Student Work

  • Design and Urban Ecologies (MS)

    Silvia Resende Xavier

    Reimagining informality and participation in NYC’s waste system

    Autonomous waste pickers, known as “canners,” configure a hybrid formal-informal system that, alongside systems managed by NYC authorities, collects recyclables. Currently there is a dispute between public authorities and canners over NYC’s valuable recyclables. In the near future, reconfigurations in all waste systems will occur in order to achieve the ambitious zero waste goal. This context of current conflict and upcoming reconfiguration opens up the ground for a timely discussion about the role of canners in the present and future of NYC’s waste system.

    Reimagining informality and participation in NYC’s waste system is a research and practice project that investigates the ecologies of waste picking in the city. This investigation seeks to reveal the social, economic and political dynamics of waste picking in NYC and to rethink existing relations in order to promote participation and recognition of the work of canners. The research is built through literature review, media discourse analysis, interviewing, participant observation, and mapping. This analysis shows that the dispute over recyclables is defined mostly in economic terms but has important social implications that were left out of the debate. My practice aims to shift this narrative. 

    In partnership with NYC-based community hub Sure We Can and Brazilian organization Pimp My Carroca, I carried out a collaborative action that engaged artists and designers to provide canners with enhanced equipment and reshaped carts. From these concrete actions a series of situations unfold, and collaborative action achieves three main goals: first, to improve the canners’ working conditions and to increase their self-esteem; second, to trigger changes in the relationship between canners and other citizens in the streets, dissolving social barriers and promoting approximation; third, to consolidate an international collaboration and experience exchange between the waste pickers, artists and activists.