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Mary Ebeling, PhD, Receives Award to Examine How Potential Reuses of Solid Waste are Understood

January 30, 2014

Mary Ebeling, PhD, professor of Sociology, Department of Culture and Communication, and Mira Olson, PhD, professor of Civil Engineering, Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, was awarded a $13,500 grant from the Social Science Research Fund (SSRF) for the Project "Refuse, Reuse, Revalue: Waste and Redefining Value in Postindustrial Cities."

Mary EbelingHow are the potential reuses of solid waste understood and activated in a city’s waste streams, and what kinds of value are produced out of that refuse? What constitutes expertise and knowledge--specifically in regards to reimagining and reusing material culture--in an era of so-called democratized expertise? Ebeling and Olson examine the reuse and reclamation practices in two sites across Philadelphia to address some of these questions.

“We are interested in understanding how the production of highly localized knowledge in these sites leads to expertise on the reevaluation of what has value and what does not in Philadelphia’s waste streams. Graedel and Allenby describe the industrial ecology of cities as the shifting of industrial processes from linear systems in which resources move through the system to become waste to closed-loop systems in which wastes become inputs into new processes." -Ebeling

Mira OlsonThis interdisciplinary and collaborative project brings together insights from sociology, anthropology and from engineering to ethnographically document how actors in Philadelphia are selecting, repositioning and repurposing the detritus of postindustrial late capital, specifically consumer materials, from waste streams. While Ebeling and Olson are primarily interested in how value and expertise is produced from waste at the level of technicians, they will consider how the large institutional structures, such as the water utilities and solid waste management industries, shape the decision-making and assessments of value at the level of the technicians. In the act of reclaiming cast-off objects of overproduction and overconsumption—tires, plastic bottles, scraps of fast-fashion—technicians recontextualize and produce new value out of things deemed worthless in other sectors of society. Through this mode of intervention and repositioning of value, these technicians also produce new, highly localized knowledge and expertise that has produced new economies and industries out of “old things” that potentially intervenes in the material public culture of the city.