Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage

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Heather Rodgers opens Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage with the revelation that certain landfills are visible from space and continues on to some sobering statistics on garbage in the United States. According to statistics cited in the book, people in the United States threw away more than 500 billion pounds of garbage in 2003 while consuming 30% of the world’s resources and only accounting for 4% of the world population. Rodgers book is filled with such statistics as she explores the United States’ relationship to garbage in terms of the past, present, and future of garbage in the United States.

Rodgers begins her book by discussing municipal waste incinerators which are used around the country to burn “municipal solid waste,” a term that government and corporate engineers have used to describe household garbage waste. While receiving only 15% of household waste in the United States, due in large part to strong public opposition to incinerators (an opposition that is chronicled in Rodgers’ book), incinerators are responsible for creating 69% of worldwide dioxin emissions. Despite claims that incinerators can provide a potential solution to the dependence on natural energy sources, an argument promoted by the garbage industries rhetoric of “waste to energy,” twice as much energy would be saved for every ton of trash not produced than if that same ton was burned. Nevertheless, public relations campaigns by the waste industry, who viewed incinerators as a way to eliminate the waste disposal problem without actually having to reduce consumption, were successful in convincing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other government organizations to give approval for the construction of new incinerators in the 1980s. As has traditionally been the case with the disposal of garbage in the United States, many of these incinerators where located in neighborhoods populated by people of color and low-income people.

The role of corporations in lobbying for incineration as a solution to the country’s garbage problem is indicative of a trend that plays a central role in Rodgers’ book—the corporatization of garbage under the guise of “waste management.” The corporitization of garbage has its roots in the late 1800s and early 1900s when city government’s, long plagued by piles of rotting trash, began to view trash as a technical problem rather than a health problem due to advances in bacteriology that ended the belief that garbage brought disease. Before this reassessment of trash, city governments attempted to address the problem by encouraging people to reuse, used innovative efforts such as composting, and even used food scraps as feed for hogs. However, once the problem was viewed from a technical standpoint, the new field of “sanitation engineering” began to look at trash not as a potential resource but as a logistic problem that could be overcome through massive disposal operations. The concept of the sanitary landfill emerged out of this context in the 1930s, as did the eventual corporatization of garbage with began when corporations such as Waste Management and Browning-Ferris Industries began constructing massive landfills and operating massive garbage removal systems. These corporations forced a consolidation in the industry and put many independent garbage removal companies out of business and actively worked to put on the façade that they were able to remove trash in a “ecological” way without making any reductions in waste.

Rather than focusing on the individual and the role that littering plays in promoting waste, Rodgers discusses how such a focus on individual littering has largely served the interests of corporations who actively promoted the idea that the garbage problem is driven by individual actions rather than more systemic reasons. While it is a significant problem when many people and corporations chose not to recycle their garbage (an argument that can gain further proof when one considers that 125 million “disposable” cups are thrown away each day)—a choice that is being made quite frequently as only 54% of aluminum, 26% of glass, 40% of paper, and 5% of plastic products are being recycled—recycling serves a limited function as a way of reducing waste as it does little to limit production, a fact that has certainly not been lost on industry. By focusing on measures such as recycling, corporations have been able to prevent a serious discussion of the way in which goods are not only produced but also how they are packaged, which given the fact that some 40% of waste in the United States is packaging, is quite an achievement. As the country shifted towards a consumer driven economy in the post-World War II era, corporations realized that their financial futures were dependent on product sales and fostered an environment that promoted a “throw away” society with inventions such as paper plates, Styrofoam cups, and disposable razors, and at its most sinister, produced products with “built in obsolescence” to guarantee that they would need to be replaced.

Gone Tomorrow provides an important examination into the problem of waste in society, at once both illuminating a problem that remains largely unconsidered in society and providing numerous insights that can expand the analysis of those that have thoughtfully considered the waste problem. By focusing on the corporate nature of the waste problem, Rodgers also provides yet another example of how corporations have become the dominant institutions in our lives. While Gone Tomorrow makes little effort to outline an alternative to combat the corporate management of trash that has come out of the garbage industry’s history, the book instead makes it clear that the fight against corporate power—whether it be over the privatization of water, neoliberal trade agreements, or garbage removal—is a struggle of utmost importance to the people of the world.

Heather Rodgers, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, (New Press, 2005).

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Author: mediamouse

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