WASTE: The Ethics and the Form of Life

Take Care of the Garbage, 2017, Lisa Torell

Olli Lagerspetz

for #III. pure danger / dangerous purity

Differens Magazine, winter 22 / 23


‘Waste’ means: (a) Things that we discard (rubbish, litter, garbage); (b) Bad (wasteful) use of resources; (c) An area not fit for human habitation (wasteland, desert). 

These different meanings of ‘waste’ hang together, as will be explained; this paper is about all of them, but mostly about the first one. The central point I wish to highlight is that the meaning of a word stands in a logical or internal relation with the kind of life that surrounds it. What ‘waste’ is in a given culture is an aspect of its general type of world-view, economy and ecology. In a trivial sense, the word certainly ‘stands for’ something once its context of use is clear; when the background is familiar to you, you can point to objects or materials called ‘waste’. However, the meaning of ‘waste’ is not clarified that way. Rather, it is profitable to look at words and concepts as tools. Like any tool, conceptual tools help us cope with problems. At the same time, they also contribute to the rise of new problems as the tool directs our perceptions and activities in one direction and closes off others. 

In order to clarify the meaning of waste in its cultural background I will also be considering data from linguistics and ethnology. It is often philosophically informative to follow the history of words, because that history interacts with cultural developments that give rise to concepts and transform them. The point is not, however, to unveil the original, real meanings of words, and even less to advocate for a return to an original meaning. On the contrary, linguistic history demonstrates that words in themselves have no fixed meanings. As life changes, the possible uses of words change as well. 

An obvious point of reference here is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s view on linguistic meaning and, specifically, his idea of a form of life.  I start by presenting that idea and then trace the developing form of life connected with waste – culminating in the emergence of the modern concept of ‘general waste’. 

Wittgenstein’s Forms of Life

Wittgenstein introduced ‘forms of life’ as a way to highlight the interdependence between concepts and practices. In that respect, it is very similar to his idea of language-games, which he employs much more frequently. Wittgenstein does not actually define ‘form of life’ – any more than ‘language-game’. Rather than an oversight, this appears to me a natural consequence of the function of those notions in his overall approach. He introduced ‘language games’ and ‘forms of life’ as useful objects of comparison (Wittgenstein 1953, PI: I, §§ 130–131, 23), not as constructive elements of a general theory of language.   

Nevertheless, the interpretive literature is replete with attempts to define Wittgenstein’s ‘forms of life’, often explicitly in order to work out a Wittgensteinian theory of language. The most frequent suggestion is to equate forms of life with ethnolinguistic units (such as ‘the Italians’, ‘the Elizabethans’ – Moyal-Sharrock 2015: 33; Hacker 2015: 11; cf. Glock 1996: 125), the idea being that sharing a language means sharing a world view – which ushers in questions about cultural relativism. The other currently debated suggestion is that Wittgenstein wanted to distinguish ‘the human form of life’ from animal life-forms (see Forsberg 2012). I have argued elsewhere that there is little textual evidence for either interpretation (Lagerspetz 2020). 

Here I will try to follow what I take to be Wittgenstein’s dominant usage. I am thinking of ‘forms of life’ as regular, established patterns of thinking and doing (Wittgenstein 1993, CE: 396), in this case cutting across cultural divides.1 His use of the phrase, ‘form of life’ is an invitation to look at patterns of activity, large and small, culturally specific or not, under the aspect of the interplay between action, language and concept formation. 

