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Throwing It All Away

Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash • By Susan Strasser
Metropolitan Books • 355 pp • $27.50 • September 1999

In the summer of 1987, a barge called the Mobro, laden with more than thirty-one hundred tons of trash, wandered the Atlantic Ocean for fifty-five days, searching unsuccessfully for a place to dock and unload its cargo. Pundits and politicians were quick to exploit the symbolic value of the wayward vessel, which they christened the "garbage barge." Newsweek declared that the barge's journey signaled a "trash crisis" and warned that if Americans did not change their wasteful ways "dumps will cover the country coast to coast." In his 1988 State of the State address, New York governor Mario Cuomo delivered himself of a new rallying cry: "Remember the Mobro." The barge's symbolism even drifted into the murky waters of popular culture. "All I've been thinking about all week is garbage," confesses a housewife played by Andie MacDowell in the opening scene of the 1989 film sex, lies, and videotape. "I mean, I just can't stop thinking about it.... I've just gotten real concerned over what's gonna happen.... I started feeling this way...when that barge was stranded."

Garbage guilt hasn't always been a national pathology. In fact, as Susan Strasser reveals in Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, garbage was rare before the twentieth century because what little trash Americans did generate they recycled into something useful. Strasser, a professor of history at the University of Delaware, approaches garbage as a historian well acquainted with the minutiae of daily life. She is the author of two previous books about the intersection of household pro d uction and consumerism, Never Done: A History of American Housework and Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. In Waste and Want, she builds on that scholarship, explaining how the rise of consumerism at the turn of the century altered the ways that homemade goods and industrial products were treated at the end of their useful lives.

Waste and Want is a tale of decline. Strasser argues that the proliferation--and changing value--of trash over the last two centuries reflects the demise of a hardy, work-driven ethos and the rise of a profligate, consumption-based culture. Before the twentieth century, she explains, goods and money were scarce for most of the population, so saving and using scraps of any kind was essential. "The process wasÖgenerally cyclical, if not perfectly so," she observes. "Waste products were important to economic growth because they served as raw materials for other industrial processes." Households traded rags and bones to peddlers for teakettles and buttons; peddlers exchanged these rags and bones with manufacturers for domestic goods. Clothing was mended and remade; an adult's torn trousers became the raw material for a child's new coat. Food scraps were used as fertilizer or fed to livestock. In nineteenth-century Manhattan, Strasser notes, herds of pigs roamed the streets and "consumed so much garbage and furnished so much food for the poor that efforts to ban them ran into political opposition." Indeed, in his American Notes, published in 1842, Charles Dickens urged New Yorkers, "Take care of the pigs."


John Palattella calls California v. Greenwood a "crucial decision in the annals of garbology": it places garbage in the public domain, allowing police to search it without a warrant. Dumpster divers of all sorts have taken the decision as a carte blanche.

The Garbage Project, which applies the techniques of archaeological research to the 'middens' of contemporary landfills, is a division of the University of Arizona's Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology.

And, finally, for a contrarian view of trash, read "Waste is Good," by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller.

With the rise of consumerism, however, America's relationship to waste was fundamentally transformed. "Trash and trashmaking became integral to the economy in a whole new way: the growth of markets for new products came to depend in part on the continuous disposal of old things," Strasser writes. Instead of remaking old clothing, people discarded it or donated it to the Salvation Army or Goodwill Industries, both of which were established in the late nineteenth century. Commercial slaughterhouses, which sold tons of bone to fertilizer companies, put peddlers out of business. And manufacturers created a new kind of trash altogether: packaging. Consumers had little use for the cardboard cartons and cellophane wrappers that swaddled brand-name goods, so they threw the stuff out.

Contemplating this detritus, Strasser laments the loss of something more valuable than raw materials themselves. She thinks that a major trait--and failing--of consumer society is, as the cultural historian Jackson Lears puts it in Fables of Abundance, "not materialism but the spread of an indifference toward a material world where things are reduced to disposable commodities." In preindustrial America, Strasser contends, "mending and restoring objects often required more creativity than original production." The predominant attitude of most people toward trash was that of the bricoleur, "an odd-job man who works with his hands, employing the bricoles, the scraps or odds and ends." The countless ways that people reused trash reflected what Strasser calls a "kinesthetic knowledge of materials." Consumerism, she believes, has made such knowledge irrelevant. (Crucially, Strasser doesn't consider to what extent mass production and consumerism have liberated people--particularly women--from the drudgery of certain household tasks.)

Most people today don't have designs on trash; instead, accustomed to treating anything old or worn as obsolete, they dump it into designer garbage bags. Even worse, those few habits of the bricoleur that haven't perished have been subordinated to the larger agenda of a throwaway society. Nineteenth-century peddlers who reused garbage "engaged in two-way relationships, paying for rags and old rubber with cash and credit," Strasser writes; late-twentieth-century households that recycle bottles and newspaper "just put the stuff on the curb, expecting nothing tangible back."

