Search View Archive

Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage

From outer space several human-made objects are visible, including the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Egypt, and just west of New York City, the largest of them all, another monument to civilization: Fresh Kills Landfill, where Gotham dumps its garbage. Now a depository for the gory debris of 9/11, this colossal waste heap looks more like a misplaced grassy butte. Most of the refuse is covered with graded loam, and not far off one can see what looks like a functioning estuary. On a bad day the methane stench of consumption past wafts up from the guts of the hill. If garbage were a nation, this would be its capital. 

Fresh Kills is a dramatic place, but apart from its size, not so unique. In 1999 Americans threw out 440 billion pounds of paper, glass, plastic, wood, food, metal, clothing, dead electronics, and other refuse. Everyday a phantasmagoric rush of spent, used, and broken riches flows through our homes, offices, and cars, after which it is burnt, dumped at sea, or more often, buried under a civilized veil of dirt and grass seed. Figures from 1997 show that each person in the United States throws out about 1600 pounds of waste per year. We’re the world’s number one producer of garbage: with four percent of the planet’s population, we consume 30 percent of its resources. And over the past 30 years our mountains of waste have doubled, despite the celebrated rise of recycling. 

Given all the enviro-hype of the last three decades one wonders why we still produce so much garbage. Is it just carelessness? Are we not trying hard enough? Or is garbage integral to a market economy? Might garbage actually be the fuel upon which American capitalism depends for growth production and profits? 

A Planet-Friendly Future?

According to official ideology, America is getting greener. In particular we are reducing our outflow of garbage thanks to new and ingenious technologies that allow us to “recapture” resources from the waste stream. And we’re told that consumers are essential to this process. We reduce, reuse, and recycle. And we know this is true because we see the chasing arrow symbol on everything from plastic water bottles to bank statements. What a system: we can have our cake, eat it, and feel good about ditching the wrappers.

In reality, recycling isn’t so simple. Some materials are more easily recycled than others, some aren’t recycled at all, and many recycling processes are actually inefficient, pollutant, and expensive. And all manufactured materials, except for metals and glass, can only be recycled a limited number of times. Each time paper is reconstituted or plastic remelted the material is damaged  at the molecular level, weakening the chemical bonds that give it strength and flexibility. In the industry this is called “downcycling.” 

Perhaps no other recyclable material is as misunderstood and ubiquitous as plastic. First of all, most plastic, despite the chasing arrow symbol, is never recycled. In fact, only three percent of plastic waste is currently recycled; most of that is so-called grades one and two. Clear plastic water and soda bottles are grade one, while milk and liquid detergent jugs are grade two. Anything above three, especially grade five, like yogurt containers and Tupperware, is almost never melted down and reused because the process is too costly. Instead it is sent from the recycling center to the landfill.

With recyclable grades one and two, downcycling occurs so quickly that the material must be fortified with a huge injection of virgin plastic to renew its strength. Recycled plastic inevitably ends up as a lower, non-recyclable grade. Another block on recycling is the lack of markets for reincarnated plastic. This is partially the result of industry’s unwillingness to spend the money retooling its production infrastructure to allow a radical increase in the reuse of plastic. In other words, a plastic water bottle is never simply recycled back into another plastic water bottle.

Plastic that is recycled goes through a lengthy and toxic process (still less toxic than production of virgin materials, however). The now ubiquitous polyethylene terephthalate, PET, or grade one plastic water bottle, is a good example. As with all plastic, it is initially manufactured from highly polluting petrochemicals in a process that, according to the EPA, contaminates the water and air with hundreds of millions of pounds of toxic waste every year, depletes the stratospheric ozone layer, and contributes to worker illness and death.

So what happens to plastic that lives again? After one guzzles down an eight-ounce vessel of agua the discarded product—if recycled, and as of 1998, only 24 percent is—will make its way to a sorting facility where compactors bail it with other PET. Giant cubes of compressed water, juice, and soda bottles are then traded amongst brokers or stored until prices rise. Sometimes hauled to domestic facilities, recycled plastic is also sold to companies in Asia where it is sent via cargo ship usually from west cost ports like Seattle, Oakland, and Long Beach. Once the material arrives, it is shredded and melted into pellets that, according to their grade, are remelted with virgin plastic and formed into everything from car bumpers to synthetic fleece jackets and plastic lumber. Much of this reworked plastic is then shipped back to the U.S. while the toxic byproducts of its recycling conveniently stay in Asia. 

