Circular Ecologies
Environmentalism and Waste Politics in Urban China
Amy Zhang



AT THE START OF MY fieldwork in 2012, I attended a public tour of a waste treatment facility on the outskirts of Guangzhou. A bus drove us from the city center to a village and dropped us off in front of the Phoenix incinerator.1 A tour guide greeted us in front of a building with a dome and a long chimney and ushered us into a lobby, then into a room where LCD screens displayed a close-up image of a flame and a garbage truck. Stopping in front of a diorama of the incinerator, the tour guide narrated the technical processes employed by the plant to treat emissions. Before leading the group upstairs, the guide directed our attention to another prominent digital display, a real-time account of pollutant emissions data—hydrogen chloride (HCI), sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), nitric oxide (NOx), and dust. When we arrived at the central control room on the fourth floor, we could see rows of engineers positioned in front of digital panels and a large screen. Our only glimpse of garbage in the thirty-minute tour came at the tail end of the walk-through. On one side of the central control room was a deep holding tank behind a glass screen, where a metal crawl moved clumps of dark matter from one side to the other.

Figure I.1. Tour-goers in the central control room during a tour to a waste-to-energy (WTE) incinerator in Guangzhou, 2013. Photo by author.

As a strategy to educate or move citizens to take action, tours of end-of-life waste treatment facilities typically bring citizens closer to their refuse.2 On this tour, however, waste was notable mostly for its absence. Neither smelled nor seen, waste was stripped of its capacity to elicit disgust. Instead, the audience was treated to a choreographed display of technology that deliberately foregrounded the accomplishment of waste-to-energy (WTE) incineration, in particular, its capacity to seamlessly transform waste into energy without generating pollution. This tour invited urban residents to witness firsthand the efficacy of this state-sponsored technology.3 By demonstrating the technological sophistication of WTE incineration to the city’s residents, organized tours were intended to garner public support for not only WTE incinerators but for a broader approach to waste that imagined techno-scientific solutions could eliminate waste altogether.

The carefully choreographed tour was particularly significant in a moment when Chinese cities had set out to actualize a modern and sustainable system of waste management. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, Chinese cities were confronting a waste crisis. From 1984 to 2012, the year that I arrived for long-term fieldwork, municipal waste in Guangzhou increased eightfold from fifty thousand tons per year to four million tons per year.4 A World Bank (2005) report estimates that by 2030 China will surpass the United States as the world’s largest waste-generating nation. China was already the world’s largest trash generating nation when, in 2018, the World Economic Forum projected that the volume of household waste in China would be double that of the United States by 2030 (Chen 2018). Like the smog that grounded flights and the rivers filled with industrial effluence, the municipal waste problem signaled China’s increasingly degraded ecology.

In recent decades, journalists and academics have tended to attribute the problem of waste in China to the offshoring of waste produced by Western nations. Such accounts have focused on how the transnational flows of capital that redefined global production and consumption also created new geographies of disposal. In the process, China became the destination for the offshoring of electronic and plastic waste from the US and Europe.5 This book, however, shows that both China’s contemporary waste crisis and the techno-scientific approach to the governance of waste that emerged in response to it are tied to an ongoing project that leverages urbanization as a strategy for growth and development. The domestic waste crisis in China in the early 2000s was, in one respect, an index of the economic successes of the previous decades. Over the last forty years, China’s embrace of a mode of state-led capitalism, an export-led model of industrialization, and the growth of an urban consumer economy have, at the same time, generated a domestic waste problem. The nation’s transition beginning in 1978 from a command economy (during the Maoist period 1949–1976) to the pursuit of export-led industrialization and rapid urbanization meant that the widespread material scarcity of the socialist era was supplanted by an ostensibly modern economy of consumption and disposal. The presence of waste in cities was the material vestige of China’s growth and development, the scale of its production and accumulation effectively an index of the degree to which a particular region or city had modernized its economy.

Figure I.2 In 2006, Greenpeace China released a report on the labor conditions and contamination related to the disassembly of electronic waste sent from the US and Europe to the village of Guiyu. © Greenpeace/Natalie Behring

By the late 1990s, however, Chinese officials no longer regarded waste as exclusively a problem of public health and sanitation.6 The growing amount of waste that overwhelmed municipal infrastructures was increasingly seen as a part of China’s growing environmental crisis. Beginning in the late 1990s, Chinese policymakers targeted waste as an object that necessitated new environmental interventions and placed waste at the center of experiments with urban development and the creation of modern, sustainable cities. In Guangzhou, officials and planners, following in the footsteps of Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities across Asia, initiated a shift away from industrial manufacturing to create a “world city.” The megacity in the Pearl River Delta, with over eighteen million people in 2022, once famous for its ports and manufacturing zones, would come to assume a place of prominence in the global network of financial capital. Sustainability was a critical part of a twenty-first-century Chinese imaginary of world cities. As a part of the goal of creating an ecological city and realizing a model of “green modernity,” new technologies, environmental governance strategies, and urban design would be incorporated in the city’s modern office towers, central business districts, and new housing developments.7

Figure I.3 In the 2010 series “Beijing Besieged by Waste” (laji weicheng), photographer Wang Jiuliang tracked over 450 illegal waste dumps in the outskirts of Beijing to visualize how waste produced another ring road to encircle the city. © Wang Jiuliang.

The Guangzhou municipal government set out in the early 2000s to enact a techno-scientific waste management program known as the circular economy (xunhuan jingji). In the 1980s and 1990s, industrial ecologists in Denmark and Germany interested in energy conservation devised a model of enclosed industrial production. To improve the efficiency of industrial manufacturing, waste from one industrial process, such as scrap metal or water, was captured and redirected as an input for another (Frosch and Gallopoulos 1989). Modeled after nature, the system balances production and consumption to create a closed loop of outputs and inputs. At the heart of the circular economy was a vision for creating a continuous circulation of things made possible by technical systems that would facilitate the transformation of waste into productive matter. Through better technology and social innovation (Goldstein 2018), the approach emphasized that “the material loop can be closed, products . . . recycled indefinitely” and the creation of “an economy that perpetually gyrates without any input of depletable resource” (Cullen 2017, 483). Modern waste management has been predominantly focused on displacement (the relegation of waste to the geographic and social margins) and containment (the segregation of waste from spaces of living).8 At the core of the circular economy’s approach to waste is an understanding of waste not as a category of thing to be discarded but as diverse matter that, through advanced technologies and governance practices, can be made to circulate continuously through cycles of production.

Map I.1 The Pearl River Delta. Map by Lily Demet Crandall-Oral.

This book traces the social, political, and ecological effects of the circular economy as it reconfigured waste matter and waste infrastructures to align with Guangzhou’s efforts to build a sustainable world city. In Guangzhou, the transformation of a diverse array of waste matter has been central to the production of urban natures and environments, to emerging political and social contestation, and to the project of imagining and making ecological cities.9 Throughout the book, I use the circular economy as a lens through which to examine the concrete policies, infrastructures, imaginaries, and on-the-ground practices that efforts to reconfigure waste have produced. On one level, the circular economy is emblematic of the Chinese state’s approach to environmental governance and engineering that encompasses policy prescriptions and technocratic projects to achieve sustainability. On another, the circular economy illuminates the ecological imaginaries embedded in its efforts to conceptualize waste matter as a novel form of nature and resource. Since the early 2000s, the Chinese state has deployed techno-science and engineering in efforts to improve the environment across broad domains including conservation, water management, agriculture, and meteorology.10 Scholars have traced the extent to which such experiments and interventions have generated new modes of political governance and extended the reach of state power.11 Seen in this light, the circular economy is one more instance of the application of techno-science to the environment and specifically, in this case, the making of the urban environment.12

The concrete enactment of the circular economy on the ground demonstrates that ecology and nature in cities are not determined by the environmental agendas of planners, engineers, or state actors. The state’s efforts to foster a techno-scientific approach to waste and environmental management generated political processes, contestations, and entanglements that drew diverse urban dwellers together. When subjected to the technologies, techniques, and practices that together make up the system of waste management, the particular affordances of waste matter manifest heterogeneous and interrelated disputes, contestations, labor practices, and experiments among the city’s residents. Across diverse manifestations—such as scrap commodities, toxic aerosols, and decomposing matter13—waste elicits ecological, social, and political imaginaries and actions.

