The rubbish barons

Issue: 116

Martin Empson

Heather Rogers, Gone Tomorrow, the Hidden Life of Garbage (New Press, 2005), £8_._99

On average each American produces almost 4.2 pounds (2 kg) of rubbish a day. Almost a third of this is packaging. This staggering statistic starts Heather Rogers’ fantastic book on garbage—a book that has lots of numbers, but never lets the reader drown in facts and figures. The figures are important, because the scale of the garbage problem is incredible. America produces 500 billion pounds of refuse every year; the country consumes “30 percent of the world’s resources and produces 30 percent of all its wastes”.

In asking where it all goes, Rogers tells us the fascinating history of rubbish, although she inevitably concentrates on the last 100 or so years. Before then people were either so poor that their few belongings were used over and over again, or (and this is more important) their belongings were designed to be used over and over again.

The author introduces us to the niche roles that developed in a time of low garbage levels—the men and women who collected human waste to sell to farmers, the people who swept roads clear of horse manure to facilitate an easy crossing. In an interesting aside about the corruption at the heart of the waste industry, we learn why it is that the characters in HBO’s The Sopranos make their money from, among other things, waste collection.

However, the central theme of Rogers’ book is the way that modern day capitalism created our “garbage problem”. In its desperate drive to sell commodities, capitalism found that objects that lasted didn’t make as much money. So capitalists invented disposability, selling it to the consumer as convenience. We got the disposable bottle, disposable razors and disposable nappies. Then the capitalists took the next logical step—they built in obsolescence. Either the particular model went out of fashion, or it stopped working a few years after it was purchased and needed to be replaced.

In the 1920s the idea of built in obsolescence wasn’t simply about forcing consumers to purchase more goods, but also a “life affirming” activity. According to one marketing consultant at the time, “It is the ambition of almost every American to practise progressive obsolescence as a ladder by which to climb to greater human satisfactions through the purchase of more of the fascinating and thrilling range of goods and services being offered today.”

But it was after the Second World War that the idea came into its own. The car industry was innovative in this respect. In the 1950s Detroit could build far more cars than could be purchased. Rogers describes how the car manufacturers convinced car owners to “get rid of still functioning vehicles” by “tapping into the psychology of aesthetic desire”. General Motors planned to overhaul the entire design for each model of car every year—in the words of a Ford executive, “The change in appearance of models each year increases car sales.”

This systematic obsolescence brings us to a point where, as Rogers pointed out in her article in the 2007 edition of Socialist Register, “80 percent of US products are used once, and then thrown away”.

To combat this waste we are often urged to recycle. Recycling is, of course, a good thing. It is often the first step that most people take down the road towards environmental awareness or action. However, it is also very much a diversion. Simply putting “Please recycle this product when finished” on the outside of a drink can gives the manufacturer a sheen of green colouring, even though they are producing millions of “use once” tins. The recycling industry gives the impression that something is being done about waste and stops people questioning why so much stuff is produced in the first place. Why don’t we have reusable bottles? Why do we need disposable razors?

In a fascinating chapter Rogers examines how packaging companies in 1950s America were well aware of these questions. “Keep America Beautiful” is the most famous and earliest anti-litter campaign in history. It was not started by environmentalists, but by the packaging companies who wanted to shift the blame for “waste” onto the individual consumer.

Competing companies soon found that extra packaging, disposable containers or ever changing marketing materials gave them an edge over competitors who remained with the same old, returnable, reusable bottles or containers. As growing environmental awareness in the 1980s led to campaigns such as the “send it back” mail-in of used McDonald’s foam packaging, companies found that moving towards recyclable containers allowed them to continue manufacturing disposable commodities. Nothing much changed, but because material was recyclable, the multinationals could claim to be doing their part.

As well as recycling being a distraction from the task of reducing production of disposable goods, it is often not the environmental solution it appears to us. One study by Greenpeace found that 50 percent of plastic sent overseas was so contaminated it could not be recycled. Rogers lists a number of recycling processes that have environmentally destructive by-products. And most importantly, recycled materials often cannot be produced cheaply enough to compete with non-recycled goods on the market.

Rogers has produced useful ammunition against the system. Capitalism is, she argues, inherently wasteful. If we are to save the planet, we have to fundamentally change how society uses, produces and treats the material goods that currently form such an important part of our lives. She concludes, “All those trashed appliances, cars, clothes, and the mountains of wasted packaging are actually not the product of an economy that delivers its benefits to most people. On the contrary, the biggest beneficiaries of a trash-rich marketplace are those at the top. Garbage is the detritus of a system that unscrupulously exploits not only nature, but also human life and labour.”