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ISR Issue 53, May–June 2007

The Conquest of Garbage


ON AVERAGE, each person in the U.S. throws out 4.5 pounds of trash a day. Over the last thirty years, the amount of rubbish the United States produces has doubled. Eighty percent of U.S. products are used once and then thrown away. And, unfortunately, this isn’t a problem that remains confined to U.S. borders: Today, the middle of the Pacific Ocean is six times more abundant with plastic waste than zooplankton.1 How did we end up in this situation?

In addressing this, there are two key questions to ask: What happens to our household wastes, and why do we make so much trash? How did we develop waste handling methods that disappear the discards flowing from our homes, schools, and offices? How and why has our society become one that churns out ever escalating piles of trash? For example, why is it cheaper to buy a new computer than it is to get a broken one fixed? And, crucially, how has such unrelenting disposability become acceptable and normalized? Tracing the history of garbage as we know it today begins to address these questions.

The Industrial Revolution triggered a major transformation of people’s relationship to the objects they use in daily life. Nineteenth century Americans no longer needed to tend and mend as they had in the past because manufactured goods were becoming affordable. As a result, people’s relationship to their waste underwent the earliest stages of what would become a tremendous shift in the next century. For instance, the 1841 edition of Catherine Beecher’s Treatise on Domestic Economy gave instructions on making soap and candles from waste ash and grease. But the 1869 edition told readers to buy those things readymade.2

The extensive reuse of waste materials, however, was dominant during this time and persisted well into the twentieth century. Today, we often mistakenly assume that people have always commingled their wastes, and our generation was wise enough to begin separating for recycling. But routine segregation of discards is actually the norm, while not sorting household wastes is the aberration. There was only a brief period, from the years just after the Second World War until the 1970s, in which Americans disposed of their discards mixed together. Before that time, people typically put their refuse into three separate bins: one for ashes; another for food slop and organic wastes; and a third for all other unusable items like worn-out shoes. Commodities that could not be repaired went back into the manufacturing process as raw materials.

In some cases, as in Victorian New York City, sorting and reuse facilities were run by local governments. Also, there were programs around the country in which organic discards were collected separately and fed to hogs at municipal farms. The municipal facility in Worcester—one of sixty-one towns in Massachusetts that practiced some form of feeding wastes to hogs—was praised in the sanitation trade press as an unmitigated success.3 Feeding hogs the organic wastes from households, restaurants, and hotels persisted into the 1950s in the United States. Additionally, there were municipal composting programs beginning in the nineteenth century and lasting into the 1920s. Today, city-run reuse and composting facilities sound cutting edge, but it’s been done in the U.S. before. It’s important to keep this in mind in working toward creating more sustainable waste handling infrastructures; reducing and reusing discards is not impossible, nor is it unprecedented—not doing so is the historical anomaly.

The next major development was the rise of the profession of sanitation engineering. The discipline grew out of civil engineering at the turn of the twentieth century, coming into its own by the 1920s and 1930s. In bringing a supposedly apolitical, purely technical expertise to the realm of trash, the sanitation engineer helped transform popular perceptions of castoffs. By treating refuse as a problem that needed to be put in its proper place, the sanitation engineer constructed an alternate logic in which discards were considered to no longer have value. This represented a significant break with the past, when materials were used and reused until they almost disappeared.4 In addition, changes in industrial production at the time challenged established practices of channeling small-lot wastes back into manufacturing. Factories needed reliable, consistent feed stocks in greater volumes, and household wastes were increasingly inadequate.

The Second World War is the next decisive moment in this story. During the war, the Army Corps of Engineers perfected a land disposal method referred to as the “sanitary landfill.” Implemented at domestic military bases across the country, the sanitary landfill outperformed other disposal techniques. It was more efficient and far less costly than incinerators and reprocessing plants. At the sanitary landfill, trash was dumped mixed together, compressed into the ground, and covered with a layer of dirt at the end of each day. The compaction kept pests out, and the earth cover helped keep odors down, a vast improvement on earlier land disposal options. After the war, sanitary landfills were introduced in civilian life by military engineers who returned home to work for municipalities or teach at universities. Today, sanitary landfills dominate: 85 percent of waste goes to these types of dumps.

Also during the war, the military perfected the hydraulic technology for compaction trucks. Ubiquitous today, the packer truck caught on quickly because it reduced collection costs, the most expensive part of waste handling. Fitting more rubbish into each load saved money. The compaction truck was highly compatible with the landfill; both were designed for trash that was mixed together and compressed. Significantly, the sanitary landfill and compaction truck dealt a serious blow to salvaging because discards were crushed and rendered worthless. Indeed, these technologies engineered reuse out of the waste handling process.

