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The Hidden Life of Garbage

An interview with Heather Rogers, the author of a new book about our ever-increasing 'waste stream' and the people and corporations that feed it.
 
 
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If you have ever wondered, in the face of our ever-expanding landfills and increasingly elaborate packaging of consumer goods and consumption, what happens to the all the garbage, then Heather Rogers' informative and provocative new book, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage , published by the New Press, is for you.

It is not a shock that the United States is the number one producer of garbage on the planet; with just 5 percent of the global population we generate 30 percent of the world's trash. The average American throws away a staggering 4.5 pounds of rubbish daily -- that's 1,600 pounds each year, according to Rogers. And garbage is also a global problem; today the middle of the Pacific Ocean is six times more abundant with plastic waste than zooplankton.

So how did we get to this point? Garbage production doubled in the U.S. over the past 30 years, yet waste is increasingly hidden, and the focus on recycling is fading along with it. Rogers says this situation came about through an alignment of manufacturing and marketing forces, combined with goals of the mega-garbage collection companies like Waste Management and Browning Ferris, and even some environmental laws which ended up helping the mega-companies.

Together, the persistent twin emphasis on growth -- our ever expanding consumptive society -- and the encouragement of easy disposal has made it seem painless for us to increasingly evolve to a virtually "throw away" society. With new technologies the impact is particularly pernicious and the impact is often on the Third World, our society's garbage dump. Just think for a moment about how many televisions, computers, screens, cell phones, iPods and other devices and gadgets you and your office have tossed out over the past decade.

Rogers' book, stuffed full of hundreds of fascinating factoids, combines a history of garbage collection with a political analysis of how social and economic forces have created a great garbage monopoly, in much the same way that a few companies dominate many key markets until the "free markets" are no longer remotely competitive.

Mixed in with Rogers' analysis, the reader will encounter fascinating garbage stories of incinerators and mega-dumps, of waste streams and marketing schemes, all aspects of today's waste-addicted culture. Rogers brings an emotional voice to the narrative as the garbage story is both fascinating and appalling, sharing her feelings of being both awe struck and disgusted. Garbage: it really is quite a story.

In the end, while there is plenty to be discouraged about, the book also has heroes and some smart garbage solutions from reformers, ideas to which municipal leaders, like New York's Mayor Bloomberg, are paying some attention.

Heather Rogers sat down with AlterNet in late September at a noisy Cosi's Cafe in Greenwich Village for the following interview. An excerpt from the book accompanies the Q & A.

So why did you write the book? Tell me a little bit about the experience.

I wrote the book because I wanted to know what happened to my garbage. I knew that it disappeared -- and I knew that it didn't. I also was interested in this system that, if it failed to work, whole cities could be brought to a grinding halt. I wanted to know more about what garbage collecting looked like and how it really worked -- something so integral to the way a city functions.

Once I started looking into garbage, I realized that it was this really great way to talk about the way the market works, and its relationship to labor and nature. Also, it was an excellent way to talk about the larger environmental crisis, just through this everyday substance of garbage.

What was your mood while writing it?

It was up and down. There were definitely periods of time when I was very depressed by it ... but also times when I felt good.

I noticed that some of the language you used: "mysterious," "oddly fascinating," "awesome eerie scenes," "metabolism of the market," led me to think you went through some kind of a journey in this sometimes fascinating, sometimes disgusting world.

Yeah. It's true. It was exciting because going to an incinerator, going to a landfill, I got to see these things that are normally hidden from view in our society; certain things are kept in hiding and garbage is one of them. Production is another. To get to go into that realm and see it is kind of exhilarating. You do feel like you're going into a place you're not supposed to be. And also it's horrifying. I had nightmares after I went to see this landfill in Pennsylvania that I write about in the book.

There are key metaphors that I'd like you to comment on. One of them is the massiveness issue -- the mega-facility in Morrisville, Pa. you mentioned -- the 6,000 acres of garbage. Tell me about that as a response to the garbage problem, how massiveness has become the way with which garbage is dealt.

That has everything to do with the corporatization of garbage handling, and the huge scale that's really evolved over the last 30 years. Basically, there's been a shift from the small local mom-and-pop hauling companies that would be contracted out by cities, or municipalities operating garbage collection and disposal themselves. Those have been what's sometimes called "rolled up" by these large corporations like Waste Management, Browning Ferris Industries -- there's a bunch of them now. Those were the first two.