As this trans-Pacific sojourn illustrates, the recycling process pollutes as trucks, cargo ships, furnaces, and new petrochemical toxins all enter the equation. According to one estimate by the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California, the amount of energy it takes to recycle one PET bottle could power a light bulb for 56 hours. 

A Brief History of Recycling

If recycling is to some extent feel-good fraud, the deeper question is how did we end up here? People used to recycle routinely, less for environmental reasons than for economic ones enforced by poverty. Scavengers were gleaning resources from rubbish even before American cities began organizing waste collection in the early 19th century. 

On Barren Island, in Jamaica Bay, where New York City dumped from 1849 until 1918, there lived a village of 800 people who combed the ash heaps for repairable household items like chairs and stew pots, bones to boil into soap and fertilizer, and rags to reprocess as paper. From the dregs of all this they made sausage and coffee to sell in flophouses. So-called “scow trimmers” and “rag pickers” were at first paid, then later charged, by the city to dig through piles of garbage on barges headed for the island, methodically sorting all day. Farmers paid the city for the privilege of scooping horse dung off the streets to use as fertilizer back at the farm. They also purchased kitchen slop from the municipal dump for hog feed. The point isn’t that having the poor live off  garbage is a good thing, but rather that recycling isn’t the brainchild of green-thinking Volvo drivers. 

Old fashioned reuse of materials continued into the 1940s, as waste collectors routinely sorted their loads searching for salvageable items. Back then, a single glass bottle was used 40 to 50 times. To guarantee their return bottlers charged a deposit fee. Even the government encouraged recycling amongst its citizens to conserve resources during WWII. In 1943, not-so-PC New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia chimed in with the slogan, “Save some Scrap to Kill a Jap.” 

But 20 years later trash had become big business. Most municipalities began contracting out waste management to privae firms who worked based on volume: the more waste they handled the higher the profits. What ensued was essentially a classic “enclosure” straight out of Marx’s Das Kapital. Garbage had been a form of commons where the poor could forage for survival. This corporatization of waste management and the commodification of garbage shut out the little guy. The industry was now burying cans, bottles, paper, and other reusable items, and scavengers got in the way, creating disorder and escalating costs. Municipalities thus invented a new offense: dump trespassing. 

Salvaging by workers on collection routes was snuffed out as well. Private firms prohibited their employees from sorting through the day’s haul because it took time away from work. And many companies halted recycling completely, streamlining their operations into single truck collection using the new technology of hydraulic compaction. Everything was picked up at once and compressed together. As recycling was dying, garbage entered its golden era.

America’s Post-War Boom: When Waste was King

After World War II, Uncle Sam was on top: while the rest of the world’s economies lay in ruins, the U.S. emerged from the war with a retooled and massively productive industrial base. Fully half of the world’s commodities were now made in America. Peacetime conversion meant switching from bombs to butter, or rather washing machines, cars, and burgers wrapped in paper. More people were buying more products. And such high levels of production meant steep competition for consumer attention. This put greater importance on packaging and wrappers. By the late ’50s, industries were, for the first time, spending almost as much on packaging and advertising as they spent on manufacturing. 

The key to sustaining the boom was a frenetic new consumer culture. To keep the American economy moving, wealth had to not only be produced (that part was easy) but it also had to be consumed, that is destroyed. As the 1950s wore on, markets became increasingly saturated. Most consumers already owned what they needed, so how could industry sell them more? The answer: “built-in obsolescence.” Producers began making products that intentionally wore out, styles began to change more rapidly and in more irrelevant ways, and totally new needs were invented that required new products like the electric can opener or fabric softener.

As Vance Packard pointed out in his 1960 pop classic, The Waste Makers, product innovation was replaced with a mere parade of different and not necessarily better styles. General Electric began shortening the life of its light bulbs and car makers added absurd new features every year, while soap and toilet paper began coming in every imaginable color. For industry to maintain growth and high profits, consumers would have to buy and use more and more of everything, endlessly replacing the old with the new until the new was old and had to be replaced again.  

As marketing consultant Victor Lebow explained to his colleagues in a 1955 issue of The Journal of Retailing: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption… We need thing consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever increasing rate.”

