Critiquing commodification in environmental governance
: examples of urban waste governance in Cape Town, Rotterdam, and Bristol

  • Matt Paul Johnston

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Is the governance of waste in cities being encroached by logics of commodification? This question
is posed to analyse a capitalistic turn in environmental governance. Encroachment of such logics
is hypothesised to occur by innovation- and discourse-based means. But, alongside changes in
how urban waste governance systems are contested, there are changes in how they are maintained
and reinforced, e.g., through information technologies. Therefore, this thesis aims to better
understand the commodification of waste – including relevant ideas with political traction – which
is shaping and shaped by institutionalisation in urban waste governance. Three objectives follow
this aim. The first is to identify and critically analyse institutions sharing explicit alignment with
either or both circular economy or food-energy-water nexus ideas, and relationships between
these institutions in Rotterdam, Cape Town, and Bristol. The second is to investigate and critically
analyse the role of ideational power in processes of institutionalisation, or institutional change,
within urban waste governance systems. And third, to synthesise and simulate factors affecting
the outcomes of institutionalisation or institutional change aligned with circular economy or foodenergy-water nexus discourse in different urban waste governance systems. An innovative mixed
method methodology which includes social network analysis, qualitative analysis, and agentbased modelling has been developed and applied to achieve these research objectives. Methods
were selected and integrated with reference to an interdisciplinary theoretical framework
including environmental governance and critical institutionalism, a systems-thinking analytical
framing, and a conceptual frame that foregrounds context in the interaction between research and
government policy. Results suggest that the way critique is mobilised and affects institutional
networks through which waste governance occurs in cities is becoming increasingly complex and
nuanced. Whilst this may mean that contestation is increasingly open to influence or disruption,
caution is warranted in such interpretations. A shallow process of institutional diversification may
obscure deeper rigidity of established power hierarchies in urban environmental governance. How
such systemic asymmetries or inequities might be addressed by innovative forms of critique is an
open question, but a systems-thinking analytical approach which is sensitive to contextual factors
determining how and whether critical engagement affects policy, and its outcomes, is instructive.
The commodification of waste and of competing ideas interacting with waste governance systems
calls for holistic analysis of urban waste governance networks. Mixed methods that appraise and
integrate computer based- and empirical forms of social data enable holistic-critical analysis of
the governance networks wherein hegemony or domination is difficult to pinpoint and destabilise.
Such exercises of holistically analysing and critically engaging with diffuse / fluid domination in
urban waste governance networks give impetus to unorthodox alternatives to commodification –
both in terms of governance processes and outcomes that we might reasonably expect from those.
Date of Award2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Coventry University

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