Precious Akponah

2016 AFPGR Participant


The Social Life of Rubbish – A study in Lagos, Nigeria
About Precious

Precious Akponah is a doctoral student working towards the completion of his doctoral degree in the School of Management. Precious is supervised by Dr Matthew Higgins and Dr Ai-Ling Lai.

See Precious' PhDepictions entry.

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About My Research

When we think of ‘rubbish and waste disposal’ we usually relegate it to the final stage of consumption. That is, we buy products, consume them and dispose of them. The problem with this approach is that it fails to capture the social processes that are involved in wasting and how these processes are mired in social, cultural, economic and political entanglements. My research investigates these processes. Specifically, it aims to explore the social, cultural, political and economic practices and meanings surrounding the organisation of rubbish in Lagos, Nigeria. I call it organisation rather than management because the latter presents rubbish as something that should be kept away, out of sight. However, my approach seeks to uncover how millions of the world poorest make a living by organising, collecting, sorting and recycling rubbish. Very little is understood about the people participating in this work, the conditions and the struggles in which this occurs. As such, my thesis traces the social life of rubbish to understand the recursive nature of waste disposal; particularly shedding light on how waste disposal does not represent ‘a final act of closure’. Instead, it portrays the transformative potential of rubbish, where as a category of emptied values are capable of being ‘reinstated’ to a valuable material through processes such as re-use, placements and transformations. Such an approach questions and rejects the traditional view of waste disposal as limited to environmentalism, green consumption and sustainability. Instead, my work aims to push these boundaries, investigating how rubbish sustains livelihoods and relationships in cities like Lagos.

One of the key contributions of my research is to uncover the various processes through which value is created when household rubbish is disposed of and potentially recycled. I do this by following the trajectories of rubbish as it moves across the various stakeholders (households, scavengers, scrap dealers) involved in the organization of rubbish. In this way, my thesis seeks to highlight how rubbish not only acts as the lifeblood which fuels social and economic relationships but is also integral to the social system as it provides a platform on which society regenerates.

My Research Approach

I spent 6 months participating, observing and interviewing key stakeholders in slums and dumpsites across Lagos. These stakeholders include both formal and informal groups. The formal organizations include Lagos Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) and Wecycler - a social entreprise whose objective is to promote recycling in Lagos. While the informal groups include actors such as scavengers, scrap dealers and cart pushers. Nonetheless, this synopsis particularly focuses on the informal economy by highlighting how several individuals depend on materials recovered from the landfill for their livelihood. I would generally describe these scavengers and cart pushers as hardworking and possessing the ethos required for entrepreneurship development. For this community, rubbishing or waste disposal is not the final stage of disposal; instead it represents the next stage of value capturing as they extract value from recovered materials. Observing and talking to these stakeholders made it possible for me to capture my participants’ life stories as experienced in their life-world. Moreover, it allowed me to not only capture what they tell me through narratives but to also see what they actually do with rubbish.

Initial Findings

The interviews and observations undertaken demonstrate how rubbish serves as the lifeblood which fuels social and economic relationships between the various stakeholders (i.e. householders, scavengers, scrap dealers, and recycling firms). More so, findings reveal how the marginal positions of scavengers overshadows the role they occupy in the waste management circles as well as their significant contribution to the ‘informal economy (unregulated sector). Moreover, the findings shed light on the various forms of labour produced by the social processes involved in rubbishing. We see how the disposal of rubbish creates jobs, provides capital as well as develop a platform which supports entrepreneurship opportunities for informal workers. Further, findings show how informal workers contribute to local production processes when materials recovered (plastic, aluminium, irons, brass, etc.) are used to manufacture other commodities. One thing that is clear here is that ‘rubbish’ sustains thousands of livelihoods as well as foster community spirit at least in Lagos. As such, considering rubbish from only an ethical perspective, or simply as some thing that should be put out of sight blurs the social and economic benefits that are accrued in the process of wasting.

Such findings highlight practical and policy implications for recycling and waste management. The conclusions are relevant to local Nigerian communities and stakeholders within waste management circles in terms of alerting them to the possibilities for creating value through rethinking our perception of ‘rubbish’. Consequently, this could lead to an upturn that will serve as a bedrock for future economic growth and development not just for Lagos, but for other similar cities in developing countries around the world.

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