The Trash Blog




Ackerman, Frank. Why Do We Recycle? (1997). An economic examination of recycling in the United States, Ackerman teases out many interesting (and often overlooked) points about recycling, waste, and the interplay of the two. Why Do We Recycle? is an essential read for those interested in waste issues.


Baldwin, Grant and Jenny Rustemeyer. The Clean Bin Project (Film, 2010). A Vancouver couple decides that they aren’t going to buy anything new, aren’t going to throw anything away, and are going to take responsibility for their garbage for one year. They document this project in their film. It is an interesting attempt at living in a way that reduces waste. If anything, The Clean Bin Project reveals how we waste a whole hell of a lot more than we need to, and perhaps it isn’t really that hard to live with much less waste. I’m sure this was a challenging project, but when you watch it, you don’t get the sense that The Clean Bin Project was difficult at all.

Benidickson, Jamie. The Culture of Flushing (2007). Written by a lawyer, The Culture of Flushing covers sewerage and water systems from a legal perspective more than sociological, and provides some startling revelations. Benidickson demonstrates how British and North American attitudes towards water have generally been nothing less than lazy and selfish. These cultures have generally treated streams, rivers, lakes, and the ocean as their personal waste disposal service, disregarding the inconvenient reality that water is also their lifeblood. As science revealed that dirty water caused epidemics and death, a brief era of desultory attempts to pollute less began. However, as soon as people discovered an economic means of cleaning drinking water they quickly returned to their habits of dumping anything and everything in the water.

Biddle, Mike. “We Can Recycle Plastic.” (Ted Talk, 2011). Although Biddle provides data and pictures, I have to admit that it sounds a bit like a fairytale to me. He describes a process that he has developed and uses in his company’s factories that sorts waste plastic, refines it, and produces a base product which can be used again to produce plastic items. But he doesn’t answer the question: if this is such a wonderful process, so much more cost-effective, and sustainable (economically and environmentally), why isn’t it everywhere?

Bloemen, Shantha. T-Shirt Travels (Film, 2001).  Beginning with donated clothing and thrift stores, this documentary travels from New Jersey to Zambia and ends up examining World Bank and IMF policies towards developing nations.  The film focuses on a small-time clothing seller in Zambia named Luca (It’s a pretty sad story: this kid works his ass off and helps to support his mother and siblings, and doesn’t really seem to get anywhere). Bloemen shows how the t-shirt you tossed in one of those charity collection boxes ends up being an integral part of someone’s life on the other side of the globe.

Bloom, Jonathan. American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food and What We Can Do About It (2010). An excellent examination of food-waste habits in the US, that, like the subject, is overwhelming. Bloom’s book contains so many stories, interviews, facts, and anecdotes, it is difficult to fully comprehend it all. In addition to the usual interviews with experts and stakeholders, Bloom conducted research by stints working at a supermarket and a fast food restaurant. There is enough information for several books here. You may want to digest it chapter by chapter, but it is a great resource on food waste.

Botha, Ted. Mongo: Adventures in Trash (2005). Botha’s interesting look at refuse collected off the streets (mostly) in New York is more about the people than trash. He profiles quirky, intelligent, unique collectors of the things that are not usually noticed. Perhaps you will be surprised to discover that none of the people profiled by Botha are acting out of environmental concerns.

Burtynsky, Edward. “Manufactured Landscapes.” (Ted Talk, 2005). Burtynsky is a photographer who focuses on how humans have changed the surface of the earth: think images of massive mines, piles of tires, vast factories, and bristling cities. The pictures are pretty incredible, but Burtynsky’s accompanying narrative isn’t so incredible.


Crooks, Harold. Giants of Garbage: The Rise of the Global Waste Industry and the Politics of Pollution Control (1993). Crooks writes a fairly specific book about the three largest garbage companies in the world: Waste Management Incorporated (WMI), Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI), and Service Corporation of America (SCA). He details the history of each of the companies and how they came into the markets they currently hold. Although he mostly focuses on them from a Canadian perspective, he focuses on what he sees as evidence that these large companies engage in price fixing and other monopolistic business practices.