Wittgenstein’s most elaborate analysis of a form of life was his discussion of causation in the manuscript published as ‘Cause and Effect: Intuitive Awareness’ (Wittgenstein 1993, CE). Wittgenstein suggests there that we get an overview of the role that the notion of causation plays in life, if we focus on specific, idealised ‘prototypes’ or forms of activities. He thinks of himself as a follower of Goethe, who, in his Metamorphosis of Plants, created a prototype of what a ‘plant’ is (Goethe 1926–1934, XVI: 199–383). Goethe proposed the idea of a primal plant or Urpflanze: the plant in its most basic and universal form. As Wittgenstein would put it, the primal plant was a connecting link creating a ‘perspicuous representation’ (ubersichtliche Darstellung) of the vegetable kingdom (cf. Wittgenstein 1993, RFGB: 132–133, Wittgenstein 1980, RPP I: § 950). Taking the cue from Goethe, Wittgenstein wanted to identify the “prototype”, Urform of the ‘cause-effect game’ (Wittgenstein 1993, CE: 397). Wittgenstein’s ‘prototypes’ are simplified instances of doing, of someone looking for a cause. The question they answer is not: What kind of a thing is a cause? but: How do we go about identifying something as a cause? Among his examples, Wittgenstein considers a situation he calls ‘”tracing” the cause’: Someone feels a tug at the end of a string and follows the string to see who is pulling in the other end (Wittgenstein 1993, CE: 385–387). Other kinds of case involve conducting experiments. ‘Causation’ specifies, not a fact of nature but a form that our inquiry takes. Ideas of causation draw on the basic form of looking for a cause. 

A bottom line is this: We have a notion of causation because we are not satisfied with the idea that things simply happen. We look for a culprit: someone or something pulling at the cord. Another form of life might go with the opposite idea of ‘a chance occurrence’, i.e., when we refrain from looking for the cause. 

Some aspects of these activities are culturally specific and others are universal. The form of life of looking for a cause is not strictly tied to one culture, because it is inevitably present whenever humans manipulate the environment: when they change things in order to get effects they want. On the other hand, different cultures assign different places to it. Some cultures are keener than others to find causal antecedents of things that happen. And they would accept different kinds of antecedents as filling the role of a cause. 

A question here might be: Should we say that cause and effect are a form of life, or rather that the activity of looking for causes is a form of life? Considering Wittgenstein’s approach, this does not look like a pressing question. He does not look at causation as an ontological natural kind. What interests him is the concept of a cause, i.e., what we mean by ‘cause’, and his conclusion is that causes are present to us in our activity of looking. To have a command of the concept of a cause is therefore to be a competent participant in games of ‘looking for the cause’. To put it bluntly, the concept of a cause is the form that such inquiry and manipulation will take.

Waste as a Form of Life

Waste – the concept of waste – constitutes a form of life in this sense: it is one of the forms that life takes; it is a form – a conceptual tool – for understanding a crucial aspect of our thinking, responses and behaviour. In other words: If you want to understand what ‘waste’ means, consider our shared life around it. Look at how the concept emerges from how we live, and on the other hand, look at how the concept in its turn modifies life: how it creates both solutions to problems and new problems.  

One basic form of our relation to physical objects is to think of what uses we can make of them. What we cannot use, we discard as ‘waste’. Several things follow: (1) ‘Waste’ is something that might be useful but in fact is not. It implies the original act of considering whether a thing is useful or not. (2) ‘Waste’ is the by-product of our engagement with things which are useful. It depends on the process of separating the useful from the useless. (3) The measure of the ‘usefulness’ of a thing is its contribution to the activity with which we are presently engaged. Someone might use bones from cooking for making glue. From that new point of view, bones are no longer waste but a raw material. (4) Hence, there is no ‘absolute’ waste. Waste marks the point where we give up on the usefulness of something. (5) This basic conception of waste in terms of usefulness does not give any crucial role to the notions of impurity, taboo and threat, or to spontaneous disgust. In these ways, the present analysis is different from treatments inspired by Douglas (1966) and Kristeva (1980). On the other hand, it agrees with Douglas in the basic contention that we should think of waste in the general context of a culturally created world order.   

In conclusion: Operating with a concept of ‘waste’ is a universal form of life in the sense that it comes into play any time we consider the usefulness or uselessness of a thing. Insofar as ‘culture’ implies material culture – humans working on the environment – there will be some concept of things to discard. It is predicated on the idea that the world is not the way we want it to be, and that we can do something about it. There will be some concept of waste, but ‘the’ concept of waste is culturally specific. Different economies consign different objects – and different amounts of them – to the category of ‘waste’. 

