University of California-Irvine doctoral student Matthew Lane, with guidance from Dr. William M. Maurer, will undertake research on how commodities change in value through their global circulation and the mechanisms that facilitate the interconnections among people that are necessary for this process to take place. Lane will focus particularly on scrap metal, which moves from being trash in United States dumpsters to being a tradeable commodity after transport halfway around the world. Scrap metal, not always viewed by the general population as a commodity and often neglected in curbside recycling, nonetheless operates as a formal object of circulation that is tied to the economic livelihood of millions of people.

The researcher will track scrap metal from the alleyways of Chicago to the freight ships that transport it to India and to a steel refinery in India where it helps to fuel India's industrial expansion. He will use a mix of social science methods including participant observation, interviewing, and archival research. Interviews will be conducted with a broad range of participants, including informal waste collectors in the United States ("scrappers"), a waste management company, scrap metal haulers and transporters, informal sorters ("ragpickers") and metal dealers in India, and officials at an Indian steel company.

The research is important because it will provide social science data on contemporary transnational economic processes and the populations that make those processes possible. Findings will also be useful to future environmental and waste management policy. Funding this project supports the education of a social scientist.

Project Report

," the co-PI researched in three major global cities: Chicago, Los Angeles and Mumbai, India. The co-PI researched for five months on the South side of Chicago at South Chicago Iron and Metal where he interviewed scrappers, scrap yard employees and the scrap yard's owners. During this initial phase of the research, the co-PI saw an unsettled group of secretive individuals downtrodden by market prices for scrap metals. Because the co-PI researched during the winter, from January through May, he was able to observe and make preliminary findings about the seasonal nature of scrap metal collection in cold climates such as Chicago. Only the scrappers most dependent upon scrap collection for their primary livelihood were engaged in the collection during the winter and many scrap yards the co-PI approached were hesitant if not downright reluctant to discuss scrap trading during the harsh and financially unproductive winter. While there are an estimated 10-12,000 scrappers in Chicago, those collecting during the winter, and thus scrap yards buying, were down to the grave concern of yard owners, like David at South Chicago Iron and Metal. The co-PI discovered that nature's cycles of seasons, couple with what he refers to as the "seasons" of markets can create not only financial discontent, but fatigue and worry among scrappers and buyers. From June through September of 2013, the co-PI worked as an intern at the Port of Los Angeles, the site of one of the largest West Coast scrap metal companies, SA Recycling. The summer was spent by the co-PI under the twin tasks of producing country profiles on commodity interests and new markets for the Port of Los Angeles to enter through the Trade Connect program, and working with David Thornburg at SA Recycling--the West Coast of the United States' largest trader of scrap metals. The co-PI was able to formulate the research finding that as market trends in the scrap metal economy in particular were down, so were they in regards to the general shipment and distribution of commodities into and out of the nations largest container port complex at the Port of Los Angeles. The co-PI was able to determine through PIERS data the volumes of scrap metal exported around the world through the Port of Los Angeles and to discover that the anxiety felt in the scrap metal market was felt as keenly by government organizations involved in transnational shipping such as the Port of Los Angeles. From October 2013 to April 2014, the co-PI tracked the distribution of scrap metal in India. Due to the ripple effects in the lower volumes of scrap metal being exported out of the US, and a new governmental tariff levying 2.5% duties on all foreign scrap, India had vastly reduced its import volumes of scrap from the US. By working closely with the MTC group in India, the co-PI conducted research and made observations at 6 scrap facilities and mini-steel plants, and iron ore mine and sorting facility, and a coordinated research tour at Jindal Steel Works in Karnataka in South India. The co-PI concluded that because of general downturns in the global economy since 2007, and a weaker Indian economy during this research, coupled with new tariff on scrap imports, resulted in India's metal recycling economy and steel production running at 1/3 of capacity. The politics of reuse of commodities and less new construction reulted in smaller streams of scrap. Findings from this research project, and results from the ethnographic design of this project, stand to contribute to practical and theoretical conversation in anthropology about research design and commodity and value studies. Anthropology has a long history of commodity circuit studies that come from agrarian, textile and factory settings in addition to multiple studies on mining. However, this project examines the recycling of metals in cross-cultural context to contribute ethnographically-derived data on the cycles within cycles of a commodity circuit. However no comprehensive research studies have focused on commodity chains of recyclables with specific emphasis on metal recyclables. Recycling has become an every day part of life for many middle class Americans; pedagogical elements now exist in post primary and secondary schools and certainly exist in post-secondary institutions across the country and throughout the world; yet beyond the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra, very few people understand the value, secondary uses, and the individuals involved in billion dollar a year commodity circuits of recyclables. This project stands to contribute to theoretical conversations in anthropology about the nature of things, objects and commodities; it will also contribute significantly to the subfields of environmental and economic anthropology with respect to the intertwining--and often greenwashing--of business philosophy and rhetoric in today's globally green economies.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
Jeffrey Mantz
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of California Irvine
United States
Zip Code