D’Agata, John. About a Mountain (2010). I first discovered D’Agata’s writing when I read a tangentially connected book of his called The Lifespan of a Fact. His observational style sneaks up on you, painting a picture with facts until you are startled with their uncertain nature. About a Mountain approaches the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository from a very personal perspective, yet reveals many large-scale concerns about its placement and function.

Dauvergne, Peter. The Shadows of Consumption: Consequences for the Global Environment (2010). Beginning with the automobile, Dauvergne examines several popular consumer products and their implications for a sustainable life. In particular, Dauvergne’s examination of leaded gasoline is eye-opening. Pursuing profit, we rarely have the time to think through the longer-term consequences of our actions.

Dawson, Arthur Potts. A Vision for Sustainable Restaurants. (Ted Talk, 2010). When Dawson speaks about his restaurants and other projects, you don’t really ask why isn’t everyone else doing this, mainly because it seems like what he is doing would be pretty expensive. Sure, creating restaurants that have orange trees growing in recycled tires and compost made from your food waste are interesting, and so is treating your own gray water and using water from the Thames to heat and cool your building, but these projects feel a little bit like feel-good places for the rich. It’s hard to imagine them spreading like wildfire. All the same, it is interesting to hear what we already have the technology to achieve.


Fishbein, Bette K. Germany, Garbage, and the Green Dot: Challenging the Throwaway Society (1994). A report written on the Packaging Ordinance instituted in Germany in 1993. The book covers many of the difficulties and benefits of the ordinances in the first year. Although a problem is that the book was written in 1994 and so doesn’t really cover the longer-term effects of the ordinance. The Ordinance attempted to make the industry responsible for packaging waste, a system often called “polluter pays”, by requiring that industries take back their packaging and dispose of it (with quotas of how much should be recycled) or work with local governments to pay for its disposal (again with quotas). Theoretically, more expensive packaging would be phased out by the market itself then, because industries would have to roll the cost of its disposal over into the cost of the product. The Ordinance was fairly flexible when it came to how the industry was to achieve its quotas, but did establish high targets (70%+ recycle rates). The book also speaks a little to how this system might be adapted in the US.


Gandy, Matthew. Recycling and the Politics of Urban Waste (1994). The story of garbage in the three cities (London, New York, and Hamburg) Gandy surveys is a story of dwindling solutions to the garbage problem. Gandy examines how privatization in London, regulation in New York, and regional politics in Hamburg have restricted waste management options for these three cities. Gandy’s work is well researched, if it is presented in a little dryly: he likes lists. A lot. But his presentation of the material is as fair as I have found and he certainly captures the complexity of the issue of municipal waste management. It is also interesting to compare three fairly different cities and their obstacles to dealing with garbage.

Geyrhalter, Nikolaus. Our Daily Bread (Film, 2005). A beautifully filmed documentary of food production in Germany. There is almost no speaking in the film, and little or no music. Instead the sounds of machines provide the score to the sliding pan shots and zooms as the camera explores the mechanization of food production. On the whole it’s a strange documentary, but one that gives you an idea of how big a role machines play in processing the food you eat on your table. The images of olive trees being shaken by a tractor are startling.

Girling, Richard. Rubbish! Dirt on Our Hands and Crisis Ahead (2005). Pretty much entirely about the UK, the book covers many forms of pollution, from garbage to water to space debris to noise pollution to television and junk mail and architectural failures: the scope is a little fuzzy. Girling tackles too much in this book. There are some good chapters on recycling and trash in general–particularly interesting is what he says about how difficult recycling is. The enormous sorting that is required because nobody really knows what is recyclable and how. He also makes a few good points about how the market is going to have to be involved in the process and if it isn’t, then nothing is going to happen. The upshot of the book is basically that the UK is woefully behind the rest of Europe when it comes to planning for and dealing with waste, and that the only developed-world place worse off than the UK is the US. Girling highlights how the time it takes to invest and plan infrastructure requires that action be taken now in order for things to begin happening quite a long time from now.