Preindustrial Economy

In current usage, ‘waste’ is typically synonymous, or almost synonymous, with a number of other words like ‘rubbish’, ‘garbage’, ‘trash’, ‘litter’, ‘junk’, ‘debris’ etc.. They are more or less umbrella concepts for just everything we don’t need and which we ‘throw away’ (Strasser 1999: 29). In an historical context, such an umbrella concept is a relatively new phenomenon. Its introduction coincides with changes of economic life in the last couple of centuries. The central contrast here is that between an industrialised society and a subsistence economy. 

A key work here is Waste and Want (1999) by historian Susan Strasser. She starts her book with a peculiar archaeological find that surfaced on the North American East Coast. Archaeologists discovered the neck of a ceramic bottle from the 1620s. By chance, they realised that the fragments fit exactly with the lower part of the same bottle, dug up earlier in a different part of the area. How was it possible for splinters of the same broken object to end up in different places? Did it explode mid-air, scattering the bits and pieces all over? The answer was that someone had apparently saved the upper part and used it as a funnel. The lower part got a new lease of life, now as a bowl. This kind of recycling was completely normal at the time. Dutch paintings, with depictions of 17th Century well-to-do bourgeois homes, show broken ceramics on kitchen shelves, in happy coexistence with new ceramics (Strasser 1999: 21).

Throwing away stuff in the colonial subsistence economy was practically unheard of, or at least it was a sign of bad housekeeping. Getting new stuff required hours or days of work, or using up the scarce money of the family. Any worn-out object could always have some use. You could repair it, re-sew it, you might use it for making glue or you could give it to the animals. If nothing else, you might use it for fuel or plough it into the fields as fertilizer. Strasser points out that recycling is still the normal practice everywhere where people live in scarcity – which applies to most parts of this planet. 

Also in Europe, the change was rather slow. Finnish historian Henry Nygård has analysed a Finnish guidebook for waste management from 1969. The assumption was still in practice that no waste existed in the countryside. Moreover, the ‘waste problem’ in towns and cities was, for a long time, the opposite of what one might imagine. The most important worry was that the cities did not deliver sufficient amounts of waste for fertiliser (Nygård 2004: 109).

A student of mine, who worked as an electrician told me this: 

… I remember that, when I was dismantling the landline telephones in the ‘outer’ archipelago [of Southwest Finland], an old man who lived there permanently burst out, ‘it might come in handy’, and decided to keep some bundles of the telephone wire we had cut loose. The mentality that you should never throw out anything was still alive at least somewhere in the peripheries… (e-mail, 15.11.2021, my translation). 

Etymologies of ‘Waste’ and ‘Rubbish’

The German word for rubbish or waste is ‘Abfall’. It has direct equivalents in other European languages, such as the French ‘déchet’ and the Czech ‘odpad’. In Scandinavian languages it is rendered as ‘avfall’ or ‘affall’. Literally, it means ‘something that falls off’. 

A dictionary entry from 1678 still only knows ‘affall’ in its old meaning – as ‘apostasia’ (Florinus 1678/1976: 38), falling away from the (right) religion (in Czech, similarly, ‘odpadlík’ is the word for ‘renegade’). Affall, or Abfall, or déchet could generally mean a person falling away from something (change of loyalties in a conflict, demotion, loss of prestige) or a product’s loss of retail value; or it could mean water that runs down a ditch, fruit falling from a tree or hair falling from one’s head. In the eighteenth century, a connection with manufacturing was added. Abfall could consist of material that falls on the floor in the context of production, such as pieces of fabric or chips of wood (SAOB: A165 (affall). Cf. Harpet 1998: 50–51; Krünitz 1773: 43 (Abfall)).  

In sum, ‘Abfall’ was one of many terms in existence for specific rest products, which could be of use for manufacturing new things. For a seamstress, scraps of fabric constitute leftovers in relation to the work in progress, but they can be secondary raw material for rugs or paper. 