Viewed from a different angle, the landfills of the golden era held not only garbage but America’s lost luxury. To consume, to use, and to dispose of more, Americans had to work and earn more. Interred with the millions of tons of garbage went years of time and human labor that could have otherwise been enjoyed as leisure and freedom but were sacrificed to the boss and the garbage grave. 

Room for More: The Birth of the Sanitary Landfill and the Compaction Truck

But what to do with all the waste? Until WWII, cities unloaded their garbage at open pits on the outskirts of town, where odor, vermin, and disease festered. With suburban sprawl competing for space, and increasingly unsafe and unsightly conditions at dumps (rural ones were infested with bears and urban trash pits tended to catch fire), many cities implemented the latest in solid waste management: the “sanitary landfill.” Even the name sounded clean. 

Like so much of the golden era, modern waste management was born from the crucible of World War II. The Army Corps of Engineers perfected trash compacting and landfill design on the European battlefield cleaning up after the troops. Jean Vicenze, an engineer who built the U.S.’s first landfill in Fresno, California in 1933, was drafted into the Corps. There he helped fine-tune a method of compressing waste tightly into the ground and covering it over with dirt at the end of each day. The consolidation kept pests out and the layer of dirt provided an earthly camouflage that hid the waste and ameliorated stench. Some 70 years after its christening, Vincenze’s Fresno landfill was, fittingly and unintentionally, declared both a National Historic Monument and a toxic Superfund site on the same day. 

The compaction truck also utilized hydraulic technologies developed or improved during the war. After the war the new diesel-powered rigs became popular because they required less workers and enabled operators to collect more refuse per trip. Efficient removal of waste helped shape the polished modernistic post-war aesthetic. As Blumberg and Gottlieb point out in War on Waste, the sanitary landfill and the compaction truck were key ingredients in the magic of 1950s consumer culture; they disappeared waste and made the levels of buying, using, and throwing away seem normal. Convenience packaging, disposable items, built-in obsolescence, and the landfill precipitated nothing less than an ideological and economic restructuring of garbage from a messy resource to live and work with into something bad and untouchable that must disappear. In fact this cultural shift even involved direct education of the public: for example, one double page ad in a 1948 issue of the San Francisco Examiner exhorted housewives to buy new “no deposit no return” glass bottles.

But pretty soon people began to question this logic. In the early 1950s, “ban the can” and “bottle bill” movements emerged in response to the growing marketing of single use containers. Vermont led the way. In 1953, as the beverage container industry started promoting disposable bottles and cans, the Vermont legislature outlawed these nuisances altogether. State lawmakers were concerned with the effects of littler on the landscape and the concomitant impact on tourism in the Green Mountain State. 

Industry reacted swiftly: within months they had confected a lavishly funded non-profit called Keep America Beautiful (KAB); it was the first of the great green-washing corporate fronts. Readers will no doubt recall its mawkish public service announcement featuring the buckskin-clad Native American, Iron Eyes Cody, riding horseback through a wrapper- and can-strewn landscape as he shed a single tear. These ads centered on one of KAB’s most important cultural inventions: litter as a nationally recognized political category. Just prior to KAB’s formation, the Pennsylvania Resource Council, a pet project of Lady Bird Johnson, had conjured forth the villainous “litterbug” who selfishly deposited his refuse willy-nilly. This cultural motif—of wrappers adrift in the wind—was borrowed with permission by KAB and transformed into a stand-in for all other environmental problems. 

KAB’s strategy was to shift the emerging environmental discourse away from industry’s massive and super toxic despoiling of the environment and to focus it instead on the rather irrelevant issue of litter. The central trope in this propaganda battle was individual responsibility: Slogans like “People start pollution, people can stop it,” and “Don’t be a litterbug,” exemplified this political miniaturization of environmental pollution. 

At the same time KAB’s corporate backers, the beverage container industry, heavily lobbied Vermont’s legislators to overturn the ’53 ban, and threw its weight behind candidates across the country who would not restrict the production and distribution of disposable packaging. Their strategy worked. Vermont’s lawmakers let the ban expire four years later, and 15 more years passed before any state adopted laws limiting disposable containers. Thanks to industry’s strong opposition, today there are still only 10 states that mandate deposits on bottles and cans, and through 2001 Coca Cola had never once used any recycled materials in its plastic bottles. 