Gupta, Arvind. Turning Trash into Toys for Learning. (Ted Talk, 2011). Gupta makes a wife variety of toys out of garbage while he tells you how such simple and basic materials can teach geometry and mathematics, narrate captivating stories, and fascinate children.


Hacker, C. Leroy. Waste is Wealth (1970). It’s hard to believe this book actually got published. Hacker suggests a national policy of transformation based on shipping poor people from “crime-ridden slums” to abandoned military bases that will become solid waste centers where garbage is transformed into wealth. Among the several ways he suggests this transformation will occur are using plastic bits as soil ammendments to promote drainage and remodeling automobiles. Perceiving value in waste is perhaps the most important aspect of what I’ve learned about waste, but you actually have to learn a little about the waste before you start suggesting how it can be valuable.

Hansen, Karen T. Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing in Zambia (2000). In her analysis of the secondhand clothing trade you get the sense that Hansen is trying to be as fair as possible. This is especially important to note because the topic of secondhand clothing tends to be controversial. Anytime donated items because a source of profit, people are liable to get excited. Hansen’s book tracks secondhand clothing from its generation in the United States and Western Europe to local retailers in Zambia, one of its many possible destinations. She maintains that although secondhand clothing does affect local textile markets, it is not solely or even primarily responsible for collapses of the local textile industry of Zambia. In addition to pointing out many outside factors, Hansen documents the important role that secondhand clothing plays in Zambian society. If anything, her book reveals a glimpse of the complexity of textile waste and how little consumers who generate that waste know about where it ends up.


Jensen, Derrick and Aric McBay. What We Leave Behind (2009). Jensen and McBay’s book is intended to be shocking. From the opening pages which discuss shitting out of doors, to description after description of environmental atrocities taking place all around us, and largely because of our lifestyles, What We Leave Behind is intended to shake you up. Jensen and McBar are passionate writers with a flare for pedagogy, however, I found myself a little bit non-plussed. If one is to accept their position, it basically means we are all screwed, which makes me wonder, why the hell should I care about what they say in the first place?

Jordan, Chris. “Turning Powerful Stats into Art” (Ted Talk, 2008). Big numbers are something we’ve come across quite frequently here, and Jordan’s work attempting to bring those numbers into some sort of human feeling is very pertinent. Some of his art focuses on how much is discarded, but the interesting item in this talk is his belief that we we have become apathetic to the realities around us, perhaps because they have become so big.


Kennedy, Greg. An Ontology of Trash (2007). Kennedy ventures into the issue of trash from a very abstract angle. Much of what he says is really interesting, but not terribly practical when it comes to trash and garbage. His main point is that it is through daily caring for things and taking care that we come closest to Being, and that it is in the truth of this that we should live. He says that trash is a phenomenon that denies its own being. Instead of taking care of things we label them as something that has no being. Kennedy moves from pointing out the tendency of technology and reason to dominate our approach to life to the extent that we come to believe that physicality is a problem. Trash is unfit to be taken care of. Trash can be a mirror. Disposability as opposed to need. Trash needs to become beautiful to the compassionate eye? He links the idea of time to the issue by saying that often disposability is fueled by a claim to convenience which purports to save us time. Kennedy says that this idea of time is false. The idea that we have some objective pile of time sitting around and that spending it on taking care is a negative use, whereas using it in a way that we most want (that being free to use it any way we like) is positive and the ultimate goal when it comes to the use of time. He says that since we are most truly alive when in the daily incarnate taking care of ourselves and other beings (which he defines as things), time used in taking care is time really alive. He says: “Death, and its necessary accomplice, the always dying body, ‘are seen…as inconveniences in that they limit or interfere with the use of time.'”(166). “This ‘out’ and this ‘away’ have no meaningful location, lying as they do beyond the phenomenal world of everyday consumption.” (141) “We can now appreciate the Buddhist’s, not to mention the Shakers’ and Saint Benedict’s emphasis on not only the physical but also the spiritual necessity of humble, manual work. It cradles us in the truth of Being.” (149). I don’t know how useful in particular Kennedy’s book is, but it is definitely useful as far as worldview goes. “Shopping turns out to be a sport that awards trash as its trophies.”(145)