They saw the potential basically because disposal facilities don't operate like a manufacturing facility where you can easily change economies of scale. You can't do that in the same way with garbage handling because of the relationship between collection and proximity. Your garbage has to come from the surrounding area and the costs are fixed with the trucks, etc. But these corporations could start achieving economies of scale by building these mega-fills. That's why it's gone in that direction.

Those companies have the capital to build big and put the other, smaller people out of business with predatory pricing like Wal-Mart?

Predatory pricing has been their main mechanism for driving other businesses out of markets. But it's interesting, because environmental controls passed in the early 1990s played a really key role in the further consolidation and corporatization of the garbage industry. Tighter controls were required for landfill liner and monitoring systems implemented in 1991 by the EPA, that was part of a law that was passed in 1976, called the Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA).

Waste Management, Browning Ferris and these other large companies supported stricter environmental controls because it created barriers to entry for smaller businesses and for municipalities, and it allowed the corporations to come in and absorb up all these landfills that municipalities couldn't afford to upgrade.

So that's an irony, that corporatization has made the environment more healthy; is that fair to say, because the standards were raised?

Well, to some degree, except that the monitoring systems that are in place, many would argue, are completely inadequate. And yet we're told that they're flawless and that this is a great system and what Waste Management is doing in Pennsylvania at their Morrisville landfill is environmentally sound and it's not.

You write a lot about the PR capacities of the big corporations. Has PR played a big role in helping the public forget about garbage and think that it's being taken care of?

It's been very effective and what's interesting is that in the last couple years, there's been a decline in the recycling rate. People's attention and the political pressure on companies like Waste Management to recycle is waning because people do think our wastes are being handled in an environmentally sound fashion. The big companies come up with these schemes like drilling down into their closed landfills to collect the methane, the landfill gas -- under the 1991 E.P.A. rule they have to collect these gases. So they capture some portion of the gases and then direct them to a power generator, an electric company nearby and sell it to them. And they call it green energy. It's not green energy. It's totally wasteful to create that, but it's better to capture it than to release it.

Right, but they make money selling it?

They don't really make money selling it; They make some money, but it's negligible. It's not a real source of income. It's really a great way for them to put another layer of green-washing on what they do.

In the "Corporatization of Garbage" chapter, you describe how in the mid-'90s in NYC, big corporations like Waste Management and Browning Ferris wrested control of garbage collection in New York City from the Mafia. The Mafia were charging exorbitant prices. Then the big companies came in, the prices went down, but then as soon as the corporations got control of the market and the Mafia got squashed, the prices went up to where they were when the Mafia was in charge. Who would be better -- Waste Management, or Don Corleone -- at collecting the garbage?

Hopefully we'd have more options than that.

The Mafia was dislodged because there was this comprehensive undercover investigation led by a New York police officer named Rick Cowan. He infiltrated the garbage cartel -- it was called Operation Wasteland. For three years, he collected audio recordings of the Mafia describing how the cartel worked, implicating themselves, and it was a result of his work that brought the Mafia down.

But all the smaller companies that weren't Mafia but had to kind of pay to protect their turf, they all got squashed, too, right?

Yeah. The thing is that the leadership in New York City wanted the corporations to come in, in part because of business connections. And they did need the garbage to picked up. Giuliani wanted to close Fresh Kills landfill, in Staten Island, and he needed another option.

Morrisville, P.A.?

Exactly. The big waste corporations had the solutions. By 1997, Browning Ferris and Waste Management owned enough disposable capacity to handle all of New York City's garbage. So, there were real benefits that these corporations brought to the table politically and logistically to keep the city running. It was an opportunity for the city to really rethink its waste disposal practices, which they absolutely didn't do at all.

What should they have done?

They could've implemented a municipal composting program. Sixty percent of household garbage that gets thrown away in landfills in the U.S. are compostable items. That would've taken a huge chunk out of what needed to get thrown away in the first place.

So, why has recycling gone down and why isn't there more composting?

Recycling underwent its real renaissance in the late '80s and early '90s because the E.P.A. in the mid and late '80s started implementing a provision in the RCRA which said landfills have to meet a certain safety level in order to operate. Most landfills in the U.S. didn't meet those standards. So two-thirds of the U.S. landfills were shut in the late '80s. It created a disposal crisis. That's when you had that garbage barge [the Mobro 4000] that was full of ash, floating up and down the east coast trying to find a place to dispose of the ash and went to Haiti. It then dumped 10,000 tons of it on a beach illegally in Haiti, and offloaded it somewhere in the ocean.