Just as garbage collection and disposal were streamlined during the Second World War, so was manufacturing. After intensive public investment, U.S. industry emerged from the war with the most efficient production lines ever, churning out all manner of consumer goods for a public with unparalleled purchasing power. The war stimulated the postwar mass production and consumption boom, just as it fostered the efficient means for disposing of so many new types and ever growing quantities of waste.

With all this consumption, markets were saturated by the late 1950s. Most people in the U.S. already had a car, a house, and all the appliances they needed while competition was ramping up from recovering manufacturing sectors in Germany and Japan. These circumstances contributed to a threat of overproduction in which American consumers might not keep pace with the boundless output of manufactured goods. One marketing consultant explained at the time, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life…. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace.”5

Along these lines, U.S. manufacturers devised a solution: “built-in obsolescence.” That is, designing products to wear out faster than they need to, through technological obsolescence, fashion obsolescence, or some combination of the two. Understanding built-in obsolescence and the historic moment that produced it is key to understanding today’s intensive disposability. Built-in obsolescence offered the possibility to generate new consumption among those who already had everything they needed. Under the rationale of built-in obsolescence, durable items were manufactured to be less durable, and whole new categories of products were created to be disposable from the outset. Throwaway goods had not been marketed on a mass scale before, but now cheap commodities ranging from dishware to sunglasses were flying off assembly lines, and, sooner rather than later, landing in the trashcan. At a 1950s plastics industry conference, one speaker announced from the podium: “Your future is in the garbage wagon!”6

Interestingly, the public had to be taught to accept disposability. Contrary to what we’re often told, chucking things in the waste bin didn’t come easily. One of the earliest throwaway items was a plastic cup dispensed in vending machines that sold hot chocolate and coffee. People would drink their beverage and then pocket the cup, taking it home to wash and reuse. There was a debate in the plastics trade press at the time about how to convince consumers that an object that was obviously not garbage should be considered useless and discarded.7 Their conclusion was that people had to be taught to shift their notions of waste. This aim was eventually achieved, in large part through the education and public relations efforts of the still-powerful industry group the Society for Plastics Industries.

Despite what seems like common sense today, it’s not simply part of human nature to throw things out. Wastes are created by the most basic activities, such as eating, but that doesn’t mean the volume and toxicity of modern garbage is either normal or natural. Wasting as it is currently carried out is a learned behavior that had to be cultivated and must be consistently reinforced on an ongoing basis. There is something hopeful in this: since accepting and adapting to a throwaway lifestyle is learned, it can be unlearned.

One group that has played a central role in shaping popular perceptions of garbage is Keep America Beautiful (KAB). Formed in 1953, just months after Vermont passed a state law banning the sale of throwaway glass bottles, the non-profit was organized by powerful beverage and packaging firms including Owens-Illinois Glass (maker of the first disposable glass bottle, and the Duraglas), the American Can Company (maker of the first disposable can), Coca-Cola, and Dixie Cup, working with the National Association of Manufacturers. (The Vermont law was enacted not by nascent environmentalists but disgruntled dairy farmers tired of losing cows that accidentally ingested stray glass containers that had been tossed out car windows.)

Keep America Beautiful was the first of the great green-washing corporate fronts to come and was highly influential in shaping the debate about the unprecedented swells of garbage. They constructed the obvious trash problem as one of “litter,” and proclaimed the perpetrator to be the now infamous “litter bug.” This discourse distracted the public from the role of industry, and put responsibility for waste squarely on the consumer. According to KAB, the problem wasn’t mass production, it was the selfish and careless individual who failed to put trash in its proper place. Its message became most widespread with the group’s now iconic 1970s television ads featuring the buck-skin clad Iron Eyes Cody paddling a canoe through a litter-strewn landscape, with the voiceover, “People start pollution, people can stop it.”

Motivating this type of public relations was a desire to keep legal controls on disposables at bay, important to manufacturers for reasons of profitability. The demise of the refillable bottle illustrates this point. From the 1950s through the 1970s, beverage makers phased out refillable glass bottles. Washable, reusable containers died because of consumer demand for disposables, we are told. Lugging empties back to the store was too inconvenient, the story goes, and producers could no longer sell their drinks in the thick, scratched vessels. But, while some people surely disliked taking their used bottles back, this version of events doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. In the early 1970s, when the first bottle deposit law was passed in Oregon, return rates surpassed 90 percent.8 And today in countries that still use the refillables—Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico—between 69 and 98 percent of people take their empties back. So, what are other explanations for the shift to disposability?