Lund, Herbert F., McGraw-Hill Recycling Handbook Second Edition (2001). Quite the compendium of information on recycling. This bigger-than-the-family-bible book is unfortunately doomed to be outdated in about, well, actually it’s already outdated, seeing as it was published in 2001. There is a lot of data in it, but the Internet will always win. Having chapters on everything from the “Psychology of Recycling” by Penny McCornack to “Legislative Policies and Evaluations” by Michelle Raymond to every material Paper to Plastics to Household Hazardous Waste and Mercury-Containing Devices and Lamps to Transfer Stations and Processing Yard Waste to Training Personnel and Managers to Recycling at Large Commercial Facilities, this Handbook attempts to cover it all. Its glossary is very thorough, taking the time to define “Gravel” (Loose rounded fragments of rock), “Used oil” (Oil that has been utilized for a purpose and is ready to be discarded or recycled) and “Substitute” (To put or use in the place of another) “Illegal dumping” (Disposing of waste in an improper manner and/or location and in violation of waste disposal laws) and “Backyard composting” (The controlled biodegradation of leaves, grass clippings, and/or other yard wastes on the site where they were generated). Useful as a starting point, though.

Luton, Larry S. The Politics of Garbage: A Community Perspective on Solid Waste Policy Making (1996). This book is a mostly about public policy and political science. Luton takes as a case study the City of Spokane and its decision to build a waste-to-energy facility as part of its waste management plan. I didn’t find the theoretical stuff, which is pretty much every chapter except for the first, to be very useful to the average person’s study of garbage. Luton spends a lot of time assessing the interplay between citizens, community groups, municipal, county, state, and federal governments. Although he says that his book is a case study of the policy as it applies to waste management, I think it applies to many different aspects of public policy, not just waste management. In that sense this book only incidentally involves garbage. Luton does however gather quite a few relevant laws, regulations, and court cases, which is helpful.


MacBride, Samantha. Recycling Reconsidered (2012). MacBride levels a grim, steady eye on the recycling movement and demonstrates how in many instances recycling serves a diversionary purpose rather than a sustainable one; MacBride documents many cases where industries were eager to support consumer-powered recycling as a solution to environmental problems rather than producer responsibility. Analyzing the disparity between textiles and glass recycling, between the attention paid to municipal solid waste and industrial waste, MacBride brings a rare clear-sightedness to the issue of waste disposal and recycling.

Medina, Martin. The World’s Scavengers: Salvaging for Sustainable Consumption and Production (2007). Beginning with the social disdain and hostility that greets scavengers in most societies, Medina attempts to describe the legitimacy of their activities. He points out that scavenging accounts for significant portions of many national economies; that it provides a local source of raw materials to industry helping them be more competitive; that it helps to reduce poverty; and that it is environmentally sustainable. Medina notes that many developing-world governments ignore scavenging in their Solid Waste Managment Plans and enact policies that discourage this desirable activity. In addition, he points out the silliness of adopting developed-world, infrastructure-intensive solutions to solid waste management in developing-world situations, as the World Bank often encourages. Unfortunately, Medina does not come out and say that scavenging would be desirable in the developed world, even though almost all the points he makes are valid in both contexts.

