Composting plastic-packaged food waste: A note on classifications and temporalities.

by Laura Bomm

The air is filled with a scent. A scent I know from walking past filled garbage containers. A sweet and rotten odour permeates my nostrils. Yet, there is another scent. Something woody and moist. Reminded of a walk in the woods, I see dozens of black birds flying above us. Their voices echo across the ground. And suddenly, their chatter is drowned out by a loud sound. “Beep, beep, beep” and we all know to carefully watch out. A green-orange truck rides backwards. Then, the truck stops. The beeping stops. Accompanied by a mechanical creak, its truck bed sets in motion. The loading flap opens. And what is tipped in front of our feet is a vibrant mixture of packaged and unpackaged fruits and vegetables. White, transparent, blue, and black plastic materials are enmeshed with wet halves of watermelons, white radishes, yellow banana peels, squashed tomatoes, ripped paprika, and other often undistinguishable food items. Challenged to make sense of this mixture in front of our feet, and yet amazed by its colour combinations, I took the picture below.

They can contain food, protect their quality against physical and biochemical changes, give space for marketing purposes, and provide convenience to users. The most widely used material for packaging food in Europe is plastics (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017). “As packaging, plastic was configured as a container or barrier technology and also as profoundly mundane and unnoticed.” (Hawkins, 2018, p. 99). Often hidden in plain sight, plastic packaging materializes in various forms and shapes including plastic bottles, cups, nets, crates, boxes, wrappers, and bags. Enabling multipacks, small format packaging, pre-prepared food, and to-go goods, the faces of plastic packaging are manifold. In their socio-material entanglements, many actors know plastic packaging for increasing the durability and shelf life of food items. Slowing down the speed at which food becomes food waste, plastic packaging is a vital technological ingredient facilitating contemporary food and consumption cultures. However, whilst plastic packaging can postpone food degradation processes, it does not preserve food forever. Somewhen, plastic-packaged food also reaches a point in time when it becomes waste and flows into waste recovery streams. The fieldnotes and picture above record one of these waste recovery streams: a composting facility in Vienna. In 2019, I visited this facility as an interested citizen as well as a young STS scholar working on the role of plastics in society with a time-sensitive gaze (Title of dissertation: “(Re-)Thinking plastics with time: The role of temporal narratives for citizens’ sensemaking of plastics”). And in turn, my EASST Review contribution consists of a short note regarding classifications and temporalities of composting plastic-packaged food waste, and how waste can be seen as a rich matter for a variety of different perspectives of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and other related disciplines.

Labelled as market waste, expired, exceeded shelf life, and unsellable, at Viennese markets, the guide of the composting facility tells us that several trucks with such food waste are brought to the composting facility each day. Only when food waste from the market is categorized as being too contaminated with plastics is its destination an incineration plant. Even though there are plastics (yet apparently not enough) enmeshed in the food remnants, this truckload reached the composting facility. It is a place with several different machines and a huge field with piles of composting matter, where food waste is turning into desired compost for many Viennese gardens and balconies. Thereby, food waste reaching the facility is not merely treated as waste, but also as a future resource. What is food waste today, can be a valuable matter tomorrow. Understanding that both food waste and plastic waste are matters that are open to change in categories, meaning that waste categories are not stable and dynamically change over time (Evans, 2014; Hawkins, 2018). Approaching food and plastic waste not fixed categories, speaks to the STS sensitivities that many EASST scholars pursue. Staying attentive to the transformative character of waste – including plastic-packaged food waste –, also invites scholars of STS to enrich understandings of how waste enacts and becomes enacted through socio-material relations as well as to unpack how these relations (de-)stabilize and shape how we live with waste today and in the future.

When standing in front of this truckload with a mixture of unpackaged and packaged food items, one of the first questions a visitor asked was how the food waste would be separated from the plastic waste. Visitors started to discursively categorize the truckload, using categories like still edible food, food waste, and plastic waste. What collectives of dumpster divers might have categorized as edible food items, other citizens, market sellers and employees at the composting facility categorize as food waste, as biological waste that can feed into waste recovery streams. This encounter did not only open up questions about the ontologies of waste, but also about the classifications of waste. At this composting facility, visitors classified the remnants of plastic packaging as “matter out of place” (Douglas, 2002, p. 36). Even more so, the plastics remnants were seen as matter that contaminates another waste category. In doing so, citizens raised concerns about how mixing categories of waste – or the “impurity of waste” (de Bercegol & Gowda, 2020, p. 171) would turn the valuable compost into an impure and contaminated resource. Thereby, waste becoming part of certain -yet regularly intertwined- categories are spheres where STS scholars can contribute with their sensitivities to better grasp how ordering practices and classification systems bring value and take away value from waste (Douglas, 2002). We are equipped to dive into the underlying waters of how something becomes constructed and understood as waste and how waste can (be) turn(ed) into other categories. At the same time, STS sensitivities can sharpen our scholarly attention to who are the actors whose classification systems are (not) at play and whose ordering systems (do not) shape the handling of (waste) materials; whose classifications of waste matter; and frankly speaking, how these inform the future of humans’ coexistence with (waste) materials.