Against the backdrop of China’s experiments in the creation of ecological cities and waste management, heterogeneous waste matter has forged circulations and collectives. I use the notion of circulation to capture the diverse and emergent chains through which waste has mediated the creation and destruction of value (Graeber 2001). Waste’s circulation illuminates that the creation of ecological cities depends on the eviction and displacement of rural bodies, the conversion of rural land for urban development, labor exploitation, and real estate growth. Waste’s circulation in multiple forms and manifestations also prompted diverse urban communities (homeowners, peri-urban villagers, waste workers, and activists) to devise novel strategies of value-making and to articulate their own claims to the city.14

The collectives that have formed around waste in Guangzhou, meanwhile, suggest that science, labor, and experimentation are potent sites for an engagement with the state’s techno-scientific project of green development and urbanization, formed against China’s authoritarian environmental governance. In the early 2010s, waste’s transformation emerged as a focus of dispute and experimental practice at three sites in Guangzhou: WTE incinerators that burn mixed waste to produce energy; formal and informal recycling practices to remove scrap commodities from the waste stream; and local experiments with novel more-than-human infrastructures15 to use microbes to transform organic waste. The forms of political action that I witnessed during my fieldwork were a reminder that efforts at ecological improvement are not politically neutral and at times have amplified existing inequalities. On the other hand, the constitution of these ecological collectives through waste—made up of middle-class homeowners, peri-urban villagers, informal scrap collectors, and sanitation workers—points to the possibility of collaboration, mutual recognition, and parallel concern forged in response to the increasingly degraded ecologies and unequal social conditions of urban life.

Climate change and ecological degradation have brought environmental politics to the mainstream. Beyond conservation and the preservation of nature, contemporary environmentalism is increasingly oriented around racial justice, decolonization, ecological reparations, and grassroots participation (Bosworth 2022; Kirksey and Chao 2022; Parreñas 2018; Stoetzer 2022; Táíwò 2022; Vaughn 2022). China’s state-led environmentalism has often been portrayed as an alternative to political stasis in the West and perhaps even as a model for mitigating the global ecological crisis, albeit one led by an authoritarian regime with little room for citizen participation, political dissent, or contestation.16 The enactment of the circular economy in Guangzhou illustrates that techno-scientific innovation and the creation of livable cities are a crucial part of how the state devises solutions to ecological problems. In practice, however, China’s approach to ecological urbanism is neither “purely” technocratic nor does it fulfill the authoritarian visions of the state. The emerging politics around waste in Guangzhou raises questions about how everyday citizens might participate in the remaking of forms of nature in cities even amid the increasingly uneven dynamics of urban growth. The transformation of waste matter both mediates and is mediated by the social and ecological dynamics of rapid urbanization: the transformation of land, daily labor practices, and the uneven distribution of pollution.

In this book, waste and its nascent urban ecological politics are ways to explore the actual political practices and possibilities of collective action that question China’s state-led environmental governance. Political movements that have emerged in response to waste since the 1970s—zero waste, freeganism, opposition to incineration, and the offshoring of waste—share the assumption that environmental solutions depend on ridding nature and society of waste.17 This book suggests that waste illuminates the material conditions and consequences of China’s techno-scientific approach to urban ecological governance. Waste generates a set of grassroots engagements that suggest that the effects of techno-science are intimately connected with the nature of work and labor. Guangzhou’s waste politics speak to waste’s endurance and capacity to generate contestation, everyday practice, and local experimentations that prove critical to the forging of ecological cities. Waste enables a collective exploration into what counts as an appropriate technology, what kinds of relations to waste and nature we seek, and who gets to work and live in cities. Temporary, flexible, and horizontal collectives around science, labor, and everyday experimentation are key sites for thinking about emergent political practices and ecological formations in contemporary China.


The challenge of managing municipal waste in the early 2010s was the result of three decades of social and economic transformations. In 1978, only 20 percent of China’s population was urban as the nation embarked on a project of economic liberalization that dismantled Maoist central planning and initiated a series of land reforms to break up the system of collective production in both cities and countryside. The household responsibility system and rural land reforms replaced collective agricultural production.18 At the same time, China established its first special economic zones (SEZs) to attract foreign investment and to jumpstart a transition to industrial production.19 Land reforms improved agricultural output and freed up rural labor to shift into industrial production. Guangzhou and the surrounding area were models of the labor-intensive, export-oriented industrial manufacturing that would come to define China’s growth in the 1980s and 1990s. Village workshops and factories manufactured textiles, electronics, and consumer goods for the Western market and transformed the region into the “world’s factory floor.” The rapid pace of industrialization that followed accelerated the transformation of rural land for industrial use that caused widespread pollution and contaminated the region’s riverways with industrial pollution. At the same time, the factories that attracted rural workers from China’s inland provinces to coastal regions rapidly increased the region’s population.

Rapid urbanization was further made possible by policy changes that facilitated the commodification of urban land and housing and the real estate boom that followed. The establishment of the country’s land lease market in 1988 set the stage for a dramatic expansion of real estate development as local and municipal governments pursued land-centered accumulation to generate revenue (Hsing 2010). The liberalization of the housing market converted agricultural land to urban sprawl to meet demand for housing and industrial and commercial space. The confluence of a state policy that promoted real estate investment with a desire for homeownership resulted in a decades-long housing boom across China’s cities. A nascent middle class would assume the acquisition of housing would make possible the pursuit of the good life (Li Zhang 2010). Further, agricultural land was systematically annexed and converted for use in industrial processing zones, high-tech “parks,” and high-density housing (Lin 2016). By the late 1990s, China was entering a new phase of urbanization where land and real estate construction became important drivers of growth.20 In most cities across China and especially in large coastal cities like Guangzhou, urban land has more than doubled since 1978. From 1979 to 2013, Guangzhou’s urban area increased by 1,500 square kilometers at an average annual rate increase of over 11 percent (Wu et al. 2016).

By the early 2000s, stagnating employment growth, environmental degradation, and overinvestment in industry prompted another shift in policy. Throughout the 1990s, household consumption did not grow at the same pace as industrial development. Despite sustained increases in real terms, household consumption as a share of GDP fell to 38 percent in 2005, the lowest share of any major economy in the world (Lardy 2016). In 2004 Wen Jiabao (premier from 2003 to 2013) announced that the state planned to abandon a long-standing and exclusive focus on industrialization and would strengthen domestic consumption as an economic growth strategy. In 2006, the State Council’s “Eleventh Five-Year Plan” positioned urbanization as a way for China to transition out of a labor-intensive industrial mode of development and to serve as an engine of economic growth by boosting domestic spending and consumption.

Figure I.4 Demolition of an urban village, 2012. Photo by author.

Where China’s cities were once organized around production, the dramatic economic growth of the post-reform period meant that cities were now increasingly centers of consumption. As household incomes rose, urbanization stimulated growth in a range of sectors including construction and services.21 Guided by the goal of becoming a “moderately prosperous society” (xiaokang shehui), the state aimed to place a television, washing machine, and refrigerator in every household (D. Davis 2000). Cell phones, restaurants, and other consumer goods followed. China built luxury shopping malls, widened freeways to accommodate millions of automobiles, and stimulated tourism by increasing national holidays. China’s megacities were now home both to a rising middle class who defined themselves through consumption, and a large rural migrant population working in a range of services to support the urban economy.

The consequences of rigid and official distinctions between urban and rural citizenship, first instituted in the Maoist era, were amplified by the process of rapid urbanization. The Maoist state adopted the hukou system to demarcate between rural and urban status. The hukou was a household registration system that assigned people and households one of two statuses: agriculture and nonagriculture for rural and urban populations respectively. Intended as a policy to prevent rural-to-urban migration, the hukou linked access to social services, health care, education, social insurance, welfare, and retirement benefits to local administrations (Chan 2007). In the post-reform era, even as rural migrants temporarily relocated to cities to fill the labor ranks necessary for urban growth, they were systematically denied access to urban services. As a “floating population,” migrant workers depended on being able to return to their rural villages to access services such as education and health care (Ling 2019; Friedman 2022).