Melosi, Martin V. Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform, and the Environment (Revised Edition, 2005).  Melosi’s book is one of the more often cited books about garbage that I have come across. He delivers a historical perspective on garbage similar to Susan Strasser, although Melosi focuses more on politics. Melosi performs the basic survey of the history of garbage in the United States, beginning necessarily with a brief focus on Western Europe. He focuses on the period of the Industrial Revolution and its immediate aftermath, not having a whole lot to say about post-1950s garbage. He attempts to deal with more modern times in the last two chapters of his revised edition, but I didn’t find it to be a very extensive analysis. Perhaps the most important aspect of the book is the wealth of historical sources that Melosi draws from. It’s amazing the things that we have said about garbage.

Miller, Benjamin. Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York, The Last Two Hundred Years (2000). The history of garbage in New York, according to Miller, is a really dirty history: from household-name recognition corruption of Tammany Hall to the stains on the white shirts of George Waring, to the autocratic parks commissioner Bob Moses, to cost-cutting Rudolph Guliani’s outrageously expensive (and Miller argues unnecessary) decision to close Fresh Kills landfill and begin contracts to ship New York City’s waste out of state–it’s a dirty, dirty story. Fat of the Land reads like a primer of how to commit fraud, to steal, to embezzle, to lie, to bribe, to practice nepotism, and to be a generally slimy politician. It would almost be a humorous read if you weren’t from New York City and if Miller was able to trim his sentences a little. Sometimes he packs so much into a sentence you lose track of which garbage related crime you are dealing with. The upshot is this: waste management is contradictorily loaded with money and still something nobody wants to look at or think about and as such it is particularly susceptible to corruption.

Miller, Daniel. Consumption and its Consequences (2012). People (Consumers) aren’t stupid, the system (economy/market) is. Miller’s main point is that Consumption isn’t a bad or a good, but that it is a primary drive of much of the market. He says many of the troubles we currently have involving stuff or too much stuff stem from the market containing inherent contradictions and no one really acknowledging them. He cites consumer societies like Trinidad, the ubiquitous presence of blue jeans and other things as evidence that consumerism is about culture much more than it is created by the market or about the market. He says in a way the market is a consequence of consumerism.  An interesting fact that he notes is ‘Between 1952 and 1997 almost all (92%) of business investment was paid for by the firms’ own cash’ while ‘between 1981 and 1997, US nonfinancial corporations retired $813 billion more in stock than they issued, thanks to takeovers and buybacks.’ Meaning that the market, particularly stock markets, encourage a kind of virtual investment and are not all to be credited as being effective or efficient means of allocating funding where it is needed. This leads to Virtualism, which Miller says is the device of substituting stand-ins for actual consumers and which often leads to problems.

Minter, Adam. Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade. (2013). This book is primarily about metal scrap, with some chapters on plastic scrap. Largely, it ignores residential recyclables, treating them as they are, an insignificant portion of the scrap trade. Minter provides many interesting insights into the globalized nature of the scrap trade and the people who participate in it, and he makes much of being the child of a scrapyard. I think his familiarity with scrap from the business-end does give him very valuable insight. However, excepting the last chapter, there are times when you get the sense that all waste problems will go away as long as people in the US demand products from China and China demands resources from everywhere. In the last few chapters, he does point out the problems with a green adherence to recycling as the panacea to waste problems.


Nagle, Robin. Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City (2013). It’s not everyday you find a professor who’s also a sanitation worker. In researching sanitation workers in New York City, Robin Nagle signed on as a garbage-woman (she is clear that sanitation worker is the preferred term), taking the NYC civil service exam and eventually being hired by the Department of Sanitation of New York City. She drove garbage trucks and street sweepers, hauled trash bags and emptied litter baskets, and learned more about garbage than your average academic. Picking Up is an excellent description of the trials and merits of being a sanitation worker in NYC.


Packard, Vance. The Wastemakers (1960). An excellent expression of shock at the changes in business and societal morals in mid-twentieth century USA. Packard takes aim at advertising and planned obsolescence, questioning why waste has come to hold such a central place in our economy. Packard assemblies a formidable battery of direct quotations from business journals, articles, and interviews eagerly endorsing deceitful business practices and intentional waste as solutions to a problem of over production.

