Archive for February, 2007

Literary Trash, an encore for ‘Waste and Want’

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

waste_strasser.jpgwaste.gif Susan Strasser’s bio describes her as “a historian of American consumer culture.” Her book, ‘Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash’ covers America’s tranisiton from a thrifty,resourceful culture to one whose definition of “trash” has vastly expanded.

everydaytrash: In your book, you say that trash is defined by our sorting processes. How have those processes/our definition of what is trash/disposable evolved in the developed world?

Susan Straser: The sorting process that creates trash varies from person to person, and it differs from place to place. Some people are more frugal or sentimental than others; some cultures value saving things – the Scots have this reputation – while nomadic people, who must travel light, save less. Above all, sorting is an issue of class: wealthy people can afford to be wasteful, while the poor scavenge for materials to use and to sell.

But the sorting differs also according to skill. Repair ideas come more easily to people who make things. If you know how to knit or do carpentry, you also understand how to mend a torn sweater or repair a broken chair. Even at the end of the nineteenth century, when factory production was well established, many Americans possessed the skills and consciousness required for repairing. Now making and repairing things have become hobbies, no longer typical and on their way to being exceptional.

Most Americans produced little trash before the 20th century. Goods were sold in bulk; even in cities, people practiced habits of reuse that had prevailed in agricultural communities; durable items were passed on or stored in attics or basements; broken things could be brought back to their makers, fixed by somebody handy, or taken to people who specialized in repairs. In cities, ragmen worked the streets, usually buying bones, paper, old iron, and bottles as well, and selling the junk to dealers who marketed it in turn to manufacturers. This trade in used goods amounted to a recycling system that provided raw materials for industrial production. It faded with the institution of municipal trash collection, new papermaking technologies that substituted wood pulp for rags, the mechanization of bottle-making, and the rise of giant modern meatpackers who marketed massive amounts of byproducts to fertilizer companies.

everydaytrash: Is it possible to curb or reverse that trend?

Strasser: I do not think we will revive the stewardship of objects and materials that was formed in a bygone culture of handwork. I do like to think that new ideas of morality, utility, common sense, and the value of labor have begun to emerge, based on the stewardship of the planet and of its natural resources. Recycling and composting programs are now recognized as viable options; activists have pressured both government agencies and corporations to create such programs and to reduce waste at the source. Some businesses and agencies have responded only under pressure; others have cooperated, usually persuaded by environmentally concerned managers in their own ranks. After decades of assuming that public policy and corporate profit-making would send us always in the direction of saving time and trouble, some people and enterprises have begun to promote practices that require more of both. Recycling has been successful, and not because of market incentives.

evreydaytrash: How do different cultural beliefs about charity affect the amount of waste we produce?

Strasser: Giving old things to the poor has long been a common act of charity, practiced by individuals and by organized groups. During the decades around the turn of the 20th century – the same period when municipal trash collection was being established, encouraging middle-class people to throw things out – new kinds of charities began to accept donated materials. The personal relationships fostered by dealing directly with beggars yielded to a new sort of benevolence: giving things to organizations like Goodwill and the Salvation Army. These organizations offered impoverished people jobs, spiritual salvation, and a chance to be consumers, and they provided the better-off a virtuous outlet for unwanted things, free from social discomforts. The organizations also fostered new ways of thinking about the sorting process: people could now avoid the trouble of repair, getting rid of unwanted things without having to define them as worthless.

everydaytrash: In researching your book, what were some of the most interesting stories of reusing and repurposing that you came across?

Strasser: The stories and ideas were endless, and endlessly amazing to me. People used broken crockery and glued shattered glass back together. Leftover food was regarded as a resource, often even leftovers on people’s plates. Some practices – such as “turning” thinning sheets by tearing them down the middle and sewing the outer edges – are mentioned so often in so many advice books that we may regard them as commonplace. Butterick and other pattern manufacturers sold patterns for pieces of dresses – collars, cuffs, skirts, and sleeves – so that women could renovate dresses that they deemed old-fashioned. New buttons or trimmings were an even easier fix. The wealthiest women sent their old clothes back to Paris couturiers to be remade and brought back into style.

: Is there a modern-day equivalent of the rag picker?

Strasser: There are literally modern rag pickers in third-world countries. In the developed world, contemporary recycling systems offer some analog to the post-consumer recycling of the ragpicker, the rag-and-bone man, and the paper mill.


Waste and Want is available from the publisher, ask your local independent bookstore to order you a copy.

Around the World in Trash

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

parisrecycle.jpg Check out this special feature on global trash from the International Herald Tribune, sent in by and old friend and new tipster.  Let me just say that tipsters make blogging so easy!

Recycled Life

Monday, February 26, 2007

recycled-life.jpg  Even though it didn’t win an Oscar, I think you’ll appreciate the short documentary Recycled Life about a toxic dump in Central America and the people who fight for survival nearby.

