Garbage tales

Large amounts of garbage are a product of capitalism, a necessary consequence of a consumer society. In Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, Heather Rogers provides a brief and surprisingly interesting history of garbage in the United States, making the case that an expanding economy relies on discarding items so that consumers can buy new ones. Capitalism can’t work otherwise. She documents how panic-stricken corporations in a stagnant postwar economy in the 1950s had to convince a thrifty population to throw things away, instituting both changing fashions (such as a new car every year) and planned obsolescence.

In this book, a follow-up to the author’s 2002 documentary by the same name, Rogers outlines how the nature of what we throw away has changed over the years, from mostly organic wastes to plastics and electronic gadgets containing heavy metals; how garbage practices have been manipulated to trigger shifts in society (banning hogs in slum areas—fed on street trash—was a disease-control measure that also forced the poor to depend more on wages as they were less able to raise their own food); and how social concerns about trash are manipulated to keep capitalism from being frustrated.

For instance, in response to a growing environmental movement that demanded decreased garbage output, corporations that profited from sales of disposable packaging formed a nonprofit corporation called “Keep America Beautiful.” The public-relations campaign generated by this business successfully turned trash from a corporate problem to an individual one: Products don’t cause pollution; litterbugs do.

Furthermore, garbage itself is a way to make money. In the 1950s, New York City privatized the hauling and treatment of its garbage, and cartels affiliated with organized crime took over and ran up prices. In the 1990s, the system was “cleaned up.” Rogers details how the criminal cartels were replaced by multinational corporations, which used predatory pricing to drive out competition—and then ran up prices further.

While much of the focus of the book is on major cities, especially New York, California has a role in this history. The first modern sanitary landfill was created in Fresno in 1934 by Jean Valdez, an engineer and the city’s public-works commissioner. Before the state-of-the-art techniques to isolate garbage and decomposition products were invented, Southern California had the distinction of having one of the nation’s largest treatment facilities at Fontana Farms, the “World’s Largest Hog Farm,” where garbage from Los Angeles was fed to 46,000 pigs. And in the mid-1980s, California led a movement to prevent the location of trash-burning incinerators in poor neighborhoods, a movement that focused on racial and economic injustices in environmental degradation.

Although it’s well-footnoted, and the references to historical literature appear solid, scientific and technical references are sketchier. Of course, an author can’t be an expert in all areas, but this is a weakness of the book. Also, Rogers discusses a need for a new sort of accounting, in which the environmental costs of production and waste generation are included. She seems unaware that this accounting system exists; it’s called life-cycle analysis.

This book is a call to action, as such books usually are. But it carries a very pessimistic view of the future. Society wants to rely on technical fixes, which are least stressful to individuals and to corporate bottom lines. But Rogers points out that technology offers only apparent solutions. Even recycling, which is touted as the big fix today, is often fake, she writes. Most materials set aside for recycling end up in landfills anyway, and even those that are processed for reuse can usually be handled this way only once or twice. Then we’re left with nothing but garbage.