That was a moment of real crisis over where to put the garbage. At first, local government and also the old-line environmental groups like the Sierra Club endorsed incineration. So there was this huge push to build more incinerators. Except that in New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, neighborhoods got together and said "no, we don't want incinerators in our neighborhoods. They're not safe, they're not clean, we don't want to breath in the smoke and the ash coming out of the stacks.

But the garbage had to go somewhere. So these municipalities, where residents fought incineration, were forced to adopt mandatory municipal curbside recycling programs.

Because of the corporatization of waste handling and disposal, because we have these mega-fills now -- there's an overcapacity of space, so there isn't the pressure for recycling When there isn't the pressure, people aren't thinking about it as much.

Bloomberg even stopped recycling for a while in New York,

Yes, but that was instructive in that when he stopped recycling, it pissed people off. He had to start it again. People really like recycling. The same is true in DC. They stopped it twice there and they had to reinstate because people got so angry.

So there is massiveness and monopoly control; what about the notion of garbage flow ... it seems like garbage is flowing 24/7 all around world.

Shit and gold are constantly flowing. [laughing]

Shit and gold, is that it? [laughing] What do you make of that? It is described as the "waste stream."

It's interesting about that term, the "waste stream." It sanitizes the idea of discard, it's like, it's just this "stream" ... it's just an innocuous thing that's sort of naturally occurring. The levels of waste that we produce in a free market system are by no means the natural outcome of some organic process. They're the product of choices that have been made in many ways by manufacturers to boost consumption and to boost profits. In terms of these flows, you don't have consumption if you don't have wasting. You don't have expanding markets if you don't have increasing levels of consumption. So, in order to have continued intensified growth, you have to have continued, intensified wasting.

But how do you intervene into that system and slow it down or reverse it? Does it require a total paradigm shift into the way people think? Is it possible under capitalism to do that?

I think that one of the downfalls of the environmental movement is that it has tried to separate issues of environmental health from the economic system that those issues exist in. I think that people have witnessed it long enough to know that that approach is flawed.

In the book you write: "the most malignant and abundant trash today is e-trash: cell phones, VCRs, CD players, they all have ugly metals," and you describe it as "built-it obsolescence brought to dizzying new heights." But given the fact of how fast the technology changes -- take the iPod for example -- what's the solution here? If people demand to have the iPod Nano now because it's thin and slick, how do we fight that? Some of this consumption is legitimate because of Moore's Law where processing speed doubles every 18 months, and storage capacity too. A big question here is: can technology solve the waste problem or is it just exacerbating it? We thought that when we had computers we would use less paper and it turns out we use more paper.

Technology never creates less waste.

It never does?

I don't think so. Maybe not never, but it rarely creates less waste. There are two sides of it. One is the production side, and one is the cultural aspect of consumption. On the production side, there are changes that can happen like making commodities more serviceable, building commodities that have longer durability. Making a cell phone that can be repaired when it breaks, instead of it being cheaper to throw it away.

If we put more emphasis on repairing these things, people would throw a lot less away. The other side, on the cultural side of it, people really enjoy consuming, and I think people really enjoy throwing things away. We need to talk about that, we need to address that.

Tell me more about the enjoyment of throwing things away.

I think there's a gratification there that people get. It's different for different people. The system that we have wasn't just thought of by huge manufacturers. It was something that was shaped by real human desires that came into play; certain choices were made. We can address this kind of gratification that people get out of the shiny packaging and when something breaks, getting to throw it away and getting a new, fancier one that takes pictures, has lights and plays music. We can try to address those desires in a different way.

Because I think again the environmental movement has, like I say in the book, this sort of pinched, austere approach that isn't that fun for a lot of people. There are so many ways, when I think about what the possibilities. For example: people are building biodiesel cars with old car bodies. They're totally efficient, great vehicles, but they have these old bodies. They don't get 10 miles to the gallon, they get much more.

Isn't it progress that many people are downloading songs where there's no packaging?

Yes. And it's interesting because that's an example where people don't have the experience of seeing the packaging, being seduced by the packaging and all that; they don't have that experience and yet, they're still buying.

Here's a big question: garbage is connected to global warming, toxic dumps, exploitation of poor neighborhoods and shipped off to third world countries. Garbage seems like a worthy metaphor for much of what is wrong in the world. Is there any trend to suggest that these problems can be addressed, that third world countries aren't going to be stuck with all this dangerous crap you describe in the book being dumped on them.

Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina revealed that all of these issues are very much at the forefront of what's going on. What happened in the Gulf Coast is awful to see, but it lays bare the reality of the situation. Toxic wastes are being dumped on the poorest communities, and often they're communities of color, and those problems are exacerbated by global warming. All these issues are connected to issues of poverty and inequality. They produce each other. They exacerbate each other.