In the early 2000s, urban planners and policymakers set out to use comprehensive planning to transform Guangzhou into a “modern global city.” In contrast to market-oriented urban growth, planners aimed by 2010 to create a modern production system, backed by a strong tertiary economy.22 Guangzhou hoped to emerge as an international financial and services center, replacing factories and ports with a knowledge and service economy. This project reflected the ambitions of the city’s political elite to claim a spot in a global urban hierarchy and to become a node in a global network of finance and capital. As in other cities across Asia, Guangzhou’s “worlding” experiments aimed to establish the city as a global hub through place promotion, rebranding, and the introduction of signature architecture to attract foreign capital (Roy and Ong 2011; Wu and Zhang 2007; Xu and Yeh 2003). Private developers enlisted famous architects to distinguish themselves in a crowded property market while the state planned and built a slate of mega-projects. Skyscrapers, modern infrastructure, and the arrival of international firms and businesses that followed signified the country’s arrival as a geopolitical power (Ren 2011).

Figure I.5 Guangzhou’s new central business district with LEED-certified buildings, 2012. Photo by author.

Across China, two decades of industrialization and urbanization had generated increasing amounts of pollution, which undermined the livability of cities. In Guangzhou, the remediation and remaking of the environment and ecology were also central to efforts to become a world city. Municipalities became increasingly concerned with improving air quality, building green space, remediating waterways, and reducing waste. Technology and green design became central to China’s project of establishing a form of green modernity as a way to mitigate the effects of climate change, resource shortages, and environmental disasters. The state’s pursuit of ecological urbanism relied on a series of technical adjustments (Günel 2019); the idea was that better technology and more modern, green infrastructure would move cities away from a dependence on fossil fuels and toward a green future.

Urban political ecologists have long resisted the distinction between nature and society and instead regard the production of ecologies and urban space as a sociopolitical process. The material artifacts of our built environment—for instance, water meters, electrical grids, and housing—ground political contestation and disputes and shape ethical reflection and sentiments (Anand 2017; Larkin 2008; von Schnitzler 2017). Attempts to reconfigure waste management in cities offer a unique lens on how the state’s project to remake nature has amplified the existing social landscape of growing urban-rural inequality. The mobilization of ecological features and sustainability is pivotal to the project of reinventing cities as sites of investment, spectacle, and consumption for the urban elite. At the same time, the production of urban natures has elicited contestations that reveal how the politics of labor, distribution, and access to environmental resources undergird the production of green cities (Checker 2020; Goh 2021).

Figure I.6 Skyscrapers in the Tianhe downtown core, 2013. Photo by author.


On the evening of December 8, 2012, I attended a talk hosted by the Guangzhou Municipal Urban Management Committee (Guangzhou shi chengshi guanli weiyuanhui) titled “Waste Is Besieging the City: Guangzhou Says No!” In a packed lecture hall in the bustling commercial center of Tianhe District, citizens and journalists listened as Bao Wu,23 head of the city’s recycling campaign, described rapid urbanization and an emerging waste crisis. Bao described protests in Panyu and Huadu districts (in 2009 and 2012), where homeowners and villagers living near the proposed facilities were concerned that the emissions from the burning of mixed waste would endanger the environment and their health. Bao spent the remainder of the talk encouraging citizens to “do their part” to alleviate the waste crisis by participating in the city’s citizen recycling campaign and by separating their garbage into one of four categories: organics, recyclables, toxic waste, and other waste. Bao’s focus on the promotion of recycling was an oblique response to a critique by protesters that, in practice, Guangzhou’s WTE incinerators generated pollution in part because the city lacked a system of waste separation. Activists argued that WTE incinerators in Guangzhou were more likely to burn plastics and toxics because residents did not recycle and were more likely to burn organics because residents generated over 7,000 tons of organic waste each day, over 50 percent of the total municipal waste stream.

Critiques by waste activists illuminated the fact that the emergence and growth of a post-industrial consumer economy in post-reform China generated not only an increasing quantity of waste but a dramatic change in the quality of the municipal waste stream. In the 1980s, ash from indoor coal heating made up a large portion of Guangzhou’s waste. Today, the municipal waste stream, the stuff that flows from waste bins of households and office buildings, is becoming ever more heterogeneous, diverse, and difficult to manage. The waste stream increasingly carries the material remnants of a regime of convenience and disposability and is made up of plastic, composite matter, and paper—matter that is difficult to break apart and that often imprints its toxic marks on bodies and environments for hundreds of years over the duration of its decomposition (H. Davis 2022). Concerns about the feasibility of WTE incineration indexed the extent to which the diverse and heterogeneous streams of waste presented challenges to the state’s technological solution. At the same time, these concerns led to people making connections between different aspects of the waste stream, from its collection to its treatment, and between different types of waste: organics, recyclables, and those designated for burning.

The packed lecture also revealed the degree to which waste—once the exclusive domain of engineers, planners, and municipal officials—was now an issue of widespread public debate and concern. In the 1970s, the introduction of curbside recycling and the slogan “reduce, reuse, and recycle” became a hallmark of the modern American environmental movement. That movement aligned waste management with mobilizing everyday citizens to environmental action through recycling. Environmental campaigns tend to focus on citizen behavior and to promote recycling so that a subset of the waste stream (typically recyclables) can be recovered. Bao’s promotion of municipal recycling as a strategy to facilitate the success of WTE incineration in 2012, however, was not only in service of an effort to promote environmental participation. Together, WTE incinerators and recycling were critical parts of a broader state agenda to create a circular mode of waste management.

Chinese policymakers and engineers first began experimenting with the circular economy in the 1990s as a materials management strategy for promoting cleaner production in industrial sectors.24 Engineers established pilot projects to create a closed-loop materials management system in industrial zones and eco-parks. Within a decade, however, the circular economy had become the cornerstone of a broad vision that shaped national-level approaches to green development.25 Efforts to realize the circular economy prompted an increasingly comprehensive set of policies across diverse sectors ranging from resource extraction, industrial production, and waste management. In 2005 and 2007, the State Council launched the first pilot projects in cities under the guise of the circular economy to reform industries like steel, nonferrous metals, coal, and textiles and to promote the use of renewable resources. In addition, the law regulated the disposal of electronic waste, batteries, tires, and packaging. The adoption of China’s Circular Economy Promotion Law in 2008 elevated the circular economy to a national-level framework for sustainability, and in 2013, Guangdong Province issued its own Circular Economy Law.26

Figure I.7 A poster inside a WTE incinerator reads “Science sets the direction of development, environmental protection gives Guangzhou its wings (of growth),” 2013. Photo by author.

The 2012–2020 Guangzhou Municipality Circular Economy Development Plan offered a blueprint for how circular economy projects would be adapted to municipal planning and development. The plan stipulated that circular economy practices be central to the city’s economic and urban development as a vehicle for instituting a model of scientific development, a transition to a green economy, and a shift toward a “New Urbanization” characterized by “low energy consumption, low emission, low pollution, and high efficiency” (dixiaohao, diwuran, dipaifang, gao xiaolü).27 The efficient and circular use of resources would be achieved through “reduction, resourcification, and detoxification” (jianliang hua, ziyuan hua, wuhai hua).28 If the aim of the circular economy in the Twelfth Year Plan (2010–2015) was to resolve a growing contradiction between ecological degradation and economic development, the pursuit of “circularity, low-carbon, and greenness” (xunhuan, ditan, lüse) would guide Guangzhou’s transformation into an “ecological city” (shengtai chengshi).29

Under the circular economy, municipal waste management, long understood as a biopolitical imperative by the Chinese state critical for the governance of populations, was reconceptualized as a project of producing a green future. In the Republican Era, waste management was primarily concerned with sanitation and the management of germs and disease (Rogaski 2004), while in the Maoist period, the management of scrap commodities was part of a socialist project of national development. In the late 1990s, however, the introduction of the circular economy was part of a broader shift in the Chinese state’s approach to environmental governance. In response to decades of environmental pollution, grassroots protests, and the influx of international NGOs, by the end of the decade, the Chinese state abandoned its previous policy of growth at all costs and began strengthening its capacity for environmental governance. As the environmental dimension of the so-called harmonious society (hexie shehui), the circular economy was tasked with reconciling economic and environmental goals with a social and political project to address pollution, resource scarcity, and social unrest (Naustdalslid 2014), a shift that exemplified the extent to which environmental and political ambitions were intertwined.