First, during the years the refillable was phased out, supermarket chains were taking over from locally owned grocery stores. The chains didn’t want to dedicate storage space and labor time to refillables; shifting to disposables would help drive down costs. Secondly, beverage makers—unlike today, many at that time produced their own packaging—stood to generate considerable revenue by turning to disposables. Refillables could be reused anywhere between fifteen and forty times, so selling a new bottle with every soda or beer would appreciably raise income. Since packaging costs are embedded in the price of the product, the higher fee for single-use containers was simply passed on to the consumer.

The third explanation has to do with the structure of the beverage industry itself. Refillables imposed serious limits on drink makers—they could control only a certain geographical area of a given market because delivery trucks had to return with the empties. But if those barriers were taken down by nixing the refillable, closing local bottling plants, and centralizing operations at large regional hubs, then economies of scale could be achieved, allowing for previously unattainable profitability.

And that’s what happened. There was tremendous consolidation in the beverage industry as the refillable disappeared, regardless of consumer demand. In 1947, there were about 5,200 soda makers in the United States. By 1970, only 1,600 were still in business. In 1950, there were more than 400 brewers in the country, but just 64 remained in 1974. At the end of the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) carried out a study that confirmed the switch to disposables facilitated the consolidation of the beverage industry.9 This story demonstrates the logic of our economic system: it externalizes costs onto the environment and to individual consumers through the disposal of garbage, but also through increased resource extraction, manufacturing, and distribution to make and sell replacement goods, as a means of keeping consumption and profits, and therefore the economy as a whole, growing.

Where does recycling fit into this story? Some quick background: Popular examples of recycling didn’t arise simply because the public realized its folly. Recycling became mainstream due to structural reasons and social struggle. In the mid- to late-1980s, between 70 and 90 percent of U.S. land disposal sites were closed because they didn’t meet recently enacted federal safety standards. This created a huge crisis over where to put the trash, embodied by the notorious garbage barge that drifted up and down the East Coast searching for a place to dump its load.

The answer the waste industry and many elected officials proposed at the time was increased incineration. Consequently, trash burning plants were planned in cities around the country, most often in poor and working-class communities of color like South Central in Los Angeles and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Even though incinerator firms promised their plants would be benign—in South Central the city told residents the facility would be so clean they could hold weddings on its lawn—racially diverse neighborhood coalitions formed in opposition.10 Fearing toxic releases such as dioxin, one of the most hazardous chemicals in existence and a byproduct of burning household trash, these grassroots organizations successfully stopped the new incinerators. This signaled the rise of the environmental justice movement, with groups connecting the issues of race and class with environmental degradation. Across the country, activists engaged in these struggles went on to help elect local officials who passed mandatory recycling laws, establishing the infrastructure for many current curbside programs.

Given the popularity of recycling—it’s likely that more people in the U.S. recycle than vote—it’s worth considering the viability of this waste treatment method as a long-term solution. Recycling is far better than sending discards to be burned or buried, no question. But we need to look realistically at the limits of recycling. Today, only 5 percent of all plastic gets recycled, only one-third of all glass bottles get reprocessed, and just half of all aluminum cans and paper are remade.

Recycling numbers are not what they could be for a variety of reasons. If it’s cheaper to get these materials from “virgin” sources, then manufacturers are more likely to do so. And without laws requiring recycled content, there is not much incentive to buy reprocessed inputs. Likewise, with no regulation on the use of the recycling symbol—it’s in the public domain—anyone can project an image of environmental responsibility without actually being ecologically sound. Another, and deeper, problem with recycling is that it is a “back end” solution that deals with waste after it has already been made. Recycling does nothing to stem garbage creation at the real source—production. For every pound of household waste, there are more than 70 pounds of waste generated by industries like mining, manufacturing, agriculture, and petrochemicals. The greatest majority of rubbish is created not due to individual consumer choices, but decisions made behind closed factory doors.

What are some real solutions? First, environmental destruction must be addressed in terms of the economic context within which it exists. This means looking at and challenging the logic of capitalism: It is a system that generates profits by exploiting not only labor but also nature. The ecological degradation exemplified and revealed by garbage is evidence of this. It makes little sense to struggle for rainforest preservation and saving the whales if nothing is done to alter the economic imperative that motivates individual businesses, and whole industries, to deforest, overfish, and pollute. Likewise, if, as is the case in the United States, environmental controls regulate the disposal of toxic substances, but the production of those hazardous materials is not banned, then these wastes still exist and are dumped onto the poorest, least politically influential groups. In this way, race and class must be brought more centrally into environmentalism. The mainstream ecology movement has steered clear of raising these points to avoid conflict with powerful economic and political interests. But, as the record shows, this approach has failed to protect the environment.
In considering realistic solutions, it’s worth interrogating the role of the individual. Displacing the blame for so much waste onto individual consumers is vital for manufacturers. It creates confusion about the real source of waste, which fosters a permissive culture where consumption can keep growing. The PR and education efforts of groups like KAB helped cultivate and continue to encourage this perception. Significantly, individual consumer choices are not inconsequential. But the ability of individuals to mitigate dying oceans, global warming, and rampant species extinction is marginal without a reconfiguration of industry’s relation to nature, so that it prioritizes the health of natural systems and not just profits. The way we handle our wastes today and the discourse around it—litter, recycling, and the increasingly popular “green consumerism”—continue to put the onus for environmental destruction, and salvation, on the individual. It’s important to challenge this idea, to push for political solutions that reach into the sphere of production to limit toxicity, and require greater durability and serviceability, so that less trash gets created from the outset.

