An overview of recycling as an activity and a process, following different materials through the waste stream. Recycling, published with MIT Press in 2019. The book is part of the Essential Knowledge series.

RecyclingFinn Arne JørgensenMIT Press208 Pages, 5 x 7 in.November 2019ISBN: 9780262537827 Is there a point to recycling? Is recycling even good for the environment? In this volume in the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series, Finn Arne Jørgensen answers (drumroll, please): it depends. From a technical point of view, recycling is a series of processes—collecting, sorting, processing, manufacturing. Recycling also has a cultural component; at its core, recycling is about transformation and value, turning material waste into something useful—plastic bags into patio furniture, plastic bottles into T-shirts. Jørgensen offers an accessible and engaging overview of recycling as an activity and as a process at the intersection of the material and the ideological. Jørgensen follows a series of materials as they move back and forth between producer and consumer, continually transforming in form and value, in a never-ceasing journey toward becoming waste. He considers organic waste and cultural contamination; the history of recyclable writing surfaces from papyrus to newsprint; discarded clothing as it moves from the the Global North to the Global South; the shifting fate of glass bottles; the efficiency of aluminum recycling; the many types of plastic and the difficulties of informed consumer choice; e-waste and technological obsolescence; and industrial waste. Finally, re-asking the question posed by John Tierney in an infamous 1996 New York Times article, “is recycling garbage?” Jørgensen argues that recycling is necessary—as both symbolic action and physical activity that has a tangible effect on the real world. MIT Press website: Reviews

A story of trash and class in America. Archived version of a text published with The Atlantic in 2013.

Empty beverage container collector, Uppsala 2012 (Finn Arne Jørgensen)

The Academy Award-nominated short documentary Redemption (2013) may not have won an Oscar statue in the end, but it remains a powerful introduction to the lives of “canners,” the many poor who collect empty bottles and cans on the streets of New York as a means of survival. In the film, empty beverage containers become a symbol for poverty and exploitation. They are waste — unwanted and unvalued, simply delivery mechanisms that become a problem as soon as we have consumed the beverage they once contained. But it wasn’t always that way: Bottles were once valuable objects, not to be easily discarded. Their loss of value is not just a result of technological and material improvements, but also of social, economic, and political choices by consumers, corporations, and policy makers (or, as we too often call it, “the market”). If we go back 150 years, carbonated beverages were generally consumed on-site in bars, saloons, taverns, and restaurants. You could buy bottled beverages, but they were hand-filled and hand-capped, one bottle at a time. With the development of mass-produced bottles, crimp capping, and mechanized bottling at the end of the 19th century, increasing amounts of beverages were instead sold for consumption in the home or on the move. The bottles were expensive to produce, however, so bottlers used a deposit-refund system to ensure that consumers returned the bottles after use, and embossed the bottles with their logo and name as a means of claiming ownership. Following World War II the beverage market changed dramatically. The former multitude of local bottlers and brands began to give way to fewer, larger bottlers operating on a regional and national arena. These began experimenting with disposable containers designed to no longer have any value to the bottlers. Instead of the company logo, the words “No Deposit, No Return” now decorated the bottles. We all know what happened next. We have seen the surprisingly unsettling picnic scene in…

My 2011 book on the history of beverage container recycling, published with Rutgers University Press.

Making a Green Machine: The Infrastructure of Beverage Container RecyclingFinn Arne JørgensenRutgers University Press208 Pages, 6 x 9 in.July 2011ISBN: 9780813550541 Consider an empty bottle or can, one of the hundreds of billions of beverage containers that are discarded worldwide every year. Empty containers have been at the center of intense political controversies, technological innovation processes, and the modern environmental movement. Making a Green Machine examines the development of the Scandinavian beverage container deposit-refund system, which has the highest return rates in the world, from 1970 to present. Finn Arne Jørgensen investigates the challenges the system faced when exported internationally and explores the critical role of technological infrastructures and consumer convenience in modern recycling. His comparative framework charts the complex network of business and political actors involved in the development of the reverse vending machine (RVM) and bottle deposit legislation to better understand the different historical trajectories empty beverage containers have taken across markets, including the U.S. The RVM has served as more than a hole in the wall–it began simply as a tool for grocers who had to handle empty refillable glass bottles, but has become a green machine to redeem the empty beverage container, helping both business and consumers participate in environmental actions. Press website: Reviews

Photo from the "Cans Recycled" series by Jostein Skeidsvoll. I own the original.

Photo from the “Cans Recycled” series by Jostein Skeidsvoll. Image used with kind permission of the photographer – I own the original. This weekend I visited Lilla Galleriet in Umeå, where photographer Jostein Skeidsvoll opened his exhibit on “Cans Recycled: The Visual Power of Invisible Things”. I saw the advertisement in the newspaper and was intrigued by his description of how he was suddenly captured by the hidden beauty of a crushed beverage can. He had spent the last year taking pictures of crushed empty cans that he had found as litter. I met Jostein at the gallery and it turned out that he was a fellow Norwegian! So we had a long and interesting conversation in Norwegian about beverage container recycling, garbage as art, and on being a Norwegian in Sweden. I bought a print of the picture above – the colors are much more vibrant in the real print. I liked the colors and composition of this particular picture, and also that it was the only one of his pictures where you could see the “Pant” or deposit symbol, indicating that if the can’s original consumer had returned it in a reverse vending machine, he or she would have gotten a 50 öre deposit back and the can would have been recycled to get new life, most likely as a new can. But instead, the can became trash until Jostein saw its beauty and turned it into art. There are many ways to appreciate trash!