Garbage is rich with contradictions. It is both intimate and global, ubiquitous and invisible. We generate trash in vast quantities but few of us know where it goes, or how it gets there, or what happens to it next.
Trash Talk Lecture by Robin Nagle
Director of the Draper Program in Humanities and Social Thought, New York University and Anthropologist-in-Residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation
Trash also has much to teach. This talk considers some of its lessons, looking at its uncertain status in our everyday lives and its role in our understanding of the world.
What are some of the logistical challenges of trash, and how are those necessary infrastructures built into the rhythms of a city? What are the implications of cultural, historic, and economic patterns that create discards while requiring us not to see them? What is the cost of unseeing our waste, and what might happen if we were to reconfigure our perception so that garbage becomes visible?
Recorded September 15, 2011
Pamela Gerardi 0:01
Good evening. My name is Pamela Gerardi and I'm director of external relations for the Peabody Museum. Welcome to the opening lecture of our full calendar series and the opening lecture of our series entitled, Trash Talk: The Anthropology of Aaste. Over the next eight months, we're going to be exploring a variety of topics on trash. How do we define it? And how do we manage it? Think about it. We examine it as a philosophical problem, a practical problem and ecological problem and economic challenge and idea a risk.We'll explore it in talks, in film, and I hope even in person. I hope you will join us in discussing this very important, timely and perhaps even urgent topic. Tonight, I have asked Castle McLaughlin, the Peabody's curator for North American Ethnography to introduce her former colleague and speaker.
Castle McLaughlin 1:12
Thank you, Pamela. Can everyone hear all right with the fan?
Great. Well, when Pamela Gerardi raised the topic of trashes as potential theme for this year's lecture series, I immediately thought of Robin Nagle, who got her PhD in anthropology from Columbia University the year after I did, and we're really delighted that she agreed to launch the lecture series tonight, because she's truly the ideal person to set the stage for considering some of the many dimensions of trash in modern society. Dr. Nagle directs the Draper Program in Humanities and Social Thought, an interdisciplinary master's program at NYU, where she also teaches anthropology. But she is best known for her pioneering work in the emerging field of discard studies for galvanizing public discussion of issues related to urban waste and for raising awareness about the history, labor conditions, and contributions of sanitation workers. In 2006, she was named the Anthropologist in Residence at New York City's Department of Sanitation. In true ethnographic fashion, she has not only conducted a long-term fieldwork project at the Department of Sanitation, but also qualified for a job as a sanitation worker and completed a tour of duty in the Bronx. In addition to her work as a scholar, a public anthropologist, professor, and administrator, she's also lobbying to create a museum of sanitation in new York as will become apparent. What I think is exciting about Dr. Nagle's work is the way that our anthropological perspective on trash connects a host of important and fascinating issues about human culture, behavior, and contemporary global life. We should be able to read more about this in her forthcoming book, which is titled Picking Up. The title of her lecture for tonight is Garbage: Learning to Unsee. Please welcome Robin Nagel.
Robin Nagle 4:04
Bear with me now.
Robin Nagle 4:21
Good evening. Thank you very much for being here. Is the sound okay? Is it too loud too tinny? Okay. I want to start by thanking the Peabody for inviting me to kick off this series and for launching something that I think is, as you'll hear the single most important topic anybody could ever think about. I want to thank specifically Castle McLaughlin, and Pamela Gerardi for the invitation and Faith Sutter for the wonderful art slideshow and logistical support. And Catherine Lionardos also. And Maria Christopher on sound. And I'm also delighted I've just received a gift of a Harvard recycling bag from Rob Gogan, far classier than NYU's recycling bags, I can tell you, thank you for that. When people ask me what I do, people outside of an academic context, I tell them I teach anthropology and and if that catches their interest, they will ask, Well, what what do you teach within anthropology? And the easiest and most honest answer is garbage.
Robin Nagle 5:36
Depending on the context that occasionally has elicited the response of, Oh, well of course you do, higher education these days is in the pits. What else is there to teach these young people they don't know. So I have to pull them back from that edge and explain myself further than in fact, no, it's actual trash and discards, which no doubt confirms their worst fears about the state of higher education today. When a colleague within academia asks about my work, I give a slightly more. I don't know if it's sophisticated or just jargony explanation that I'm concerned with the categories and consequences of rejected material culture. And it's still not quite clear enough because they still kind of tilt their heads and say, well, you mean like garbage? And when I confirm Yes, that's exactly it. They they sort of have the same reaction as the first group, which is to, to take a step back and write me off as eccentric or at least odd.
