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May 2006
Uncovering the Hidden Life of Garbage
The Satya Interview with Heather Rogers


Did you know that 80 percent of U.S. products are used once and then discarded, and that garbage production has doubled over the past 30 years? How did we get to be such a disposable society? Brooklyn writer and filmmaker Heather Rogers first explored this question in her film Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage (2002), but further delves into this topic in her new book by the same name published by The New Press (2005). Rogers’ riveting research provides a historical overview of the evolution of garbage as we know it today—“soft, toxic, ubiquitous.” Rogers analyzes the many forces at play in creating our trash-heavy culture both upstream and downstream, from manufacturers and marketing to the corporatization and consolidation of waste management. While garbage seems to disappear in our throwaway society, our trash and its toxic legacy will not be gone tomorrow.

Heather Rogers trash-talked with fellow Brooklynite Sangamithra Iyer about the ways we create, conceptualize and handle our waste.

How did you first get interested in garbage?
I wanted to find out where my garbage actually went because we have this system that ‘disappears’ our garbage. I realized that garbage was this really unique substance because we all produce it every day and because of that relationship it allows us to make connections between our daily lives and larger environmental crises. When you throw your wrappers, broken appliances or cell phones away, the connection between the environment and daily life is crystallized in that moment.

I think it is important to realize what we are responsible for in our daily lives, but also to recognize how corporations control what we throw out. Can you expand upon that and the notion of “built-in obsolescence”?
Built-in obsolescence was a historical event that happened in the late 1950s and is the key to understanding garbage today. At that point in time, manufacturers in the U.S. had come out of WWII with a massively streamlined manufacturing process—the Fordist production regime—where they were able to mass produce commodities like never before. That was met by huge consumer demand. By the late 1950s, most Americans had already bought a car, a house, all the appliances they needed and markets were saturated. Japan and Germany were starting to recover from the war and rebuild their manufacturing bases and compete with the U.S. So American industry was facing a serious potential crisis and started asking itself ‘what are we going to do?’ The answer they came up with was built-in obsolescence—manufacturing commodities to wear out faster than they needed to, through technological or fashion obsolescence, or some combination of the two. Some people in the trade press called it “forced consumption.”

Built-in obsolescence is very much alive and well today and exists in different forms. Today we have personal computers that last for two years, iPods that last an average of one year, and cell phones that last between one and two years. There is not only a mushrooming of durable goods made to be less durable, but also a proliferation of items like packaging that are designed to become garbage from the get-go. A third of all landfilled space is comprised of packaging! This increase in disposability has led to a doubling of garbage over the last 30 years.

In addition to manufacturing, your book explores how the consolidation of the waste industry plays a role in our garbage problem. Can you explain some of the social and environmental impacts of a consolidated waste sector?
The top three garbage corporations today, which are Waste Management, Allied Services and Republic Services, control 40 percent of the waste handling and disposal industry, an industry estimated to be worth at least $43 billion a year.

Why should we care if corporations are handling our garbage? The reason is that companies make more profit from landfilling than all other waste operations combined. If they earn more money by landfilling than recycling, they are going to landfill. That is just the logic of the system. Corporations like Waste Management have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in building these new mega-fills, in part because it is so profitable. Compared to the volume that gets landfilled, the volume that gets recycled or diverted is miniscule. About 60 percent of what goes into landfills in the U.S. could be composted—that means these corporations would have to give up 60 percent of the most profitable part of their business. They are not going to support waste reduction or even recycling measures because it steals revenues from their shareholders.

The other key aspect of corporate management is that in building these mega-fills, they have pioneered the increasingly common practice of exporting garbage. This displaces the toxic burden of trash off of the people who are producing it, and puts it predominantly on people who are low-income and people of color. Pennsylvania is the number one recipient of exported waste in the U.S. and, for instance, much of New York City’s refuse goes to mega-fills in that state. Fortunately, there are very valiant efforts by people who live in these rural areas that are calling attention to the health hazards and the environmental disasters of this system.

How did it get to the point, that just a few corporations control the waste industry?
Thirty years ago, most waste was handled and disposed of by municipalities, and in many places still is. For example in NYC, the local government is in charge of collecting household waste. But then they contract out the disposal. And that is becoming the norm. There’s been this creeping corporatization of the waste handling and disposal industry.

The first two garbage corporations were Browning-Ferris in the 1960s and Waste Management in the early 70s. They were the first firms to go public. They had a vision of transforming waste handling and turning it into the kind of high-profit industry it has become. They first consolidated markets in the Sun Belt [in the southern and southwestern U.S.], and then hit the western U.S. They used the “hub and spoke” model to buy out disposal sites and transfer stations—where garbage gets taken to be processed before getting sent to a landfill, incinerator or recycling center—so they could set prices too high for the local municipalities and the mom and pop haulers. They drove smaller competitors and municipalities out of business with predatory pricing, and they did this across the country.

The story of how they came into New York City is pretty riveting because it involves the breaking of the mafia cartel’s hold on garbage handling. It’s a complicated story, but corporations in many ways just supplanted the mafia in New York. Since corporations have come into the city, we’ve seen prices go up to the same levels they were under the mafia cartel.