Sofia saga wages on

Monday, February 26, 2007

sofia.jpg  The conflict between the people and the local government of Sofia, Bulgaria over where a neighborhood slotted for a dump is blocking all incoming trash until they get something in exchange (namely improvements to their ‘hood and the promise of a recycling facility to reduce the burden of all that trash).

The Cradle of Civilization

Friday, February 23, 2007

rubbish.jpg Displaced people in Iraq are reduced to sifting through the trash to find food and “eke out a living,” Reuters reports this morning. IRIN had the above photo on file, so clearly this is nothing new.

Yesterday, while getting dressed to hit the gym before work, I grabbed a black t-shirt with the neck cut out from my drawer. It wasn’t the top I was looking for, but as I put it back, I noticed the design on the front. “Stop the War Against Iraq,” it read, next to the doe-eyed and somber face of a little girl in pig tails. I bought the shirt in 2000—long before the current invasion—to protest military sanctions, a.k.a. the “silent war,” on Iraq. A few months later, I got on a plane with a bunch of other Americans and headed off to Baghdad to commemorate the tenth anniversary of what we call the first Gulf War and what the people I met in Iraq referred to as “the American Aggression”.

It was an informative trip. A radical and perhaps misguided form of protest—defying the sanctions by traveling to Iraq with medical supplies, conducting what we called an objective fact-finding mission in a country whose government handlers don’t allow for such unobstructed investigations—but an informative trip nonetheless. In the end, a large part of why I went to journalism school was to learn a less subjective methodology for my fact finding than traveling on international delegations with clear political slants.

What I think about most often, though, were the college students I met while visiting a university. I look back at the photos we took together and marvel at the fact that, aside from my dorky name-tag, you’d be hard pressed to say which one was the visiting American and which were the Baghdad students.

That was six years ago. I wonder where they are now.

And Nepal takes one step closer to becoming a developed nation..

Thursday, February 22, 2007

kathmandu_1024_768.jpg  Looks like the people living near that landfill outside of Kathmandu finally reached an agreement with the government—trash collection resumes today and the city will investigate alternative dumping sites and, gasp, an actual waste management plan. 


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

parisballheader.jpg  Every once in a while it pays to include other blogs in Internet trash searches.  Evidently Paris Hilton was pelted by trash at a recent press event in Austria.  There’s even a video of the event unfolding. 

zero waste groovin’

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

clubtrash.jpg Tipster-in-chief Kimberly sent me this article today on a dance floor in the Netherlands that harnesses the power of those who grove upon it.

Dirty business, parts one and two

Monday, February 19, 2007

trash.jpg Check out this two-part series (sent in by a friendly tipster) on the treacheries of trash from the BBC’s The Changing World.

The grey nomad’s trail

Saturday, February 17, 2007

greyrubbishcollectors.jpg  A grey-haired Australian couple spends their retirement criss-crossing the country, picking up trash.

Weekly Compactor

Friday, February 16, 2007

450recycle_02bins.jpg  This week in trash news: 

Mierle Laderman Ukeles

Thursday, February 15, 2007

social_01.jpg  A friendly tipster alerted me to the fact that NYC’s trash artist in residence, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, has an upcoming show.  She has at least one piece, an installation created from a garbage truck, on display February 23-26 at the 2007 Armory Show.

According to Amy Zimmer’s article in yesterday’s Metro:

The booth will feature elements of her past works, such as “Touch Sanitation,” where from 1977 to 1980 she followed routes in all five boroughs to shake the hand of each sanitation worker and say, “Thank you for keeping New York alive.” At P.S.1 in 1987, she created “Re-entry,” a 90-foot sculpture made from 11 tons of recyclables. “I wanted to make it like building blocks so you could imagine [these objects] really could have another use,” she said. Her “Ceremonial Arch Honoring Service Workers in the New Economy,” which was made with 12,000 dirty gloves from sanitation and other workers, graced the World Financial Center in 1988.

Ukeles past work includes pieces highlighted here on the Avant-Guardian’s online ‘textlet’ on “Cycle-Logical Art” and these photos of Fresh Kills, the massive land fill that will one day form the base of a massive park.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

greenheart.gif  I would include a special valentine’s round-up, but I’m burnt out on green love this week.

taking less out

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

takeout.jpg I found this admirable GreenBiz link on take-out containers while contemplating/googling over-packaging. Consider this a call for entries. What’s the most ridiculously over-packaged food item you purchased in the past year?

Thermal Depolymerization

Monday, February 12, 2007

oil.jpg  Loreen Leedy went from subject to tipster in one fell swoop when she sent me this link on turning trash into energy along with the answers to her interview questions last week.  It’s a round up on blog, magazine, newspaper and academic sources on making oil out of just about anything.

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