The stance of green capitalism is that consumption can kind of go on unabated, but you're pretty cynical about these developments: poor product to manufacturing design, bioplastics are a technical fix, etc. What you rail at in the book is: if we can make all these technical fixes, why can't we stop producing so much garbage?

Yes, why can't we change the production process so that it's less wasteful? I do think that industrial production can be made better. I do think that it's incredibly wasteful the way that it operates now. There's so much room for improvement. But I don't think that we have to get rid of industrial production.

Is it happening better in other parts of the world, in Europe or ... ?

Yes. For example, one really simple thing that we could do is switch back to refillable bottles for beverages. It would accomplish a number of things. They use this system in Germany, and 72 percent of all their beverage containers have to be refillable. That's the law. The beverage makers in that country continuously try to break that law, and the government has enforced it. They penalize the beverage producers and enforce the law, and it works. It's profitable and people like it.

They have to take their bottles back to the store; the bottles get washed out and refilled. They leave a deposit and they get it back -- a system that we used to have here, that was phased out in the '70s, because it was more profitable to have disposable containers for the beverage industry and it also facilitated the consolidation of the beverage industry.

We talked about the gratification that people get out of wasting, but there's also a psychological toll that it takes. People don't like to waste. There's another side of it too -- I think it really causes people a lot of concern. There are so few moments where we can directly affect the production process, like the process that brings us this plastic cup. There are so few points at which we can have real contact with that process. And people taking their bottles back to the store, is one of those moments. I think it gives people some hope.

What other suggestions do you have about solutions?

One example is the movement called Zero Waste, which I write about in the last chapter They advocate for a lot of the same things that the Green Capitalists advocate for, which is redesigning the production process and designing waste and designing out toxics. The difference is that the Zero Waste movement says that those things should be mandated by law and they should be enforced because producers won't do it themselves if they don't have to. There's a Zero Waste campaign right now in New York City and they're lobbying city officials. New York City has to come up with a new solid waste management plan.

Mandated?

Yeah, it's mandated by the state. It's at least 10-year plan, with a 20-year timeframe; it's a long-term vision on how the city is going to manage its waste. So, this group of people has been active in influencing this discussion. It's not getting a lot of attention -- they're not getting the attention they deserve.

But Bloomberg has adopted some of their ideas, one of them being that transfer stations which is where garbage gets taken between getting collected and getting taken to the dump or the incinerator should be spread around. The Zero Waste campaign said that transfer stations had to be dispersed around the city and not just concentrated in the South Bronx and in Greenpoint.

Are the neighborhoods still fighting it?

It's pretty much settled. They're going to reopen the transfer station on the Upper East Side, which those people definitely did not want ... but they lost. So there's going to be a transfer station on the UES, they're opening a transfer station on the Westside in the 50s, and that's going to be for commercial construction and demolition debris. They're spreading the burden out in a more equitable way, which is really good. That's something that the Zero Waste put together. They have other ideas.

The other thing I wanted to just mention is that ... I think it's important to acknowledge what's happened on the cultural level in terms of indoctrinating people to disposability. A lot of effort has been made to teach people to throw things away. It's not something that that comes natural to people. It's just use something and discard it, that's something we've had to learn how to do. One of the cultural institutions that has made it its business to normalize disposability is this beautification group called Keep America Beautiful. They were started in 1953.

They've normalized disposables? Are they supported by commercial interests?

Yes, they have shaped the normalization a very sophisticated way, and they were started by the beverage container industry, the packaging industry, and manufacturers. They share members and leaders with the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). They got their public relations strategy from the NAM, it seems to me.

In 1953, the state of Vermont passed a law that banned disposable bottles. It wasn't an environmental law, it was because people were throwing their disposable bottles out their car windows and it was landing in the hay and the dairy cows were eating the glass and dying. Well there were dairy farmers in the state legislature, and they said, okay we'll put an end to that.

Within months, the beverage container industry and the packaging industry created this group Keep America Beautiful. The idea behind of it was to stop any further bans like the one in Vermont and they were totally, totally successful. Can you imagine a law like that today? No disposable bottles allowed? That's so radical. And they've also been successful in blocking bottle deposit laws -- there's only 11 states that have deposit laws.

And it's because Keep America Beautiful and their allies have fought those laws. They work on the policy level, and they also work on the cultural level., Their "great" accomplishment was that they constructed garbage as the product of individual choices. As an individual responsibility, and not one connected to the production process.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.