Repair as “a Puzzle Piece in Rethinking Value”. Research on Waste with Ulrike Felt

By Tamara Bak, Tereza Butková, David Würflinger, and Michaela Zuckerhut

Editor’s Note: This blog post ist Part II of our student series (find Part I here), in which a group of STS master students write a practice research proposal and are asked to engage not only with literature on the topic, but also with a researcher from the department, to deepen their understanding of the field and approach to their project.

What does our approach to handling waste say about ourselves and society? What values are reflected in it? And how has the debate changed in recent years? We approached Ulrike Felt, the head of the STS department and the principal investigator of the INNORES project. Within the INNORES project, she researches nuclear waste, microplastics and digital residues so it was our aim to learn about her views on current research on waste, as well as her experiences in the field.

Over the past semester, we have been working on a project called “Environmental Futures: Our lives with waste”. Through brainstorming and research, we eventually focused on repair practices, particularly the “Right to Repair” movement which promotes dismantling obstacles for repair and enabling users to repair products themselves. Therefore, we started our interview by asking Ulrike how the boundaries between a repairable item and waste shift.

“We always look at balancing factors of time, availability and money”, Ulrike explains, referring to a coffee machine in the department getting worn-out as an example. Its repair would cost more than buying a new one with a fresh warranty. In this example, purchasing new products becomes a more desirable option both in terms of convenience and financial costs.

Social values in waste
Speaking about repair, Ulrike points to the broad field of valuation studies — Désirée Waibel and colleagues’ article on “Valuation Constellations” (Waibel et al., 2021) in particular. What is especially remarkable, according to Ulrike, is how the text encourages the reader to reflect on how different positionalities relate to the roles that people assume when being confronted with questions of waste and repair. In the case of hospital ventilators, a doctor might prefer the faster option of ordering a new one, while a technician would rather consider repair.

Ulrike further elaborates that in the European context waste is considered a by-product of the process of “keeping the machine running” — a collateral that is simply part of maintaining our standard of living. But, she continues, this imagination is linked specifically to the economic context we are in. We are dealing with structures that cater to “the industry” and position innovation as the key to reducing waste. The strive towards innovation on the one hand and all of its problematic implications on the other point to a lack of coherence. Thus, repair and maintenance could be a step towards resolving this quandary or — as Ulrike calls it — “a puzzle piece in rethinking value”.

Repair in medicine

One of the sites where repair plays a vital role is the medical sector (e.g., Schubert, 2019). As our research proposal focuses on on-site repair practices in hospitals, particularly in ICUs, we asked Ulrike about her experiences within this environment.

Ulrike stresses that ICUs prioritize keeping patients in critical, life-threatening conditions alive to healing or treating their underlying medical issues. This emphasis on handling acute emergencies that threaten a patient’s overall stability highlights the urgency and pressure that doctors face in this setting. As a result, prioritizing short-term health-stability over other aspects of patients’ care may cause different values of medical workers to collide. Overall, the hierarchical arrangement of the medical field and the added pressure of intensive care might imbue the repair practices and the values related to waste that are at play in ICUs.

Since we are especially interested in practices of repairing medical ventilators within the ICU, Uli’s experiences give us insight into possible challenges that we might face when conducting our own research.

Dealing with waste

The tricky thing about researching waste is understanding why we dispose of waste in some places and not others, how we relate to it and what values we enact in doing so. One of Ulrike’s favourite writers, Italo Calvino, asks if the real powerful act is possibly in separating ourselves from our valuables, rather than having them in our possession. But what happens after something has been deemed waste? Consider microplastics or nuclear waste, for example.

Ulrike describes France’s strategy for dealing with low- and medium-energy radioactive waste: “They bury it and even if the waste is not radioactive anymore – above the threshold that would be – they do not transport it or undo it, instead, they create huge waste graveyards.”
While the French nuclear burial sites are being transformed into a mix of educational site and an attraction for adventurers, Austria has taken a different approach: here, low- and medium-energy radioactive waste is being repeatedly measured until a certain threshold is met and then it is treated as ‘normal’ waste.

This comparison raises some questions that Ulrike has been concerned with for a while: What are the reasons for such choices? What values inform these decisions and how do these values come about? And why does the French approach to nuclear waste strike us — being situated in Austria — as so strange and vice versa?
To figure it out, Ulrike suggests to take the STS-y route — to trace and conceptualise these issues.

Changing practices over time

In the last part of our interview, we asked Ulrike to reflect on the changes she has observed in the field. How have practices and debates about waste shifted since she has started researching the topic?

What has changed significantly, from Ulrike’s perspective, is the global political environment. This includes not only various political directives and laws, but also new discourse coalitions, to borrow a term from Maarten Hajer (e.g., Hajer 2020). In practice, this means that researchers such as Ulrike succeed in incorporating their narratives into political discourses and thus make their work visible. “This has allowed us to ask relevant questions. That is a very important part of today’s research culture”, notes Ulrike.

As we realise that we live in science- and technology-driven societies, questions about the environment and resources become more prominent. As Ulrike reminds us, the issue of plastic waste has been around for decades, but the debate used to be far less intense in its earlier stages. She recalls an article from the 1970s that already warned of the risks of plastics but did not receive much attention at the time. This illustrates the need for discourse coalitions, as those can secure the needed attention. In other words, for research to have an impact, there needs to be an audience. “If you just shout out as a scientist, you will not be heard. You need to have conversation spaces where somebody wants to know what you are telling them,” Ulrike adds.

 When Ulrike was growing up, she experienced how society cherished the idea of nuclear energy and its promise of a prosperous future. Later on, plastics took on this role, as the importance of them increased in time. While both plastics and nuclear power plants provided a certain societal uplift by providing cheap and versatile materials and energy respectively, they also introduced novel problems to be solved in an undefined future — such as long-lasting waste. And now, Ulrike says, a similar process is unfolding with digital practices — because every digital infrastructure and practice has its environmental costs too. Next to plastic and nuclear waste, this forms the third pillar of her most recent project INNORES.

Considering these aspects prompts us to think about the material impacts of “the Digital”. And, according to Ulrike, it is high time to do so: “Just 20 years down the road we will have the same problems we had with other things. So we should ask these questions now, when we might still change certain practices, and not when it’s too late.”

Hajer. (2020). Discourse Coalitions and the Institutionalization of Practice: The Case of Acid Rain in Great Britain. In The Argumentative Turn in Policy Analysis and Planning (pp. 43– 76). Duke University Press.
Schubert, C. (2019). Repair Work as Inquiry and Improvisation: The Curious Case of Medical Practice. In I. Strebel, A. Bovet, & P. Sormani (Eds.), Repair Work Ethnographies: Revisiting Breakdown, Relocating Materiality (pp. 31–60). Springer Nature.
Waibel, D., Peetz, T., & Meier, F. (2021). Valuation Constellations. Valuation Studies, 8(1), Article 1.

The authors are students of the STS Master’s program.