Artisanal Aluminum Recycling
On the trail with mosquitoes in Nicaragua, I spent quite a bit of time working with garbage scavengers, garbage, collectors, and recycling brokers. Mosquitoes breed in discarded garbage, but in urban Nicaragua, garbage circulates in complex and surprising ways. Some makes its way onto the international scrap market, but some becomes "recast" closer to its point of disposal.
This work led to an ethnographic project on artisanal aluminum recyclers. Turning my interest in technology, urban environments, and aesthetics in a new direction, I published a 2011 article in Urban Anthropology about two groups of artisanal recyclers.
"Foundry Values: Artisanal Aluminum Recyclers, Economic Involution, and Skill in Periurban Managua"
analyzes the processes by which informal recyclers in periurban Managua, Nicaragua turned salvaged aluminum into pots, pans, and decorative items. It situates such artisanal aluminum recycling in a context of what Michael Burawoy (1996) and Mike Davis (2004) call “economic involution.” Recycling proliferated in a post-revolutionary Nicaraguan economy in which an already fledgling industrial metalworks sector had nearly collapsed; in which flexible export capitalism and tourism were growing; and in which informal production was also expanding. From the perspective of aluminum artisans, the honing of skills (smelting, sculpting, molding, and alloying) was a creative response to this trend. Even after the return of a nominally pro-poor Sandinista government to power in 2007, recyclers continued to self-consciously style themselves as artisanal laborers (obradores artesanales). The recyclers avoided formal associations such as Sandinista cooperatives and private microcredit schemes. Drawing on fieldwork carried out in two artisanal aluminum shops between 2008 and 2011, the article guides readers through the recycling labor process, revealing the ways in which these urban craft laborers came to see embodied skills as potential sources of value and potential pathways to a middle class and tourist markets.