Consider some examples from the English language: ‘litter’, ‘trash’, ‘debris’, ‘rubbish’, ‘garbage’ and ‘junk’. These words currently count as near synonymous terms for whatever we throw away. However, looking at etymology, each originally indicates a specific rest product, picking up the method of its production or the way it is collected. These products were put aside for further use; the dominant relation with rest products was not that of discarding but of saving. 

‘Litter’ (from mediaeval Latin lectus) originally meant ‘bed’, such as hay used for bedding (cf. ‘cat litter’). ‘Trash’ stood for twigs lopped off from trees, stripped leaves of sugarcane and so on, all with a further use as fuel. The word may have a connection with ‘thrash’ and ‘thresh’, and so may originally mean material obtained by threshing. ‘Debris’ (from Old French débriser – ‘break down’) was material broken down or broken off from something. ‘Rubbish’ comes from ‘rubble’, or ‘pieces of undressed stone’, used especially as filling-in for walls. ‘Garbage’ originally meant ‘offal’, such as entrails of chicken, used for human or animal consumption. ‘Scrap’ was ‘material produced by scraping’, as when paint is scraped off a wall or, alternatively, resources are scraped together – like bits and pieces from the yard or scarce money to repay a loan. ‘Junk’ stood for pieces (chunks) of cable, to be recycled for fibre (CODCE 1956: 307 (debris), 494 (garbage), 646 (junk), 697 (litter) 1074 (rubbish), 1327 (thrash), 1359 (trash)). 

In sum, preindustrial English had little use for an umbrella term for general refuse, but it did have a wide range of terms for specific materials, variously related to what we today vaguely cover by words like ‘refuse’ or ‘waste’. 

The English umbrella term for ‘Abfall’ is ‘waste’. Historian John Scanlan points out in his book On Garbage that the original meaning of ‘waste’ is ‘desolate region’ (cf. German Wüste) – i.e., desert or wilderness (Scanlan 2005: 22–3; CODCE 1956: 1395–1395 (waste)). The fact that ‘waste’ could mean both ‘wasteland’ and ‘bad housekeeping’ was an expression of the fear that a farmstead might turn to wilderness due to bad husbandry.[2] 

These philological points show nicely that a certain kind of concept presupposes a certain way of life. In the age of subsistence economy, there just was no use for a concept of something that never existed, i.e., ‘general waste’. ‘General waste’ implies not only a certain material (or rather, non-specific material: anything one discards) but above all practices of storing it and of having it removed, along with the social organisation for the purpose. 

The new meaning of ‘waste’ gained currency in 19th Century Western Europe and North America when an urban way of life set in. Population increase brought crowded housing, pollution and problems with logistics. Waste management became an important industry. The logistics of food industry required a new class of objects: disposable packaging, objects expressly made for throwing away. 

Stewardship of Objects 

Strasser describes the predominant attitude of the preindustrial household as one of a stewardship of objects (Strasser 1999: 21). She points out that there is an intimate relationship between being able to produce a thing and being able to repair it. If you can sew a dress, you can also mend it. In the preindustrial household there was a seamless dialogue between the search basket and the patch bag, and between the toolbox and the scrap box (Strasser 1999: 11). 

It is much easier to discard a dress bought readymade, cut and sewn in an unidentified sweatshop, rather than a garment you have made, or one that your mother has made for you (Strasser, 1999: 12). If a wedding gown sewn by your Aunt Edna represents one end of a spectrum, a Kleenex handkerchief represents the opposite. In the last few decades, Kleenex has steadily been gaining ground from Aunt Edna. However, there are limits to how far this development can reach. You might imagine a culture where people use not only paper handkerchiefs, but also paper clothes and cardboard houses, disposable after use. However, you cannot imagine a material culture where everything is disposable. At the very least, you must imagine the machines and tools for making the items. In some sense, then, material culture must imply saving some objects for further use. One might argue that the human species started when humanlike primates not only adopted the use of tools, but saved their tools for later use. 