This concept of “forced consumption” is interesting. Consumption is often marketed as democracy and freedom to purchase. But with industrial production and resource extraction to make all of our goods, there is no public participation in production. Yet dealing with waste and the toxic burdens is considered to be a public responsibility. What do you think are ways we can gain democracy and public participation in the front-end of production?
That is a really important question. Under the current system the benefits of a trash-heavy economy are given to those at the top of our society, the wealthiest. Yet the risks and the toxic legacy are evenly distributed because it affects the natural systems we all depend on. It is also unevenly distributed in that waste handling, processing and disposal are disproportionately pushed on people of color, people of low-incomes within cities and in the countryside. That reflects a profound lack of democracy in the way that our wastes are handled.

The point you raise on the manufacturing of goods is key, because there is also a deep lack of democracy in the choices made during production. We must change the way we produce the commodities we consume so that we make less garbage to begin with. What that means is greater product durability and serviceability, and less use of toxic materials. We also need to stop relying on back-end solutions for waste problems, like recycling. Recycling is far better than burning and burying our garbage, but it only treats wastes that have already been made. We need to talk about making less waste to begin with. That means going back and regulating production. We need the state to intervene on behalf of human and environmental health and not simply act as the handmaiden of business, which is consistently what the state does.

Are there examples of the state acting responsibly?
The EU banned the use of mercury and lead in computer monitor and television manufacturing, and now there is a transformation happening in the production of these commodities in Europe. Also in Germany, a law called the packaging ordinance was passed in 1991. A provision of that law says that 72 percent of all beverage containers must be refillable. That cuts out hundreds of thousands of tons of waste a year. It saves large amounts of energy. It creates jobs. There was a study that said if Germany switched to an all-refillable system, it would create 27,000 new jobs. And people like it—69 percent of Germans prefer to take their empties back to the store.

One movement in the U.S. that has gained a lot of momentum over the last several years is “green capitalism.” Its proponents say changes need to happen in production, which I totally agree with, but they also say that manufacturers should and will make these changes voluntarily. That, I completely disagree with. The state must regulate industry and production. Only then would you have a level playing field. If a company decides to go “green” it costs them money. This gives green producers two options: raise their prices and manufacture high-end goods for luxury consumption, or try to compete with firms that continue to externalize costs onto the environment. These companies either go out of business because they can’t compete, or they sell expensive items to environmentally conscious consumers, which is a relatively small (but growing) niche market. But these changes won’t have any true effects in terms of creating a “new industrial revolution,” as green capitalists profess, until the government regulates production.

The example of the EU’s controls on lead and mercury in monitors is precisely the kind of intervention I’m talking about. If some companies took on the cost of redesigning their production lines, but others didn’t, you’d see a huge price discrepancy, and consumers would most likely buy the lower cost monitor. But if all the manufacturers have to make the change, then it creates a more equitable situation.

Going back to the ideas of green capitalism, William McDonough and Michael Braungart have been lauded as these wonderful environmental thinkers and designers. At the same time, they are working with Nike, the Gap, Ford and Wal-Mart. Is green really possible when you work with these corporations in this kind of economic system?
Unfortunately, William McDonough and Michael Braungart aren’t seriously asking themselves that question. That question is important because there is a logic to the economic system we live in. Irrespective of how you feel about it or what you would like it to be, industries’ and businesses’ relationship to nature under capitalism is one of exploitation. Manufacturers must exploit nature in order to make profits. If they treat nature in a different kind of way, as a resource that must be protected and something that needs to last a very long time, then you are not talking about the same economic logic. If you insist on avoiding challenging the economic system of capitalism, and say we can have it both ways—we can have capitalism but we can make it green—what you are really doing, I think, is putting window dressing on the system and not dealing with the real root causes of environmental destruction. And the root cause is that capitalism needs unbridled access to natural resources in order to continue growing. If companies can’t do that, then they go out of business. And if the whole system can’t do that, it goes into crisis.

Greening capitalism is becoming very popular right now. Is there anything salvageable out of this? Yeah, of course. Good things are coming out of it, which is greater consciousness on the part of the public. There is a greater interest in hybrid cars and it’s good to use dish washing soap that doesn’t have chemicals in it, but when you think about the reality of the situation, those kinds of shifts in the set of goods the consumer buys isn’t going to bring about the kind of change that needs to happen. It will help and will alleviate some of the problems in the short run, but it’s not a real political shift or fundamental change in that relationship between our economic system and nature.

How has your research affected your own waste “stream”?
There are changes I have made in my daily life. I use a lot less plastic. I try not to buy things packaged in plastic, especially food. I recycle. I would like to compost, but I can’t in my neighborhood in New York. I think our individual behaviors and changing our consumer choices is important, but I also think it is really important to situate that in the larger picture. The responsibility for not only the destruction of the environment but also the health of the environment doesn’t lay solely with the individual. It is something that is a result of choices that are made in production and also choices made by the government. It is important to keep our role in perspective because for every ton of household waste there’s over 70 tons of waste from industry to make the goods we buy.

Is there one thing about garbage that you think every American should know?
That it doesn’t have to be garbage.