Our Research

In the Cairns Lab, our research focuses on some of the most pressing issues in environmental anthropology, grappling with the complex realities of waste, pollution, and sustainability in the face of anthropogenic climate change. For more information on how we make our research matter, check out our public engagement page.

Sustainability in Fashion

The apparel industry is a major global polluter, and clothing waste presents one of the most pressing environmental and human health challenges of our time. Even though the production of a pair of jeans takes approximately 20,000 liters of fresh water, the average American throws away 81 pounds of clothing every year. The harmful environmental and human health effects of the fashion industry are not only due to dyes, synthetics, and other processes used in the industry, but also due to the predatory labor practices and overproduction schemas that are the norm in the global supply chain. This research seeks to connect innovations in big data, citizen science, critical making, and ethnography in order to empower communities and companies to co-create a more sustainable world by addressing the problem of environmental impact from waste in the fashion industry. Through this transdisciplinary approach, we will collect original empirical data and do data science in an innovative way—core data collection encourages contextualized analysis of problems through theoretically-informed and meaningful big data questions.

The Clothing Acquisition and Disposal (CAD) study is a sub-study in this thematic area. Designed as an element of the SMU Department of Anthropology’s graduate level Advanced Methods course and undergraduate level Research Methods course, the CAD study examines practices of clothing acquisition and disposal among male and female undergraduate students at SMU. It serves as both a learning tool and an ongoing, iterative investigation into influences on clothing acquisition and disposal practices, awareness of brands and clothing origins, acquisition and disposal habits, and the inclusion of environmental values in decision-making surrounding clothing. Semi-structured interviews and a survey are used to explore the productive afterlife of waste, the role of kinship in clothing practices, ethics and values, economic status, and fast fashion.

Our work on sustainability in the fashion industry reaches public audiences through public-academic collaborations. Stay tuned as we seek funds to launch the next phase of this project – or catch us on our next Instagram Live with a famous face in fashion!


Wastewater pollution contributes to environmental degradation and creates public health risks for people who recreate at the beach. How can we protect human health and environmental futures by improving collaborations between anthropologists, engineers, and biologists and bettering design for wastewater management technologies that mitigate and remediate wastewater pollution?  Funded by a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the MERA project is an innovative, beach water quality investigation that considers human behavior, water quality, and human health in tropical regions. Scientists from Southern Methodist University, the University of South Florida, and Biological Consulting Services, INC are working in collaboration with Costa Rican government agencies, universities, and non-profit organizations to improve beach management and protect public health in Costa Rica, other tropical regions, and throughout the world.

In this investigation, we combine water quality measurements with information that we collect on environmental change, people’s activities at the beach, and local choices about water management.   We will analyze these things together to better understand people’s health and identify what things could potentially damage coastal water resources.  We will use what we learn from the study to suggest avenues to improve health and well-being for beachgoers.  We will also provide options to help sustain and protect coastal ecosystems. By collaborating with our Costa Rican partners, this investigation can help improve how local leaders manage coastal areas.  As well, the study will provide information to people all over the world, improving everyone’s understanding of how human health relates to environmental conditions, a key aim of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Ultimately, the MERA investigation is designed to help keep people healthy and make sure that the environmental resources on which they depend are healthy as well. Visit the MERA Website to learn more. El sitio web de MERA está disponible en español aquí.

MERA is the first study of its kind in a tropical setting and is made possible through collaboration with the Costa Rican National Water Lab and other regional non-governmental organizations. Over the course of the project thus far, we have provided research training and skill development for Costa Rican university students. MERA’s outreach program to Dallas-area schools will launch in 2021, and we are currently piloting a novel tool for surfers to monitor water quality, developed as a spin-off of MERA in collaboration with SMU’s Office of Information Technology (OIT). Findings from this study have been published in Water Research and as English and Spanish infographics, with additional publications forthcoming.

Preserving Ohrid’s Natural and Cultural Heritage

With both UNESCO environmental and cultural heritage site recognition, Ohrid, Macedonia has some of the most distinctive environmental and cultural sites in the world. Lake Ohrid is over one million years old, home to distinctive wildlife and a long history of human occupation that reaches back to ancient Greek times. But now, the town of Ohrid is at risk of losing their site recognition because of tourism, unfettered development, and wastewater problems made more complicated by the fact that the border between North Macedonia and Albania crosses the middle of the lake.

Funded by a Fulbright faculty research award, this investigation works closely with local collaborators within the municipality, the local university, and non-profit sector to identify culturally appropriate solutions to the complex issues faced here.