Scholars have observed that China’s environmental governance is not only an extension or hardening of authoritarian ideological rule,30 but a set of experiments in the production of nature. As Jerry Zee points out, the practice of “politics”—the necessity of making, containing, and securing China’s political geography—is realized through ecological experimentation, or what he calls the “becoming-with a changing nature” (Zee 2022, 25). The state is an “experimental system—open and adaptive, continuously tinkered for unexpected circumstances” (25). The environmental state reiterates a tendency in Chinese governance to privilege scientific reasoning and technicist thinking and to prioritize large-scale ecological engineering (Rodenbiker 2023). China’s approach to conservation “necessitates large-scale human intervention” (Zhu 2022, 190) and prioritizes engineered environments over the preservation of natural ecosystems. China’s ecological governance is both flexible and adaptive, one open to being shaped by global currents and local social formations (Hathaway 2013).

The circular economy makes evident a tendency of China’s ecological regime not only to experiment but also to deploy science and technology to reconfigure natures to further a project of capitalist growth and accumulation. Especially in a time of biodiversity loss, climate change, and resource scarcity, the circular economy perpetuates the idea that socioecological engineering can produce an infinite nature by dissociating waste from pollution to imagine it as an endless resource. The circular economy exemplifies an impulse in ecological modernization to resolve the contradictions between economic growth and environmental degradation through technology (Zhang, Mol, and Sonnenfeld 2007). It makes explicit the rationale behind China’s approach to green development that deploys technologies and governance strategies to devise a new relationship to nature. Anticipating a future where all waste matter can once again be made productive,31 the circular economy reconceptualizes production systems at various scales as enclosed “perpetual motion machines” (Cullen 2017). The implicit goal of the governance strategies and techno-fixes perpetuated by the circular economy is to uphold capitalism’s promise of continuous growth while mitigating the environmental degradation that growth produces.


In 2013, slogans like “low-carbon economy, knowledge city” (ditan jingji zhihui chengshi) adorned the walls of One West Village, an urban gated housing complex in Guangzhou’s western Liwan District. Every day after dinner, residents would carelessly toss plastic bags weighed down with vegetable trimmings, broken plates, and plastic wrappings into waste bins. Later, Lao Huang, one of the complex’s sanitation workers, would go from floor to floor, picking up heavy overflowing bags from stairwells and move them into elevators and eventually to the lobby. He would then deposit the bags into a three-wheel pushcart, before pushing the load to the local transfer station. The daily routine of expelling waste in Guangzhou relied on the labor of sanitation workers like Lao Huang.

Waste management is most often understood as a set of infrastructures that facilitate the disposal of objects. Discard scholars working in a range of contexts have demonstrated that waste creates intimate relations of social redistribution and differentiation in a dialectic of development and disposability; the growth and modernization of certain lives and spaces demand that others be understood as unclean, dirty, and disposable (Butt 2023; Doherty 2021). Waste and waste infrastructures are useful sites to explore state retraction from and disinvestment in public services in the wake of the neoliberal turn, particularly in the rapidly urbanizing cities of the Global South (Fredericks 2018; Millar 2018). As Max Liboiron and Josh Lepawsky argue, wasting and discarding are “techniques of power” that facilitate the formation and maintenance of hierarchies that render some lives disposable in order to sustain others (2022, 7).

Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins, in a study on waste in Palestine, uses the concept of a “waste siege” to describe waste’s perpetual presence. In place of disposability, she proposes that we understand waste as matter that cannot be easily sent away. She notes that “waste—like the total volume of water on earth—never truly disappears . . . [but] merely changes place and form” (Stamatopoulou-Robbins 2020, 23). For Stamatopoulou-Robbins, the waste siege is an “emission from within” that perpetually returns in a range of states and forms (7). The concept conveys both a broader relationship between consumerism and waste, as well as waste’s relationship to the urban ecology in Guangzhou (and elsewhere).32

A materialist approach to discard studies holds that waste’s discursive and ontological positions are neither singular nor stable, and urges scholars to trace waste’s movement through “the circuits of production, distribution, consumption, reclamation, and ‘annihilation’” (Gille 2010, 1050). Scholars argue that the leftovers of postconsumer capitalism are vital, heterogeneous, and “must be effaced, enrolled, exported, or expunged” to uphold the continual production of value (Gidwani and Maringanti 2016, 125). In contrast to a long genealogy of scholarship focused on capitalism’s tendencies to efface, export, or expunge, waste’s ubiquity and continuous presence invite an interrogation of enrollment, of how differentiated forms of matter produce a set of diverse networks and relations. Waste’s capacity for enrollment generates indeterminate effects that might include the reproduction of the uneven distribution of pollution and displacement of harms but also the capacity to secure and distribute value and political effects. Waste matter’s transformation is the very mechanism that draws together technologies, objects, bodies, and ecologies.33

The circular economy imagines that all types of waste can be continuously enrolled into a project of capitalist accumulation, even as waste’s afterlife produces diverse and indeterminate effects as it is transformed, decomposed, and broken down (Gille 2010; Moore 2012). The matter of waste—nature having been extracted, produced, commodified, and discarded—across many states—toxic aerosol, discarded plastics, rotting organics—persists and endures in bodies and ecologies. Waste’s afterlives exhibit the “gritty, messy, often intricate, inevitably intimate matters of infiltration and interdependence” between bodies and environments (Weston 2017, 11). Waste matter shows a propensity for persistence and endurance and the capacity to continuously draw together diverse matters and objects.

In Guangzhou, waste’s circulation both mediates and is mediated by the creation and destruction of various forms of economic, ecological, and social value.34 Marxist scholars invoke circulation to emphasize the idea that capital is value in motion (Harvey 2010) and that accumulation is a function of the continuous movement of capital through M-C-M´ (money capital, commodity, expanded money capital) (Marx 1976). Recent scholarship treats circulation not only in reference to physical movement but also “the transformation of value into different forms,” an important process that constitutes the circulation of capital (Cowen 2014, 101).35 Vinay Gidwani argues that waste is central to the logic of accumulation and produces what he calls a waste-value dialectic. Tracing the transformation of waste under capitalism, he uses W-(M-C-M´)-W´ to describe waste’s role in the production of value. In Gidwani’s formulation, “matter nature as untapped potential (‘waste’) is pressed into commodity production generating new forms of waste at various moments: the moment of appropriation (when waste is enrolled into capital’s circuit), in the moment of production (as leakage, chaff, entropic exudation, and ingestion of the worker’s ‘living’ labor) and finally in the moment of consumption (as unusable and reusable matter)” (Gidwani 2013, 781). Waste, across various forms, marks both an external and internal frontier, as matter that needs to be continuously transformed because of its unruly capacity “to confound capitalism’s attempts to discipline and contain life within the domain of utility and accumulation” (781).

Gidwani emphasizes the need to focus on the multiple and changing ways that capitalist circulation continuously generates new forms of waste and, in the process, produces what he calls “matter nature.” Neil Smith (2008) famously used “second nature” to distinguish raw, uncommodified, and inherited nature (first nature) from nature produced through human activity toward commodification, for the purposes of generating exchange value. The circular economy raises the question of how to understand the relationship between waste and nature when capital imagines that nature can be continuously transformed (i.e., commodified), where waste after commodification is put to use in the further production of value. The circular economy mobilizes both science and capital to subject matter to further rounds of capitalist expropriation after commodification and disposal. At the same time, waste’s transformation illuminates how the different forms of “matter nature” generate particular effects as they circulate and redistribute both value and harm throughout the city’s ecology. Waste’s entanglement within Guangzhou’s urban ecology reveals the ongoing dynamics of capitalism’s appropriation of nature through both labor and technology. Capitalism continuously reconfigures not only human society but also the “web of life” that humans find themselves suspended in and supported by (J. W. Moore 2015).


