Organized Panel Session
This paper examines Seoul's Nanji Landfill (Nanjido), a remnant of the “rapid [South Korean] growth that overlooked environmental degradation,” through the perspective of waste pickers, urging us to reframe them as contributing workers, rather than as the urban poor. The Nanji Landfill, despite its original inception as a temporary dumping site, exceeded its planned operation period and became Seoul’s principal landfill for fifteen years. Due to the lack of financial, technical, and human resources for its operation, the landfill attracted various types of actors, including waste pickers, who were primarily perceived as the poorest of the poor, garnering the appellation “Nanjido dwellers (chumin),” rather than workers. This articulation of the landfill waste pickers rendered them superfluous, unnecessary, redundant – a reduction which entailed the “epistemic injustice” of seeing them as “people living off garbage” who benefitted from the landfill instead of actually provided benefit to the landfill.
Based on interviews with former landfill waste pickers and city workers, this paper brings labor and social relations back to the history of Nanjido. I argue that the focus on their being urban poor erases the waste pickers’ contribution to the day-to-day operations of the landfill through the reclamation of otherwise wasted materials, which resulted in the extension of the landfill’s lifespan. Although waste and its handlers at Nanjido are seen as the inevitable “excess” of South Korean society, I argue that their seemingly residual practice - recycling work - played an essential role in Seoul’s sustained urbanization and the compressed development process.