W is for Waste

Written by Anatolijs Venovcevs, former GIS Technician for the Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay

A (Very, Very, Very) Brief History of Waste

Between you and your earliest human ancestor is an unbroken line of garbage. When our ancestors made their stone tools to hunt animals, they left little chips of rock behind. When our ancestors butchered the animals that they had hunted, they would use the meat, the bones, and the hides while, inevitably, discarding smaller pieces. When stone tools broke or worn out and became too small to rework, they too would be thrown out. To live is to leave waste behind.W is for Waste

However, the last few hundred years have witnessed an alarming acceleration of waste production as the world has created economic systems based upon the easy discard of unwanted material. In Labrador, this can be seen in the larger garbage middens on archaeological sites from the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Access to European goods gave Labradorians more stuff, which inevitably meant that more stuff broke and was thrown out. Additionally, an increasingly settled way of life at the urging of the missionaries and the trading companies meant that people could not easily walk away from this waste.

This trend was dwarfed by the massive changes Labrador experienced during and after the Second World War. This period coincided with the birth of the throwaway society – a culture built upon disposable items like plastic packaging and single-use plates (Liboiron 2014). Everything now is designed with an end date. We live in a civilization of overproduction, overconsumption, and, of course, waste.

The move to a throw away economy was so radical that people had to be taught how to waste. One can see this in Labrador. Archaeological work at the 1942-1967 community of Birch Island in Happy Valley-Goose Bay retrieved bottles embossed with the words “NO DEPOSIT, NO REFILL” and “NOT TO BE REFILLED” explicitly representing a move to single-use packaging (Neilsen and Brenan 2017; Venovcevs 2017:254). This must have been a strange adaptation for Labradorians who increasingly found themselves living amongst the quickly accumulating surplus of their own discarded items. One can find recent waste buried on Birch Island and on older properties around Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Over that community’s history, there have also been at least nine different official landfills (Keske et. al. 2018:88-89) – the heritage of a new Labrador community trying to learn how to live with waste.

While municipal (aka household) waste is the topic that attracts the most attention, it only makes up approximately two percent of everything we discard. The other 98% is industrial waste (Liboiron 2014). Unfortunately, places like Labrador receive an unfair share of this material. Informed by flawed (and often racist) ideas of land value, governments and businesses treat remote, sparsely occupied, mostly-Indigenous areas like Labrador as “sacrifice zones” that receive the most amount of waste while receiving limited benefits (Lerner 2010).

The earliest examples of this can be seen in the contamination of areas around military instillations near Hopedale, Cartwright, Saglek, and, most notably, Goose Bay. While serving to protect North America’s borders from the perceived threats of fascism and communism, the installations wasted the ground around which they stood with fuels, PCBs, heavy metals, and the remains of unwanted military equipment (Hird 2016).

Meanwhile, the industrial developments in the Labrador interior brought waste to a completely new scale. For example, mining is as much about producing waste as it is about producing usable minerals from ore. Waste includes piles of waste rock – rock that mining interests deem economically worthless and pile up in mountains around mining pits. There are also mine tailings – an innocuous term for the wasted portion of the ore itself. This is a by-product of the process that separates the small percentage of valuable minerals found in the ore from the rest of the rock. Mine tailings look like fine sand that, at best, creates barren, lifeless fields and, at worst, leaches acid, heavy metals, and other pollutants into the nearby ecosystems (Keeling and Sandlos 2017).

The Value of Waste

However, waste does not have to have purely negative connotations. Archaeologists know this well since their entire profession is built upon things previous generations have considered worthless. Archaeologists use waste in the form of stone flakes, discarded bones, ceramic fragments, pieces of bottle glass, rusty tin cans, and foundations of abandoned houses to reconstruct the vast depth of human history both in Labrador and around the world. Each “small thing forgotten” (Deetz 1996) contains in it a story of where it came from, who made it, how it was used, and when it was discarded.

Recent waste can also serve a purpose. Many early houses in Happy Valley were built from the material the military thought was worthless, with Labradorians scavenging a great deal of useful material from the military landfills (Brenan 2019:66). Another example are all the stripped down, abandoned husks of cars rusting in the forests around many Labrador communities. Today they are often seen as eyesores and environmental hazards but on the other hand, they serve as silent monuments to the ingenuity of Labradorians to retain and recycle bits and pieces of vehicles long after their use lives. Today, researchers, journalists, and community groups carry on the practice of finding value in garbage by constantly looking for ways to diversify municipal waste (Gaudi 2017; Keske et al. 2018a, 2018b; see also HV-GB Recyclers Facebook Page).

Finally, mine waste in the form of waste rock, mine tailings, and even the pits themselves can move between waste and value depending on the economic conditions, technology, and global demand (Keeling 2012). In Labrador, this is best represented by Schefferville. The first mine in the Labrador Trough started as the first in the 1950s, shut down in the 1980s, and since then has gone through sporadic periods of exploration and mining and slowdown depending on demand. These realities make it difficult to effectively plan for the mine’s inevitable final closure.

Living with Waste

Waste is not only a fundamental part of living, but can also be a source of life itself for humans and the plants and animals around them. The ability for waste to linger in the environment long after human use allows it to have an impact far beyond our intentions and desires. While you might interact with a plastic carrot bag for a few seconds, that bag will exist without you for millions of years – interacting with the water, earth, plants, animals, and other humans.

