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Environment and History

Fertility from Urban Wastes? The Case for Composting in Great Britain, 1920s-1960s

Arnaud Page

Environment and History 25 (2019): 3-22. doi: 10.3197/096734018X15137949592070

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This paper analyses the interest that developed in Great Britain around composting from the late 1920s. It argues that before the current vogue for composting, the technique attracted considerable attention in the middle of the twentieth century and that interest in this technology was not limited to a few 'mystical' members of the organic movement. This paper also analyses the role of an institution called the Natural Resources (Technical) Committee and attempts to show that opposition in Whitehall played a key role in the marginalisation of this technology. It thus suggests that the rise of the 'hegemony of disposal' in the twentieth century did not go uncontested and that it was not a purely technical and inexorable movement. The example of composting thus shows that the birth of a 'throwaway society' was not as consensual as usually described and rather than the result of a widespread aversion to refuse, it should be seen as the result of political decisions, themselves informed by a specific type of quantitative and reductionist type of expertise.

KEYWORDS: Composting, waste treatment, refuse disposal, fertilisers, recycling

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