Robin Nagle 6:37
Tonight, what I want to do is advance the cause of reconfiguring talk about thinking on work in the area of discard studies, solid waste, garbage, recycling, castoffs, rejectamenta. I want us to begin to understand in fact, how important this is to our everyday life to our regional infrastructure, to our global health and relationships with other nations and peoples around the world. And I'm going to do that in two ways. The presentation behind me that's going to roll as I talk has nothing to do with my talk. I would love to give you just a wealth of ethnographic detail and stories and introductions to the people I have worked with in the Department of Sanitation in New York City. And that is, it's been an extraordinary privilege. It's an ongoing project. But that's a different talk. And it's a different for a different evening. But so you're gonna have a sort of visual introduction to them, to equipment, to history, to places to geography to ways in which solid waste has a direct impact on us now, and in the past. Some of the images will be very clear, you'll know exactly what they are and why I've included them. Some will not. That's fine. I've also found it useful that maybe I hope not but some of you might find me dull, so at least you have the pictures to look at while I'm going on and on. These should just cycle.
Robin Nagle 8:10
So garbage, if you think about it as a category of material culture, if I say to you what is garbage, show me an example of garbage, you can do that pretty easily. But it's also kind of difficult to define. It's extraordinarily immediate. And it's also has very long term consequences. Even a casual sort of example of garbage is going to have a life in most cases far beyond ours. Coming at this from an anthropological perspective, means that in my training, we were taught to consider cultural elements, examples from other peoples around the world to learn more about things like perhaps kinship or political structure or economic patterns. In looking at discards, it's a similar, you can bracket that as a series of questions and investigations and use that to learn more about the culture in question. In looking at our own culture, I'm going to propose this evening some, not conclusions, but interpretations of why we deal with trash the way we do, which is to say why we put it out of our minds, why we mostly don't think about it. As pervasive as it is in in daily life, and why people think it's odd or eccentric or even disturbing to make this a focus of scholarly inquiry.
Robin Nagle 9:35
Garbage today represents a profoundly new relationship of us to time. We, we don't, we wouldn't think twice about saving this water bottle as the heirloom heritage water bottle that I will pass on to my son and he to his children and etc, down through the generations. I'm not even going to take this back to New York with me. I will be careful to make sure it goes into a recycling the proper bin. Rob's here. I absolutely wouldn't mess up on that. But, but this object I'm the temporary custodian of this, but I absolutely know it's temporary. I don't have responsibility for this once it's empty. In fact, if the habits of my students are any indication, I might not have any responsibility for it. Now I can I'll just walk away, you won't know it was mine. It's just left here. Because I don't have time to care for my water bottle. I don't have time to think about and worry about cleaning it, bringing it with me. If it gets dented or broken, or there's a hole in it, how do I repair it? Where do I put it? If I leave home without it, or buy another one? Maybe Maybe not.
Robin Nagle 10:43
My students have to do an exercise when we have classes focused around garbage specifically. They have they have to do several practices. One of them is to replace a disposable object like a water bottle with a permanent counterpart like a metal water bottle, perhaps the popular one is a cloth bag in place of a plastic bag, but they have to use it for a period of several weeks. And the purpose of the exercise is to teach them that in fact, there are mental habits that are connected to the objects that populate our lives. And we are in a moment of history in which those mental habits are disconnected profoundly. So that if I forget that heritage water bottle, All right, I'll buy another one from a dozen different brands of choice. So the idea of husbanding our resources, in the sense of not discarding them so easily. That takes a different pattern of thought than what we're used to in the contemporary moment. So time and mind are two of the ways in which garbage reflects something about our culture. Then definitions of self that garbage connects to when I throw something out. If you listen to Italo Calvino in a gorgeous essay, probably in French, the happy garbage [speaks French] What he throws out, lets him understand himself by what's left behind the objects in his life after the garbage is on the curb, are him reflect back at himself. So it's almost a self-curating action to throw away something. There's also if you draw on Mary Douglass's wonderful, classic work about how the sacred and profane help us order our universe. Something that's in the garbage qualifies as profane. Therefore, it has to be removed from the domestic sphere so that the domestic sphere is not threatened with a kind of disorder that if you carry it forward, really means that perhaps the universe is going to tilt in a bad direction.