In the fall of 2009 homeowners in a housing development in Panyu learned about a proposed WTE incinerator near their complex. Concerned about the potential of the facility to disperse harmful toxins, homeowners began discussing the negative effects of toxic emissions from incineration in a WeChat group. On November 23, 2009, homeowners from neighboring complexes and from local villages gathered to protest the proposed facility. The protest was one of the largest environmental protests in the city’s history. Through subsequent actions, such as petitioning officials and writing editorials in newspapers, local residents succeeded in temporarily halting the incinerator’s construction. By 2012 the municipality had proposed a new location for the facility. The construction on the new site, however, was premised on the relocation of another village even further on the city’s outskirts.

Almost four years later, in the spring of 2013, I waited for Yuan Fei in a ground-floor apartment of a middle-class gated complex in Guangzhou’s Southern Panyu District. Arriving a few minutes late, Yuan Fei greeted a group of volunteers gathered to convert the empty apartment into a neighborhood community center. We spent the afternoon dusting and cleaning while we talked about ideas for workshops—waste reduction, upcycling, battery collection, composting—the volunteers planned to organize in the new space. For Yuan Fei and others, participation in the 2009 Panyu anti-incineration protest was only the beginning of waste activism. In 2010 Yuan Fei decided to leave his successful career as a construction contractor to form an environmental NGO, Eco-Canton. With Eco-Canton, Yuan Fei returned to communities that had been among the first and most vocal opponents to WTE incineration. Yuan Fei believed that the solution to Guangzhou’s waste crisis would not come from WTE incinerators or even formalized recycling programs. Instead, waste created an opportunity for activists to “work from the ground up” (jiediqi).

In the months that followed, Yuan Fei and his neighbors shifted their attention to the organic waste that had troubled the technical functioning of WTE incinerators and had undermined the success of recycling campaigns. In the community center, homeowner activists devoted themselves to an experimental project fermenting organics to make a solution that they used to cleanse and purify their bodies, homes, and local riverways. Yuan Fei’s narrative challenges a common characterization of China’s emerging middle class as apolitical, acquiescent beneficiaries of the nation’s economic ascent. The activity room at Garden Villa manifested how disputes over waste in this period generated ongoing, sustained, and unexpected connections that drew diverse things and people together.

In China, notions of the collective or collectives (jiti) carry a socialist valence. The Maoist era launched the project of collectivization (jiti shengchan), as agrarian reforms and production brigades brought social and political life into alignment with a socialist planned economy. Collectivization meant not only a mode of production but also a social and political project that set the terms of social belonging, ethics, and political reasoning. The post-reform period saw the dismantling of socialist collectives and, in the 1980s, the state relinquished control over institutions that regulated daily life by breaking up collectivist farming and liberalizing state-owned enterprises (SOEs). The creation of a commercial housing market accelerated urban development and uprooted communities. The post-reform project has also reoriented the self toward individualization rather than collective concerns (Yan 2009).

I use collectives to refer to the modes of gathering and political articulations across difference that emerged alongside the state’s environmental projects. In disputes and practices around waste, diverse waste matter in transformation created temporary and emergent social and ecological interdependencies and gave rise to new political sentiments and actions. My use of collectives draws on two related concepts: publics and assemblages. Unlike citizenship, which denotes formal rights and obligations, publics capture communities and coalitions formed in response to a condition irrespective of identity and affinity. Publics capture the idea of “a community of the affected” to describe “those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for” (Dewey 2016, 69). Science and technology studies often take for granted the emergence of “publics” and “counterpublics” formed in response to controversies concerning risk, safety, and the appropriateness of technologies (Aga 2021; Callison 2014; Hess 2016). Fundamentally, the notion of a public assumes a democratic context for engaging with science, that citizens can gather to organize politically and to freely articulate their demands in existing forums.36 I use collectives intentionally to think about emergent ecological and social formations in an illiberal context. Understood as nascent political communities, as used here collectives invite questions about how a shared object of concern can bring communities together to generate social and political effects where and when the state tightly monitors and limits public action.

Writing about the conditions of living and acting in a time of ecological ruin, Anna Tsing borrows “assemblage” from ecologists to describe life forms that transcend the fixed boundaries of ecological “communities” (2015, 22). Assemblages are “open-ended gatherings” that allow us “to ask about communal effects without assuming them” (22–23); They invite us to think about “unintentional coordination” across the histories, ecologies, and economies that make lifeways (23). Timothy Choy similarly uses “ecologies of comparison” to denote how knowledge-making practices have generated an “emergent web of relationships among constitutive and constituting parts” (2011, 12).

In Guangzhou, the circulation and transformation of waste generated a set of social and political relations among citizens through their engagement with the state’s ecological projects. The diverse types of actions and claims around waste meant that there was not one single community of the affected. Instead, waste facilitated the formation of political strategies that evaded the state’s control and collaborations that cut across class and rural/urban affinities. The specific material affordances of different types of waste made it possible for a set of distinct but interrelated disputes to emerge: scientific politics against WTE incinerators, labor politics from the recuperation and resale of scraps, and local experimentations with the transformation of organic waste.

Waste is a systemic irritant to techno-utopian attempts to continuously extract value from the circulation and transformation of nature. Systemic irritants derive their power from such cascading effects that amplify the flaws and shortcomings of not just the system on the ground but the conceits and biases that informed its design. To accommodate the systemic irritant or resolve the challenges it poses is to overhaul the structure of the system itself.37 Mundane but fundamentally troublesome to the system, every attempt to resolve the contradictions that waste posed cascaded through different components of the system as glitches, mutations, and unruly objects that transmute, reappear, and evade efforts at absorption or elimination. The material specificities of waste challenged the vision of the circular economy which imagined waste as a neutral and homogenous substrate for recirculation and the extraction of value. In addition to troubling the vision of the circular economy, waste as a systemic irritant also generated new collectives.

In Guangzhou, organic waste was the systemic irritant par excellence. Wetness and susceptibility to decomposition particularly in the city’s tropical heat and humidity, meant that organics caused problems in all phases of waste’s management. Organic waste made burning waste at high temperature difficult and left valuable waste hard to extract. Organics not only troubled the vision of the seamless circulation of waste. Its central effect was to gather novel scientific, labor, and experimental collectives in a set of distinct but related disputes and inquiries, and in so doing, it illuminated the possibilities and necessity of considering the complex ecological, social, and political relations and interdependencies between objects, spaces, and residents of the city. The transformation of different waste streams—the burning of waste at WTE incinerators, the reclamation of recyclables, and local solutions to treat organics—generated a set of interconnected relations that drew diverse urban dwellers together. Science, labor, and experimentation are terrains of environmental struggle for urbanites to devise new modes of political articulation, a recognition of mutual interest, and opportunities for collaboration.

Waste collectives are post-socialist urban political formations that emerged in response to the ecological experiments of the Chinese state. In particular, the temporary, flexible, and horizontal nature of such collectives demonstrate the importance of attending to the interconnections between distinct modes of political articulation and practices. Authoritarian control continually spawns institutions, structures, and techniques of control to disrupt the potential for mass mobilization. Despite explicit constraints on political expression and collective action, scholars have charted the capacity for everyday citizens to mobilize through protests, institutionalized forms of appeals and legal action, or by disguising collective appeals as individual actions. Against the open-ended experimental nature of China’s rising ecological state, the concept of “collectives” charts the types of associational life and modes of political articulations and practices well adapted to the authoritarian state’s “flexible repression.”38 Waste has precipitated a set of allied, collaborative, and aggregated responses against the state’s top-down environmental governance. Novel social and political collectives forged by waste illustrate that contestation and dissent are integral to the production of urban ecologies. They also suggest that different communities of rural and urban dwellers coming together through science, labor, and experimentation can lead to new modes of political action and practices.


The actualization of the circular economy was carried out through the introduction of a new framework for waste governance, development, and planning. In the early 2000s, garbage (laji) was handled by the Guangzhou Municipal Bureau for Environment and Hygiene (Guangzhou shi shirong huanjing weisheng ju), which operated across municipalities, districts, and subdistricts. At the municipal level, the bureau oversaw municipal sewage treatment plants and fleets of sanitation and cleaning vehicles; their responsibilities also included cleaning up the lakes and bodies of water in the city and operating end-of-life waste treatment facilities. Each district operated a sanitation division in charge of collecting and maintaining public toilets, cleaning fleets and vehicles, and cleaning personnel. Each subdistrict (jiedao banshi chu) oversaw their own sanitation stations and street sweeping teams.

