In her new book Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage (New Press), journalist and filmmaker Heather Rogers explores the history of waste in the United States. Here, she talks with Joshua Jelly-Schapiro about the shady beginnings of the "Keep America Beautiful Campaign," the promise and limitations of recycling, and how our economy is built on ever-growing piles of refuse.
JJS: First of all, a simple question: Why trash? What does trash have to teach us?
HR: Garbage is a unique substance in that we all make it every day, so we can all relate to it. Because of this, trash has the ability to reveal the connections between our daily lives and the often hidden horrors of larger ecological crisis. The environmental impacts of mass consumption are obscured by the way we encounter finished products on store shelves. But once a commodity becomes garbage, these consequences start becoming apparent. What garbage reveals is that the market's relation to nature is not one of stewarding human and environmental health, rather it is one of exploitation.
JJS: From the historical account you give in Gone Tomorrow, it's clear we didn't always produce nearly so much trash in this country as we do now. Why is this so? What has changed that has contributed to the U.S. producing such staggering amounts of garbage per-capita today as compared to even a few decades ago?
HR: In the past, Americans didn't produce as much waste because manufactured goods were more expensive. It used to make sense to tend and mend commodities to last as long as possible. But the streamlining of industrial production led to low-cost, ready-made goods. This culminated in the super-efficient post-World War II mass production line, which turned out everything from furniture and cars to blenders and sunglasses cheaply and at lightning speed. The corollary to the ensuing mass consumption was (and remains) mass wasting. Today, manufactured goods have become so inexpensive that it makes economic sense to throw things away rather than repair them; and this translates into massive piles of rubbish. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, today 80 percent of U.S. products are used once and then discarded. In short, our economic system relies, at its very core, on ever-greater piles of trash.
JJS: I was also struck in the book by your account of how keeping our nation clean became a matter of individual responsibility, particularly through the "Keep America Beautiful" ad-campaign. Can you talk a little about this trend, and about who was behind that particular campaign?
HR: The story of Keep America Beautiful is key to unearthing the roots of how we handle and conceive of trash today. In 1953, KAB was founded by the Owens Illinois Glass Co. and the American Can Co.—makers of the first disposable bottle and can respectively—along with firms like Coca-Cola and Dixie Cup. From its inception, the group's members fought relentlessly on every level of government against proposed measures (like bottle-deposit laws) that restricted packaging wastes. KAB also worked on the cultural front to shape public perceptions of mass-produced rubbish. Between 1960 and 1980, U.S. trash output quadrupled, and to head off a backlash, KAB mounted a PR offensive that shifted the responsibility off of industry's super-toxic destruction of the environment and onto the individual consumer. Under KAB's logic, the problem was litter and the culprit was the Litter Bug. KAB's campaign reached its most visible point in the 1970s with the now infamous public service announcements featuring the buck-skin clad Iron Eyes Cody shedding a single tear as he witnessed modern Americans carelessly tossing litter out the car window. Still active today, KAB has successfully convinced Americans that “Packages don't litter, people do.”
JJS: On the topic of industrial regulation, it seems that the common line -- as with environmental regulation -- is that we must choose between jobs and a clean environment, or between jobs and less-wasteful industries. How true is this notion?
HR: Industry routinely claims that whatever is good for the environment is bad for business, and bad for labor. According to their logic, if we use less, if we throw less away, then markets will slow down and everyone will suffer. But in fact, every study I've found shows that increased reuse and recycling actually creates jobs and stimulates local economies. One example is in Germany where 72 percent of all beverages must come in refillable containers. This has resulted in an annual reduction of hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage, huge energy savings, and jobs creation (the program, incidentally, is also extremely popular). And, according to one report, if Germany switched to an all-reusable system 27,000 new jobs would be created.
In the U.S., by contrast, what we see is an economy more reliant than ever on
wasting, but without delivering an economic advantage to the average worker. Today there is more income inequality than any time in the last 50 years. And since 2000, the U.S. has lost more than 2 million skilled jobs that had high wages and benefits; these have been replaced by half as many low paying, non-secure service-sector jobs. What this means is the rewards of a trash-heavy lifestyle go to those at the top, while the resulting environmental fallout is something everyone has to live with.
JJS: Talk a little about recycling. How are we doing in the U.S. in this regard? Would all our problems be solved if we had more and better recycling programs?
HR: It's important to assess the realities of recycling, because so many people want to believe that it works and that it's enough. Over the last ten years, recycling rates in the U.S. have stagnated, and, in some places, declined. Today only five percent of all plastic gets recycled; only one-third of all glass bottles get remade; and only half of all paper and aluminum cans get reprocessed. This isn't for lack of public participation, which is high. The catch is that recycled substances have to compete with “virgin” raw materials for industrial buyers. Thanks to the billions of dollars in subsidies that extractive industries in the U.S. receive, virgin resources can often be cheaper than recycled. And when there's no market for recyclables, they become garbage.
Aside from the market constraints, and perhaps more importantly, recycling treats wastes only after they've already been made. It does nothing to stem rubbish production in the first place. Recycling has contributed to a scaling back in the demands of the public and environmentalists by convincing us that it will remedy the situation. What gets left out of the discussion are more radical calls for things like increased product durability and serviceability, which together with less packaging would drastically cut garbage output. Recycling should be part of a larger plan, but it's not a viable solution on its own.
JJS: When he was chief economist at the World Bank, Larry Summers infamously remarked, "the economic logic of dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable, and we should face up to it . . . Underpopulated countries in Africa are vastly underpolluted." Do we presently export much waste to correct this "underpollution"? To what extent is the economy of trash actually international?
HR: Exporting waste is a huge issue, and it's something that happens within the U.S. too. Trash is typically sent from wealthier, whiter neighborhoods to waste treatment facilities located in communities of color, with lower income and education levels. This same dynamic gets reproduced on a global scale as western countries ship their castoffs to the developing world. Today there's a roaring international trade in discards: between 1997 and 2002, the value of U.S. waste exports to China surged from $194 million to $1.2 billion. One scrap dealer, America Chung Nam, sent out more containers from U.S. ports in 2002 than did DuPont, General Electric, and Phillip Morris (now Altria) combined. The egregious exporting of trash is the result of more refuse, but also the outcome of inadequate regulatory laws. By not taking the crucial step of restricting the production of needless waste, governments have fostered a situation in which manufacturers continue to make and market a boundless supply of rapidly obsolete commodities. And if these discards can't be disposed of here, in our backyard, they simply get shipped overseas.
JJS: So what do we need to do? What are the key steps we need to take, locally, nationally, internationally, to reduce the amounts of waste we produce, and what are the consequences if we don't?
HR: We need to struggle for social and economic justice in the context of the health of natural systems. The environmental justice movement is doing this by making the crucial connections between ecological devastation and the exploitation of human beings under the neoliberal free market system. We can no longer approach ecological issues as separate from the economic system they exist in, which has been and remains the tendency in the mainstream environmental movement. Buying products with less packaging (which scarcely exist, by the way), and committing to more diligently separating the recycling are good, but they don't constitute a real solution. Not until we address the injustices endemic to the current market system can we truly address today's grave environmental problems.
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro is a San Francisco-based writer, and a graduate student in Geography at the University of California, Berkeley.
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