Robin Nagle 12:47
My students and I, every fall, I'm glad I have a fresh class every fall because I would do this. I don't think they would tire of it, but we reach out to the local freegans, and we go on a tour. Does anyone here not know what the freegans are? Freegans are people whose goal is to live off the economic grid as much as possible. They swap books and clothing and material goods instead of buying them. And some take it so far as to not purchase food if they can find the food on the curb. So they forage in the trash. It sounds like it sounds. It's such a category breach. It sounds abhorrent, and like these people have gone around the bend, and they're just, we wouldn't recognize them as part of our group because who would, who would forage in the trash for food except in extraordinary circumstances. It's not as messy as that the food that they find has been put out on the curb by bakeries and restaurants and and grocery stores. When it's close to its best buy date or the bakery doesn't sell day old so they have a bin full of bagels leftover that day, so they're on the curb. My students are intrigued and they're hesitant and they ask ahead of time do I have to take any food? Can I just watch? Of course, of course, you can just watch but never in the several times I've done this has there been a complete holdout. The bagels usually catch them first and they begin swapping like, poppy seed, who wants the garlic, because the only difference between the bagels in the shop and the bagels in the on the curb are that the pavement, they were in the shop and have been behind the counter and then they were put in a bag and moved. But otherwise they're the same. They don't, this particular bakery, they don't add the dead coffee grounds and the empty tea bag, but you know, they don't schmutz up the bagels. I went with a colleague who actually I was glad on the slideshow, there was a picture of garbage trucks in Yonkers, New York that were wrapped. He made that happen, the garbage truck wrapping and I invited him to join us for a freegan tour and he was adamant he would absolutely only watch and not take any food and he held out for a couple of hours until we got to a Crohn's cupcake shop and we opened the bag and the frosting wasn't even smeared. So what the students learn and this is part of the exercise is, this category of trash is it's flexible, it's thoughtless, and it's often so superficial that you can take hundreds of thousands of tons of perfectly edible food and just put it in a different container and put it in different place. And it qualifies as trash to the point where people passing us on the street, when we do this exercise, they're curious because I have a group of 20 some odd kids enthusiast pulling things out of rubbish bags on a busy street in New York City. It's always done at night, but New York's crowded at night and they'll stop and ask, What are you doing? And the students, especially the ones who were hesitant and are now like the converts, they're so enthusiastic and they'll pull out fresh apples and fresh parsley and frozen salmon, a stretch of frozen salmon that would have cost 20 bucks, but it was hard frozen. That was a risky one, but it turned out okay. And they'll offer it to the passersby who are asking what's going on. And every single time this has happened, the passersby have recoiled. I don't, I would never, how could you, I wouldn't do that. So, that exercise also helps them understand these, where these lines are drawn, these categories are drawn. And this idea of the universe being out of order being because you are engaging in a profanity by putting your arm up to your shoulder into a garbage bag on the curb at night. It plays into Mary Douglass' theories ideas quite nicely, which also lets me play with the idea of contagion. And that points to issues of stigma. Why sorry.
Robin Nagle 16:58
Why do we stigmatize people whose labors are in waste fields waste management, municipal or private. A garbage man quote unquote, these guys, garbage man is archaic. It's not quite the valence of Oriental or Negro, strong negative labels. But it, for some people, it is. There are all kinds of examples. A dating service, why date a garbageman when you could have a stockbroker, or people on the route being offered a newspaper for the day, and then the woman handing it to the sanitation worker hesitates and says, you can read right? Or cartoons or they're just there lots and lots of examples from media from sort of casual daily life and from being on the job. But that's about, in part, this idea that someone doing dirty work, if I get too close, maybe that dirtiness is going to sort of jump and again, these this goes back to lovely, old anthropological theories about forms of magic. How can, you're going to take me somehow. You're going to, there's going to be this contagious illness, contagious germ, contagious harm, which plays into the yuck factor. Every culture has something categories of things that they just–disgusting. If you go to some cultures in the Amazon and you are truly given the highest honor of that group, they might offer you the biggest fattest, juiciest tree slug that they've found in weeks. And they'll roast it just right just for you. I understand it tastes a little bit like bacon. And you better not turn up your nose because that's a high honor to be offered that, but in our culture, we don't eat bugs, we're beginning to play with eating bugs, but big fat juicy tree slugs, little heart. The yuck factor of garbage is also, we've smooshed together objects that should be kept separate and and we've added wet things to dry things and we've added food to shoes and we've added hair to food and we've, in the garbage bag, all together, which elicits our yuck factor. Okay, so that's yet another reason that garbage is sort of, it's troublesome.
