Bruce Robinson reviews Gone Tomorrow — The Hidden Life of Garbage by Heather Rogers, (The New Press, 2005)
In the USA, the most wasteful society in the world, each person throws out two-thirds of a ton of rubbish each year. The US Department of Agriculture calculated that 27% of total food production in the US is wasted each year, though one academic thinks the real figure may be as high as 50%.
Heather Rogers writes: “Every day a phantasmagoric rush of spent, used and broken riches flows through our homes, offices and car, and from there is burnt, dumped at sea, or more often buried under a civilised veil of dirt and grass seed. The United States [consumes] 30% of the planet’s resources and [produces] 30% of all its wastes… over the past generation our mountains of waste have doubled.”
Where does it come from? And where does it end up? All consumption produces waste products. But prior to industrial capitalism there was a broad balance between the consumption of a largely rural population and their mainly human and animal wastes, which could be easily used to enrich the soil, thus creating a virtuous circle.
With the development of capitalism, the growth of cities and industrial production brought an imbalance — waste now needed management and some means of disposal. At the same time, this concern with waste products could not be allowed to interfere with the basic drives towards the accumulation of capital and profit.
How these two concerns were reconciled by leaving the basically wasteful nature of capitalist production untouched while devising sophisticated (but ultimately failing) technical methods of dealing with the rubbish is the major theme of Heather Rogers’ book. It deals with the relationship between capital’s interests and the creation and disposal of household waste in the USA since the onset of industrialisation in the mid 19th century.
“The life of garbage” is hidden because the systems by which it is created in the first place and disposed of are not apparent to the consumer, who just puts the bin out and sees its contents taken away. “In the market economy deeper environmental destruction is kept hidden, cloaked by the commodity form.” And with good reason — as Rogers pulls back the veil, we see how “trash has the power to unmask the exploitation of nature that is crystallized in all commodities; it teases out the environmental politics hidden in manufactured goods”. And not merely the exploitation of nature — “garbage is the detritus of a system that not merely exploits nature, but also human life and labour.”
How do the dynamics of profit making and waste making coincide? Firstly, to be successful capitalism has to constantly encourage consumption, no matter how unnecessary or wasteful, in order to create a market for new production. Planned obsolescence, technological change, fashion and cheapened goods do not merely encourage us to buy but also to throw out the old, even if it still does its job, rather than reusing, repairing or recycling. The labour embodied in what Rogers calls the “dead commodities” is just written off.
Habits of thrift and “make do and mend” must be discouraged, even if at times they serve as moral advice to the poor as substitutes for a better standard of living. Rogers quotes the editor of House and Garden at the height of the Depression of the 30s saying; “Saving and thrift would be the worst sort of citizenship today… The good citizen does not repair the old; he buys anew… To maintain prosperity we must keep those machines going. Always we must be prepared to consume their enormous production.”
Secondly, the producer of goods can add to their cost to the consumer by, for example, the use of wasteful packaging but does not have to bear any of the costs of disposing of it or of any resulting environmental damage. These costs are “externalised” and the bill picked up by the consumer or the taxpayer or perhaps ultimately someone at the other end of the world who has the end result dumped on their doorstep.
Finally, waste itself is big business: both producing it (as in the packaging industry) and getting rid of it. These industries have become large-scale lobbyists on the issue of how waste should be disposed of and what, if any, legislative controls should be introduced.
Rogers shows how the plastics industry has successfully hindered moves back towards refillable bottles in the US and also how the large waste disposal corporations took over New York’s garbage disposal from the Mafia by replacing the threat of physical violence with friends in high places and ruthless undercutting, driving smaller rivals out of business until the prices could be raised again once market domination was assured.
For Rogers, the American Civil War (1861-5) marked the “birth of industrial garbage” in the US. Rapid industrialisation on the basis of mass production followed, cheapening commodities and replacing small domestic producers with a few monopolistic producers. This led to easily replaceable goods, a decline in household alternatives and a massive growth of waste. At the same time, in the wake of the 1863 Draft Riots in New York, sections of the “enlightened’ bourgeoisie” became concerned about the state of the poor parts of the city, which they saw as a danger both to their own health and to public order.
At that time, waste was largely thrown onto the street, where it was scavenged for anything valuable or reusable and provided food for the slum-dwellers’ pigs. “In the body of the pig, garbage became caught up in the politics of class struggle. Through hogs, street trash served as a sort of urban commons... a cheap source of protein that allowed the poor to be less reliant on labouring for wages” (including during strikes).