"What counts as trash depends on who's counting": Strasser is speaking figuratively, but for all its observations about our throwaway society, Waste and Want contains scant data about garbage. In certain respects, this lack of hard facts is unsurprising. Garbage is ephemeral, after all; it disappears from one day or week to the next, which makes it hard to track the volume and variety of what people discard. And while refuse haulers and city sanitation officials have collected data on solid waste since the early twentieth century, thes e data are difficult to interpret. Until recently, solid waste was measured by weight, not volume. In 1990, a group of garbologists from the University of Arizona's Garbage Project devised volume-to-weight ratios that enable comparison of landfill contents. Still, as the head of the Garbage Project, William Rathje, explains, comparison by ratio is imperfect because, due to climate and other conditions in landfills, "the very same types of garbage vary enormously in both weight and volume from place to place."

Even trickier to gather is information about garbage in the nineteenth century. Then, refuse accumulated in marginal places--dumps, outbuildings, alleyways--where it was handled by marginal people like ragpickers. "Marginal people leave few records," Strasser writes, "and scholars who study them often find that the most accessible sources--the writings and records of élites about marginal groups--offer more enlightenment about the writers than dependable analysis of their subjects. Thus the swill children"--kids who roamed the streets collecting food scraps to sell to farmers for fertilizer or hog food--"are described in a book about the 'dangerous classes' of nineteenth-century New York."

In another respect, the scarcity of data about garbage in Waste and Want is typical of Strasser's method as a historian. She likens herself to a ragpicker in the archives, scavenging through periodical indexes for scraps of information about trash. The result is a patchwork of stories and observations about a throwaway society written not from the ground up but from the top down. Strasser relies heavily on trade magazines like Modern Packaging and Waste Trade Journal, slicks like Good Housekeeping and Metropolitan Home, and household manuals like The American Frugal Housewife and The Home-Maker and Her Job. As a result, she doesn't use trash to document the gradual development of consumerism in everyday life so much as she traces the views of a professional class of social managers and opinion makers, whose attitudes toward waste she regards as a fairly accurate index of society's as a whole.

Strasser's habit of teasing broad cultural patterns from scraps of data is a big liability when her history becomes jeremiad and she claims that the rise of consumerism has spawned a severe garbage crisis in the United States. Late in the study, Strasser points out that from 1970 to 1993, the amount of trash (after recycling) that had to be disposed of increased from 3 to 3.4 pounds per person per day. This is an interesting figure, but note that she doesn't break down the contents of that four tenths of a pound of garbage; it's unclear what percentage is paper, food waste, glass, plastic, or metal --or even what percentage is biodegradable. It's illogical, then, for her to suggest that this slight per-capita increase signals that "Americans take the word of companies that make razors, batteries, toothbrushes, and processed food, throwing away the old one when the manufacturer says it's time to buy again." In fact, as the garbologist Rathje discovered in his excavation of nine landfills in the 1980s and early 1990s, what one is most likely to extract from the steamy depths of a landfill is not a razor or toothbrush but the remains of a newspaper or magazine. Over the last two and a half decades, Rathje reports, the volume of paper in landfills has risen from 30 to 40 percent, while the volume of plastic has hovered at a little less than 16 percent since the 1970s. Glass, metal, food waste, and construction and demolition debris account for the remaining volume of trash.

Given Strasser's tendency to see a mounting garbage crisis in a discarded tin can, it's hardly a surprise that she thinks the odyssey of the Mobro in 1987 was a "harbinger of things to come." This interpretation couldn't be more wrong. The Mobro's trek was the result of an unusual entrepreneurial gamble gone awry. The barge's bales of refuse belonged to an Alabama businessman, Lowell Harrelson, who wanted to convert the waste to methane gas for commercial energy use. Harrelson's plan was no crackpot scheme: At the time of the Mobro incident, the Brooklyn Union Gas Company was using methane captured at the three-thousand-acre Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island to provide heating and cooking gas to ten thousand families. Harrelson had purchased the garbage from New York City and several Long Island suburbs, but his conversion plan never materialized because none of the six East Coast states and three Caribbean countries he approached would permit him to off-load the garbage into a landfill where, after paying a fee, he could capture methane. At the time, some environmental alarmists thought the garbage hazardous--why else would it have been turned away from port to port?--but their fears were unfounded. The bulk of the trash was paper.

Harrelson ended up burning his investment in an incinerator in Brooklyn and paying to haul away the resulting four hundred tons of ash to a landfill--in Islip, Long Island. Rather than seizing on the purported symbolism of the garbage barge, Strasser should have given Harrelson a place in Waste and Want next to her esteemed peddlers, who were also determined to wring as much economic value as possible from trash. Remember the Mobro.

John Palattella is an associate editor of University Business and a frequent contributor to Lingua Franca.

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