Robin Nagle 19:09
And then there's the one I like best, perhaps because I've, I've thought it through the least one of my students kind of called me on this. She said, you know, you don't have the empirical evidence to support that claim. So I need to do a little more homework on it. But I do suspect that one of the reasons we are so unwilling to confront our patterns of garbage generation, garbage treatment, garbage management, and the discrepancy of what we're taught will make a difference versus the reality, which I'll get to in a minute. I think Western culture has taught us very, at a very deep level, to fear death. That's not just Western culture. Death is a scary thing in many, many cultures, but we turn away from it so resolutely, and garbage in a sense represents the simple fact that everything is ephemeral. Everything is temporary. Everything is going to end: this building, the carpet, my clothing, the cities, we live in it, none of it lasts forever. And the shorter version of that, of course, is this kind of stuff that doesn't even last. I don't know when we'll get to the recycling process, but it'll be pretty fast. And that's unsettling as well. So this that's just an overview, sort of a hit and run of a series of reasons that I feel garbage is cognitively troublesome to us. And therefore, anthropologically, very rich for research, obviously not only anthropologically in many, many other realms as well.
Robin Nagle 20:42
If we move to the logistical concerns of trash, there's a whole other set of reasons that that garbage is worthy of serious and concerted focus. The rhythms of everyday life are written in our trash. Archaeologists can tell you this from ancient civilizations. William Rathje is an archaeologist out of Arizona who did this most famously with household trash where he and his students went through people's garbage bags. And did, they learned just buckets of details about the lives of the people whose garbage they were sorting and cataloging. He was trained here. And so he took all of the classical tools of the field to that set of variables. It's garbage is intimate, it's immediate, it's constant, and there's a correct behavior associated with it.
Robin Nagle 21:33
And we see this in the current fascination with hoarding. We're supposed to let go of things we've been taught culturally we've been trained, we've been, this is we let go of things. If you don't let go of things, too much, you excessively hold on to things, you could qualify as a hoarder. And that's troubling because it breaks the form. And it also is like it's, it's a you're you're out of order. You put the machine on tilt, your it's not it, we can stare at you like a train wreck because you're not following the rules when you're hoarding, which points to systems of classification. How do we turn things into garbage? Why do we declare something as garbage? If I keep it all of it? It's not garbage. It's just an empty plastic vessel waiting to have a new use. But our systems of classification, especially in the contemporary moment, of resource use, and commoditization, and consumption have required if I keep all of them, like people, artists, some of them that you saw, what if they just kept the materials that they turned into their art, they just kept them. That would be weird. They turn it into art, and it's brilliant, but it's just like the Collier brothers in the Bronx. E.L. Doctorow, his most recent novel is about the Collier brothers and that's a that's a whole other and wonderful talk. But that's a vivid example from the 1940s and a little earlier.
