Sacred waste or holy trash refers to the afterlife of things employed within religious, spiritual, and civil contexts that are then recycled, upcycled, or discarded (Anderson 2010: 35). This vernacular concept is beginning to take root in religious studies and literary studies, both of which are fields that have recently started to encourage research on ecology, environmentalism, and waste in relationship to religion and spirituality. Found within a variety of contexts, examples of sacred waste include leftover communion elements in Christian traditions; the remains of prasad in Hindu devotional activities; Torahs no longer in circulation in Jewish communities; faded icons found in the home shrines of Eastern Orthodox believers; and a wide variety of other items used by practitioners of faith traditions. However, sacred waste is not limited to institutional and vernacular forms of religion. Public items that are associated with forms of national pride, such as flags and emblems, constructed spaces, and land are often imbued with a sense of symbolic identity. Thus the retirement or destruction of such entities can cause public outcry if the items are not removed or disposed of in a manner that acknowledges socio-political, religious, national, or ethnic pride. Sacred waste is made up of more than the composite of its material elements because of its close proximity to and association with holiness or sacredness, the essence of which can become infused within or attached to the items themselves. Often, the spiritual dimension of holy things engenders deep emotional feelings on the part of practitioners, creating complex dilemmas that call into question the boundaries of holiness, sacridity and the agency of both the person and the object being discarded.
What or who defines the sacred items that ultimately become refuse? This question is not new– indeed, it harkens back to Mary Douglas’ work on purity and emic and etic understandings of sacredness (Douglas 1966). The subjective and culturally specific nature of belief means that sacred trash can take many different forms, for even everyday items can be considered sacred or holy by the discarder. In this way, sacred trash becomes a means by which individuals can authenticate their faith, spirituality, or rituals, often challenging institutional, homogeneous understandings of holiness and authority. These negotiations have political implications, highlighting the loci of power within traditional forms of religion and how new, consumer-driven forms of faith and spirituality are destabilizing formal institutions of religious power. This is best seen in the hybrid and “syncretistic” forms of Catholicism that meld together religious and secular things, creating an amalgamated form of waste that possesses a complex religious and emotional nature, such as votive candles, prayer cards, family photos, and incense. For practitioners, the remains of these items are sacred and, thus, should be disposed of or recycled in an appropriate manner that adheres to a personal or collective understanding of what is proper and legitimate theologically, culturally, and historically. However, in institutional religious settings, this type of garbage may not be view as sacred, leading to a fissure between vernacular folk piety and the authoritative hierarchy. In this manner, trashing functions as heresy and subversion, and a catalyst for socio-religious change. An example of the subversive nature of sacred trash outside of institutional religion can be seen at the annual Burning Man event in northern Nevada. There a symbolic effigy is reduced to ash, to sacred waste, and through the creation of holy refuse, attendees express their cultural ideals and desire to move beyond normative understandings of civil engagement.
The very idea of sacred waste also brings up ethical issues that are found in other areas of discard studies; namely, how does one properly dispose of used items in moral and ethical ways that concomitantly address religious obligations and environmental concerns? Implicit within this question are issues of socio-religious identity, the relationship between institutional hierarchy and vernacular practices, and negotiation of spiritual and physical boundaries. These dilemmas take on more salient concerns with the centrality of new technologies, such as the Internet marketplace and digital printers, through which consumers can and do purchase and produce goods that are used in religious rituals, spiritual acts, and, often, everyday life events. This type of mediated consumption is seen in Eastern Orthodoxy in the United States, where practitioners often print out paper icons on their home laser printers. These images become part of the circulation of the material holy in Orthodox economies until such time as they begin to fade and decay. The inevitable disintegration of paper icons means that they must be preserved, burned, or buried in accordance with the religious laws of the group. Digitally produced icons raise ethical questions for practitioners of Orthodoxy. Indeed, the term holy trash has been brought up during fieldwork with Orthodox Christians in the Missouri Ozarks, who are unsure how to discard icons and other religious things they use in domestic devotions. However, ethical dilemmas surrounding sacred waste are not limited to religious groups. Thus, focusing on potential or realized sacred characteristics of waste calls attention to the idea of spirituality, what constitutes sacredness, and the disposability of holiness and items of socio-political importance. By examining sacred trash, a large picture of material spirituality and identity emerges, while concomitantly allowing for the nuancing of the field of discard studies.