Packer, George. “How Susie Bayer’s T-Shirt Ended Up on Yusef Mama’s Back.” (NY Times Magazine, March 31, 2002). Packer’s article follows a t-shirt donated to a thrift store in New York, sold to a textile exporter, shipped to Kenya, sold to a clothing wholesaler, sold to a small-time retailer, sold eventually to a man named Yusef Mama for $1.20 because “a mzungu had touched it.” Packer provides a brief survey of some of what happens in the messy arena of the global secondhand clothing market.

Pellow, David Naguib. Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago (2002). The gist here is: everything sucks. Pellow blasts the traditional garbage baddies like landfills, incinerators, Waste Manigment, Inc. and corrupt politicians, but he also blasts recycling plants, non-profits, environmentalists, and pretty much anybody who is trying to do something. He seems to say that such a critical approach is needed, espeically when it comes to recycling, because of the good name that recycling has and our tendacy to blankly believe it is good, almost saintly. This point Pellow proves, more than adequately. However, I was left thinking how incredibly easy it is to tear down what people are building as not considerate enough, not clean enough, not kind enough, not thoughtful enough, not whatever enough, but it is quite a bit more difficult to build something, knowing it isn’t going to be perfect. I hope that Pellow has gone on to do some things rather than simply criticize them, because the taste left in my mouth from Garbage Wars is very sour.

Porter, Richard C. The Economics of Waste (2002). It seems that economists have most, if not all, of the answers, and providing these answers to questions is as simple as having the proper data. Porter’s analysis of waste gives one the impression that the problem of waste really shouldn’t be that big of a problem at all; he’s very logical, and very clear-thinking. The problem is in the words. Data sets, words, theories and formulas always simplify matters, glossing over the bumpy reality. What works out incredibly well in Porter’s textbook, never seems to work out quite like the algebra says it should when it comes to rocks, people, garbage and reality. Reading The Economics of Waste, you would get the idea that all this mess is really quite simple. I wonder, though, if it is as straightforward as Porter describes, why can’t we agree to enact the solutions advocated by economics? While I might possibly believe that economics is a perfect system (always works out within itself) I don’t think it is a complete system (there’s lots of things economics can’t speak to). But otherwise a good survey of different issues surrounding waste.


Rathje, William and Cullen Murphy. Rubbish! (1992). Rathje and Murphy’s classic analysis of household waste in the US stems from many years of work lead by Rathje at Garbage Project at the University of Arizona at Tucson. Rubbish! pushes back on many common assumptions about waste through the most obvious method of research: taking a look. While many are too squeamish to get their hands dirty, Rathje advocated sorting household garbage as a means of gathering data about our society.

