Reclaiming the Discarded

Life and Labor on Rio’s Garbage Dump

Book Pages: 248 Illustrations: 11 illustrations Published: February 2018

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Latin American Studies > Brazil, Sociology > Urban Studies

In Reclaiming the Discarded Kathleen M. Millar offers an evocative ethnography of Jardim Gramacho, a sprawling garbage dump on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, where roughly two thousand self-employed workers known as catadores collect recyclable materials. While the figure of the scavenger sifting through garbage seems iconic of wageless life today, Millar shows how the work of reclaiming recyclables is more than a survival strategy or an informal labor practice. Rather, the stories of catadores show how this work is inseparable from conceptions of the good life and from human struggles to realize these visions within precarious conditions of urban poverty. By approaching the work of catadores as highly generative, Millar calls into question the category of informality, common conceptions of garbage, and the continued normativity of wage labor. In so doing, she illuminates how waste lies at the heart of relations of inequality and projects of social transformation.


"A book that brings dignity to people otherwise considered marginal and reveals a progressive potential in work otherwise considered 'rubbish.'" — Dagna Rams, LSE Review of Books

"Rich in ethnographic detail and theoretically engaging, Reclaiming the Discarded will surely find a receptive audience in graduate seminars and upper-year undergraduate courses on economic anthropology or the anthropology of work." — Stephen Campbell, American Anthropologist

"The end result is a thought-provoking and pleasurable read that will be of value to scholars and students with an interest in Brazil and Latin America, economic anthropology, globalization, and urban anthropology." — Gustavo S. Azenha, American Ethnologist

"The book is well written. Moreover, the descriptions and analyses of how she and other novices become catadores are pedagogic and Kathleen M. Millar manages to bring the reader into the materiality of the work as a catador." — Karin Skil, Bulletin of Latin American Research

"Reclaiming the Discarded offers rich theoretical and empirical insights into the dynamics of work in the informal sector under the conditions of neoliberal capitalism." — Ajnesh Prasad and Paulina Segarra, Organization

"[Reclaiming the Discarded] is an excellent example of what anthropologists do best. Methodologically, it is an ethnography that stands on its own. . . . Textually, the book is a beautiful read from start to finish: clear, concise and full of colour and life. Beyond the prose, the narrative itself shines, as Millar clearly formed deep and meaningful relationships with catadores and the people living around Jardim Gramacho." — Kirsten Francescone, Anthropologica

"Reclaiming the Discarded is a rare achievement: incisive, analytically provocative, and thoroughly engaging. Millar uses ethnographic detail to bring the reader close, enabling us to observe with her so that we are drawn into her curiosities and invested in making sense of the complexities she renders." — Christine Hegel, Anthropology of Work Review

"This compelling ethnography of life and labour on Rio de Janeiro’s main garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, is a significant contribution to the anthropology of la-bour, precarity, and capitalism. ... [It] is a well-written, accessible and original book that contributes to forward our thinking on economic processes and the entanglements of life and labour on Rio’s urban periphery." — Margit Ystanes, Anthropos

"This book should be read by anyone interested in the anthropology of labour, informality, precarity and working life in Brazil, Latin America and beyond. Its engaging prose will also be of interest to a wider readership who will appreciate how Millar’s writing allows the voices and stories of Rio’s waste-pickers to come to the fore." — Patrick O’Hare, Cambridge Journal of Anthropology

“This beautifully written ethnography captures the daily living and precarious lives of impoverished workers and how they manage to be creative in spite of the harsh economic context. Daily problems permeate these lives, but there is also a celebration of life. This wonderful book is hard to put down, and its subject is new and freshly presented.” — Donna M. Goldstein, author of Laughter Out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown

“Through a narrative built around a constellation of persons and objects, Jardim Gramacho comes alive in this gripping ethnography of garbage-reclaiming work and life in Rio's urban periphery. Kathleen M. Millar resists facile explanations of life in the dump, opting instead to closely listen to her interlocutors' stories, find value in literal interpretations of their words, and take ambivalences and contradictions not as calls for authoritative intervention but as invitations to inhabit the subtleties and complexities of their formidable social world. Reclaiming the Discarded is beautifully written and its argument disrupts truisms that sustain whole fields of inquiry.” — Daniella Gandolfo, author of The City at Its Limits: Taboo, Transgression, and Urban Renewal in Lima


Availability: In stock
Price: $25.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Kathleen M. Millar is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Simon Fraser University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction  1
1. Arriving beyond Abjection  35
2. The Precarious Present  67
3. Life Well Spent  95
4. Plastic Economy  123
5. From Refuse to Revolution  151
Conclusion: The Garbage Never Ends  177
Notes  191
References  207
Index  223
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Co-Winner of the 2020 Society for Economic Anthropology Book Award

Finalist, 2018 Society for the Anthropology of Work Book Prize

Honorable Mention, Latin American Studies Association Brazil Section Best Book in the Social Sciences

Honorable Mention, Sharon Stephens Prize, presented by the American Ethnological Association

Honorable Mention, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda Prize / Best Book in Social Sciences, presented by the Brazil Section of the Latin American Studies Association

Winner, Society for Latin American And Caribbean Anthropology (SLACA) Best Book Award

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-7050-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-7031-4
Publicity material