By the late 1990s, Guangzhou introduced its first comprehensive “environmental sanitation” (huanjing weisheng) plan.39 The concept of environmental sanitation first emerged in municipal documents and increasingly reflected a shift in the conceptualization of environmental management from its initial biopolitical imperative concerned with sanitation (weisheng)—in Chinese literally the “guarding of life” (Rogaski 2004)—to a totalizing strategy focused on the reconfiguration of the environment (huanjing). In contrast to concerns about the management of germs and diseases, environmental sanitation was concerned with the measurement and regulation of industrial pollution and other aspects of the urban environment, such as the regulation of noise. By the mid-2000s, the expanding scope of “environmental sanitation” brought waste management into alignment with the project to create an ecological city.

The two iterations of Guangzhou’s “Environmental Sanitation” Comprehensive Plan (2000 to 2010 and 2010 to 2020)40 were a blueprint for the actualization of a set of technical systems and practices intended to reconfigure the organization, flow, and conversion of municipal waste according to a vision of circulation. The plans made clear first and foremost that sustainable waste management was predicated on the disaggregation of Guangzhou’s waste stream. The totality of waste in the city was broken down into four distinct categories: organic waste or kitchen waste (chuyu laji, leftover kitchen scraps, yard waste, and anything compostable), recyclable waste (kehuishou laji, paper, plastics, metals, glass), toxic waste (youhai laji, batteries, paint), and other waste (qita laji, anything that cannot be easily sorted and recovered, e.g., dirty napkins and thin plastic bags). Engineers and planners recognized that a circular economy depended on systems, practices, and technologies tailored to the qualities of specific matter in the waste stream.

The Environmental Sanitation Plans were holistic and viewed waste management as embedded in broader urban planning and development. They also explicitly laid out the expansion, integration, and extension of state bureaucracy and infrastructures through waste management. The plan detailed strategies encompassing but not limited to the siting and selection of end-of-life infrastructures including WTE incinerators, the organization of collection and transfer stations, waste collection vehicles, and education and media campaigns. In 2009 the Guangzhou municipality established the Guangzhou Municipal Urban Management Committee (Guangzhou shi chengshi guanli weiyuanhui), in part to aid the reorganization of waste management infrastructures across the city, including the siting of proposed incineration plants.

Significantly, the municipal government hoped to rely on two strategies for realizing sustainable and green waste management in Guangzhou: WTE incinerators and citizen recycling. The state imagined WTE incineration replacing landfilling as the dominant form of end-of-life waste technology.41 In 2012 most municipal solid waste (MSW) in Guangzhou ended up at the Xingfeng landfill, responsible for processing 91 percent of the 18,000 tons of waste generated each day.42 At the time of its construction in 2002, Xingfeng was one of the largest landfills in Asia. By 2012 however, the facility was approaching capacity almost ten years ahead of schedule. The 2010 Guangzhou Municipal Environmental Sanitation Plan included a stated goal of treating over 70 percent of municipal waste through WTE incineration in the city by 2030. As of 2012 the Guangzhou municipal government planned to build six more facilities by 2018, a conclusive milestone after which WTE incineration would be the primary mode of waste treatment in the city measured by mass of waste treated.43

While municipal planning aimed to present a coordinated extension of state control, efforts to put the plan into practice on the ground revealed numerous gaps and discontinuities. The difficulties of realizing municipal mandates at the local level were especially apparent in Guangzhou’s efforts to promote citizen recycling. In April 2011 Guangzhou mandated city-wide citizen recycling.44 In contrast to large infrastructure projects, citizen recycling campaigns relied on coordination between street-level bureaucrats, building management companies (private companies in charge of providing sanitation service), residents’ associations, and new civil society actors eager to engage in grassroots action. Recycling campaigns hinted at a reimagining of the “neighborhood” as an institution of urban governance, but more importantly, recycling positioned citizen practice, driven by a voluntaristic ethos, as the hallmark of a sustainable form of waste management. The official plan made no mention of how sanitary workers and informal collectors might participate in the collection and diversion of recyclables. Nor did the plan specify how the handling of recyclable or scrap commodities (feipin) would intersect with the existing scraps sector and the series of recycling depots left over from the era of state-run recycling under the Maoist period.

Figure I.8 The 227-acre Xingfeng landfill cost over 100 million dollars to construct and began operating in 2003. Once the largest landfill in Asia, as of 2022, it is the tenth largest landfill in the world, 2013. Photo by author.

One particularly striking detail of Guangzhou’s waste management strategy was that it neglected to devise a clear separation, storage, and end-of-life technology for the treatment of organic waste, even though organic waste made up over 50 percent of the city’s total waste stream. In 2012 the Datianshan composting pilot project, an urban composting facility capable of handling more than a hundred tons of organic waste per day, was quickly losing government support as officials sparred over the economic feasibility of scaling up the process (Huang 2013). While some neighborhoods experimented with the separation of organics, in 2012 and 2013, when I was conducting my fieldwork, it remained unclear what the city planned to do with organic waste. While in subsequent years Guangzhou would introduce large bio-gas facilities to treat organics, state policy and planning that prioritized WTE incineration initially neglected the organic waste stream. This oversight reflected the fundamental discrepancy between an imagined circular economy and the actual compositions, circulations, and flows of waste matter.


Waste’s transformation changed the city’s land, water, and air. Fed by tropical monsoons, the Pearl River Delta provided a fertile ground for rice and other forms of agriculture. Because of the city’s long history as a trading port and center of maritime trade, it had both an outward orientation and a strong regional social and political identity.45 By the early 1990s, the city was the site of some of the earliest experiments in land consolidation and real estate development in the country, as land-lease revenue became a key source of income for local governments. Panyu was home to early investment by Hong Kong real estate developers. Infused with outside capital, developers worked closely with officials and village cadres to transform land into commercial housing developments (Hsing 2010, 43).

In recent years, rapid expansion and political reforms have repeatedly redrawn the borders of Guangzhou’s urban districts. Once concentrated in western districts (Liwan, Yuexiu, Haizhu), development pushed growth toward the east and north, absorbing villages on the peri-urban edge. In 2000 Guangzhou comprised ten city districts (Yuexiu, Dongshan, Haizhu, Liwan, Tianhe, Baiyun, Huangpu, Fangcun, Huadu, and Panyu) (J. Xu and Yeh 2003) and two county-level cities (Chonghua and Zengcheng). In 2012–2013, during the time of my long-term fieldwork, Guangzhou’s ten city districts and two county-level cities took on a different configuration (Yuexiu, Haizhu, Liwan, Tianhe, Baiyun, Huangpu, Huadu, Panyu, Nansha, and Luogang, along with Chonghua and Zengcheng).46 After I returned from the field, Guangzhou underwent two additional rounds of significant redistricting in 2014 and 2021.47 In 2023, at the time of the book’s completion, Guangzhou is divided into eleven districts, six in the historical city center (Yuexiu, Liwan, Tianhe, Haizhu, Panyu, Baiyun), and five larger districts on the outskirts of the city (Huangpu, Nansha, Conghua, Zengcheng, and Huadu).

This book’s chapters document how waste’s circulation amplified the social unevenness of urban growth across the city’s peri-urban and central districts. In chapters 2, 3, and 5, I trace the rise and aftermath of anti-incineration protests and activism among peri-urban homeowners and villagers in Panyu, Huadu, and Baiyun. In newly annexed peri-urban districts, the consolidation of rural land for urban development complicated the siting of WTE incinerators, leading to the rise of anti-incineration politics. Where waste was once relegated to distant rural sites outside the city, Guangzhou’s rapid urbanization meant that rural land, particularly that in the vicinity of the urban, was now increasingly a desirable target for real estate development. As edge districts were incorporated into the city, real estate developers increasingly leveraged environmental features to market housing developments. For urban middle-class residents in Panyu and Huadu, housing developments on the city’s outskirts were desirable as reprieves from the congested, polluted landscapes of the city center. A desire to defend their access to clean air and water from waste also led middle-class homeowners to devise new forms of waste politics.

Map I.2 Districts of Guangzhou, 2012. Map by Lily Demet Crandall-Oral.