Robin Nagle 23:01
Because garbage tells stories about you, what you put in your trash reveals you, your sanitation workers know you pretty well. The ones who've been on your routes for a while, they actually know you specifically individually far better than you might like, if they haven't been on your route that long. They have senses of the trends of your neighborhood and maybe the building you live in, but they don't know you yet. But if they're on that route consistently, they will know you. They will know you, they will read you, they can tell you back to yourself. And I'm always surprised when people are surprised by that. You've just left your story in the stuff of your life in one big button, one big bag and the bags break. So though it has a life, once you leave it, it has a life and it involves their lives. Oh by the way, they don't really care. That's an important thing to remember because people get upset thinking, oh my sanitation worker they they know my prescriptions and my reading habits and my lingerie choices and my, I got divorced, I got married, I have a kid I know. They do know that but they're not paying that much attention because you individually don't matter to them all that much. I don't know if that's insulting or relief. But that points to the network of labor that garbage requires. Garbage requires a vast network if it's municipally collected or by privates. Many cities have a combination of arrangements depending on the category of trash, it is. Household trash goes to one system, whereas commercial trash goes to another, medical waste to get a different one, and so on. Recycling is a is a whole other category unto itself. I'll get to that in a minute. But so who picks it up and how is that organized? And what's the cost of that? Are these union jobs? Yeah, mostly they're union jobs. So that's good. Yes and no, the unions flex muscle that has very real consequences in city budget battles and in political alliances. Though those men and women articulate with an infrastructure that is local and immediate: garages, places to fix the trucks, places to replace the tires, where people get trained in the job. And that is regional because the garbage goes out somewhere or maybe it gets buried or burned locally, but then the ash goes out somewhere or even it's international because it, it often goes quite far away. New York City no longer has any place to put its own trash inside its own borders. The Fresh Kills landfill, closed in 2001 to trash. It was reopened for 10 months after September 11, as the site of the recovery and investigation work that went on after those attacks, but then in August of 2002, is closed again for good and it's now becoming a remarkable park. But it means that New York City now pays upwards of $100 a ton to transport its waste very far away. Some of it goes to New Jersey, but some of it goes as far away as Ohio and Pennsylvania and Virginia and Alabama and North and South Carolina. And the euphemism is export. There's a whole bureau of the New York City Department sanitation just devoted to export. They have special uniforms. They have special, it's a, it's its own thing. And no one thinks that's ironic.
Robin Nagle 26:13
So the garbage that goes out, that's incinerated. Waste to energy facility is the new language, not incineration, it's waste to energy. And in fact, it's different. I don't mean to say that in a sort of ironic way, waste energy is not the same as incineration. For many very real technical improvements in the system. That doesn't mean it's the ideal choice. But even the ash has to go somewhere and and the landfills that we have created, especially in the 20th century, the monumental landfills like Fresh Kills and some others around North America and other parts of the world, they constitute new land. 20% of the larger metropolitan region of New York is is built on filled land, not all that fill is garbage, but a lot of it is. And anytime there are construction projects that involve any kind of serious excavation depth, stuff comes up. And the World Trade Center construction project is a good example of that. But so the built environment that also then plays into issues of geopolitics, I need to bury this garbage someplace. So I'm going to bury it at your house, in your neighborhood, in your town, in your state in your city. You as a state can't refuse me as a state because of Article One, section eight, clause three of the United States Constitution, the Commerce Clause, which says that states may not regulate commerce between states, that's a right reserved for Congress. So there was a famous fight in New York City in the 90s, where we were closing Fresh Kills and Rudy Giuliani said send it to Virginia, because they had a lot of landfill space. And Virginia said, Oh, we don't want your trash. New York City trash is particularly stigmatized for reasons I only partly understand. Boston trash they would probably like, but they didn't want New York City trash. But so Rudy, in his inimitable style, said back to the governor of Virginia, across the press, you come here as tourists and you take our culture and you take the best of New York, you should take our trash and exchange. That's a fair. That's a fair exchange. Needless to say, it didn't play that way in Virginia. But in fact, Virginia couldn't say no, because of the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution. But then the issue plays into questions of not just NIMBY, not in my backyard. There's also BANANA, build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody. And then there's NOPE, not on planet Earth. So NIMBY is but the first one, I'm going to stand up here out of the lights, a little hot up here. It's not just NIMBY. There are issues of environmental justice about where these waste facilities are cited. Environmental Justice was launched as a grassroots campaign. I forget if it was North or South Carolina, I think was North Carolina in the 80s, when a massive hazardous waste landfill was sited in a very rural, very poor county. The population of the county ispredominantly people of color, and they started to look at patterns of where do you site those kinds of facilities, and notice that they were disproportionately located in exactly those kinds of places. So a church group got together and said, We think this should be changed. And it became what is now a national, even global movement, there is an environmental justice office within the EPA to point to exactly that issue. If you're a person of color, does that therefore mean you should be more susceptible to living next to across the street from a sewage treatment plant or recycling facility or a landfill or an incinerator? No, not at all. So that has a political, a very effective political articulation and advocacy that plays into back into issues of well alright, I have this garbage, where does it go? And who decides where does it get put? That's the president of the sanitation workers union in New York, by the way, who also happens to be the president of the municipal Labor Council now in New York, so he wields lots of power.
