Millar, Kathleen M. Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rids Garbage Dump. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.
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...