City Lit: Garbage Out

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As sanitation officials struggle to meet the 2002 deadline for closing the Fresh Kills landfill, where New York’s garbage ends up and how it gets there have become volatile issues. No matter where or how we export our garbage, there is too much of it to begin with–26,000 tons a day–and we keep producing more. Even recycling has barely made a dent; since the city’s program began in 1989, each ton recycled has been matched by an additional ton of trash. Though it is in the city’s interest to limit the amount of garbage it must pay to dump elsewhere, the question of what to do with it after it’s collected still rules the process. The more essential discussion–how we can be less wasteful–is off limits.

In her fascinating new book, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, University of Delaware historian Susan Strasser attempts to explain how we’ve become locked in that cycle of waste production and disposal–“how a throwaway culture,” she writes, “replaced one grounded in reuse.” Known for her lucid books on the history of housework and consumerism, Strasser again focuses on women’s pivotal role in a major cultural shift.

Before the 1890s, Strasser observes, Americans produced almost no trash. Scarcity was the rule, and families mended and reused old materials out of ordinary but necessary habit. As industry took hold in cities through the 1800s, peddlers fanned out to the towns where most Americans lived, bringing them wire, farm tools, soap, cookware and all manner of manufactured goods, many of them formerly produced by women at home.

Historians have long noted the role peddlers played in habituating Americans to consuming, but Strasser points out that for most of the 19th century, money was scarce; barter ruled. As part of those transactions, she finds, peddlers were collectors as well as distributors. Exchanging their manufactured goods for farm products like eggs, feathers and bones, peddlers shipped these items back to their own suppliers. The suppliers, in turn, often paid employees with the food and traded the raw materials to factories for new goods, which they then sent back to their peddlers. Long before the word recycling was coined, Strasser writes, “materials literally cycled between households and factories, creating a two-way relationship between manufacturers and consumers.”

As her fine-grained account shows, urbanization, changing consumer habits and sanitary concerns changed all that. Colossal factories demanded more raw materials than households could provide. A new torrent of industrial byproducts further displaced demand for households’ “secondary materials.” By the 1890s, the relationship between producers and consumers had become a one-way street, and cast-off rags, broken plates and other materials now piled up as never before. America discovered the garbage crisis.

The political response of the time sounds eerily familiar. Strasser quotes Col. William F. Morse, a leading sanitary engineer, describing the sequence of events in New York in 1898: petitions and public outrage; the Mayor’s belated attention to the problem; inspections, reports and pamphlets; a slew of bids and proposals from companies anxious to save the city from its troubles, for a price; and, when “everybody is sick and tired of the whole business,” the city ends up with “a bad bargain that makes endless trouble in the future.” Cities thus organized waste collection, and most waste was burned or landfilled.

“For the first time in human history,” Strasser declares, “disposal became separated from production, consumption, and use.” Once Strasser identifies this fundamental change, it becomes easy to understand why attempts to resurrect old ways–from World War II scrap drives to contemporary recycling programs–largely failed to stem the rising tide of trash.

Foreshadowing our more recent experience with recycling, the war-era scrap drives, Strasser says, did help to bring the conflict home and “offered Americans a way to contribute…without sacrificing too much.” But she also points out that by asking people to turn their worn clothes, dented pans, and broken tools over to the government, the scrap drives paradoxically reinforced “newer habits of throwing things away” rather than older habits of mending, saving and reusing.

Waste and Want shows how the incremental accumulation of changes in consumption habits evolved so closely with technological and economic developments that they ultimately became inseparable. Our present consumer-industrial economy, which treats us to convenient disposable diapers and cameras, appears immune to recycling or salvage.

In the end, Waste and Want leaves us back at asking how we can become less wasteful, but with a richer understanding of how we got this way. By expanding the history of trash beyond the policies and technologies to which other accounts of the subject have been limited, Strasser has collected the raw material out of which we might fashion better answers to that question and, perhaps, more sophisticated solutions to our waste woes.

John McCrory is executive director of Big Apple Garbage Sentinel, a New York City waste policy research organization.