The tension between rural and urban was also manifested in the process of absorbing rural villages for urban development within Guangzhou’s central districts. In Guangzhou, becoming a “world city” was a function of the redesign and reproduction of urban space and of securing rural land for urban development. Chapters 1 and 4 examine how aesthetics was central to both the design and rise of governance strategies for remaking Guangzhou in the image of ecological urbanism. Once a peripheral district at the city’s eastern reach dotted with sports stadiums, villages, and scrap depots, Tianhe is now the city’s second-most important commercial hub. In Tianhe’s central business district, the making of a modern ecological city is predicated on both the evisceration of chengzhongcun villages, land under rural jurisdiction surrounded by urban districts, and through signature architecture and design. Chapter 4 turns to Liwan District, in the heart of its old city. Here, too, new aesthetic and spatial principles defining environmental sustainability influenced the presence and movement of waste. In both Tianhe and Liwan, the pursuit of ecological urbanism involved the implementation of new regulations and controls regarding waste management, alongside the transformation of urban spaces. These changes constrained the mobility of rural migrants responsible for waste cleanup, maintenance, and the labor-intensive task of diverting and organizing waste.


I take as my object of study the totality of waste in Guangzhou and treat that totality as a complex socio-technical system composed of people, technologies, objects, and practices. Research on waste in the social sciences tends to center on one type of waste matter or a singular waste site: for instance, examining the lives of collectors and sanitation workers at waste dumps (Reno 2016; Millar 2018) or militarized industrial sites (Krupar 2013; Reno 2020). My multisited ethnography is guided by and follows how different streams of municipal solid waste—organics, recyclables, and other waste—mobilized diverse groups of urban actors. I draw on actor-network theory and its insistence to not take categories such as “society,” “nature,” or “waste” as predefined; I follow its suggestion of tracing the interactions that assemble actors and objects in moments when they become matters of political interest or concern. My research has also been informed by Latour’s argument for tracing “the connections between controversies” after they have unfolded (Latour 2005, 23). In particular, I focus on how waste’s relations amplified and reproduced uneven structural power conditions and worlds (Fortun 2014) across Guangzhou’s urban geography.

Methodologically, I keep open the possibility of change, transformation, and political agency by examining waste infrastructure through the moment of its formation, a period of what I call “infrastructural extension.” Waste’s circulation is usually relegated to the background of everyday urban life. Scholars have argued that infrastructure becomes visible during moments of spectacular breakdown or through mundane acts of maintenance (Star 1999). Infrastructural extension refers to the inception of infrastructural systems, in which the scale, form, and shape of infrastructure features prominently in political disputes.48 As the Guangzhou municipality embarked upon the work of envisioning and of actualizing a green and modern waste infrastructure in the 2010s, the technologies and policies that aimed to reconfigure waste’s circulation became the center of a municipal controversy.49 The period of infrastructural extension offers a venue to witness the readjustment and recalibration of existing structures (Anand 2017), and the gap between conceptualization and implementation (Ferguson 1994; Mosse 2005). Moments of adapting existing systems toward future pathways opens up emergent modes of political action.

Ethnographers have shown that waste infrastructures are not uniform technical systems but “heterogeneous infrastructural configurations” composed of both technological infrastructures and everyday labor practices (Lawhon 2017). As complex socio-technical and political configurations, waste infrastructures enable the flow, circulation, and metabolism that govern the urbanization of nature.50 The proliferation of social and physical conduits or networks of metabolic vehicles aimed to facilitate circulation often, at the same time, “metaboliz[ing] or provok[ing] a change in matter” (Swyngedouw 2006, 108). If the tendency of capitalist development is to generate new strategies to appropriate nature for continuous production, I trace the specific ways that waste matter’s circulation generates not only changes in matter but political sentiments, alliances, and actions.

I carried out eighteen months of continuous research from 2012 to 2013, and four summers of preliminary and follow-up research from 2010 to 2018. I arrived in Guangzhou in the summer of 2010 and began to interview homeowner anti-incineration activists who had participated in the 2009 Panyu protest. Interviews with Panyu activists led me to Mei village, home to the site of the first WTE facility in the city and to homeowners from Huadu District who in 2012 also protested and lobbied state officials. A handful of activists from the Panyu protest became key informants. By the time I returned to Guangzhou to conduct long-term fieldwork in 2012, Yuan Fei, a former anti-incineration protester from Panyu, had formed Eco-Canton, an environmental NGO focused on waste. I became involved with Eco-Canton, shadowing their efforts to promote recycling in housing communities across the city.

In addition, I conducted interviews and participant observation with informal collectors and sanitation workers in Tianhe District, the commercial heart of Guangzhou’s new central business district. I followed both collectors to licensed depots and guerrilla trucks in their daily routine of buying, collecting, and trading scraps. In addition, I interviewed municipal officials and bureaucrats at both large scrap sorting and processing centers. As I concluded my long-term fieldwork in 2013, Yuan Fei was returning to Garden Villa to work with participants in the 2009 anti-incineration protest to start an experimental project with organics. Accompanying Yuan Fei on his quest to find a suitable technology to process organic waste, I interviewed scientists and entrepreneurs promoting new technologies. My Chinese ethnicity and fluency in Mandarin facilitated access. My limited command of Cantonese however, marked me as an outsider and a “nonnative.” With a few exceptions, I conducted almost all my fieldwork and interviews in Mandarin.51


1. Phoenix is an alias.

2. Environmental justice movements host “toxic tours” for outsiders to witness and mobilize against the effects of contamination and pollution on local communities (Pezzullo 2009).

3. For a discussion of how states showcase technology and infrastructure see Nye (1994) and Schwenkel (2015).

4. See Guangzhou Municipal Statistics Bureau, Guangzhou Statistical Yearbook, 1986 to 2014.

5. See Pellow (2004) and Little (2014) for accounts of the global offshoring of waste. Minter (2013) and Schulz (2015) provide accounts of the effects of the offshoring of electronic waste to China.

6. See Assa and Doron (2018) and Chalfin (2023).

7. I use ecological urbanism to describe top-down imaginaries, programs, and projects for the realization of modern cities on behalf of the Chinese state. Urban political ecology focuses on the sociopolitical processes and contestations that have produced urban ecologies and landscapes.

8. Discard scholars have theorized waste as a symbolic form that facilitates structures of marginalization and that perpetuates capitalist relations of disposability and discard (Douglas 1991; Bauman 2004; Bataille 1991; Gidwani 2011).

9. My use of urban nature and environments encompasses both the production of ecological imaginaries and the physical process of transformation within cities (Gandy 2006; Rademacher and Sivaramakrishnan 2017). See also Angelo 2021; Günel 2019; and Rademacher 2011.

10. While not undertaken explicitly to address climate change, technopolitical interventions on waste in Chinese cities are aligned with efforts to engineer resilience and sustainability using renewable energy and urban design in other contexts (Boyer 2019; Günel 2019; Howe 2019; Lennon 2017; Rademacher 2017).

11. In contrast to earlier scholarship examining ecological degradation caused by modernization projects and development undertaken by the Chinese state (Economy 2004; Mertha 2008; Shapiro 2001; Tilt 2010), recent studies explore how contemporary governance regimes in China center sustainability and ecology (Byrnes 2019; Harrell 2023; Li and Shapiro 2020; Rodenbiker 2023; Yeh 2022; Zee 2022).

12. Ethnographic studies of development frequently distinguish between planning and the realities of implementation (Collier 2011; Mosse 2005; Tsing 2005).

13. Science and technology studies and political ecology scholars have advocated for closer attention to matter and elements. See Papadopoulos, Puig de la Bellacasa, and Myers (2021).

14. Lefebvre (1996) and Harvey (2008) both use the concept of “the right to the city” to refer to collective efforts by citizens to forge social ties, relations to nature, technologies, and aesthetic values in cities outside of engineers, planners, and political elites. I use the word claims rather than rights as a rights-based approach to urban politics is more suited to Western liberal political contexts. The idea of “claims to the city” similarly encapsulates how waste served as a political vehicle for Chinese urban citizens to explore how to make demands or to engage an authoritarian state.

15. For a discussion on nonhumans and cities, see Barua (2023).

16. Scholars have studied Chinese investments in science and technology from biomedicine to computer hardware (Lindtner 2020; Ong and Chen 2010; Zhang 2023).

