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  • From the Cult of Waste to the Trash Heap of History: The Politics of Waste in Socialist and Postsocialist Hungary
  • J.R. McNeill
From the Cult of Waste to the Trash Heap of History: The Politics of Waste in Socialist and Postsocialist Hungary. By Zsuzsa Gille (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. x + 250pp.).

Zsuzsa Gille, a sociologist who grew up in Hungary, wrote this book to correct misimpressions about the wastefulness of the Hungarian socialist economy which the Western press and many scholars presented as prodigal in its use of materials and energy. Gille remembered things differently, investigated the matter, and now has authored a tome that will surely stand as the last word on the ideas and practice surrounding Hungarian waste management in the half century after 1948.

Her primary sources consist of interviews, done mainly in the 1990s; newspapers, the use of which she says amounts to “historical ethnography”; municipal, national, trade union, and company archives, used lightly; and a novel or two, used for atmosphere. She also employs an array of Hungarian official publications and secondary works. She has read a fair bit of the English-language literature on waste management and urban environmental history as it pertains to the U.S. The burgeoning literature on Europe, much of which is in German and lately in French, she has scarcely used. [End Page 507]

The book is formatted for Gille’s fellow sociologists. Theory comes first, at a length and in a prose style that few historians will admire. Her statement of her ambitions (p19) may serve as an example:

As a sociologist, I am, however, primarily interested in complicating this rudimentary classification [of Arjun Appadurai’s] by connecting seemingly individual acts of wasting to others, and by theorizing the relationship between micro-level or individual acts of wasting and macro-level wastings. To do so, I will now identify three main aspects of wastes: spatiality, materiality, and temporality. Still remaining at the level of metatheory, I will make an argument related to each: first, that waste is liminal; second, that waste is hybrid; and third, that waste’s circulation and metamorphosis are not only socially specific but also impart unique features to, and thus are constitutive of, society.

The book argues that socialist Hungary from its earliest years developed a thrifty approach to recycling industrial metals. The Party extolled the ingenuity of metalworkers who found new ways to use old scrap. Gille includes some propaganda posters from the early 1950s that make this point nicely. Thus it emerges that the Hungarian economy was not so wasteful after all.

The model of the metallurgical industries was eventually applied to other sectors, notably the chemical industry, where it was inappropriate. Hungary developed a chemical industry, located chiefly around Budapest but also Pecs in the southwest. In the late 1960s, the Budapest Chemical Works produced a certain compound called TCB, which it sold to an Austrian company that held a contract with the US Army, which needed TCB as an ingredient in the infamous herbicide Agent Orange, then in use in the Vietnam War. Some BCW workers whom Gille interviewed believed that Hungarian TCB went into Agent Orange, although this is not clear. Just as likely, the Austrians sold their more costly TCB to the Americans and bought cheaper TCB from Hungary for routine uses. Rather than try to develop ways of disposing of toxic chemicals, the authorities sought to collect, store and somehow recycle them. This proved hard to do because industrial chemicals are different from scrap metal.

By the late 1980s, Hungary imported chemical wastes from Western Europe, because it had the capacity to store them and the hard currency that came with the chemicals was too good to pass up. Thus certain spots in Hungary acquired piles of toxic chemicals, some locally produced and some imported. As happened elsewhere, storage drums corroded and sometimes exploded, fouling the air and contaminating groundwater. As elsewhere, much of this happened in locations with large minority populations, for example around the village of Garé among Gypsies, Croats, and Germans. Gille shows that environmental justice issues existed in Hungary too. After liberalization in 1989, the scale of toxic waste...


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pp. 507-509
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