The Hidden Life of Garbage

IF GARBAGE WERE A NATION, the Fresh Kills landfill just west of New York City would be its capital. This colossal waste heap-the place where Gotham dumped its trash for more than 50 years until it was closed last year-is said to rank with the Great Wall of China and the pyramids of Egypt as among the human-made objects most visible from outer space. Get close on a bad day and the stench of decomposing matter wafts up out of what looks like a giant grassy hill.

Fresh Kills is a dramatic place, but apart from its size, it is not unique. Every day, a phantasmagoric torrent of cast-off riches flows through our homes, offices, and cars to be burned, dumped at sea, or, more often, buried. And despite the celebrated rise of recycling over the past 30 years, our mountains of waste have doubled. In 2001 alone, Americans, who make up 5 percent of the planet’s population but consume 25 percent of its resources, threw out 232 million tons of paper, glass, plastic, wood, food, metal, clothing, electronics, and other rubbish-about 4.5 pounds of waste per person a day.

We’re supposed to reduce our waste stream thanks to new technologies and industries that recapture resources. But all that rotting stuff tells a different story. Why? Carelessness is not the only answer. In fact, garbage production is crucial to a market economy. American capitalism hinges on our willingness to keep producing trash.

A Brief History of Recycling
We may believe that the increase in recycling is helping the situation, but the truth is not so simple. Many recycling processes are actually inefficient, polluting, and expensive. And aside from metals and glass, most materials, including paper and plastic, can be recycled a limited number of times before they lose their strength and flexibility. Despite the ubiquitous arrow symbol, only 5 percent of plastic waste is currently recycled, and much of that must be fortified with huge amounts of virgin plastic, which produces a lower, nonrecyclable grade of plastic. You may think you’re recycling certain durable plastic things like yogurt containers and Tupperware, but the recycling centers almost always send them on to the landfill because it costs too much to reprocess them.

Of the plastic we do recycle, some is sold to Asian companies that blend it with virgin plastic to form everything from car bumpers to synthetic fleece jackets to plastic lumber. The reworked plastic is then often shipped back to the United States, burning more resources, while the toxic by-products from recycling conveniently stay in Asia.

If recycling is to some extent a feel-good ecological exercise, the deeper question is, How did we end up here? People used to recycle routinely, less for environmental reasons than for economic ones. Scavengers were gleaning resources from rubbish even before American cities began organizing waste collection in the early 19th century. They combed trash heaps for chairs and stew pots, bones to boil into soap and fertilizer, and rags to reprocess as paper. This practice continued into the 1940s, as freelance waste collectors sifted through many people’s trash each week.

In the decades after World War II, trash became big business. The key to sustaining the country’s postwar industrial boom was a frenetic new consumer culture. But as the 1950s wore on, most people already owned what they needed. The producers responded with “built-in obsolescence.” Companies like General Electric began making products such as toasters and light bulbs that were designed to wear out, styles began to change more rapidly, and totally new “needs”-electric can openers, fabric softener-were invented. As Vance Packard pointed out in his 1960 best-seller, The Waste Makers, innovation in products was replaced with a parade of different and not necessarily improved styles.

But what to do with all the waste? Before World War II, cities unloaded their garbage at smelly open pits on the outskirts of town. With the onset of suburban sprawl and the increasingly unsafe and unsightly conditions at dumps, many cities turned to the latest in solid waste management: the “sanitary landfill.”

Jean Vicenze, the engineer who built the country’s first landfill, in Fresno, California, in 1937, worked in the Army Corps of Engineers during the war and fine-tuned a method of compressing waste tightly into the ground and covering it over with dirt to clean up after the troops. The consolidation kept pests out, and adding a layer of dirt hid waste and reduced its stench. (Some 50 years after its christening, Vincenze’s Fresno landfill was declared a toxic Superfund site.) As Louis Blumberg and Robert Gottlieb point out in War on Waste (Island Press, 1989), efficient waste removal meant that garbage simply disappeared, making the mad levels of buying, using, and throwing away seem normal.

After the war, most municipalities began contracting waste management to private firms whose work was based on volume: The more waste they handled, the higher the profits. To deal with scavengers, municipalities invented a new offense: dump trespassing. What had happened was a classic “enclosure” straight out of Marx’s Capital. Once a form of commons where the little guy could forage, garbage had become a profitable commodity.

Pretty soon, however, people began to question this logic. In the early 1950s, “ban the can” movements emerged in response to the 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 them, fearing that litter would blemish the landscape and hurt tourism.

Within months, the beverage container industry struck back, creating a lavishly funded nonprofit called Keep America Beautiful-the first great example of corporate greenwashing. Its mawkish TV commercial featured the buckskin-clad Native American Iron Eyes Cody riding horseback through a wrapper- and can-strewn landscape as he shed a single tear. The strategy was to shift the emerging environmental consciousness away from industry’s massive despoiling of the environment onto the rather irrelevant issue of litter. After heavy lobbying by the container makers, the Vermont legislature let the no-deposit container ban expire four years later, and 15 more years passed before Oregon adopted laws limiting disposable containers. Vermont followed suit in 1973. Today, there are still only 10 states that mandate deposits on bottles and cans.

Recycling Now

By the late 1960s, environmental consciousness was on the rise, propelled in part by Rachel 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 and began chanting a new mantra: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” Today, there are curbside recycling programs in an estimated 9,300 U.S. communities, and more Americans recycle than vote. Yet more garbage is produced per capita than ever before.

What are the ways forward? The mainstream and liberal defense of recycling is that it’s better than sending soda bottles and tin cans to the landfill. This is true, but actually cutting back on consumption and reusing materials-in contrast to recycling-would lead to a much more significant reduction in waste. Salvaging can also help. Urban Ore, a business in Berkeley, California, sells only items that come from the dump, thanks to an unusual contract with the city that lets it extract these “resources” from the waste stream. While cases like this are visionary and necessary, they are, in the end, Lilliputian. Materially, garbage might be the end product of consumerism, but politically and economically, it is the lifeblood of capitalism. Ever more consumption is what keeps our economic system moving forward.

Capitalist growth and profitability depend as much on the destruction of wealth as on the production of it. While salvaging the value contained in a discarded but perfectly usable desk is rational from an environmental and social point of view, it is irrational and not useful for the furniture industry, which must produce and sell more and more desks in order to thrive. Ultimately, the environmental crisis, of which garbage is just a subset, is inseparable from the logic of our whole economic system.

Heather Rogers and Christian Parenti live in Brooklyn, New York. This essay is based on Rogers’ documentary film Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, available from AK Press at Reprinted from The Brooklyn Rail (Early Summer 2002). Subscriptions: $20/yr. (6 issues) from 43 Withers St. #3, Brooklyn, NY 11211.

CAFE UTNE: Discuss garbage and recycling in the Nature forum at

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.