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24 february 2012

Rubbish! is a fascinating and utterly original book, a hybrid of academic study and topical essay. My only complaint about the book is that it was published 20 years ago instead of yesterday. But I suppose if you're in 1992, you have to act then and not wait around for two decades to pronounce the last word on an ever-evolving subject.

In 1992, academic William Rathje and journalist Cullen Murphy explained some principles of garbology that have really yet to filter through into general popular knowledge. Rathje, guru of the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona, speaks from first-hand knowledge of Tucson trashcans and Staten Island landfills, knowledge that contradicts much of what circulates generally even today. In fact, when it comes to garbage, we continue to fret over dubious factoids. Sanitation policy is often driven by folklore when it's driven by any information at all.

Rathje and Murphy, with a keen sense of how limited a picture even the best science gives us of messy realities, spend some time in Rubbish! debunking things "we all know" about garbage. For instance, America is not running out of landfill space, at least as a nation. Landfills are holes in the ground, and we've got lots of ground. It's true that some open ground is inadvisable for landfills (one in Central Park might raise some opposition), but the space is out there. And once filled, landfills are pretty sterile places. They sit around inertly for years, some of them for centuries, just sort of existing as artificial features of the landscape. They aren't about to poison us, except in horror movies.

In fact, even those most hated constituents of landfills, disposable diapers, are fairly benign in their environmental impact. They leave infant bottoms full of germs, true, but landfills are not breeding grounds for these germs; not long after they're buried, diapers are pretty dead things. The environmental cost of disposables is mainly in their manufacture. But cloth diapers have a substantial cost too. Being a baby is a dirty business. Disposable diapers make it a cleaner one: in that alone, their advantages may outweigh any of their perceived costs.

Rathje and Murphy are also unconvinced that recycling is a panacea. Their arguments are drawn from a sense of how market forces affect recycling programs. Here, greenish-blue readers may start to feel queasy. Markets be damned, you think: how can we let filthy lucre make our landscape filthy too? Yet for Rathje and Murphy, markets are not solely about profit, but more basically about supply, demand, and usage. It's typical, for instance, for recycling drives (especially during wartime) to gather more paper than industries have a need for. As a result, the value of that paper drops to a negative amount. Governments can subsidize paper recycling, but then what to do with the stuff that isn't needed? It has to be stored somewhere, but it would have to be stored somewhere anyway. Or, like so much of America's recyclables at the moment, it has to be dumped in a landfill.

There are exceptions, of course, and market fluctations can create new ones. At least 20 years ago, when Rathje and Murphy were writing, aluminum made eminent sense as a recyclable. Unlike paper and glass and steel, aluminum is very expensive to make from raw materials. It's light (an advantage at lots of points along the precycling/recycling chain) and relatively easy to store, and easily transformed into new products (usually old cans becoming new cans). But much of the recycling practice that I and many others fuss obsessively over ends up to be just fiddling. I first learned this when reading Susan Freinkel's Plastic – the book that lead me to Rubbish! in the first place. Basically, except for PET pop bottles, any plastic of any number that you carefully recycle will end up as hard-to-sort, hard-to-sell "mixed plastic," often dumped in landfills because of its low value and general uselessness. The same goes for glass (the raw material of which, sand, is extremely common and cheap), and for paper: depending on demand and price, these staple recyclables might just head to the landfills you were hoping they'd avoid, anyway.

One of the most interesting perceptions among many in Rubbish! is that the United States, for all its first-world, throwaway ways, has a pretty efficient scavenging and repurposing culture. If stuff can be reused, people will get it before it's buried away. In some ways, this observation seems to glorify hidden-hand markets at the expense of planning. But it's also just curbside common sense, as anyone who's put battered furniture out for the trashmen knows: such stuff is gone long before it ever hits the garbage truck. In some ways, this kind of entrepreneurial activity, small-scale, low-profit, and unregulated, is what's kept streets clean since time immemorial. We perhaps need to trust it a bit more.

Rathje, William, and Cullen Murphy. Rubbish!: The archaeology of garbage. Orig. publ. 1992. With a new preface. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2001.