Robin Nagle 30:12
So then, if you're going to think about where to put it, you have to also then answer questions about what's in it. Municipal solid waste is the category we think of most often when we think about garbage as a generic thing. Because it's the stuff that we live in homes, we fill our bins, we tie the bags, we put them out garbage. I know garbage. I just took it out last night, or they missed my stuff this morning, or I have a lot of extra because I'm doing some renovation. I wonder if the guys will take it if I slip them a $20. Please don't. They'll probably get fired. Although they might take it anyway. But in thinking about that category of waste here, here, I'm going to give you just a few statistics, but I want you to remember them. According to the EPA, the Federal EPA, the United States generates approximately 10 billion with a B, tons of waste a year. I don't even know how to think about that number, I should have written it because the zeros just will go for a while.
Robin Nagle 31:18
Municipal solid waste accounts for 390 million tons. Slightly less than 3% of the nation's total waste stream is municipal solid waste. The rest is from extractive manufacturing, agricultural, medical, all kinds of other processes that stand behind consumer lifestyles and a consumption-based economy. But that we don't really pay attention to, that we are not really aware of another way to think of this, and I don't I have the cite for the numbers I just gave you. I don't have the exact cite for this next figure. But if you want it I'll find it. For every pound of municipal solid waste, every pound of household garbage in other words, upwards of 60 pounds of manufacturing and extractive waste and behind that. So let's imagine that we become not just ardent recyclers, but absolutely effective hundred percent diversion rate recycling, meaning everything we would have thrown out goes somewhere else for recycling for reuse for repurposing, nothing we generate from our homes goes into a landfill or to a waste facility like that. We wouldn't have that big a dent on the issue of garbage. Because our relationship to it is ultimately a very tiny piece of a much much, much bigger, much more complex picture.
Robin Nagle 32:48
It's absolutely essential that I recycle that plastic bottle and that you recycle your plastic bottles as well. Why are we using plastic bottles? Why is the rhetoric on us? As individuals, on us, as it's our responsibility. We're teaching our children, if you use a cloth sack instead of a plastic bag, you're going to save the planet. No, they won't. So how do we change the conversation to make it real? How do we change the conversation to make municipal recycling just the beginning of a much more comprehensive, much more inclusive, much more rigorous, more honest, more economically transparent set of understandings, processes regulations.
Robin Nagle 33:32
There was an op-ed piece in The New York Times on September 8, basically asking this exact question. The author said you could even have a whole city become 100% reduce their carbon footprint by by a huge percentage and it wouldn't actually make that much of a difference in the overall environmental health of the planet. Plastics is a good example of this recycling in New York. It's just numbers one and two and if you're confused, if it has a neck, you can recycle it. And if it doesn't, you can't. If I put a number five yogurt container in my recycling bin, I'll get a ticket. Other cities are more. They do it better than we do. But even so, there are so many plastics. Recycling is a particularly difficult challenge because the chemicals that are used to make different densities and pliabilities of plastic are themselves–we don't even know yet all the ways in which they can be reused, or how to set up the machinery and equipment to do that on a grand scale without generating all kinds of new problems and poisons and is it really recycling or down cycling?
Robin Nagle 34:38
So the gist of it is that garbage as a topic, has economic, environmental, ethical, and I'll even say moral consequences that need to be in the center of the table when we think about how we live in the world. And when I say we, I mean sort of Western culture at large, but the United States in particular. We do use more than our share of resources.