COVID-19 and Loneliness

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected many people throughout the world and has caused many of us to rely on technological medians as our primary source of social connection. While technology and social media has allowed us to stay in contact with one another, it has also had some adverse effects towards mental health and feelings of loneliness. This research examined how social, physical, and educational relationships have changed and adapted over time during this global crisis. In order to dive deeper into this matter, Dr. Maryann Cairns worked with her undergraduate students to understand and explore some of the experiences everyone was facing with COVID-19 and their connection strategies. Along with this information, Dr. Cairns also presented some pedagogical solutions to help students and teacher adapt to the changes that have occurred during COVID.

Conducted in collaboration with lab members and students from Dr. Cairns’ undergraduate research methods course, findings from this study are in press with Human Organization.

Ecodisposition, Waste, and Environment

Funded by a Hamilton Scholars Grant for Undergraduate Research, the EWE study explores the social and ecological drivers and impacts of environmentally friendly funeral options. Funeral practices with ecological motivations are experiencing renewed attention in the US, in both traditional and alternative funeral industries. This mixed-method study examines how these environmentally friendly practices intersect with waste streams, infrastructures, and human perceptions of and experiences with death and dying. Using interviews and participant observation, the investigation has thus far engaged with funeral industry professionals in Texas and Oklahoma who are familiar with some variety of “green” or “natural” funeral services. Important emergent themes include material waste, normative social practices, acceptance of mortality, and simplicity and affordability of funeral services. How these themes are embedded in the experiences of both mourners and proactive death planners will continue to be explored as the study continues. Publications from this study are forthcoming.


Transboundary Watershed Management and Pollution in the Western Balkans

Transboundary (multi-country) watersheds are difficult to manage collaboratively. In these spaces, plastic waste, wastewater, mining waste, and toxic substances flow in and out of different countries’ jurisdictions, and inappropriate upstream disposal causes downstream problems. How do we address both the sources of pollution, as well as the collaborative policies and built infrastructure necessary to safeguard surface water in these regions?

Conducted through collaborations between the U.S. EPA and the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe, findings from this study were published in Reviews in Environmental Health.


Alternative Nutrient Management Strategies in Cape Cod

Nutrients from human waste can harm coastal ecosystems.  There are several strategies to mitigate the negative impacts of this pollution, but low-cost and alternative strategies can be difficult to implement, and people can have strong opinions about which strategies to use.  For instance, would you use a composting toilet? Would you put one in your house? How do we address wastewater pollution by re-thinking infrastructure? What would it take to make these alternative strategies work for communities on the Cape?

In many countries, flushing waste down the toilet to then be disposed of by wastewater treatment facilities has been deemed efficient, socially acceptable, and the picture of modernity. Waste, since the invention of the flushing toilet, has not been an issue that people have had to contemplate in “developed” countries, as the system has undergone little change and even lesser progress; however, the current wastewater treatment systems are in disrepair in America due to these mechanisms being barely updated since inception, and communities are facing challenges of expensive repairs and betterments for the sewage systems, costs that are often left to smaller municipalities to address, as is the case of areas along Cape Cod. The research for this eco-toilet project is from a community plan in Falmouth, MA to explore the efficacy and feasibility of different alternative practices including inlet widening, oyster cultivation, and implementation of eco-toilets. These were proposed due to coastal ecosystem degradation in waterbodies due to release of nitrogen from wastewater treatment into surface and groundwater that has caused hypoxia, harmful algal blooms, lack of diversity among certain fish populations, and harm to Cape Cod tourism. The eco-toilet was seen as the most sustainable and effective solution to this problem; however, in 2019, the updated proposal from Falmouth removed eco-toilets as a possibility to further explore. This project seeks to examine the causes for the rejection of the eco-toilet in Falmouth.

Human Health and Wastewater Reuse for Agriculture

Many farmers rely on river water for irrigating their crops—and simultaneously droughts and wastewater pollution make river water risky to human health.  Often times, this polluted water is the only source of irrigation water available. What are the risks to human health for farmers and consumers of crops grown with polluted water? How do we support the treatment of that water? Do low-cost, indigenous technologies to treat river water work effectively?

This interdisciplinary investigation included training six engineering students from Cochabamba, Bolivia, and findings from this study were published in Environmental Science and Technology.

Infrastructure and Environment in Rural Areas

When development agencies and rural communities work in tandem to construct & manage water, sanitation, and wastewater treatment systems, there are a lot of areas where environment, infrastructure, and health intersect.  How well do systems implemented by NGOs work for communities? What issues may arise with ensuring that these systems are sustainable? What are the politics of infrastructure placement in these areas?

This study in rural Bolivia trained four engineering students from the Universidad Tecnológica Boliviana, with findings published in Gender, Place, and Culture, World Development, WIREs Water, and as a book chapter in Water, Environment, and Health: The Political Ecology of Water. 

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