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Olli Pyyhtinen receives €2 million from ERC for a sociological study

Published on 17.3.2022
Tampere University
Olli Pyyhtinen.
Olli Pyyhtinen in a photo taken in 2015. (Photograph: Jonne Renvall/Tampere University).
Professor of Sociology Olli Pyyhtinen has been awarded a Consolidator Grant of nearly €2 million by the European Research Council. The WasteMatters project that will begin next autumn examines society and humanity through the lens of waste. Although the project does not aim to find practical solutions to the waste problem, Pyyhtinen thinks that a holistic reflection on humanity’s relationship with waste will inform ideas about climate change and the circular economy and influence other research.

“The funding will enable conducting bold research. Many other forms of funding do not enable this type of project, which is a very good framework for conducting big, theoretically ambitious basic research,” professor Pyyhtinen says.

The European Research Council (ERC) is the premier European funding agency for investigator-driven frontier research based on scientific excellence. The WasteMatters project is theoretically and methodologically innovative and has the potential to also influence other issues besides waste research. According to Pyyhtinen, the project contributes to, among other things, circular economy considerations, but, above all, it will analyse society as intertwined with waste as well as the far-reaching consequences of waste production.

The WasteMatters project will begin in autumn 2022.

“We will be able to promote social scientific research on waste with an international research team for five years. Waste is the lens through which we look at society and the way societies are constructed. Waste defines all aspects of social life and society as a whole; we have colonised the world with waste, Pyyhtinen explains.

“Ultimately, wasteful human actions have an impact on the biosphere,” he adds.

A wicked problem that requires constant action but will not go away

Pyyhtinen explains how, until the 2000s, landfilling was a kind of an “out of sight, out of mind” solution. This was followed by waste incineration and, in the most overzealous scenarios, the idea that waste will disappear by recycling. In contrast, Pyyhtinen’s starting point is that waste as a form of excess simply cannot be avoided.

“Waste is defined by the fact that it cannot be erased because we are always dealing with waste and all our actions are bound to generate excess. Our project challenges the zero-waste ideology of the circular economy that espouses the fantasy of a waste-free world, where all waste can be successfully transformed into a useful resource if we reach a sufficiently advanced level of technological development,” Pyyhtinen explains.

The project will look at how living with waste is changing people and societies. Waste is a wicked problem that requires constant action without being completely solvable. According to Pyyhtinen, humanity must accept the inevitability of waste. We are deeply entangled in the problem of waste.

New theory on the future of waste

Among other things, the project will look at what kind of relations and agencies waste creates in the world. The project will do critical social research and formulate theory on life with waste.

“To what kind of future do we commit ourselves when we commit to a particular waste management method, and what does that say about society? And what do different types and quantities of waste say about society? Waste is constitutive of society; there is no society without waste and waste management,” Pyyhtinen points out.

Food, plastic, ash and nuclear waste in the long future

The WasteMatters project will focus on four types of waste: food, plastic waste, incineration ash, and nuclear waste. Pyyhtinen points out that in the case of nuclear waste, for example, humanity will have to solve the problem of storing it for 100 000 years, which is beyond our comprehension and even imagination. Yet that future is already present today as a matter of concern when we are making such decisions.

Within social sciences, the aim of the project is to expand the spatial-temporal scales of analysis. For example, modernisation as a social phenomenon has typically been studied in the social sciences over a period of only a few hundred years by looking at the past. The supposed permanence of waste forces us to look to the future in unimaginable time frames.

Theorising requires empirical work on monitoring waste streams and human activity. To this end, the project will develop a new methodology, more-than-human ethnography, to be able to attend to the vibrant nature and active role of waste in how people live together.

With the ERC Consolidator Grant funding, the five-year project will recruit three postdoctoral researchers and two PhD students. The total funding of the project is just under €2 million.

ERC Consolidator Grant funding in 2021

  • The European Research Council granted 313 Consolidator Grants totalling €632 million to research projects that tackle big scientific questions.
  • The funding will support mid-career researchers, help them consolidate their teams and conduct pioneering research on topics and with methods of their choosing.
  • At Tampere University, Professor of Bioinformatics Dario Greco and Professor of Sociology Olli Pyyhtinen received grants.
  • In this latest call, 2,652 applicants submitted proposals and 12% of them received funding.
  • The funding is granted from the Horizon Europe programme.

ERC News: 313 new ERC Consolidator Grants to tackle big scientific questions (

Text: Mikko Korhonen
Photo: Jonne Renvall/Tampere University