Rogers, Heather. Gone Tomorrow (2006). This is another book about the history of garbage and how it got to be where it is today, although it doesn’t actually say too much about where it is today. You get the sense that everything Rogers talks about is filling you in on societal changes and ideological means by which garbage became what it is, but the only clear picture of what it is that you get is that it (garbage) is plentiful, overwhelming and bad. Her analysis of garbage culture focuses mostly on bits of Americana, magazine articles, corporate literature, trade journals and the like to demonstrate how and why the American culture became so wasteful. Rogers also focuses on what she calls the “pro-waste” efforts of corporations and industry.
“Indicating nothing specific about recycling, plastic packaging bearing the triangular symbol misleadingly telegraphed to the voting consumer that these containers were recyclable and perhaps had even been manufactured with reprocessed materials themselves. But often neither was the case. While the code numbers did indicate various types of plastics in the broadest sense, there were (and are) so many critical variations within those categories that this system’s efficacy was (and remains) questionable. And, crucially, these grades did not create a sorting system truly useful for producers, since resin makers must categorize discarded plastics based on how they’re made, regardless of their code number. As a result, not only was SPI’s grading scheme a hollow substitute for real, meaningful programs, but by the early 1990s these stamps were criticized by some recycling centers as undermining environmental goals, creating public confusion over what was actually recyclable, and driving up costs for local facilities that were left to handle these wastes.” (174) The following three quotes illustrate Rogers’ approach throughout the book:
“Just because materials are hauled away in a recycling truck doesn’t mean that they actually get reprocessed. Almost half of discarded newspapers and office paper is buried or burned, while two-thirds of glass containers and plastic soda and milk bottles are trashed instead of recycled.” (177) “Garbage is the detritus of a system that unscrupulously exploits not only nature, but also human life and labor. Why should Americans risk their health and the survival of natural systems to enrich the nation’s elite? Though benefits of trash are unequally distributed, pollution threatens the natural systems that affect everyone.” (230) “Garbage, the miniature version of the production’s destructive aftermath, inevitably ends up in each person’s hands, and it is proof that all is not well. Trash therefore has the power to unmask the exploitation of nature that is crystallized in all commodities. Garbage reveals the market’s relation to nature; it teases out the environmental politics hidden inside manufactured goods. Because of this, transforming the way our society conceives of and treats the everyday substance of garbage would have profound effects in other areas of ecological crisis, such as dying oceans, ozone depletion, global warming, and the proliferation of toxic chemicals throughout our food, water, and air.” (231) Overall, I’d say that she does the typical survey of garbage: past, landfills, incinerators, corporations, recycling, globalization, and how we are screwed. She is pretty convinced that corporations and the rich are behind a lot of the problems when it comes to garbage, almost to the point of conspiracy. Lots of interesting facts though, and some convincing anecdotes, although her overall argument is not so convincing.

Royte, Elizabeth. Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It (2008). I sought out Bottlemania because of Royte’s other work on trash and my own view that bottled water is a ridiculous generator of waste. Royte examines the psychological roots of the market for bottled water and the scientific evidence about the safety of both tap and bottled water. She also looks at some of the societal and environmental impacts of bottled water. All in all, the book confirmed me in my perception that bottled water is mostly a waste.

Royte, Elizabeth. Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash (2006). Royte gives a pretty good examination of modern-day and recent garbage trends in New York as a representation of such trends in the United States as a whole. She attempts to follow all the wastes produced from her home to their final resting places, although often she finds she is unable to trace or follow them as far as they go. In the process, she includes interviews with quite a few interesting people involved in the waste industry or concerned with waste. As a survey of the many factors the octopus of garbage grabs onto, Garbage Land provides a worthwhile entry point.


Slade, Giles. Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America (2006). Slade explores the extensive world of things that are not made to last. Although we have extensively developed technologies that should make our things last longer and work better, Slade’s book documents the many, many ways in which our technology is intentionally made to underperform. From technological leaps that suddenly make formerly useful things seem useless to wiring that burns out quickly to yearly model changes in the auto-industry, we live in a world where we accept under-performance. The result of this obsolescence is a whole lot of garbage and a generally diminishing sense of care. Although Slade gets caught up in the details of the stories he provides, it is an interesting survey of one of the major reasons we have so much garbage hanging around.

Strasser, Susan. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (2001). Beginning with the colonial period, Strasser documents the many different relationships people had with the physical items around them. She keeps it mostly focused on household waste and re-use, and the economics of this and the technological and marketing developments that led to disposability. The history really ends with her chapter on WWII. Post-WWII, she does not have a whole lot to say, dealing with that period in a short chapter at the end of the book, that doesn’t do justice to the topic. But her work on the periods between about 1800 and 1940 is interesting. She documents a story for how the idea of disposability came into being. Strasser spends a lot of time picking out items that came into consumer view and discussing how they were marketed and why when there was a culture of re-use and repair, US people began to shift to a culture of dispose and buy new.

