Materials Flows in Cities: Just Sustainability and the Logistics of Collection
The Institute for Public Knowledge (20 Cooper Sq., 5th Fl., Manhattan)

Billions of tons of materials flow through industrial processes of extraction, transformation, and distribution globally. As finished products, materials flows touch ground at the scale of the city, brought in as consumer goods via ship, truck, rail, or air to be worn, eaten, read, or otherwise used up. At this point, they take the name of trash or garbage, and as such cannot be allowed linger. A core function of municipal governments is to move used materials up and out of the city after consumption; when these functions are interrupted, political and ecological chaos results.

The municipal exigency to move used materials has meant that, more often than not, materials are wasted & sent in a linear path to disposal in landfills or incinerators. Environmental movements resisting the risks and ravages of disposal have historically called upon governments to bend the flow of used materials back upon itself. Practices we know today as recycling, reuse, and composting are cyclical, as opposed to linear, methods of managing used materials. Increasingly, environmental movements argue that cyclical flows attain maximum justice and sustainability when kept local. The Environmental Justice movement and the Zero Waste movement, evolving in partnership, point to green jobs, local self-sufficiency, and reduced transportation impacts that result from community-based projects to revalorize discards.

This talk will discuss tension between the municipal exigency to move materials and the desire of social movements to keep circuits of materials in the city — from the perspective of collection. Whether collected for disposal, recycling, reuse or composting, used materials go through a series of steps that involve labor and logistics in and around households, workspaces, buildings, streets and sidewalks, trucks, and facilities. Too often, the complexities of collection are overlooked and misunderstood by social movements seeking to localize cyclical materials flows; and too often, these same complexities are assumed by municipalities to be insurmountable barriers to just and sustainable management of used materials. A clarification of the complexities of collection, with consideration to concerns of both municipalities and local environmental movements, may advance the currently stalled discourse and practice that characterized the way that used materials flow through cities. New York City will be taken as a case study, with implications discussed for cities globally.