17. Since the rise of the anti-waste movement in the West, political movements have coalesced around the offshoring and displacement of waste, lobbying against waste policies, and on imagining radical anti-consumption movements (Pellow 2007; MacBride 2012; Little 2014; Barnard 2016; Giles 2021).

18. The household responsibility system meant that the village collective retained public ownership of land but farming became the responsibility of households.

19. Special economic zones are special manufacturing enclaves with tariff protection. In 1984 China established fourteen additional SEZs in its coastal cities.

20. For examples of the real estate–led mode of development elsewhere see Shatkin (2017), Rabie (2021), and Harms (2016).

21. Per capita income doubled between 1978 and 1990 and increased another 50 percent between 1990 and 1994 (Davis 2000).

22. The Guangzhou Municipal Plan presented a comprehensive and coordinated vision for Guangzhou’s urban expansion, redevelopment, and transformation.

23. The names of all interlocutors are pseudonyms.

24. Policymakers in the Netherlands and Germany first used the principles of the circular economy to devise measures for waste prevention and reduction (Mol and Sonnenfeld 2000).

25. In 2002, the first circular economy programs were launched under the State Environmental Protection Administration as pilot programs in industrial parks (McDowall et al. 2017).

26. The circular economy was meant to resolve ecological degradation caused by rapid urbanization and industrialization over the previous thirty years of reform and especially during the era of the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2006–2010). The CE envisioned environmental action at three scales of actions and interventions. At the micro level, the CE would reform production and targets emissions at the scale of industries or corporations. Next, interfirm production would be coordinated via green supply chain management practices and pollution controls in eco-industrial parks (EIPs) (Yuan et al. 2006). Finally, in “eco-cities” or “eco-provinces,” large-scale land developments dedicated to the design of new housing and manufacturing would facilitate resource conservation and clean production (Caprotti 2014).

27. Guangzhou Economic and Trade Commission and Guangzhou Circular Economy and Cleaner Production Association 2013. Guangdong Province also issued its own circular economy law in 2013.

28. Guangzhou jingji maoyi weiyuanhui (Guangzhou Economic and Trade Commission) 2013, 149.

29. Guangzhou jingji maoyi weiyuanhui (Guangzhou Economic and Trade Commission) 2013, 150.

30. The Chinese state has used the centralized management of environmental resources to consolidate state power and control. Li and Shapiro characterize China’s twenty-first century environmental governance as a mode of authoritarian environmentalism, a political process in which environmental projects are tools to extend state political control and for the shaping of economic, social, and political life (Li and Shapiro 2020). For a description of the state’s deployment of science and technology for environmental management through the Imperialist, Nationalist, and Socialist Periods, see Shapiro (2001), Schmalzer (2016), Seow (2021), and Harrell (2022).

31. Industrial ecologists challenge the vision of the circular economy in biophysical terms. The injection of new materials and energy is necessary in every cycle to overcome the effects of dissipation, to address entropy, losses in quantity (physical material losses, by-products), and the quality (mixing, downgrading) of matter (Cullen 2017; Velis 2018).

32. Wang Jiuliang’s photographs also use the concept of waste siege to describe Beijing’s waste crisis. See discussion in Landsberger (2019).

33. Actor-network theory holds that science and technology are fields of human and nonhuman material agencies that evolve through networks. A “hybrid collectif” forms when agency and social effects derive not from human intention alone but alongside objects throughout the network (Latour 1987; Callon and Law 1997).

34. In studies of globalization in the 1990s and 2000s, circulation emerged as a key concept to describe forms of flows, spatial arrangements, and political connectivity (Castells 2000; Sassen 2001).

35. Cowen (2014) argues that supply chain capitalism requires an examination of the materiality of circulation in order to secure infrastructures and ensure continuous flows.

36. Durkheim (1995) wrote of how bodies gathered in space during rituals or social occasions produced “energy” and a sense of cohesion. Butler (2018) describes an assembly as a political gathering or demonstration where bodies come together to voice demands.

37. Mary Douglas (1991) wrote that “where there is dirt, there is system” (44). Cassie Fennell suggested the term “systemic irritant” in feedback on an early draft.

38. Stern (2013) chronicles the rise of environmental courts in China. Fu (2017) characterizes authoritarian rule under the Hu Jintao administration (2003–2013) as “flexible repression” in which the Party or central state handed discretionary control to the local state to experiment and improvise (10–11).

39. By 1989, environmental sanitation (huangjin weisheng) combined municipal sanitation with the control of urban environmental pollution in areas ranging from noise control to the measurement and regulation of industrial pollution. Tengxun Web, August 10, 2013, “Environmental Industry: Twelfth Five-Year Plan: Waste Management Brings Historical Opportunities” [Huanbao hangye: ‘shierwu’ laji chuli yinglai lishi jiyu]. [In Chinese.]

. For the Guangzhou Environmental Sanitation Comprehensive Plan I (2000–2010) and II (2010–2020), see Guangzhou shi jianshe weiyuanhui [Guangzhou Municipality Construction Commission] and Guangzhou shirong huanjing weishengju [Guangzhou Municipality Bureau of City Appearance, Environment and Sanitation] (1999), and Guangzhou shi chengshi guanli weiyuanhui [Urban Management Committee of Guangzhou Municipality] (2012).

41. Guangzhou aimed to actualize the goals set out in the Twelfth Five-Year Plan (2011–2015) to transition from landfill to incineration as the primary strategy of waste management. In the Twelfth Five-Year Plan, the state planned to invest around 78 billion RMB (12 billion USD) to build another 218 incinerators across China, up from only 104 in 2010.

42. Data from 2012 fieldnotes.

43. The newly formed Guangzhou Urban Management Committee of Guangzhou Municipality (Municipal Urban Management Committee [Guangzhou shi chengshi guanli weiyuanhui]) was responsible for the implementation of waste management planning including the siting and construction of WTE facilities.

44. Guangzhou shi renmin zhengfu [Guangzhou Municipal Government], 2011.

45. Guangzhou was a center of the Maritime Silk Road. As early as the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD), Arab traders erected mosques, and the city exported ceramics and porcelain. In the Qing Empire, merchants set sail from the city to carry tea, textiles, and spices abroad. The Treaty of Nanjing (1842) opened Guangzhou as a treaty port. Occupation by the English and French led to the rise of anti-foreign and nationalist movements. Anti-Manchu sentiments eventually paved the way for the Guangzhou Uprising and the Chinese revolution. Guangzhou was the base for Sun-Yat Sen and the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) in the Nationalist Period (under the official control of the Party from 1928 to 1937). After the Japanese occupation from 1938 to 1945, Communists gained control in 1949. As early as the 1960s, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Trade experimented with export production in the region (Kelly 2021).

46. The 2012 map was the result of a 2005 redistricting that eliminated Dongshan and Fangcun and merged them into Yuexiu and Liwan respectively and created the two new districts Nansha and Luogang (KK News 2019).

47. In 2014 Guangzhou’s boundaries underwent another round of redistricting that left eight districts in the city center along with three additional suburban districts (Nanfang Daily 2014). Redistricting in 2013 and 2014 combined Luogang and Huangpu into an expanded Huangpu district. Chonghua and Zengcheng went from county to district designations. In December 2021, Guangzhou underwent another round of redistricting that yielded the current eleven-district map (Guangzhou Municipality Web page 2023).

48. I use infrastructural extension in contrast to scholarship that highlights how slowly crumbling infrastructures or the sudden disconnection or termination of services such as housing or social services permit citizens to intervene and negotiate with the state (Chu 2014; Fennell 2015).

49. Carse argues that infrastructure highlights the relationship between “infra” or what lies beneath, below, or within structures and that which creates “relationships of depth and hierarchy” (2016, 27).

50. Urban political ecologists have elaborated on the metaphor of circulation particularly in relation to water infrastructures (Gandy 2014; Kaika 2005).

51. Almost all Cantonese interlocutors had excellent if not native command of both Mandarin and Cantonese. In Guangzhou, it is common to have exchanges that switch between Mandarin and Cantonese. More than half of my informants (from middle-class homeowner protesters to informal collectors and sanitation workers) did not speak Cantonese and preferred to communicate in Mandarin. I also conducted brief interviews in Mei Village in Hakka with the help of a research assistant.