Northwestern Events Calendar


Toxic Matter in Translation: Chinese Waste Politics and the Challenge to Recycling - Adam Liebman

Adam Liebman

When: Tuesday, February 11, 2020
4:00 PM - 5:30 PM Central

Where: Kresge Hall, #2350 (Kaplan Seminar Room), 1880 Campus Drive, Evanston, IL 60208 map it

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Student - Public - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Cost: Free; public welcome!

Contact: Jill Mannor   (847) 467-3970

Group: Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities

Category: Lectures & Meetings


The Environmental Humanities Research Workshop presents

Toxic Matter in Translation: Chinese Waste Politics and the Challenge to Recycling

Adam Liebman, Mount Vernon Society of Fellows Postdoctoral Scholar, George Washington University

In 2018 China banned imports of “foreign garbage,” profoundly disrupting recycling programs around the world and sending a message that what westerners consider a virtuous environmental practice often merely displaces pollution. Chinese waste politics further challenges notions of recycling by drawing attention to the environmental injustice implications of what I call “toxic matter in translation”—harmful substances cycling through biosocial processes that are unevenly distributed, recognized, and contested across political and epistemological boundaries. This talk illustrates the process of constructing and contesting material/linguistic equivalents with three ethnographic vignettes from a southwestern Chinese city. The first documents contestations over toxic “swill pigs” that depart from celebrations of the role of pigs in recycling soil nutrients during the Mao era; the second centers on the struggles of rural migrant scrap traders considered polluting by the state; and the third highlights how one entrepreneur’s efforts to build western-style recycling systems have been undermined by the anti-foreign waste movement.  

Adam Liebman is a Mount Vernon Society of Fellows postdoctoral scholar and instructor of anthropology at George Washington University. He was previously a postdoctoral fellow with Stanford’s Center for East Asian Studies and received his PhD in sociocultural anthropology at UC Davis. He is currently working on a book manuscript titled Turning Trash into Treasure: Shadow Economies and Toxic Ecologies in Postsocialist China. 


The Environmental Humanities Research Workshop of the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities fosters a community of scholars at Northwestern and in the Chicago area who are interested in what we have broadly termed the environmental humanities. Workshop participants share an interest in questions of nature, science, ethics, aesthetics, environmental policy, and the shifting relationships between the human and the non-human, as well as in refining our understanding of what “the environmental humanities” comprises. The Environmental Humanities Research Workshop hosts informal discussions about provocative pieces of scholarship as well as works-in-progress, and organizes public talks by established scholars whose work has helped define and expand humanistic approaches to environmental issues.

To join the Environmental Humanities listserv, please email:
Corey Byrnes ( or Keith Woodhouse (

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