Most Americans give little thought to our trash. Sure, we may deign to recycle the odd soda bottle or even compost our autumn leaves, but for the most part our waste — more than four pounds per person, per day of egg shells, coffee grounds, sandwich wrappers, dirty diapers, junk mail, construction debris, and on and on — is sent on its way and soon forgotten. To us, it might as well vanish into thin air.
Curious about the people who pull off that apparent magic trick, anthropologist Joshua O. Reno spent nine months in 2005 and 2006 working as a paper picker in a vast landfill outside Detroit as part of study of, and meditation on, our wasteful society. The resulting book, “Waste Away,” published last month by the Univestity of California Press, reveals at a visceral level how the American way of life — including our consumer-driven economic growth, love of convenience, and fetishization of all things shiny and new — is made possible by the thoughtless generation of vast amounts of garbage.
While the environmental case against waste has been made time and again, Reno focuses his anthropological lens on what all this trash means for the humans involved. That includes the garbage tossers, whose relationship to “stuff” is predicated on our ability to get rid of it, and the men and women for whom waste is both a livelihood and an ever-present fact of life. These are Reno’s co-workers, who conceal society’s filth even as their own bodies are submersed in it, and the surrounding rural community, which is forced by economic necessity and political powerlessness to accept what other North Americans discard.
Reno, an assistant professor of anthropology at Binghamton University in New York, spoke to Ideas by phone. Below is an edited excerpt.
IDEAS: Four Corners — as you call the landfill where you worked — is one of those places where waste workers make our trash disappear. What did it look like in person?
RENO: It’s in the countryside, bordered by wilderness preserve and farms. When it’s done, it’s going to be around 500 feet high and cover a square mile. Southeastern Michigan is absolutely flat, so you come across something like this and it really stands out, but it’s still far enough out in the country that you won’t see it from any major road. Up close, you realize that though it has a hill-like shape, it’s clearly carved out, so it looks almost like a Mayan pyramid that’s been grown over with grass. There’s always an open face, the part [where] waste is currently being put. People usually expect one big open pit, but it’s actually a small area, maybe an acre or two. They fill it, then it’s quickly covered up with soil and grass, and then you move on to another section.
For a passerby, at ground level, it can seem very stable, very calm and settled. Even if you’re right next to a landfill, they do such a good job of making it seem like it’s not changing — the labor of making it bigger, of adding the waste, is concealed so effectively. You kind of have to work at one to even understand the scope and the scale.
IDEAS: When we think of waste, we usually imagine household garbage, but Four Corners took other types, too.
RENO: That’s another thing about landfills that I was trying to get across in the book. They don’t just take household or municipal solid waste. [Four Corners also took] sludge, which is basically processed sewage, with all the water taken out of it. Sludge has to go somewhere. Historically it was used a lot for fertilizer, and occasionally it can be mixed to use as building material, but a lot of it is landfilled. They also were taking ash from incinerators. People imagine that if you incinerate waste, it’s somehow an alternative to a landfill, but incinerators also usually depend on the landfill. Something always gets disposed of.
[There was also] construction demolition waste, which is among the largest waste streams in any industrialized society. That’s easy to see if you just look at your neighbors and how often people are redoing their roof, redoing their kitchen. Everyone wants to create this ideal home — who wouldn’t relate to that? — but it is creating quite a large waste stream.
IDEAS: You worked as a “paper picker.”
RENO: Much of what’s thrown away is paper and plastic, and if that material blows down the slope and migrates outside the site, it’s a violation. Even if it’s just a scrap of newspaper, in terms of regulations, you’re polluting the surrounding environment with waste. So anything that blows in the wind, you pick up. “Paper” includes a lot of stuff — checkbooks that people threw out, photographs, plastic wrap, and lots and lots and lots of packaging. The garbage keeps rolling down that hill, and if it’s a windy day, it seems like you can never make an impact on the amount of waste scattered in a landfill. It’s a Sisyphean task.
We also did other kinds of things. A few times we had to go and pick up metal materials on the open face so that they didn’t create flats in the vehicles. That was very dangerous work, because you’re walking amid a whole slew of tractor-trailers and big dozers.
[We also did] odor control, moving around perfume sprayers as the winds change to try to block odors as needed. Landfills constantly make an effort to mask odors so as not to draw attention to themselves. They really want to be forgotten and ignored, but the irony there, of course, is that the better they do that job, the more the rest of us take for granted what they do on our behalf and act with impunity, buying and selling and wasting, without ever thinking there are any material consequences.
IDEAS: Were you ever surprised by things people had thrown away?
RENO: I can think of a few things. An old computer that a mechanic salvaged and gave to me so he could loan me video games. It worked fine but had a lot of personal information associated with its previous owner (including their name and address), which I promptly deleted. A series of nude Polaroid photos someone had taken of a woman, which some of the younger laborers collected into a pile for their amusement, but which older laborers chose to throw away with a blank expression, as if what they found couldn’t surprise them anymore. These two incidents made me feel responsible for the waste we found and more aware of what I throw out. I am careful to shred everything with personal or sensitive information now.
[I also saw] an abandoned mobile home being carved up by a bulldozer and pushed into the sludge pit, the possessions of its former occupants spilling out everywhere. This was quite upsetting. All I could imagine was the people who had left it behind, who might have wanted to stay. My co-worker, who was with me at the time, mentioned that it made no sense that people had to build homes for relief efforts (Hurricane Katrina was in the news), and we were destroying them here.
IDEAS: Unlike previous generations, or people in many other countries, most Americans are able to forget about our trash as soon as we wheel it to the curb. How does that shape our relationship to our environment and our possessions?
RENO: Think about the office where you work, or the living room of your home, or places like hospitals and schools. What makes it possible for these places to be what they are is partly the elimination of waste. A comfortable living room is a living room that doesn’t have odors from waste, that doesn’t have mice or cockroaches. A hospital, to be a hospital, has to be sanitary — that’s not just an arbitrary thing. But that order is cultural. It’s a particular idea we have as North Americans. And [it is dependent on] what we subtract and send somewhere else. When you buy a new iPhone and throw away the old one, that makes trash but so does simply taking an iPhone to your home, which you’re keeping as your home instead of as a place where you hoard waste.
It’s something we do every day, taking out the garbage or flushing the toilet. My goal is for people to think about how that is connected to people in places that they don’t know about, people who are doing this on our behalf and we don’t even realize it. Unlike other people who are taking care of us — say, doctors and nurses and teachers — we don’t appreciate what they do. That’s partly because we are ashamed of all the waste we create, but also because they’re so good at what they do, so good at making it all vanish. We think about waste as a relationship between us and the environment in the abstract, but what I’d really like is for people to think of it as a social relationship.
Amy Crawford has written for Boston Magazine, Smithsonian, and Slate. Follow her on Twitter @amymcrawf.