'It’s kind of saving them a job isn’t it?’ The consumption work of household recycling

Wheeler, Kathryn and Glucksmann, Miriam (2015). 'It’s kind of saving them a job isn’t it?’ The consumption work of household recycling. Sociological Review, 63(3) pp. 551–569.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-954X.12199


Consumers play an integral role in societal divisions of labour. Rather than simply consume, they frequently perform labour. Incorporating consumers into the division of labour poses a challenge to this foundational and enduring concept, given its traditional focus on the technical division of tasks/skills within a labour process. Yet, insofar as completion of a circuit of production, distribution, exchange and consumption is predicated on consumers undertaking work in order to/after they consume, analysis of the division of labour would be incomplete without their inclusion. This paper uses the case of household recycling to demonstrate the importance of ‘consumption work’ for the organisation of the waste management industry in England. By sorting their waste, consumers initiate a new economic process, providing feedstock (such as metals, plastics and paper) which in turn creates jobs/profits within the recycling, processing and manufacturing industries. Consumers also reconfigure public and private sector responsibilities when they sort their recyclable materials from general household waste, revealing the interdependency of consumption work with labour conducted under different socio-economic relations and across differing socio-economic domains. This paper makes the case for a renewed conception of division of labour to account for transformations and interconnections between work of different forms within contemporary society.

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