UCL Faculty of Laws


No rubbish ideas: how do you grow a community of academic waste lawyers?

By Dr Allison Lindner

Organically, in reading and meeting increments. 

Last December, the Routledge Handbook of Waste Studies was published, which illustrates the increasing interest garnered by waste studies in academia. The Waste Law Reading Group (WLRG) is part of this trend by focusing on the understanding of waste as a legal category across a variety of regimes and jurisdictions. Although pollution has been recognised as a major threat to humanity and biodiversity in recent IPCC reports, “waste” remains relatively peripheral and residual, both in the thinking of lawyers and in the law. The WLRG draws attention to waste as a central, complex and evolving matter, which (re)defines and shifts conceptions of the legal order. 

The WLRG, which I set up in August 2021, is the first cross-institutional reading group known to be dedicated to waste law. This arose out of conversations between myself and another academic waste lawyer, Dr Michael Picard, who wanted to grow a community of like-minded Early Career Researchers (ECRs) who study waste law. The WLRG has met online nearly every month during term time since September 2021. Our first in-person meeting, in the form of a Waste Law Writing Workshop, was organised and hosted by Michael, a Lecturer in International Environmental Law at Edinburgh Law School.   

In its first half of this blog, I give an account of our first in person meeting, and the very first ECR Waste Law Writing Workshop. In the second half, I chronicle how this niche and nascent community of academic waste lawyers has grown over the past year.

The In-Person Meeting 

Our meeting, held on 28th and 29th March 2022 is likely the UK’s first ECR Waste Law Writing Workshop. It was kindly supported by the Edinburgh Law School Research and Impact Facilitation Fund. Gathered in person were Dr Feja Lesniewska, Research Fellow at the UCL Faculty of Laws and the Bartlett Institute for Sustainable Resources, University College London, Dr Eva van der Marel, Postdoctoral Researcher in Law at Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, Dr Allison Lindner, Lecturer in Law at the UCL Faculty of Laws, and our host, Dr Michael Picard. Joining via Zoom was Mikolaj Szafrański, Law PhD student at The London School of Economics.  

We engaged in numerous activities over two days. We discussed each other’s waste-focused papers at length. We attended the Edinburgh International Law Group where we met academic members of Edinburgh Law School, and discussed the first chapter of Dr Deval Desai’s soon to be published book on Rule of Law Experts. We held our own discussions about future projects for the WLRG. Papers presented and discussed at our meeting included topics such as the Forest Circular Bioeconomy; Petrochemicals and Human Rights; Regulatory Standards for Plastics in International Law; Smartphone Waste and International law; and Waste Pickers in South Africa. 

We used the format of the Harvard Law School Institute of Global Law and Policy (IGLP) Approach to Presenting and Offering Feedback at Writing Workshops as a guide to presenting and giving each other feedback. When followed, the IGLP Approach helps commentators to provide very detailed feedback to the author that is focused on the structural elements of the paper under discussion. This helps to avoid feedback that is personal, unnecessarily critical, or is ‘more of a comment than a question’. After encountering the IGLP approach at a Harvard IGLP workshop in 2017, I use it in one-to-one peer-to-peer feedback sessions with other academic colleagues. I am yet to meet a paper author who has received feedback through this method that has not come away feeling supported - find further information on the IGLP approach. So, I was very pleased that this was the format suggested by our host, a former IGLP Residential Fellow. 

On many fronts, this meeting was refreshing. As a group of ECR waste lawyers, we are used to being in academic spaces where others have some understanding of what we are doing in our work, but not entirely. We come from different legal approaches and traditions – doctrinal, sociolegal, critical and interdisciplinary – all with some engagement of international law. Despite the conceptual and normative divergence in our understanding of waste, we were able to engage deeply with each other’s ideas out of a profound curiosity and yearning because frankly, we are all a bit obsessed about waste. The meeting was a much needed culmination of many months of online WLRG meetings. Everyone agreed that the ability to have conversations in person was a precious experience after two years of, “You’re on mute”. We all came away feeling encouraged and supported, and as though our fellow group members had invested time and energy into giving everyone feedback that would help us to get our papers published. Albeit, due to geographical distance, our monthly term time meetings will likely continue in a virtual format due to the flexibility and accessibility of that format.  

Six people sitting at tables and playing instruments

Photo credit: Michael Picard. 

Photo caption: Whether one wishes to take a mimesis or anti-memesis take on this, at the end of Day One of the workshop, we happened upon a musician who was playing two ‘tambores’ or Brazilian-made drums; one made out of disused PVC pipe and the other from an old traffic cone. 

How did we get there? 

In Spring 2021, I connected with Michael Picard owing to our mutual research interests. We both wished to come up with a way to connect ECRs who are interested in waste law. The idea for a conference, symposium or reading group was floated. I decided to set up the WLRG, and we then spent time thinking about and inviting fellow ECR waste lawyers who would be interested in attending the meetings.  

The format of the WLRG has proved simple. Each member of the group has volunteered to take turns to choose an article on waste law and / theory and present it to the group for discussion over 1.5 hours. The breadth of expertise and interests in the group has meant that everyone has come away learning something new from each meeting – either from others’ views of our chosen article, or from the substance of the article itself. It has provided much needed fuel for us waste law ECRs in the broader legal academy. Topics have covered Actor Network Theory, Plastics, Fashion Waste, Embodied Carbon in Buildings, and Waste Pickers. As meetings progressed, Michael suggested that we meet to read each other’s papers, and he very helpfully put plans in place to make this happen at the University of Edinburgh. Over the past academic year, it has transpired that we have met roughly monthly during term time – five times virtually and once in person.   

It has been fortuitous that we have worked well together since we largely did not know each other until our first in person meeting at the end of March 2022. This was an outcome of our mutual respect for each other as scholars, and our interest and enthusiasm for our subject area, a sentiment that was palpable in Edinburgh. Overtime, membership of the WLRG has grown and also includes Dr Katrien Steenmans, Assistant Professor in Law, Coventry University and Garance Thomas, PhD Researcher at Sciences Po / Harvard Law School.  

The group will take a break until September, after which it will explore future directions, so please watch this space if you wish to get involved. 

My thanks to Michael Picard and Feja Lesniewska for comments on an earlier draft.