Robin Nagle 35:07
There are some pieces of good news. Extended producer responsibility is a set of legislation that's been much more successful so far in Europe, but it's beginning to make inroads here. The idea is if you make it a car, a refrigerator, a piece of clothing, you the manufacturer are responsible for what happens to it when I the consumer, I'm done with it. So that has large scale implications, because the cost of of getting rid of especially big sort of big ticket items like cars that rests on us, what if it rested on the manufacturer? How would they change the efficiencies of production and the materials they use to reduce their own costs, so that that responsibility could be fulfilled in an economically efficient way, but also in an environmentally effective way? You've probably heard of the campaign called Zero Waste, the idea that we just stopped generating waste at all. That's a philosophy. Another way of thinking about it is is well, there are many, there are many. It's it's a, an elegantly complex and thoughtful approach to issues of waste. It's a cradle to cradle presumption that when I use something, its components will go back into the cycle and become something else or be recycled. Recycling, as I just mentioned, is often down cycling, however, so that there are, right now that's a little utopic. But I think it has great promise. Pay As You throw, where you pay for what you throw out by weight, or volume has proven extremely successful in many cities in simply diminishing the solid waste quantities of residence. So that would be very effective at a municipal level. But again, what about all these other categories that we don't see or notice that much in our daily lives?
Robin Nagle 37:03
What I want you to take away from this evening is you can pick up a piece of garbage and start asking questions. That one piece of garbage, that will keep you happily occupied for quite a long time. Who made it? Where'd it come from? How to get here? Where's it going after? Who's going to take care of it? What are its components? What was the process of making it? And those components? What were the wastes generated by the manufacturer? I taught a class on consumption in which the students had one assignment which was to choose a single commodity and trace it back to its origins. And they couldn't do it. Only the guy who chose organic tofu was successful in going to the organic tofu manufacturer who was happy to show him where they grew the beans and how they turned out. No one else could get past, no one else could get very far at all, in the corporate secrecy of how various objects come into being. Why is that? Okay, trade secrets, competitive edge, I get that. But why do I not have a right to know how my toilet paper was bleached? Or what are the components in the fabric of these chairs? I should know. I should be able to find that out easily if I want to. So when you take that one piece of garbage and you start to spin out all these possible questions, it also suggests political initiatives, different ways of advocating for different forms of information, ways of reimagining the categories that we use for it something that is a commodity I will cherish versus one that I will let go of. How I impart value to that or not. How I withhold it, how it changes. It's endlessly fascinating, and I hope you come to all the talks. The next set of speakers are, it's a first class lineup, Pamela, and Castle and Faith and Catherine have done a marvelous job. Next up is Susan Strasser. She's a historian. She wrote a book, groundbreaking book called Waste and Want: The Social History of Trash. It's a page turner. How often can you say that about an academic book of history? It's a first-class piece of work in its scholarly scholarship. And also it's beautifully written. Richard Meadow who's here at the Peabody, who's a zooarchaeologist, he's here. Yes, he was, he was. Yes, he's up talking about archaeology and how trash informs it. Dittmar Offenhuber of the Sensible City project at MIT, will give I that they're tracking trash electronically, and revealing all kinds of relationships that were hitherto much, much more opaque. And then the the fall series concludes with Samantha McBride, whose book Diversion out of MIT Press will be out this fall. And she's exploring in great detail how our recycling rhetoric has become torqued around the idea that we as individuals can make this tremendous difference and the consequences of that rhetoric in a much broader scale. So that's a brief preview of coming attractions. And that's it for me for tonight. I'm happy to take questions from you guys. And I thank you very much for your time. Yes,
Robin Nagle 40:26
Rob Gogan, Harvard Recycling: The recycling Advisory Committee for the City of Cambridge, and Randy Maile, the director of recycling is asked me to promote the 50% recycling play. So if you're a resident of Cambridge, and that includes anyone who studies or works at Harvard, you can go online to the Cambridge, W website, and pledge to recover for recycling 50% or more. And stickers are up by [INAUDIBLE]
Robin Nagle 41:03
Let me piggyback on that I don't want any of you to leave tonight, thinking that recycling is, is not important. Recycling is the beginning. And the more we do of it, and the harder we push for it to become standard practice in a whole lot of other realms, the bigger difference it will make, so Rob's the stickers 50% That's a lot. You have to change your lives a little bit to make that work. I'll get a sticker. Questions, comments arguments? Yes, sir.