The preindustrial prohibition against waste also had deep roots in the mentality of a unitary Christian culture that specified man’s place in a world order. The Genesis offers us a grand narrative that defines the relation between nature and culture. Before God created natural life, ‘the world was without form and void’. God, the Great Architect, created living beings and ‘saw that it was good’. He placed the first people ‘to dress and to keep’ the Garden of Eden (Bible: Gen. 1–2). 

The Genesis presents the Universe as above all an organised place. We are part of the Creation, but we are also its co-creators in the present moment. The responsibility to keep the world inhabited was man’s lot: the whole point of human culture. To waste natural resources was to be oblivious of God’s calling to humanity. In the end, wastefulness was liable to cause a return to the original chaos. 

In this way, the prohibition against waste acquired a moral dimension in addition to mere economy. Recycling and economising was a value in itself, even though it had to compete with other important human needs, such as the need to rest and the need of storage space. – On the other hand, the Christian tradition, too, includes a powerful counter-current, persistently warning us against exaggerated care for material belongings.  

The Collector and the Reformer 

Any object can constitute waste for someone – or not. Even a useless item can be important to its owner if it is a valuable souvenir (and hence it is not really useless). On the other hand, consider a passport ‘photo of a completely unknown person. It may have cost money to make it, but for you it is worthless, unless you decide to save it as a souvenir or as material for an artwork. The object that we decide to keep or to discard belongs to a life. In the end, either we die or we get rid of the object, perhaps when we clear the house and move away – and the object falls outside life. 

Here I am quoting Egyptian journalist Ahmed Nader, describing a documentary he made for the Al-Jazeera TV channel: 

I grew up in Alexandria, where my house is full of different types of old and useless stuff that we call clutter, or in Arabic ‘karakib’. Some of it is toys that we used to play with when we were young, and some of it belongs to my father, my uncles and my grandmother. We no longer need these things but, like all Egyptians, we never get rid of them. Until I made the film Karakib, I didn’t know the real reason for keeping old, useless stuff. Clutter makes us tell stories about the occasion we bought something or about a situation associated with the use of this thing or that, which has always attracted me to record stories and memories that aren’t erased by time (Nader 2019).  

Nader believes it is part of the national character to collect karakib. Hussein, journalist, has saved two hundred dried-out ballpoint pens in a drawer. Laila, lawyer, keeps a broken TV set under a table. The family bought it once to celebrate the birth of their first daughter. A balcony or an entire room in a flat may be completely overtaken by karakib

The collector and the hamster are one end of a spectrum. At the other end, there is Japanese cleaning apostle Marie Kondō and before her, the architect Le Corbusier and his functionalist aesthetics of the 1920s. 

Le Corbusier decries what he calls the contemporary ‘cult of the souvenir’. People turn their private homes into museums, themselves taking up the role of the museum curator (Le Corbusier 1925/2008: 191; see also von Moos 2003). The cult of the souvenir is ultimately rooted in carelessness and fear of change. An author has compared museums with ‘a toilet bowl you can’t flush’. [3] We use museums for placing things that have outlived their usefulness but which we are afraid to throw away. 

It is interesting to note that the motivations for these opposite attitudes lie in both cases in a moral approach to the world of objects. To save an object represents, on the one hand, loyalty and respect for the life that once surrounded it, on the other hand the fear of responsibility. To throw away a thing represents either sloppiness or the courage to take control of one’s life. 

But you might also say: a place where there is clutter is a place where people live; a place without clutter is a place without life. A room where books and toys lie around on tables and the floor may look untidy, but it may also look like a place where ongoing projects invite completion. 

Culture and Heterotopia

Waste is currently defined (legally) as whatever material we throw away – objects ‘which the holder discards or intends or is required to discard’ (Directive 2006/12/06). [4] But the last few decades have changed this equation once more. Where is ‘away’, this mythical ‘elsewhere’? Among the blessings and curses of globalisation is the insight that no place is definitely ‘away’. 