Stuart, Tristram. Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (2009). Interesting, honestly a little bit shocking, numbers and stories regarding food waste in the developed world. To some extent the book is inspiring because he talks about people who are trying to do it differently. What he says about the global food markets are particularly interesting, that if the developed world was not buying up so much food (only to waste it, or at best feed it to animals) that food would be available and cheaper for people who are actually starving. Pretty convicting. But I did get the sense that he wrote a long book with lots of numbers, even though maybe he kept using those numbers over and over in different ways. Maybe it was just that he repeated himself a lot. The book could have been about half as long, maybe even shorter. Upshot of the book is that about 50% of the food in the world goes to waste, most of it in a landfill where it won’t decompose and is useless. Meaning that a ton of resources are being sunk into landfills with no real option for recovering them.

Szasz, Andrew. Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves 2007. Based on the author’s concept of inverted quarantine, Szasz argues that meaningful political action to address environmental issues is aborted because of a culture of green products that allow us to feel insulated from immediate threats while contributing to worsening larger-scale problems. His two key case-studies, fallout shelters and the move to the suburbs and gated communities, aptly demonstrate individualized actions insulating people from rather than solving societal problems. Although this book does not come across as rigorously scientific, Szasz does seem thoughtful.


Walker, Lucy. Wasteland (Film, 2010). This documentary about Brazillian artist Vik Muniz left me uncertain: the art he produces is beautiful. He takes photos of pickers who work the Jardim Gramacho, one of the largest landfills in the world. These photos are staged to look like various famous portraits. Then, with the help of the pickers, they trace the outlines of these photos large-scale on the ground and “paint” them with garbage. The resulting images are incredible. However, the tone of the documentary is a little odd: Muniz constantly states how he grew up poor, and they portray some of the pickers as pets more than people. But perhaps this is because they have come up against the trouble with documentary projects of any sort: how do you document somebody without using them?

Whitaker, Jennifer Seymour. Salvaging the Land of Plenty (1994). Whitaker’s analysis of waste in the US addresses many of the issues that Vance Packard tackled in his 1960 The Wastemakers. Unfortunately, I did not feel that she added a whole lot to the discussion.

Wilson, Robert Rawdon. The Hydra’s Tale (2002). Wilson’s almost feels like something published at a vanity press, in that it doesn’t quite fit as academic writing, nor does it fit as popular non-fiction. He analyzes disgust particularly as it is displayed in the human imagination, bringing a wide range of his own and others’ disgusting experiences under examination. However, perhaps as with the destiny of any book about disgust, The Hydra’s Tale feels more personal than it should. Wilson should have simply given into the feeling of a memoir rather than trying to force an academic publication out of the matter.


Young, Mitchell, Ed. Opposing Viewpoints Series: Garbage and Recycling (2007). This book consists of a series of short excerpts or essays about garbage. Some of them are thoughtful, others sound a little bit like propaganda (there was one by the waste management association or something that was claiming that landfills are pretty much the best thing ever and living next to one is about as nice as living next to a golfcourse or a wilderness reserve). Pretty much everything in the book had to do with the environmental factors of garbage; there weren’t really any articles about social meaning or trying to understand the phenomenon of trash in that sense. A lot of the book had to do with practical systems already in place or being considered and whether or not they will be beneficial economically and environmentally. Also there was a big chunk about nuclear waste and Yucca Mountain.


Zimring, Carl. Cash for Your Trash (2005). Describes the history of scrap recycling industry in America, which Zimring contends is the more effective form of what is popularly known as recycling. In broad terms, Zimring describes this history as one of immigrants, regulations, corporations, and finally environmentalism. As with most works that focus on the scrap recycling industry, it is loaded with details about metal and fairly sparse with details about glass and plastic. Zimring makes several notable points, including: “Americans’ tendency to consumer materials, energy, and water continue to rank among the highest of any society, even though care is taken to sort aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and newspapers from garbage. Public recycling is environmentalism based upon traditional consumer behaviors,” and “Modern recycling continues the culture of disposability that took hold in the late nineteenth century; however, the history of reuse may inform more sustainable waste management strategies in the future.”

One thought on “Bibliography

  1. Pingback: Cruising Interstate 78, Dodging the Big Rigs | The Trash Blog

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