Robin Nagle 42:02
Robin Nagle 42:04
The question is the forms of waste that are outside of the municipal realm. Are they there–correct me if I misquote, are they there because there's not regulation requiring manufacturers and industries to recycle? Is that correct? Okay. There are regulations. They vary tremendously from one industry category to another. They vary tremendously in terms of enforcement. And they almost always face real pushback when new or stricter policies are attempt when there's an attempt to enact new or stricter policies. And sometimes the pushback is sneaky. For example. Keep America Beautiful was founded in the 1950s specifically in response to Vermont's bottle bill, the 50s. You may recall some of you weren't born yet, but some of us...This is when plastics became much more prevalent and disposable containers like the pull-top beer cans and soda cans became much more common. And the habit was since you weren't going to take it back to have it refilled and get your two cents or whatever, you would drink it, and you would toss it. And places like Vermont, we're seeing their litter rates going up precipitously. So they passed a law saying you can't sell those in our state. So the packaging associations got together and said, this is not a good sign. How do we counter it? So they invented this organization called Keep America Beautiful. The tagline of which was some of you will recall, help me out with this. People don't–no, litter doesn't–no, what is it? It's something about how litter isn't litter unless people make it so don't throw litter out the window because that's just really bad. And of course, I'm not in advertising so I didn't do it very elegantly. The first spokesman for Keep America Beautiful was Ronald Reagan, when he was still an unknown actor. You can learn more about this in a marvelous book by Heather Rogers called Gone Tomorrow, the Hidden History of Trash. But yes, there are laws and there are regulations. They aren't as stringent as some of us would like to see them be. They aren't as transparent. They're hard to learn about. If you read trade presses like recycling, waste recycling news or wastage, you can learn about these as they're initiated. But sometimes, it's it's a little patchwork. Yes, I'm pointing to you.
Robin Nagle 44:49
The question is whether our degraded respect of human beings tracks in some way with becoming a throwaway society.
Robin Nagle 44:58
I think yes. My student who called me out on not knowing the empirical stuff about death, and she might call me out on this and say all right. Claim yes, but go prove it. And I, I'm not you could choose a lot of different measures to see how that plays out. One of the other reasons, however, that I find garbage compelling, if we hadn't structured our economy in such a way that we need these things at ever greater pace to ensure economic growth, because capitalism must always grow. How would we then have not perhaps set up exploitative relationships with developing nations across the last 150 years? So that let's say Haiti would not have would not be the devastated nation that it is so that places like one of the horror stories of the last decade was a dump in Manila called Smoky Mountain. And when I say dump, I mean they just dumped. And it grew and grew and grew and grew and about 1000 people families live there scavenging. That's how they survived. And during one particularly heavy rainy season, the whole thing collapsed. And there were multiple deaths, of course. Could a place like that even exist? If we hadn't? If we hadn't bent our way of life around disposability, and if place like that has to exist, and I'm the manufacturer and I need profit. Maybe I have to turn a blind eye. I don't think you do. But maybe that's the excuse. So I would say yes, but that's a book. That's a that's a dissert–That's a read. That's a life of research, and actually could be would be a fascinating one. So go for it. You've had your hand up before. Question.
Robin Nagle 46:59
What's the question? About single stream recycling.
Robin Nagle 47:05
Okay. And what's your other? You had another question?
Robin Nagle 47:21
Robin Nagle 47:28
So the question, the question is about single stream recycling and Vermon'ts bottle bill and pulling water out of Vermont to fill bottles like this for us to drink. Okay. Single stream versus multiple stream recycling, there are arguments on both sides. Instituting it at all is a plus. Although there are some people who say when you add the extra labor costs and the truck costs and the exhaust fumes from the trucks and the wear and tear on the roads, in fact, it's a negative. You should just throw it all away because that's less environmentally damaging in the long run. My feeling is if you can start to change habits and if recycling will start to change habits that's that points toward a plus, even if in the short term it's not and I don't know the details of Somerville to know, are they using ultra low sulfur diesel in the trucks or compressed natural gas? Are they use–is it automated? Is it how many people are actually in the truck? What are the tonnage costs? I mean, all of those questions have to be answered. In terms of the bottle bill in Vermont. I don't know the details about I know that there were 10 states with bottle bills, there are now nine. It's one of the most effective ways of shrinking the waste stream. And industry fights back very hard on bottles. And for the aquifer drawing water for the to fill the bottles, I would send you to a book by Elizabeth Royte called Bottlemania. And the whole opening chapter is about Poland Springs in Maine, and what they're doing to the aquifers and water tables and economy and future and the battles being waged very locally. And then much more regionally and then globally on the whole issue of bottled water as a as a very fascinating, troublesome conundrum Okay. