» LITTERBUG WORLD: Overproduction, Waste & the Limits of Recycling

Heather Rogers’ film and book, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, explore the “sinister success” of capitalism by looking at the life cycle of our waste.  They examine the realities of planned-in obsolescence and waste-by-design in our market economy, asking deep questions from a fresh perspective. Rogers contends that recycling is far from an actual solution, and is at best a band-aid approach—a much harder look, she argues, needs to be taken at our addiction to waste.

This interview by Ariane Conrad originally appeared in LiP magazine and was anthologized in Tipping the Sacred Cow. (AK Press) [PDF; available as of May 2011]

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What inspired or motivated you to make Gone Tomorrow?

Heather Rogers: Two things: I wanted to know what happened to my garbage, because it seemed like it disappeared, but I knew that it didn’t. I wanted to find out where it went. I also realized that “waste disposal” is a process through which the market’s relations to labor and nature is made apparent. [Gone Tomorrow] is a way of understanding that garbage is something everyone makes—everyone can relate to it. It’s a way of connecting daily life and our daily interaction with waste to larger environmental crises.

In your film, you document several of the major shifts that occurred in the attitude towards garbage in the U.S.. Can you talk a little bit more about the most significant shifts?

It’s not so commonly known anymore, but in the 19th century there was a huge amount of re-use going on. A lot of it came from the fact that people couldn’t afford to buy manufactured goods because they were so expensive. One of the big shifts came with the Industrial Revolution, when commodities suddenly became much cheaper. The spatial component of the Industrial Revolution transformed the way people lived, so that suddenly people were leaving the countryside and concentrating in cities, to go work in the factories. They didn’t have places to save and store their waste like they had in the countryside, so it wasn’t as easy to save fat, for example, or scraps of materials to re-use and repair. That, in conjunction with commodities becoming cheaper, meant that people bought more of the things they needed instead of making them themselves.

At the same time, there was a transformation in land use practices, because garden markets also grew up around cities, and geography became more important to farming. Formerly, the colonial land use and farming practices entailed using a plot of land until it was exhausted, then moving on to another plot of land.

But with the growth of cities, and needing to be close to cities in order to market fruits and vegetables to the people in the cities, farmers had to suddenly start tending their soil in a different way—they started fertilizing. Wastes were sent out of the cities to the country, and produce and hay was sent from the countryside to the city. There was what Richard A. Wines, who wrote a great history of fertilizer (Fertilizer in America: From Waste Recycling to Resource Exploitation), refers to as an “extended recycling system” between the city and the countryside. Then, after the Industrial Revolution, that connection between where resources come from, and where they go, and the symbiotic relationship between production, consumption, and wasting began to break down. Commodities became much more affordable, and people started consuming a lot more. The 1841 version of Catherine Beecher’s Treatise on Domestic Economy explains how to make candles and soap; her 1869 edition of the same book tells you to just buy those things instead of making them yourself. So there was this big shift in the use and re-use of discarded materials and resources.

But even though there were these transformations going on, industry still used a lot of waste like metal and rags from households. A lot of the collection work was done by men with carts who would go around to houses in the city and the countryside collecting waste from people—waste that had been sorted, like rags and different kinds of paper, board, metal, and rubber. They would take those things to the city and sell them to factories, so there was still this connection between what people discarded and what was produced. There was a direct line where household discards could be re-used in the manufacturing process.

The next big shift came with WWII. During that time, there was a massive streamlining and perfecting of the production process. Along with that came mass production and the concomitant mass consumption. The byproduct of all that was a lot of waste. One of the great inventions of the postwar period was the disposable commodity. A lot of disposable commodities like paper towels and cups and disposable cans and bottles had been invented in the early years of the 20th century, but weren’t marketed for various reasons. One reason was that producers didn’t understand how profitable it was to make things that got immediately thrown away, and production wasn’t as perfected as before WWII.

After the war, there was real forced production, and cooperation between labor and capital—enforced by the government. And businesses had to cooperate with each other in unprecedented ways; they had to share information and they had to give in to this overarching discipline of churning out the goods for the U.S. military. When they emerged from that, they were so highly productive that, suddenly, making commodities that were meant to be thrown away made sense. It was economical, it was feasible, and there weren’t controls on natural resources like there were during the war.

So there was this boom in disposables—packaging was part of it—and the market share of disposable packaging has only grown since then. Also, obsolescence was a key development after WWII. It meant that durable goods began to be made to die faster than they previously had.

And that was a conscious decision on the part of industry?

Yes. Built-in obsolescence wasn’t a new idea either, but there was this confluence of resources and comprehension of marketing and productive power that came together after WWII that made it all possible. Incomes were also high, and people had buying power hey didn’t have before the war.

And shortly thereafter, as you point out in the film, there’s the establishment of one of the first industrial front groups, Keep America Beautiful (KAB)…

KAB was established in 1953, and it was the first of the greenwashing corporate fronts. It started a few months after Vermont passed a law prohibiting disposable beverage containers. Ironically, the Vermont law wasn’t formulated by some kind of early environmentalist movement—it was passed by a state legislature comprised of two-thirds dairy farmers. People had been tossing their empty containers on the side of the road. These containers were ending up in the hay that the cows were eating, and the cows were dying—so these farmers were losing their livelihood, and they passed this law. At that point, disposable containers were a new thing, and most beverages were distributed in refillable bottles. So they thought, fine, we can just stick to the refillable containers and we won’t have this problem.

Within months, the industry created Keep America Beautiful. What KAB proceeded to do was to form themselves into a very public relations-savvy beautification group. They identified a new political category of garbage called “litter,” [a term which] had existed before, but not with the same meaning that KAB imbued it with. They connected with the federal government and regional governments, through politicians, local businesses, and the education system. They created this civic organization that [on the surface] was just against throwing litter on the side of the road. [Essentially], they said that the problem isn’t all of this garbage that’s suddenly proliferating everywhere; the problem is that individuals don’t understand what to do with it! To quote a film called Heritage of Splendor, which KAB made in 1963 (and which Ronald Reagan narrated for them – see below) “Trash only becomes litter when it’s been thoughtlessly discarded.”

Their idea is that the problem isn’t what industry’s doing, the extraction of natural resources at an ever-increasing rate or the destruction of the planet on a scale that had never happened before. No, the real problem is all of this garbage that individuals keep carelessly throwing around. They’ve stuck to that message and it’s been very effective for them, because it displaces all responsibility from the people who make garbage— the producers of disposable commodities and commodities designed to wear out faster than they need to. It shifts the responsibility away from production, and onto the individual consumer.

And didn’t KAB also help popularize recycling?

They didn’t embrace recycling until the late 1970s and 1980s. They only took that up when they had to, and that was because of the rise of the environmental movement. They were very sophisticated: While they were doing this kind of PR work, getting out in front of the problem, they knew that garbage was going to become a huge issue.

In the early 1960s, a magazine called Modern Packaging had a cover story [on] “the crisis of garbage.” [It predicted] that we’re going to get to a point where consumers and municipalities are [questioning] all this waste. So they worked not only on the public relations front, but also worked to undermine legislation across the country. Vermont’s law was the only law of its kind ever passed in the United States. No law banning disposable packaging has ever passed again. It sounds radical now. The fact that is sounds radical now says a lot about how effective KAB has been not only on the moral front, but also on the legislative and policy front.

You mentioned this 1960s publication called Modern Packaging. Is that the first time packaging was spoken about as “packaging,” this product that is not quite a commodity?

I don’t think so. The thing about packaging that is so interesting is that it is a commodity, but it’s barely perceptible as a commodity. People accept that it’s a commodity that’s designed to be immediately thrown away. It again speaks volumes about how successful industry has been about training us to accept disposability, which has been a very concerted project they’ve been engaged in for the last 100 years.

Some of the first packaging arose in the late 19th century. Some of the earliest packaging was for “Uneeda Biscuits.” They were packaged in a box with wax paper that sealed in the biscuits so they wouldn’t go stale. Packaging was all about easing distribution for producers, because before that, everything was sold in bulk containers. The transformation of production and distribution as well as retail sales—going from mom and pop stores to the chain supermarkets we have today—means that packaging represents the automation of the distribution system.

I think producers are very conscious of how helpful packaging is in helping them centralize their businesses. In doing that, they get to downsize and streamline and create economies of scale that they couldn’t create if they didn’t get to consolidate—which is what a lot of the drive behind switching from the refillable to the disposable bottle and can was about.

The beer and soda industries consolidated massively in the post-war period, and the number of producers shrank dramatically. And this massive consolidation in both of those industries was facilitated by the switch to disposable containers. The industry no longer has the necessity for regional bottling plants where trucks can only go so far to deliver the products because then they have to go retrieve the empties. Now they can just drive straight through, one way, and they don’t have to take anything back. They can go to the next central hub, pick up more stuff, keep driving, and drop it off.

Are there any countries you know of that have made innovations in recycling that truly change this reality?

Going back to a system of refillable containers would sharply reduce packaging discards, the largest single component of the municipal waste stream. Taiwan, Ontario, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Germany, and several other countries have mandated reuse laws that require producers to sell a certain percentage of their beverages in refillable bottles or face fines. In Germany, [for example] the government says that 72% of your bottles have to be refillable. The consumer leaves a deposit on the bottle at the store and, once the container is empty, returns it in exchange for the deposit. Some of today’s refillable bottles are made of thick plastic while many still come in glass, either of which can be reused about twenty times.

This system existed in the U.S. until the 1970s, when beverage producers phased out refillables for disposable containers. The industry always says that they had to switch to disposable containers because customers demanded it—that [consumers] want the convenience of disposability. Actually, there have been numerous polls done over the last 30 years asking people if they want deposit laws, which means that they would then have to take their bottles and cans back to some central location to get their deposits back. The vast majority of people always say that they would prefer for there to be a deposit law. This directly contradicts what the industry always says, which is that they’ve given in to consumer demand for convenience.

When you see it working in these other countries, when countries like Denmark have 98% of their beverage containers refillable and they have something like a 98% participation rate, it’s really hard to say this system doesn’t work. The companies that are making those beverages are profitable! They haven’t gone out of business, jobs haven’t been lost, and the industry hasn’t gone down in flames—which is another thing the beverage industry argues here in the U.S. The direct opposite has happened. They’re doing well, it’s good for the environment, the public likes it, and it works. It’s totally realistic to reinstate the refillable bottle.

Would you care to reflect on the semantic shift that occurred: it seems like it went from “garbage” and “trash” to “waste.” With your use of the word “garbage” in your title; are you taking a stand against use of the word “waste”?

I use the word “garbage” in the title because I think it’s really recognizable to people. I think that’s what most people call their waste or their discards. That’s why I use it; it’s not a statement of my political or ideological stance on the issue of discards. A lot of people feel very strongly about choosing the right word, and I really respect where that comes from. I think that what we call the things we throw away is very important and it does relate to the way that what we throw out is constructed as dirty and not okay to touch or to consider as having value or being a resource.

In the waste industry, especially the corporate waste industry, there’s been a conscious deployment of specific words to describe what gets thrown away. Often they’ll call it the “waste stream”—they always try to sanitize it. They want discards to be off-limits, but also they want what they do to be perceived as environmentally innocuous. So they call all of the trash that they get from households and cities “municipal solid waste.” They try and transform it into a technical problem, which blankets over the tougher questions about why are we throwing away so much stuff, and what’s in there? Why are there so many resources getting crushed into the ground, or getting burned in the incinerator? Why are we wasting so much? The semantics are a really big part of how the system works and manages public perceptions of it.

What do you think about green capitalism? Is it going to be industry vs. environmental justice, or can there be some kind of compromise, in your opinion?

Companies like Waste Management Incorporated, which is the largest trash company in the world, tout their environmental sensitivity because they use all of these [environmentally friendly] technologies—all of which, they never tell you, are required by law. They act like they’re doing it voluntarily. But when you go to these facilities and you see the wealth of resources used to destroy commodities—obliterating them, annihilating them, making them disappear—it’s important to ask how many resources could instead be going into making the system that we’ve got more sustainable.

In terms of how that happens, there’s a lot of room for improvement, because the system we have is so bad right now. Obviously, it’s better to recycle than to not recycle, but it’s not a long-term solution. You’re still producing all the waste—you’re just treating it differently at the end.

One thing I feel would really make a difference in environmental and human health would be to go in and look at how capitalism works—because it needs waste. I don’t think that you can just make a few technical changes to parts of capitalism and expect it to work, or expect it to be an environmentally responsible system when at its core, capitalism needs unfettered access to natural resources and it needs to use them up. If you don’t intervene in that cycle, you’re never going to be able to deal with global warming, to stop deforestation, and the endangerment of life on the planet. That isn’t going to stop unless you change the economic system that we live under, because it has this fundamental characteristic of needing to consume nature and needing to produce at an ever-increasing rate. If there isn’t an intervention made on that, it will just continue.

“Green capitalists” like Paul Hawken and William McDonough have some great ideas, like creating commodities that can be entirely disassembled, recycled and re-used. They say companies should do that voluntarily, that companies should just re-design their production systems and the raw materials they use so that they can be infinitely recycled and infinitely re-used.

The thing is, that costs more at this point. If a “green company” is competing with a company outsourcing its labor to China and getting subsidies for raw materials extraction from some part of the U.S. government, as well as tax breaks on transportation, the green business is not going to be able to compete, and they’re going to go out of business. It might be nice for a couple of years—it might make the owners of the green business feel good to do what they’re doing, and it might make people feel good to buy those products. But at the end of the day, if they can’t compete, they won’t be around.

The use of natural resources is incredibly profitable, and that’s what will continue if there aren’t regulations and controls put on production.

Do you think that the U.S. can achieve a sustainable level of consumption? That a shift can occur, given how entrenched the systems of capitalism are?

I think that people like to consume because there’s something really gratifying about it. In making changes like [reducing consumption,] there’s a much greater chance of change coming about if we open up other channels [instead of] using the same pathway of relating to the individual consumer and their individual choices. And it’s a bit problematic to say, “the state should just intervene,” because the state has been intervening. They’ve funneled mass amounts of money to streamlining and perfecting the plastics industry, for example. The state helped create the disposable society that we have today.

So it isn’t enough to say the state needs to intervene—a democratized state needs to intervene, and people need to have more of a say in how much of our collective resources are being used, and how responsibly they’re being used.

What are your thoughts about recycling?

That it isn’t all it promised to be—today only 5% of all plastic gets recycled, only 1/3 of glass containers get reprocessed and just half of aluminum beverage cans and paper get recycled. Recycling hasn’t kept pace with production, in part because the market for reprocessed materials is unpredictable— so if prices are too low, many of those dutifully separated cans and bottles will end up in the landfill or incinerator. [See: “Aluminum on the March!,” a 1956 aluminum propaganda film, courtesy of the Prelinger Archive].

When recycling works, there’s another hurdle: All materials (except some metals) “downcycle” when they get remanufactured. Downcycling is a weakening of the substance’s chemical bonds and it means that these materials can be reprocessed only a finite number of times. Plastic, glass, and paper all downcycle and eventually must be disposed of. That means recycling is not a real long-term solution.

[Of course,] recycling is better than wasting. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the energy conserved through recycling is about five times as valuable as the average cost of disposing of trash in landfills in the U.S. Recycling results in the extraction of vastly fewer natural resources like water, timber, minerals, and petroleum. Significant reductions in greenhouse gas and carbon monoxide emissions are another byproduct of recycling.

On the cultural level, recycling instills in the public a consciousness about discards as resources, not just dirty waste. This can lead to increased public pressure for more radical change, like mandated reuse of materials (refillable bottles, for instance) and limiting the amount of packaging manufacturers can use.

I’m curious as to whether the spectrum of options that includes recycling, producer responsibility, re-designing of products, using different materials, refillable bottles… all of these strategies, when added together: Will the equation yield zero waste?

All those things you mentioned are important changes that people are working toward. The Zero Waste movement has some great goals, in my opinion. What they aim for is to not actually throw anything away. They believe that nothing is waste, that everything continues to have value, and that everything that gets thrown away is a resource. I think that’s an accurate reading of the situation.

They are similar to green capitalists, [in that] they want to redesign the production system so that commodities and materials get re-used over and over again, but they actually believe there needs to be enforcement of that; it’s not something that’s going to happen on a voluntary basis. I think that’s a more realistic approach. I think what they’re doing—groups like the Grassroots Recycling Network, and the Institute for Local Self-reliance— are working on different fronts to make real change happen. They’re working on public opinion and perceptions of garbage, and they’re also working on the policy level.

What about population control. Does that figure into it?

I don’t think that’s a real issue. Like I said before, the problem the current economic system we live under isn’t being able to produce enough to supply everyone with food and the things that they need. There are enough resources and food for everyone on the planet—it’s just a question of what bodies and mechanisms stand between people and the things that they need to live.

I’m curious about the links between the issue of waste and racial justice. I know there were lawsuits filed against Waste Management Technologies by African-American and Latino communities, because these communities were unfairly bearing the burden of waste sites…

Environmental racism is a very real thing, and it has been all along. In the 19th century, the poorest of the poor were forced to work in, eat from, and live in garbage. In many ways that’s still true today, and it reveals the realities of a fundamentally unequal system that produces so much wealth, poverty, and environmental destruction.

