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From Hygienic to Environmental Governance: How Waste Collection Became White in Belgrade (1965 – 1982)

Monday, April 17, 2023, 1:30 pm – 3:10 pm

The Inequalities and Democracy Workgroup of the CEU Democracy Institute cordially invites you to its seminar.

If you would like to attend, please register here.

Please keep in mind that external guests will not be able to enter the building without prior registration.

The seminar starts with a 25-minute presentation of the research followed by the comments of the discussant. Then the floor will be open for participants to ask questions and discuss the research. To be able to actively take part in the discussion, please read the draft paper beforehand which is available upon request from the author. 

In this article, I offer a genealogical analysis of how in Belgrade, to this day, “recycling” as a practice of virtuous, environmental citizenship has remained very different from the subsistence collection of valuable waste by racialized, surplus populations, mostly Roma. Based on an archival study of professional journals (of the Yugoslav Association of Waste Companies, of the Belgrade Public Utility Services, and of the Belgrade association of urbanists and architects) as well as debates in the City Hall of Belgrade and the Yugoslav Association of Towns and Municipalities, I show how between 1965 and 1982 the collection of valuable waste was gradually moved from a source of income for vagrant populations at the edges of Yugoslavia’s socio-economic system to being a source of revenues for the local government. In the first part, I argue that it is useful to understand the impact of the 1965 transition to market socialism on urban governance through the lens of the “urbanization of fiscal crisis” (Marcuse 1981): I show how “market liberalization” went along with policies that privileged the urban working class and excluded as well subjected to hyper-exploitation mobile surplus populations. The policies I look at here are: the transition of cities using licensing to policing power over the petty economy, the strengthening of the urban middle class through collaborative governance of public hygiene and beautification schemes, and changes in social protection policy. In the second part, I show how in 1975, environmentalism was adopted by city officials in a way to continue this re-distribution of who comes to benefit from valuable waste. I show how waste trading companies were marginalized after 1975 and how valuable wastes were put out as a bargaining chip by the city government to attract internationally operating construction companies like Energoinvest in public private partnerships to make large-scale investments such as a waste incinerator. I show how citizen participation, initially mobilized in the governance of public hygiene and to mobilize support for environmentalism, was dismantled in the early 1980s as citizens cited environmental reasons to oppose these large-scale investments. I argue that, environmentalism, far from being the rupture that it is frequently portrayed to be, actually build on, reinvigorated and in some respect brought to conclusion previous political economic projects at the level of the city and that “recycling” accordingly, as a practice, has to be understood in this context as a redistribution.


Eva Schwab is an OSUN Postdoctoral Fellow at the CEU Democracy Institute. In her project with the title “Environment and Securitization: Middle Classes vs. Slum Inhabitants in Participatory Forms of Urban Governance in Belgrade” she investigates civic vigilantism as a lens on how communal order and air pollution become sites for the articulation of middle classness in a city that is increasingly restructured to serve the interests of international capital. Before she has finished her doctoral dissertation with the title “Civilizing Waste: Work, Non-Work, and Urban Citizenship in the Making of Belgrade (1965-2018)” at the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology of the Central European University. Her research interests are in the area of historical sociology, (post-) socialist urbanization, and policing.


Csaba Jelinek is the co-founder of Periféria Policy and Research Center. He finished his studies in the field of urban sociology and anthropology at CEU and wrote his PhD dissertation on the history of Hungarian urban regeneration policies. In his research he focuses on social inequalities, urban regeneration, gentrification and the political economy of development projects. He has collaborated with several local municipalities in Hungary in planning socially sensitive urban policies and interventions. Recently, he is interested in municipal budgeting and forms of financing, as well as models for housing cooperatives.