In the years up to 1914, bourgeois concerns, first about health and then about ensuring the free circulation of goods and people through the city, led to the beginnings of waste disposal as a service and waste management as an engineering discipline. The consequences included the gradual driving out of private scavenging and the emergence of more efficient collection and disposal methods, which merely served to enable the production of more and more waste material. So the dustcart we all know, with its crusher at the back, both meant fewer journeys to the dumping point and that nothing it carried could be retrieved and recycled.
Thus the roots of waste in the process of production became hidden and its disposal redefined as a problem susceptible to a “technological fix”, a way of dealing with the end results better without looking at the real causes. In the inter-war period, the “sanitary landfill” became the main way of processing waste, avoiding some of the worst results of burying rubbish in the ground. The main alternative to landfill, incineration, developed after World War Two. Both tended to be sited in poor, often black or minority, areas. As time went on, the environmental damage of both became clear and called forth increasing objections.
Rogers sees another key turning point coming at the end of the 1950s, when the initial post-war boom, based on the consumption of standardised, mass produced consumer goods, seemed to be running out of steam. These Fordist methods of production in any case created more waste, but by then “markets became increasingly saturated… commodities not only had to be produced… they also had to be consumed, that is to say, destroyed… The answer was ‘built-in obsolescence’.. These products were becoming cheaper to replace than they were to repair.” They also increasingly included disposable items designed to be used once, both consumer goods and packaging, increasingly made out of plastic. This type of consumption was increasingly built into a lifestyle which advertising encouraged.
But at the same time, the 60s saw the beginnings of environmental movements. These were neither just NIMBY protests against pollution from waste nor echoes of hippie desires for return to a simple life. Some became major campaigns taking on the corporations over issues like the use of non-returnable bottles and how they should dispose of their waste.
By the 80s concerns were widespread: both landfill and incinerators were meeting increasing opposition and becoming more expensive as the result of regulation.
Industry thus began what Rogers calls “the politics of containment” through recycling. “Reprocessing wasn’t the worst case scenario for industry. After all, recycling would cause the least disruption to existing production processes. More drastic measures — like reducing consumption (through output regulations) or mandating reuse — were far more threatening. Recycling continued to treat wastes after they were produced. And recycling was a technological fix that required its own manufacturing processes, ensuring continued production.” She adds both that recycling only reuses material once (if that – where there is no market for the end product the recovered materials can just be exported and dumped somewhere else) and that industry uses it to exploit marketing opportunities that could arise through green branding.
However Rogers acknowledges that recycling is both popular, the least harmful available means of disposal and serves to put the whole question of rubbish into the spotlight. “Recycling crucially opens the political and cultural imagination to other creative possibilities.” How then can we move to more radical means of dealing with waste given both its deep embedding in the capitalist mode of production and the urgency of the environmental crisis we face? The last chapter of ‘Gone Tomorrow’ briefly discusses some alternatives.
Rogers firstly considers “refuseniks”, small scale attempts at do-it-yourself waste reduction, as of value mainly in demonstrating alternatives. For obvious reasons, she rejects “Green Capitalism”, a reliance on the corporate social responsibility of “good capitalists” and rejection of state regulation.
Of more interest are the German system of extended producer responsibility (EPR), now embodied in EU laws, and the “zero waste” movement, which focuses on government intervention to set levels of resource usage and specifying modifications to production. Rogers acknowledges the weakness of EPR, in particular that though they put the blame in the right place (and don’t tax consumers for the decisions of producers, as in the taxes on waste disposed of which are under discussion here), manufacturers can still decide on how they respond to the regulations.
Rogers is right to talk of deep-seated reforms necessary to begin to deal with the problem. The two starting points she mentions are addressing “trash in terms of production instead of consumption” and acknowledging industry’s inability to regulate itself and the need for enforceable environmental measures. Here and now what are needed to make those reality are the mass movements that can force those changes against the will of business and the kind of accountable representatives that are prepared to take capital on. These both speak to the general political tasks facing the labour movement here and in the US.
Rogers starts her last chapter with a quote from a novel by Don DeLillo:
“I find that everything I see is garbage…”
“You see it everywhere because it is everywhere.”
“But I didn’t see it before.”
“You’re enlightened now. Be grateful,” I said.
This book is a good place to start in search of that enlightenment.