbies invested into combustion technologies, the transformation of waste to energy has been continuously reframed closer towards recycling – for example as energy recovery through RDFs.

In the following lines, we trace the appearance of waste bales from the ‘waste emergency’ in the Campania (Italy) to the Croatian industrial city of Sisak, where waste bales stake out the territory of a newly established waste management industrial complex. We largely draw on empirical data gathered in the course of ethnographic research in Sisak in 2019 by Sanja Potkonjak and Danko Simić, as well as qualitative research conducted during a joint field trip in May 2022.

European Waste Crisis Histories – The Waste Emergency in the Campania (Italy)

From the mid-1990s onwards, a high-profile waste crisis unfolded in Naples and the surrounding Campania region due to mismanagement by local and regional authorities and the accumulation and uncontrolled disposal of mixed municipal wastes in indiscriminate landfills along the urban periphery, where also hazardous waste was illegally dumped. The Neapolitan mafia, Camorra, and its illegal trade in industrial wastes from northern Italy – and Europe – was blamed for the alarming prevalence of uncontrolled hazardous waste dumps in the region (D'Alisa et al. 2010). In order to regain control over the situation, the Italian central government imposed a regional state of emergency in 1994 and appointed the "Committee for the Waste Emergency in Campania" (D'Alisa et al. 2010: 242) as government agency with special powers to handle the crisis independently of local and regional constituencies. This committee attempted to end the waste emergency by privatizing regional responsibility for waste management through controversial public tenders. The contracted multinational consortium pledged to build a waste incinerator in Accera, a town adjacent to the metropolitan region of Naples, as well as waste processing and storage facilities in addition to landfills. The consortium gained exclusive control over all municipal solid waste generated in the region in an effort to turn mixed wastes into fuel that promises revenue. This caused widespread protests and undermined alternative efforts of waste prevention, separate collection and recycling by local communities. Long before the incineration plant in Accera went into operation in 2009, the consortium started to pack accumulated mixed wastes into plastic foil-coated bales and stock them in masses for future incineration – the waste bales appeared.

Figuring “ecoballe” at a Waste in Motion network meeting in Münster, January 2023 (Source: Nicolas Schlitz).

This "ecoballe" (or “eco-lies”, as the waste bales were called by the inhabitants of the Campania [D'Alisa et al. 2010: 244]) helped to make littered waste in urban centers disappear from public view. But they proved to be a risky crisis management strategy because they led to further proliferation of hazardous waste deposits along the urban periphery, where they posed environmental and health threats to already marginalized social groups – for the sake turning waste into profit. This severe case of environmental injustice (Armiero 2008; D'Alisa et al. 2010; Behrsin and De Rosa 2020) led to fierce resistance by the local residents and activists, who understood that their living space is becoming the state sanctioned dumping ground for the industries in northern Italy. According to Behrsin and De Rosa (2020: 95), “[a]ctivists contested the hegemonic discourse that framed incinerators, landfills and processing facilities as the only solution for ‘modern’ waste management, rejecting the authoritarian governance of waste that they perceived as a technocratic project primarily driven by private profiteering rather than concern for the environment and human safety.”

The political management of the waste emergency reflects the neglect of the materiality of mixed municipal and industrial wastes. It aimed primarily at making the accumulated mixed wastes invisible and profitable. But, the waste emergency in the Campania also revealed: the materiality of mixed waste undermines and subverts modern waste management’s efforts of invisibilization and valorization through material abstraction (e.g., reducing wastes to their calorific value) - it undermines and subverts established knowledge hierarchies of technocratic management that lie at the heart of western modernity. The mixed wastes wrapped into ecoballe proved difficult to incinerate in Accera due to their material composition, and large quantities of waste were shipped to other European countries for treatment (D'Alisa et al. 2010: 246). Behrsin and de Rosa (2020: 90) argue that such flow of mixed waste “hides socioecological costs in one place to facilitate valorization in another” and that in the course of this process “specific spatial configurations emerge through territorialization––of waste economies.” The accumulation of waste bales in the Croatian city of Sisak reveals another territorialization of waste economies geared to turn waste into fuel in order to gain profits on energy markets.

The Appearance of Waste Bales in Sisak (Croatia) – Reaffirming Environmental Injustice

Sisak was once a prosperous industrial center with plenty of employment opportunities. Today the city is known as a severe example of deindustrialization, unemployment, out-migration and industrial decay. However, its post-industrial landscapes witness “the rise of a new type of industrial activity“ (Potkonjak and Škokić 2021: 3), as different waste management companies slowly take hold of the cities industrial brownfields and turn them into waste scapes. As Sanja Potkonjak and Tea Škokić (2021: 3) write with reference to Christine Walley, “[t]hese are the ‘devalued landscapes’ born during the collapse of industry. The course of their collapse presumes their transformation into ‘post-industrial wasteland’ with evident‚ rapid expansion of landfills and waste disposal sites.” Even though the inhabitants of Sisak bear the legacy of industrial pollution for a long time, former pollution has been conceived as the necessary flipside of employment, secured livelihoods and urban development. In contrast, the arrival of waste management industries is considered as result of divestment, marginalization and unemployment (Potkonjak and Škokić 2021).