Recycling Now

By the late ’60s environmental consciousness was on the rise, propelled in part by Rachel’s Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, which revealed the toxic effects of DDT on birds and their habitats. In 1970, grassroots activists organized the first Earth Day, where hippies chanted the new mantra: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”

Today there are 9,300 curbside recycling programs in the U.S.; more Americans recycle than vote (the former seems more effective). Yet there’s more garbage produced per capita  than ever before and packaging now makes up between 30 and 50 percent of all waste buried in landfills from which leak toxic dyes, dioxin, and heavy metals. How does recycling fit into this equation? It could be argued that people feel better about environmentally destructive levels of consumption in part because of recycling. 

Plastic recycling has increased since PET was first introduced in 1978 but nowhere near as fast as plastic production. Since the late ’60s, when Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate receives that most famous piece of advice, plastics as an industry has grown at nearly twice the annual rate of all other manufacturing sectors combined. No wonder petrochemical plastics now take up 25 percent of all landfill space. 

The mainstream and liberal environmentalist defense of recycling is that it’s better to recycle than send empties to the landfill. This is true but it avoids other possible scenarios and, like KAB’s anti-litter campaigns, occludes the politics of production. Consider this: for every ton of municipal discards wasted, about 71 tons of manufacturing discards are produced from mining, oil and gas exploration, agricultural production, and coal combustion, just to name a few. Cutting back on consumption and using materials—in contrast to recycling—would lead to a drastic reduction in waste systemically. 

Ecotopia and the Metabolism of Capital

What are the ways forward? Most experiments are very small scale. For example, there are plenty of intentional communities that attempt to live in harmony with the earth by growing their own vegetables, cleaning and reusing their gray water, composting their food scraps, and buying as few new products as possible. 

One such urban homestead is the “Batcave” in Berkeley, California.  In this cramped bungalow seven young anarchists compost, pipe their shower water to a biofilter in the garden, and dumpster dive for everything from tools to clothing.  “Our house only throws out one small bag of garbage per week,” says the ever-earnest Batcaver Tim Krupnick. 

In fact Krupnick is so serious about the three R’s he composts his own feces. Furthermore this process takes place in his bedroom. He keeps a five-gallon white bucket under a homemade plywood frame with a toilet seat on top. “You just cover it [his stool] with saw dust and you can’t smell a thing,” he says a bit sheepishly. “People think it’s kind of weird but I think flushing your shit into the water system is even more disgusting.” 

Berkeley is also home to Urban Ore, a salvage business that sells everything, and it all comes from the dump. They have an unusual contract with the city of Berkeley which allows them to extract what its owner, Mary Lou Vandeventer, insistently refers to as “resources” from the “waste stream” to put back into the “use stream.” 

“The use value is maintained and it’s just more efficient,” she explains, sitting in her office equipped entirely with scavenged furnishings. “Once you crush something up, say a desk, you can ‘recycle’ the wood into pressboard for example, but it’s lost its initial value and has to go through many other costly processes to be useable again.”

These two examples of reducing consumption and reusing materials are visionary, honorable, and necessary, but Lilliputian. Materially, garbage might be the end product of consumerism, but politically and economically it is the lifeblood of capitalism. The tremendous productive power of modern industry is such that overproduction is a constant threat. While natural resources may be finite and running out, the power to produce commodities is not. Even during the height of the late ’90s boom, most industries were saddled with excess productive capacity of up to 20 percent. Under such conditions, all fixed, or stranded capital is threatened by potential loss and devaluation if it cannot continually produce new value. Only evermore consumption can keep the system moving forward. As Packard wrote some 40 years ago: “The way to end glut was to produce gluttons.”

Capitalist growth and profitability depends as much on the destruction of wealth as on its production. While Urban Ore’s salvaging of the value contained in a manufactured desk is rational from an environmental and social point of view, it is irrational and not useful for the furniture industry which must, to thrive, produce and sell more and more furniture regardless of how much already exists. Ultimately the environmental crisis, of which garbage is just a subset, is inseparable from the logic of our whole economic system. 


Heather Rogers

Heather Rogers is a Bay Area writer and photographer.

Christian Parenti


The Brooklyn Rail


All Issues