Center for the History of Global Development

Waste Studies at International Organizations

in Search of a Comprehensive Waste Management Policy

A central – arguably THE central – component of post 1950s global development has been economic growth, entailing increasing production and consumption of goods. In as much as most products end up as waste after usage, and virtually everything eventually becomes waste even if temporarily recycled, this development has been about an increasing production of waste. Much of this effect has remained outside of public attention, and one might argue that an accepted management of waste has been an essential precondition for the acceptance of a mass production/consumption form of economy. Nevertheless, the issue has been too big to be fully ignored, particularly when waste went hand in hand with tangible environmental and health threats.

International organizations have been concerned with questions regarding waste, either as institutions issuing recommendations or setting standards for domestic policies of individual countries, or when addressing problems of international relevance such as transboundary trade of waste or forms of waste of global impact. In the process, international organizations have been essential actors in defining the extent, the nature and even the very existence of a problem as well as possible solution strategies. Given both the ambivalent nature of and the growing variety of products being considered „waste“, various organizations have addressed waste in some form or another. This interdisciplinary character has also be borne out by frequent inter-agency cooperations, as different organizations have struggled with the diversity of aspects involved in the question and the range of expertise required to address it. In the process, these studies addressed questions of principle regarding what constituted “waste,” how it did or did not differ from resources and how it related to the structure of a modern, industrialized economy at large. 

Looking at the competing and interlocking activities of the OECD, NATO, the WHO, UNECE and the World Bank, this research project aims at disentangling the ways in which international organizations, individually and collectively, have dealt with a central aspect of twentieth-century development.

Researcher: Iris Borowy