Transformative Sustainability

by Hector Fernando Burga

A recent visit to the Berkeley Recycling Center sparked reflections on the tensions between the idea and practice of sustainability. Located in Berkeley's industrial zone, the center is one of the premier recycling plants in the U.S. Its operations encompass a wide range of services, from collection and reuse of municipal waste to provision of drop-off points where residents can bring glass, metal, plastic and cardboard.

Recycled objects at the Berkeley Recycling Center. Source: Hector Fernando Burga

During my visit, I was overtaken by the immediate capacity to practice a "green" citizenship. Much like casting a vote or mailing a letter, all you had to do to embody the values of sustainability was place the right item in the right container. Afterwards, a quick peek into the container confirmed that your item had become part of a pile of materials that would eventually be processed.

A few minutes later, as I checked out each designated pile, I noticed families arriving to do their own disposal. Car doors opened and bicycles with trolleys were parked. Kids got excited at the prospect of throwing trash, as parents took the opportunity to carry out a teachable moment. They talked about the importance of conservation, why the different materials were grouped together and the importance of following directions.

Later the groups became more diverse. Individuals of different races, ages, and socio-economic groupings met at the drop-off containers while depositing their waste. Glances and nods were exchanged and smiles shared as people joked about each others' cans, bottles and paper. Within these discreet moments, a certain type of community was formed amidst the sounds of bottles clinking, glass breaking and plastic thumping. The personal became collective.

David Harvey expresses dissatisfaction with the term sustainability because it lacks precision and, most importantly, clarity of purpose. In the video above, he explains:
What I do I think about sustainability? Actually, I don’t like the word very much. The reason is that no one, as far as I know, is in favor of un-sustainability, and so therefore sustainability tends to mean almost anything you want it to mean, and I think we should be rather more specific than that. The other problem is that sustainability sometimes sounds a bit too passive and static, and I think throughout history we have transformed our relationship to nature sometimes in good ways sometimes in bad ways. And I think the question for us is how we are going to transform our relationship to nature in the future. So I would rather think about a transformative politics in terms of our relation to nature. But you cannot transform that relation without also transforming social relations between each other. So for me, the social project is one of overall social transformation including transformation in our relation to nature.
The colorful shades and hues of recycling piles sparkle with the spirit of consumption. These shredded items represent the accumulation of capital, their disposal and eventual reincarnation signal new products for consumption.

The goal of defining sustainability must include the transformation of our relations with each other and with the world around us. Can we find working elements of this vision in the social life of recycling centers? What lessons can we gather from depositing waste material in bins, that might help us imagine a socially and environmentally transformative sustainability?


  1. What a stunning image compilation, and somehow a perfect compliment to rakish David Harvey. Very much enjoyed the way you reveal the critical social dimensions to sustainability by way of the more commonly discussed environmental dimensions.

  2. Great post Fernando, absolutely agree that we need fundamental social and political transformations if we are to ever truly move towards sustainability - undoubtedly a continuous process and never an end point.

    I find in the past 4 years I've moved away from using the term, after working in the 'field' of sustainability - a broad and amorphous landscape - for almost a decade. I've been deeply frustrated with how the term can indeed mean anything, and that it's most frequent use is (often tokenistic) greening solely with an environmental focus. I believe a fundamental systemic transformation is needed if we are ever to really move towards sustainability at a large scale, which is why I've tended to be interested in smaller scale, grassroots practices that are rooted in social, political and economic transformation as well.

    When we come to a larger scale (and even at a smaller scale!) this systemic transformation is however without a doubt incredibly challenging and uncomfortable, as it means questioning and rethinking dominant ways of living and being, existing power structures - our entire system. The key in my opinion is how we can connect this more radical vision of sustainability to everyday practices, such as recycling and waste, to make the shift more tangible and to help shed light on the importance (and necessity) of transformation.