Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash
© 2000 Susan Strasser
Consider your trash can. In all likelihood, you cannot imagine not using it. What else would you do all with the trash generated in the course of day to day living? And yet trash cans haven’t always been a fixture in our homes; until the 19th century, people invariably fond uses for whatever extraneous materials they produced, so much so that waste was an anomaly But now, disposing of it is a mammoth task, handled by the government and large corporations. In Waste and Want Susan Strasser reveals how waste rose to such heights, and despite its subject matter it manages to be charming rather than ‘offal’.
Throughout most of human history, material goods have been too precious to waste. Every article represented hours of hard labor, where that work was invested in the sewing of clothing, the milking of cows, or the manufacture of pottery. Economy forced prudence, not to mention self-reliance: people made their own candles out of cooking fat because they needed candles, and like all skill made objects they were not easy to come by, being either rare or expensive. If an item broke, it was repaired; if beyond repair, it was put to future use. Clothes were extensively modified to extend their lives, and passed down through the generations (as were most household items). Cloth remains too small to be used in clothing could be sewn into quilts. Food scraps were fed to animals, who converted refuse into more food — and if nothing else, the items were burned as fuel in the family hearth. Even if a given family didn’t possess all the skills and time required to recapture the value of every scrap, local economies thrived on communal recycling. But all that changed with industrialization.
Although the first factories, like paper mills, inserted themselves into the garbage cycle seamlessly — using refuse like rags to produce paper — soon the industrial process broke a circle of endless reuse to the one-directional “waste stream”, the stream that has turned into a torrent by the 21st century and is fast filling up landfills, incinerators, and the open ocean. This disruption began as industrialization became increasingly efficient through economies of scale: large operations that relied on waste for their manufacturing (like the paper mills) demanded too much to be satisfied by communities: instead, they had to be fed by other factories, and the trash of the common people fond itself without an outlet. Transformations in the home (like gas stoves) removed the use of garbage as fuel. Factories also made consumer goods cheaply: as they became abundant, they lost value. Why repair when you can replace? In the 20th century, companies seized on that idea and encouraged it, first through changes in fashion (cars replaced by new models every year, the only real distinction being aesthetics), and then through Planned Obsolescence, wherein items were manufactured with the intent of their breaking down within a relatively short time frame and requiring replacement. (They could be repaired, at first, but then someone hit on the bright idea of engineering every part in a given machine so that they would all begin breaking down at roughly the same time…)
The results? Trash — lots of it. Dealing with the trash has required new technologies and systems of organization to cope with it. The pressing demand for waste management is mitigated (ever so much) by recycling, but our pitiful attempts at reusing resources are nothing like those our ancestors managed. Recycling is a meager flame overwhelmed by the mighty ocean of garbage that consumerism encourages and our economy relies on. The amount of waste necessitated by modern life is staggering: next time you visit a grocery store or supermarket, consider how almost every item in the store comes in a cardboard box, and inside it may be goods wrapped in plastic. We cannot possibly find uses for so many boxes, and what on earth would we do with even one ice-cream wrapper, let alone the dozens or hundreds we are liable to rip off in a year?
Waste and Want is a fantastic little bit of history and indirect social criticism. While garbage is on the cover, it’s really a history of us, of how we relate to the world through our use of its material resources and how that has changed. It’s a fun read, sure, but by its end one can’t help but be impressed by the fact that waste is an issue we must think about. Environmentalism aside: in this era of austerity, how can we possibly justify throwing way so many resources and even consuming more resources to manage the waste? It behooves us to act more responsibly, and as the 21st century progresses I can only hope that our worsening economic condition will force a rebirth the prudence of our forebears.