When bulky waste reflect our relation to others

Have you ever left objects on the pavement? Or have you ever collected some? If you have not, you surely have already seen other people doing it…. Did you ask yourself about the meaning of this practice for those performing it? Maybe about the meaning of these objects staying downstairs until they are destroyed, or until they are born again into a second life?


“A piano standing on the street corner” from Michael Korchia

Dominique Roux and Valerie Guillard undertook a qualitative study interviewing “collecters” and “ditchers” in order to better understand this growing phenomenon.

Sociability as a path to collecting

Experts traditionally answer these questions from an individualistic perspective. They look at the motivations to leave objects, to collect them, but exclusively from the perspective of those who do, although both ditchers and collecters share a common context (bulky waste), a location (pavement) and many objects.

The originality of this piece of research is to take very seriously the encounters and the exchanges happening on public space between these (a priori) strangers. The authors look at the forms of sociality (way of relating to other people) generated by this system of bulky waste. It is not only about ditching things but also about making them available to others. “Placing these objects on the pavement rather than throwing them away reflects their will to pass them on to others and to make these objects useful for a longer period of time”.

Three underlying forms of sociability

Charitable giving

Many ditchers want to play a part in the circulation of objects to the benefit of less-privileged people. In a feeling of shared humanity, this action is like a charitable giving, even more positive as it could protect people from the market’s abuses, as well as liberate others from a “ditching shame”. If all collecters do not perceive this gifting part, many see in this unexpected and free gest a sort of offering made by “good people” (themselves!).

The balanced reciprocity

Other ditcher-collecters seek to share an interest for the recuperation of objects, “as if the street was a big self service in which we exchange what we no longer need”. They imagine the bulky waste system as a bartering space between equals, in a give-and-take structure. They look up on the opportunists: the professionals, richer people, etc…

The generalised reciprocity

Finally, in a more macro logic, some ditchers and collecters consider the bulky waste as a way to share the use of objects. Beyond the financial or the local aspects, these individuals share the conviction to do something against wastage, and to make a difference for the environment. This generalised reciprocity takes us to a cycle of exchanges, an extended and indirect movement in which what is left on the streets by some, is collected by others, and will be left again.

What do these gifts to strangers tell us?

This bulky waste system and the associated practices of giving to strangers show how we materially and symbolically dispose of our past consumption. What does it reflect? A surfeit of consumption? The dilution of our lives in the products and objects surrounding us? The fluidisation or liquefaction of our relations? Or, on the contrary, the new modalities of existence characterized by our new relations to material possessions, and therefore, to ourselves? Something to think about!

Roux D. & Guillard V. (2016), Circulation of objects between strangers in public space: An analysis of forms of sociality among disposers and gleaners, Research and Applications in Marketing, 31(4), 28-46.

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