Inevitably, the people who have to live in the most toxic conditions are the poorest people. New York City, where I live, has the highest concentration of transfer stations (where garbage gets taken after it gets collected and before it goes to the recycling center, the landfill or the incinerator) in the South Bronx, which is one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York. They have some of the highest asthma rates in the country, and they deal with real environmental fallout on a daily basis. They deal with the diesel exhaust; they deal with the rats and the roaches that are everywhere because there’s garbage everywhere. They deal with the [garbage] trucks rolling down the street where kids play. And they deal with it in a vastly disproportionate amount than the people who live on the Upper East Side.

And New York City—the country’s largest garbage producer, and one of the wealthiest cities in the country—ships its waste to poor, rural areas in Pennsylvania. Internationally, you’ve got loads of toxic waste getting shipped overseas to countries like the Philippines, India, and China.

The EPA did a study showing that it’s 10 times cheaper to “recycle” a computer in China than to “recycle” one in California. There’s an economic imperative to ship waste to [countries] where labor is cheaper. What that means is that those people have to live with the toxicity of that process. The environmental and labor laws are more lax, and again the poorest people end up with the greatest amount of filth and hazardous conditions.

In 1976, a law was passed called the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act. It stipulated that the EPA was to oversee states’ setting safety standards for their landfill disposal sites, and it took several years—a decade, basically—for that to actually happen. So in the mid ‘80s, something like two-thirds of all landfills in the U.S. were shut down, because they didn’t meet the new safety standards. Because of the landfill crisis, there was a need to find other solutions.

The garbage industry and some of the old-line environmental groups like the Sierra Club endorsed incineration. But a really impressive grassroots resistance to incineration grew all across the country in Brooklyn, and Philadelphia, and Los Angeles—there were coalitions of mostly workingclass residents who lived near where the incinerators were going to be built. They joined forces and taught themselves to understand how incinerators worked and what the potential toxicity risks were, and they ended up getting help from National Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, Barry Commoner, and Neil Feldman from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

These groups successfully fought incineration; now incineration is only responsible for about 15% of waste disposal. That’s an instructive example of how grassroots activism works in deciding policy and deciding what happens to our waste. A lot of environmental consciousness was raised out of those movements.

I also think the Zero Waste movement has some good and realistic solutions. They want to get rid of landfills and incinerators. They want to re-design the production process so that everything is re-used, so that toxics are removed from the process as much as possible. This would be enforced through government intervention and regulation, which means reaching back into the realm of production and telling industry that it can’t just endlessly extract resources and design things to be thrown away within minutes of purchase.

If you buy a bottle of water, within minutes of buying it you throw it away. Even if it goes to the recycling center, it usually doesn’t get recycled; only 5% of all plastic gets recycled today. The Zero Waste movement has a lot of good and realistic solutions. We can’t just leave this up to the market—we need to intervene, because there’s a fundamental lack of democracy in the use of our resources.

What specific things can people do if they want to go beyond recycling and adopt a sustainable relationship to their discards and their waste?

It’s important for people to see the “garbage problem” as something systemic and not just the result of individual consumer choices. While we do exercise some control over the waste we make, the realm of production is the true source of trash. For every ton of household discards, over seventy tons of manufacturing wastes are produced from mining, agriculture, and petrochemical production. And all those resources go into making commodities that are often designed to wear out faster than they need to, precipitously adding to the mountains of trash. In the U.S., about 80% of manufactured goods are used once and thrown away.

To really get at the heart of the garbage crisis, there must be a serious reconsideration of the free market system. The production process must be regulated to make fewer disposables and more items with increased serviceability, so they will last longer.

In addition, people can demand that their local governments tax disposable packaging. Packaging comprises 30% of the landfills across the U.S.. If those were reduced, there would be much less waste. Struggling to reinstate the refillable bottle system would also curb disposability. While not getting at the root of the problem, choices made in the shopping aisle can also have an impact. Buying products with less packaging—from bulk bins, for example—and using canvas shopping bags are some more immediate actions people can take.

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Ariane Conrad is a writer, editorial consultant and collaborating author known professionally as The Book Doula. She collaborated on the New York Times bestselling The Green Collar Economy (Harper One, 2008), with Christabel Zamor on HOOPING! (Workman Publishing, June 2009) and with Annie Leonard on The Story of Stuff (Free Press, 2010).


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