In 2019, the plans by the city government of Sisak to use the brownfields remaining from former industrial glory as landfills, nation-wide deposits and disposal sites for both hazardous and biomedical waste, as well as for collection and processing of wasted electrical and electronic equipment raised public awareness and caused protests. A local initiative called Sišćani ne žele biti smetlišćani! (“Siscians don’t want to be scavengers!”) rallied against the waste management industry establishing itself in Sisak. At that time, they reported of 27 waste management companies active in Sisak, of which eight operated with a license for hazardous waste (group of activists, 2019, personal communication). The initiative “evokes and reiterates a notion of the periphery as waste” and by highlighting dynamics of uneven development in post-war Croatia, it also “underline[s] that the periphery is always seen as a place of lesser value and a place where one can cause disorder without being held accountable for it” (Potkonjak and Škokić 2021: 11).

Rally of the initiative “Siscians don’t want to be scavengers!” (Source: Mate Piškor 2019).

In the meantime, even bigger investments into waste treatment infrastructures by Petar Pripuz, the Croatian “king of waste” and owner of the C.I.O.S. group, are already on their way – and explain the slow but steady spread of waste bales all across the city’s industrial brownfields: In 2017, the C.I.O.S. subsidiary CIOS ENERGY decided to invest into a cogeneration waste-to-energy plant in Sisak that is expected to produce 18 MW of electrical power and 20 MW of thermal power. After successful resistance against waste incineration plans in Zagreb and Konjščina the NGO Zelena Akcija and Sišćani ne žele biti smetlišćani! pleaded the Croatian Ministry of Economy and Economic Development to suspend C.I.O.S. waste-to-energy plans in Sisak – unsuccessfully, however, as an environmental impact assessment approved the project in 2021 and the ministry gave green light for the project in 2022.

As we continue our field trip – in May 2022 – through the industrial heritage of Sisak, we encounter even bigger (and growing) depots of waste bales, piled layer over layer on the compounds of a former chemical plant in the Northern Industrial Zone, waiting to be turned into fuel and revenue by CIOS ENERGY.

Waste bales in Sisak’s Northern Industrial Zone, August 2021 (Source: Sanja Potkonjak).
Waste bales in Sisak’s Northern Industrial Zone, May 2022 (Source: Nicolas Schlitz).

(Un)Wrapping the Waste Crisis

We traced the appearance of waste bales from the waste emergency in the Campania to the brownfields of the Croatian industrial city of Sisak, where waste bales now demarcate the territory of a rapidly growing waste management industrial complex. Throughout this journey, waste becomes recognizable as a central category and concern of Europeanization processes and their equation with modernity. The proliferation of waste bales reveals the ambivalence and crisis-proneness of modern waste management in Europe. They reflect and co-constitute a spatial and material waste crisis politics with specific effects and functions. As spatial waste crisis politics, they serve the demarcation and appropriation of waste(d) land on which investments into (polluting) waste management industries can take place. This territorialization (Behrsin and de Rosa 2020) crucially draws on existing histories and legacies of uneven geographical development and threatens to repeat and exacerbate them through environmental injustice.

As material waste politics, in conjunction with the shielding-up and concealing effects of closed waste management facilities, the wrapping and packing of mixed wastes constitutes a twofold process of invisibilization of the waste crisis. On the one hand, the toxicity and potential harmfulness of mixed wastes is hidden inside the bales; environmental and health risks can be much easier covered up. On the other hand, the nice packaging of what was visible dirt and pollution before also serves the ideological purpose and discursive strategy of silencing and delegitimizing critique – everything looks like under control. The spatial and the material waste crisis politics embodied in waste bales are intertwined with each other in ways that prevent “wasting differently“ (Liboiron 2018) from taking place (for example in the form of reuse, repair and recycling schemes). Instead, they lend themselves to processes of “accumulation by contamination” (Ejolt n.d.) that materialize as environmental injustice in different kinds of marginalized places along the European periphery.

Acknowledgments and Funding Note

We cordially thank our interlocutors and informants for their valuable insights and for making the field accessible. Thanks for unwrapping with us! This research was partially funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) – 503738037.


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Nicolas Schlitz is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Geography and Regional Science at the University of Graz, working at the intersection of urban political ecology, labour studies and waste & discard studies. In his research, he focuses on the social, spatial and material production as well as handling of waste, pollution and other forms of externalised socionature in the context of uneven development.

Danko Simić is university assistant at the Department of Geography and Regional Science at the University of Graz, board member of the Austrian Association of Academic Geography and member of the interdisciplinary collective "Waste in Motion" funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). In his research he focuses on commodities, markets and Europeanization processes in Southeast Europe taking a more-than-human perspective.

Sanja Potkonjak is assistant professor of Ethnology and Anthropology at the University of Zagreb. She is conducting ethnographic research with rural communities exposed to infrastructural violence and injustice and co-authored “Fieldwork for apprentice ethnographers“ (2014) and „Thinking ethnographically. Qualitative strategies and methods in ethnology and cultural anthropology“ (2016) with N. Škrbić Alempijević and T. Rubic, as well as “Where does the factory live? Ethnography of postindustrial city“ (2022) with Tea Škokić.

Wolfgang Fischer is affiliated to the Department of Geography and Regional Science at the University of Graz. He has worked intensively on municipal and regional waste and wastewater management as well as industrial culture and the revitalization of deindustrializing regions.