Some of these post-human interactions of waste can be productive. For example, on the coast of Labrador, archaeologists can often find previous dwelling places by looking for pockets of lush vegetation that flourish where people used to live. As organic and occasionally messy beings, humans leave behind thick, rich soil where plants find the opportunity to flourish. Recent waste creates unexpected opportunities too – the abandoned hydroelectric plant at Twin Falls has become an ideal bat habitat. Bats employ the abandoned power plant for easy shelter while the alders that dominate the area of the previous settlement foster bugs to feed the bats. Thus, a unique environment is created within a post-industrial, post-human landscape (Venovcevs 2020).

However, these narratives should not be used to hide the fact that over the last few hundred years waste has taken on an increasingly darker, more toxic meaning. The premeditated, large-scale waste creation has deeply transformed how Labradorians live, travel, and subsist while destroying vital animal habitats. Taken together, this pervasive waste has become a sort of unruly heritage defined by undesired, unwanted, unappreciated, and ugly things that nonetheless have to be lived with into perpetuity (Olsen and Pétursdóttir 2016).

Beyond the conspicuous legacies of land and water contamination, reservoir flooding, and mining waste, there has been an erosion of the boundary between humans and waste. Microplastics are one great example of this. Microscopic pieces of plastic are found everywhere in the environment – in bacteria, in fish, in the rainwater, and, of course, in human bodies (Liboiron 2016:95-101). As by-products of human activity, they are now a part of us and thus every one of us now carries a little bit of waste inside.

While this picture may look bleak, it leads to a more informed perspective of how to act in a polluted world. Instead of obsessing over the false dichotomy between waste and non-waste in an effort to attain an unachievable standard of purity and decontamination, we are forced to develop new ideas of ethics, justice, and politics on how to act in a permanently polluted world (Liboiron, Tironi, and Calvillo 2018). Instead of thinking that the “waste problem” can be fixed through better management, we need to challenge economic and political systems that try to normalize proliferating toxic and enduring waste, while at the same time focusing on building communities around social and ecological responsibility, especially in the places most damaged by waste’s unequal distribution.

As the remains of stone flakes from our earliest human ancestors demonstrate, our waste lingers for much longer than we humans live. If we shift our responsibilities to be long term and all-encompassing, we can work toward making gentler, more productive waste that allows human and non-human life to flourish better both in Labrador and around the world.

Anatolijs Venovcevs is currently pursuing his PhD in contemporary archaeology at UiT: The Arctic University of Norway as part of the research project Unruly Heritage: An Archaeology of the Anthropocene.

Works cited
  • Brenan, J. 2019. Archaeology and Memories of Birch Island. Master's thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador.
  • Deetz, J. 1996. In Small Things Forgotten. New York: Random House.
  • Gaudi, J. 2017. It's Not Easy Being Green: The Challenge of Recycling Household Waste in Labrador. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/challenge-of-recycling-in-labrador-1.3953008
  • Hird, M. J. 2016. DEW Line and Canada's Arctic Waste Legacy and Futurity. The Northern Review, 42:23-45.
  • Keeling, A. 2012. Mineral Waste. In C. A. Zimring & W. L. Rathje (Eds.), SAGE Encyclopedia ofConsumption and Waste: The Social Science ofGarbage (pp. 553-556). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
  • Keeling, A., and J. Sandlos. 2017. Ghost Towns and Zombie Mines: The Historical Dimensions of Mine Abandonment, Reclamation, and Redevelopment in the Canadian North. In S. Bocking & B. Martin (Eds.), Ice Blink (pp. 377-420). Calgary: University of Calgary Press.
  • Keske, C., M. Mills, L. Tanguay, and J. Dicker. 2018a. Waste Management in Labrador and Northern Communities: Opportunities and Challenges. The Northern Review, 47:79-112. doi:10.22584/nr47.2018.005
  • Keske, C., M. Mills, T. Godfrey, L. Tanguay, and J. Dicker. 2018b. Waste Management in Remote Rural Communities Across the Canadian North: Challenges and Opportunities. Detritus, 2(1). doi:10.31025/2611-4135/2018.13641
  • Lerner, S. 2010. Sacrifice Zones. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Liboiron, M. 2014. Why Discard Studies? Retrieved from https://discardstudies.com/2014/05/07/why-discard-studies/
  • Liboiron, M. 2016. Redefining pollution and action: The matter of plastics. Journal of Material Culture, 21(1):87-110. doi:10.1177/1359183515622966
  • Liboiron, M., M. Tironi, and N. Calvillo. 2018. Toxic Politics: Acting in a Permanently Polluted World. Soc Stud Sci, 48(3):331-349. doi:10.1177/0306312718783087
  • Neilsen, S., and J. Brenan. 2017. The Birch Island Archaeological Project, 2017 Investigation. In S. Hull & M. Delphina (Eds.), Provincial Archaeology Office Annual Review 2016 (Vol. 16, pp. 206-217). St. John's, NL: Department of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation. Retrieved from https://www.gov.nl.ca/tcii/files/Vol-15-2016.pdf.
  • Olsen, B., and Þ. Pétursdóttir. 2016. Unruly Heritage Tracing Legacies in the Anthropocene. Arkæologisk Forum, 35:38-45.
  • Venovcevs, A. 2017. Twentieth Century Matter: Material Culture from the Birch Island Site (FhCb-10). In S. Hull & M. Delphina (Eds.), Provincial Archaeology Office Annual Review 2016 (Vol. 16, pp. 252-256). St. John's, NL: Department of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation. Retrieved from https://www.gov.nl.ca/tcii/files/Vol-15-2016.pdf.
  • Venovcevs, A. 2020. Twin Falls - Labrador's Unruly Industrial Heritage. In S. Hull & M. Drake (Eds.), Provincial Archaeology Office Annual Review 2019 (Vol. 18, pp. 214-226). St. John's, NL: Department of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation.

Back to all Encyclopedia entries