Garbage Out. A book review of Waste and Want by Susan Strasser

originally published in City Limits, January 2000

book cover for Waste and Want by Susan Strasser
Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash

Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash
Susan Strasser
Metropolitan Books, 1999
368 pages, $27.50

To meet the 2002 deadline for closing Fresh Kills landfill, New York is exporting more and more of its trash, making where our garbage goes and how it should get there volatile issues for the city, particularly for residents of neighborhoods forced to host waste transfer stations which the city is using to help get rid of more than 26,000 tons of trash each day.

Of course, no matter where or how we export our garbage, there is simply too much of it to begin with, and we keep making more. Even recycling has barely made a dent; since the city’s program began in 1989, each ton recycled has been matched by an additional ton of trash. Though it is in the city’s interest to limit the amount of trash it must pay to send out of town, the question of what to do with it after we collect it still rules the process. The more essential discussion — how we can be less wasteful — is off limits.

In her fascinating new book, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, University of Delaware history professor Susan Strasser attempts to explain why we’ve come to be locked in that relentless cycle of waste production and disposal — “how a throwaway culture,” she writes, “replaced one grounded in reuse.” Known for her lucid books on the history of housework and consumerism, Strasser again focuses on women’s pivotal role in a major cultural shift.

Before the 1890s, Strasser observes, Americans produced almost no trash. Scarcity was the rule, and families saved, mended and reused old materials out of ordinary but necessary habit. As industrialization took hold in American cities through the 1800s, peddlers fanned out to the valleys, hollows and prairies where most Americans lived, bringing them teapots, wire, farm tools, soap, cookware and all manner of new manufactured goods, many of them formerly produced by women at home.

Historians have long noted the role peddlers played in habituating Americans to buying and consuming, but Strasser points out that for most of the 19th century, money was scarce; barter ruled the day. As part of those transactions, she finds, peddlers were collectors as well as distributors. Exchanging their manufactured goods for farm products like eggs, feathers and bones, peddlers shipped these items back to their own suppliers. The suppliers, in turn, often paid employees with the food and traded the raw materials to factories for new goods, which they then sent back to their peddlers. Long before the word recycling was coined, Strasser writes, “materials literally cycled between households and factories, creating a two-way relationship between manufacturers and consumers.”

As her fine-grained account shows, urbanization, changing consumer habits and sanitary concerns irrevocably changed all that. Mail-order catalogs and traveling salesmen replaced peddlers. Factories grew to colossal size, demanding more raw materials than households could feed them. A new torrent of industrial byproducts further displaced demand for households’ “secondary materials.” By the 1890s, the relationship between producers and consumers had become a one-way street, and cast-off rags, broken plates and other materials now piled up as never before. America discovered the garbage crisis.

The political response of the time sounds eerily familiar. Strasser quotes Col. William F. Morse, a leading sanitary enginee describing the sequence of events in New York in 1898: petitions and public outrage; the Mayor’s belated attention to the problem; inspections, reports and pamphlets; a slew of bids and proposals from companies anxious to save the city from its troubles, for a price; and when “everybody is sick and tired of the whole business” the city ends up with “a bad bargain that makes endless trouble in the future.” Cities thus organized waste collection, and despite flirtations with recycling most waste was burned or landfilled.

“For the first time in human history, Strasser declares, “disposal became separated from production, consumption, and use.” Once Strasser identifies this fundamental change, it becomes easy to understand why our attempts to resurrect old ways — from World War II scrap drives to contemporary recycling programs — largely failed to stem the rising tide of trash.

Foreshadowing our more recent experience with recycling, the scrap drives, Strasser says, did help to bring the war home, and “offered Americans a way to contribute…without sacrificing too much.” But she also points out that by asking people to turn their worn clothes, dented pans, and broken tools over to the government, the scrap drives paradoxically reinforced “newer habits of throwing things away” rather than older habits of mending, saving and reusing.

Waste and Want demonstrates how the incremental accumulation of changes in our consumption habits co-evolved so closely with technological and economic changes that they became inseparable. Our present consumer-industrial complex, which treats us to convenient disposable diapers and cameras, appears immune to recycling or salvage.

Waste and Want leaves us back at the question of how we can become less wasteful, but with a much richer understanding of how we got this way. By expanding our knowledge of the history of trash beyond the policies and technologies to which other histories of the subject have been limited, Strasser has collected the raw material out of which we might fashion better answers to that question and, perhaps, more sophisticated solutions to our waste woes.