March 27, 2006 | General

Hidden Lives And True Reflections

BioCycle March 2006, Vol. 47, No. 3, p. 70
Recycling View
Neil Seldman

I suggest that the true reflection of social conditions may be how a society handles its waste. In her book and film with the same title – Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage – Heather Rogers has tried to make this case for me. She does not entirely succeed, but she has still written a worthy addition to Martin Melosi’s 1981 classic “Garbage in the Cities.” A 19-minute film complements the book.
Garbage has been an issue of concern in the U.S. since the industrial era began. The era of cheap energy and disposal is over. Garbage generation and management are both changing rapidly in an economy with too little oil and an environment with too much carbon dioxide. Using her engaging, skillful prose, suitable for the professional and the novice alike, Rogers makes garbage her context for examining our lives.
The chapter Rubbish Past details the birth of industrial garbage: “Commodities that had once been made in small workshops or at home were now produced on a mass scale…By 1869 in New England, soap and candles were to be made in each separate family; now, comparative few take this toil upon them.”
Industrialized garbage is a “pathology” of the industrial system. Consumption is at the heart. Rogers correctly relies on Marxism’s analysis of consumption and fetishism as a core criticism of industrial production, i.e., consumption for consumption’s sake to maintain a growth economy. Gone Tomorrow helps the reader understand what was behind the l960s’ rebirth of the American environmental spirit by describing the environmental threats present in the 1950s and 1960s.
Rogers’ prose is buttressed by copious facts, footnotes and references, making the case for a new approach to garbage. Her descriptions of evolving landfill and incinerator technology, and of garbage’s political economy, are excellent. Her insights into the recycling movement are well founded. Recycling activism, while a positive force, has only contained the problem: Increased recovery has been met with even more garbage generation. Rogers intelligently discusses the panacea of garbage incineration and the early origins of “green washing” by corporate polluters. She adeptly covers women’s leadership role in sanitation reform at the turn of the 20th century, and the subsequent professionalization of the field, which excluded women from participation. Gone Tomorrow ends with an excellent summary of the new recycling movement.
A highlight of the book, and one that greatly improves upon Melosi’s work is Rogers’ description of current movement for change. Melosi posed that federal action was the ultimate solution. In fact, the driving force for industrial renewal is grassroots activity among citizens, environmentalists and small businesses. Rogers introduces readers to the zero-waste movement, which has taken U.S. recycling beyond the waste stream to focus on extraction, production and distribution of products and packages.
Despite the author’s copious notations, surprisingly there is no mention of Peter Anderson, Center for A Competitive Waste Industry, whose ideas on corporate landfill hegemony are closely reflected. Other issues could use further inquiry. Reusable containers, for example, clearly are the only zero-waste approach. Yet, the strategic arguments put forward by the Grass Roots Recycling Network and Container Deposit Institute deserve notice. The zero-waste discussion lacks the appropriate emphasis on the importance of international cooperation among grassroots bottom-up activities and top-down directives.
A reference to detailed, practical zero-waste activities would help nonpractitioners appreciate the distinctions within the zero-waste movement – for example, Gary Liss’ “Sixteen Steps Your City Can Take to Introduce Zero Waste.” The author’s preoccupation with capitalist systems’ environmental degradation ignores the role of the USSR and Communist China. The anti-incineration battle in New York City omits mention of the New Source Performance Standards resulting from a compromise between EPA and grassroots activists in Spokane, Washington.
These new rules became the slender legal threads declaring recycling a Best Available Control Technology, preventing six consecutive mayors from putting an incinerator in every borough. The analysis of the anti-incineration battle in Los Angeles ignores the $2.5 billion capital cost and financial risk that the business community did not want to take, thus forcing Mayor Bradley to withdraw all incineration plans.
Finally, Rogers does not fully consider the contribution of Marxism to our understanding of garbage. Engels, the world’s first industrial ecologist, anticipated the role of waste materials in a “stable state,” or a sustainable, industrial economy balancing human needs and environmental necessities. Engels’ (i.e. Marxism’s) insight was that an industrial society uses the by-product of one plant as the feedstock of another (i.e., industrial design), and decentralization of industry and returning organic matter to the earth is needed for sustainable agriculture and industry. Rogers also omits the ideas of Thorsten Veblen, whose theories inspired the Progressive Era’s antipathy toward sanitation and industrial waste, absentee ownership, and conspicuous consumption. Veblen presented a market-based, non-Marxian critique of the U.S. industrial model that speaks to Americans more than Marxism.
The film summarizes the book’s main concerns, and features commercials and ideological mind tricks perpetrated on the U.S. public. Advertisements have embedded in the mind the concept of progress through consumption. Americans generate seven pounds of garbage per day; Europeans generate less than two. The film is a worthy complement to the book, but it would have been useful to hear garbage and recycling workers’ perspectives.
Neil Seldman has been a recycling and economic development practitioner as well as solid waste management historian for the past 32 years, directing the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Washington, D.C.

Sign up