Every cultural effort to create a well-kept and pleasing environment also implies the exclusion of (ex-) objects and spaces. The cultural utopia of freedom from natural decay contrasts culture not only with nature, but with heterotopia, the negative mirror image ‘elsewhere’ of cultured landscapes (Ahlbäck 2001: 107–177). It takes the shape of industrial no-man’s lands of oil fields, arising from our need of energy, and landfills, arising from our need of a living space without waste. The landfill becomes a visible symbol of our thrown-off responsibilities. Meanwhile we keep dreaming of a safe elsewhere, the ultimate repository of our most hazardous waste products. 

Some residential areas are literally drowning in refuse. We slowly learn that nothing ever disappears. Much like Tolkien’s One Ring, our waste products keep reappearing in unexpected ways. We can now find microplastics everywhere, even in the bellies of fish.  


‘Waste’ or the concept of waste is a form of life in this sense: waste is not a specific material but an indication of our relations with the environment. No object – not a human corpse (cf. Kristeva 1980: 11–12), not a dried-out ballpoint pen – is waste in itself. The human life that surrounds it defines its status. Our ability to recognise waste is rooted in the fact that we work on nature and distinguish between materials we keep and ones we discard.   

Waste is universal in this sense: insofar as all culture implies material culture, the concept of waste is implicit in its very possibility. The Bible story of the Creation is an articulation of the relation between nature and culture. It spells out the idea that culture creates a sense of shared responsibility towards the created world. 

Waste is historically contingent in this sense: The idea of ‘simply’ throwing ‘away’ anything you do not need for the moment is the product of a specific way of life, for most people hardly going back more than a hundred years in history. The historically more dominant attitude to waste is that of a stewardship of objects.

However, the general claim in this paper is not dependent on the historical thesis (true or not) that no traditional society has ever had a concept of general waste. In so far as we find that the concept of general waste has some application in a society, we should expect also to find ways of life that correspond to it. Philosophy can teach us that words and concepts have no fixed existence. Instead, a concept always gets its meaning from some specific form of interplay of language and action.

There is no reason to think that the concept of waste must survive in the specific form it has acquired in industrial societies. The fact that our current ways of life most probably face an inevitable change implies that our concepts will change as well. Perhaps we return to a kind of life where we no longer have or need an umbrella concept of ‘general waste’. There is no absolute waste but just various raw materials for recycling. [5] 


[1] Wittgenstein equates ‘feste[] Lebensformen’ with ‘regelmäßige[s] Tun’ (in the published translation rendered as ‘steady ways of living, regular ways of acting’). ‘Tun’, doing, seems more specific and local than ‘Handeln’, acting.

[2] The Swedish verb for ‘waste’, ‘ödsla’ similarly comes from ‘öde’, ‘uninhabited’. A farm that was unable to pay its taxes could be officially designated as abandoned (öde). The Finnish word for waste, ‘jäte’, is not derived from ‘uninhabited’ but from the verb ‘jättää’ (to leave). ‘Jäte’, leftovers or remains, was not originally something to discard; a 19th century dictionary (Lönnrot 1866–1880/1930: I: 424) uses it for relics (pyhäin jätteet). 

[3] As reported by museologist Solveig Sjöberg-Pietarinen, discussion with the author circa 2005. 

[4] According to ‘Directive 2006/12/ec of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 April 2006 on waste’, ‘“waste” shall mean any substance or object in the categories set out in Annex i which the holder discards or intends or is required to discard’ (Article 1). Official Journal of the European Union, 27.4.2006, L114/9, at http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal- content, accessed 6 May 2016.

[5] This paper was presented at the ‘Ethics of Home’ conference, 1–3 June, 2022, at The Centre for Ethics as Study in Human Value, University of Pardubice. This work has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 101026669 (project WC-CULT). Thanks also to a student of mine, who prefers to remain anonymous. 


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