At the composting facility, the guide explained that plastic packaging is not separated from food waste. Instead, the mixture from the truckload is shredded and then amassed onto long compost piles. We were shown piles of compost in different degradation stages. These compost piles with plastic-packaged food waste were interesting from an STS perspective, as they made very tangible some of the materializing intertwinements between material and temporal processes (Bensaude-Vincent, 2018; Hawkins, 2018). To be more explicit, over weeks, microbes nourished on the food fibres and juices. Food waste materials became one with the lifecycles of detritus feeders, with fungi, and other microorganisms. Over the timeframe of a few weeks, biological decay and degradation turned food waste into organic matter. Instead, food waste had turned into compost. Consequently, food waste was not recognized as such anymore. Whilst being exposed to the same timeframe left for degradation in the composting piles, shredded plastic packaging was still sitting between the organic matter. Through the durable characteristic of plastic materials, the plastic remnants and microplastics did not magically vanish in the given timeframe, but persisted. Different timescales of existence, different trajectories, different synchronies and rhythms of nature, and different persistence and durabilities are just some of the temporalities we can encounter when glimpsing at practices of composting plastic-packaged food waste. Thus, it becomes tangible that plastic-packaged food waste – like other matters of waste – is enmeshed with different dimensions of temporalities. How different dimensions of temporalities orchestrate our lives with waste, how temporalities contribute to informing our practices and consumption (paces), how temporalities of certain infrastructures contribute to the (un)making of waste, and how care for (future) waste unfolds are just some of the questions provoked by the tight entanglement between time and waste. The book by Allon, Barcan, and Eddison-Cogan (2020) with interdisciplinary contributions is an interesting glimpse at the diversity of scholarly engagement with the manifold relationships between time and waste.  

The persisting plastic particles in the compost piles were accompanied by visitors’ worries for and concerns about future human health, especially when soil – a space where food is grown – would contain potentially toxic plastic-related chemicals. This is  interesting from an STS sensitivity as it exemplifies how the future of distant others is colonized (Giddens, 1991) by our contemporary practices of composting plastics-packaged food waste. With waste from materials like plastics exceeding human lifetimes and existing in deep time, their impacts on human and environmental health have not yet materialized or are not yet fully detectable (Gray-Cosgrove, Liboiron, & Lepawsky, 2015). Even though knowledge on plastic-related impacts yet limit what we can see of plastic waste and its potential impacts (as it is also restricted by our own, short existence in relation to deep time), people’s worries around the future of plastic waste already reached the present day. Pulling potential future consequences of socio-technical phenomena – such of plastics and their accompanying waste and substances – into a closer temporal reach brings into “question […] our responsibilities toward future generations”, but also allows socio-scientific investigation to uncover “condition of structural irresponsibility” (Adam & Groves, 2011, p. 17). In this sense, the manifold spheres of waste (temporal and otherwise) invite STS scholars and related disciplines to enrich understandings about the making of our societal futures with waste and unravel how responsibilities around these remnants of progress and innovations are distributed.




Adam, B., & Groves, C. (2011). Futures tended: Care and future-oriented responsibility. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 31(1), 17-27. 

Allon, F., Barcan, R., & Eddison-Cogan, K. (2020). The Temporalities of Waste: Out of Sight, Out of Time: Routledge.

Bensaude-Vincent, B. (2018). Of Times and Things. Technology and Durability. In French Philosophy of Technology (pp. 279-298): Springer.

de Bercegol, R., & Gowda, S. (2020). Waste in the urban margins: The example of Delhi’s waste pickers. In Living in the Margins in Mainland China, Hong Kong and India (pp. 153-175): Routledge.

Douglas, M. (2002). Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2017). Beyond plastic waste. In (Vol. 358): American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Evans, D. (2014). Food Waste: Home Consumption, Material Culture and Everyday Life. London: Bloomsbury Academics.

Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age: Stanford University Press.

Gray-Cosgrove, C., Liboiron, M., & Lepawsky, J. (2015). The challenges of temporality to depollution & remediation. Surveys and Perspectives Integrating Environment and Society(8.1). 

Hawkins, G. (2018). Plastic and presentism: the time of disposability. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, 5(1), 91-102.