Short of remaking our political and economic systems, there are changes that can be implemented that start to move toward a more equitable and sustainable treatment of the environment. The refillable bottle is still used in several countries, as previously mentioned, among them Germany. That country passed the Packaging Ordinance in 1991 to cope with a rubbish disposal crisis; facing geographical limits on landfill space and inadequate incinerator capacity, its conservative government decided to reduce the country’s garbage output. Among the law’s provisions was a measure requiring 72 percent of all beverages to come in refillable bottles. Still enforced today, the use of refillables eliminates hundreds of thousands of tons of waste each year; reduces greenhouse gas emissions; saves significant amounts of energy; creates jobs (according to one study, if Germany switched to a 100 percent refillable system, there would be 27,000 new jobs); and people like it (69 percent of Germans say they prefer to take their empties back to the store).11

In seeking realistic solutions, the role of the state needs to be taken to task. The U.S. government has nurtured the development of a trash-rich culture at every step, and continues to do so. The most recent energy bill (passed in early summer 2005) gives sizeable subsidies to the oil sector, the most profitable industry in history. Aside from its contribution to global warming through carbon dioxide emissions, the petrochemical sector also produces plastics, a large component of household trash. Thirty percent of all landfill space today is comprised of packaging wastes, and 40 percent of that is plastic.12 No legislation has ever been passed restricting wastes created by the plastics industry. In looking for answers, the public must demand that the state act on behalf of human and environmental health, and not simply as handmaiden to capital.

We are often told that garbage and environmental degradation are necessary for a high standard of living. If we have less waste, then people are consuming less, which will inevitably lead to an economic crisis that hurts the little guy. In reality, the benefits of the current system are gained most fully by those at the top (in the U.S. today there is greater income inequality than any time since the Second World War) while environmental fallout is felt most forcefully by those at the bottom. This reflects a profound inequality that must be set right. In order to truly address the problems wrought by mass wasting, merely separating our cans and bottles from paper will not do. Instead, we must change the system of production that relies so heavily on the exploitation of nature.

Heather Rogers is the author of Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage (The New Press, 2005).

1 On doubling of rubbish, see U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2001 Facts and Figures (Washington, D.C., 2003), 3–4. On 80 percent, see Neil Seldman, “Recycling—History in the United States,” Encyclopedia of Energy Technology and the Environment, eds. Attilio Bisio and Sharon Boots (Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley, 1995), 2,352. On plastic waste, see Susan Casey, “Our oceans are turning into plastic,” Best Life 3, no. 9 (November 2006), 105.
2 See Susan Strasser, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York: Henry Holt, 1999), 26.
3 Martin V. Melosi, Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform and the Environment 1880–1980 (Chicago: Dorsey Press, 1981), 170.
4 For more on the history of reuse see Strasser.
5 Victor Lebow, “Price competition in 1955,” Journal of Retailing 31, no. 1 (Spring 1955), 7.
6 Lloyd Stouffer, quoted in “Plastics in disposables and expendables,” Modern Plastics 34, no. 8 (April 1957), 93.
7 Ibid., 96.
8 Thomas W. Fenner and Randee J. Gorin, Local Beverage Container Laws: A Legal and Tactical Analysis (Stanford Environmental Law Society, July 1976), 13.
9 Catherine Lerza, “Administration ‘pitches in’ to outlaw throwaways,” Environmental Action, vol. 6, no. 2, May 25, 1974, 5.
10 Louis Blumberg and Robert Gottlieb, War on Waste: Can America Win Its Battle With Garbage? (Washington, D.C. and Covelo, California: Island Press, 1989), 168–70.
11 Brenda Platt and Doug Rowe, Reduce, Reuse, Refill! (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Local Self Reliance, April 2002), produced under a joint project with the GrassRoots Recycling Network, 1, 5–9, 14–15, 33.
12 Ecology Center, Report of the Berkeley Plastics Task Force (Berkeley, California, April 8, 1996), 4.
hr> Heather Rogers is the author of Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage (The New Press, 2005)

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