- Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rio's Garbage Dump by Kathleen M. Millar
Garbage pickers, pepenadores, and catadores are the labels by which the subjects of anthropologist Kathleen M. Millar's Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rio's Garbage Dump are known in Latin America. Uniquely, Millar does not focus on these workers as surplus to neoliberal capitalist labor markets or as marginal, precarious, or the detritus of society. Millar's ethnography instead offers a different perspective. What happens when one analyzes these lives not from the premise of lack—of skills, jobs, wealth, or social capital—but instead from their own perspective? Millar uses making a living as the conceptual framework in two interrelated ways: examining the formation of work culture and explicating the economic activities Rio de Janiero's catadores engaged in as recyclers. Her research was conducted at Jardim Gramacho, which was one of Rio's largest landfills, in the decade before it closed in 2012.
Reclaiming the Discarded is part of a relatively recent body of literature that asks scholars to reassess their assumptions and to interrogate taken-for-granted categories of analysis. Millar's analysis highlights how scholars have assumed that the economy is a real object rather than a fluid social construction. She uses the catadores' picking of plastics to show how garbage becomes a valuable good through the workers' labor. It is weighed, packaged, and reprocessed into nylon rope that is sold to international clients and manufacturers. Reclaiming the Discarded demonstrates how the catadores' economic activities defy categorization as solely informal, reframing economic activity as fluid and fungible. She illustrates that late capitalism cannot have anticipated how the informal economy enables workers to create a different kind of culture and a unique way of making a living. "Form of living" is a useful a heuristic here, as a new way of assessing economic activity and as a category for understanding the lives of the catadores.
Among the many strengths of Reclaiming the Discarded is Millar's analysis of worker culture. The book is thought provoking and insightful, but the explication of worker culture outshines even these qualities. As a participant-observer, Millar vividly details the lives of her coworkers. She highlights many reasons why people began to work in the landfill. She shows the reader that conceptions of a lumpenproletariat, a reserve labor pool, or even the detritus [End Page 436] of society are inaccurate and miss the important ways that catadores made a living in terms of work and life outside work. One would have liked to have seen more about the administration of the Jardim Gramacho and an explanation of the interactions between the drug gangs, the Gramacho administration, the scrap dealers, government authorities, and the catadores. While Millar does show the connections between these actors, one senses that the relationships were far more interwoven than she suggests. While these are minor points, they did detract somewhat from this reader's fuller understanding of the work. Millar's work potentially opens another avenue for theorizing how late capitalism is changing what it means to be a worker and the meaning of work as it relates to neoliberal capitalism. Put more simply, Millar gives scholars a meaningful framework for theorizing what the work and the workers of the future might look like.
Millar deploys her theoretical frameworks brilliantly and concisely and grounds them in real-world examples. Readers from many disciplines could benefit from the insightful analysis Millar provides. Her insistence on reframing and replacing the value judgments of the middle classes is an important contribution of the work: it illuminates how academics can fail to interrogate their own biases to the detriment of knowledge production and social reform. In these ways, Reclaiming the Discarded might help workers reclaim the dignity of working-class culture and serve as the basis for activism in the future.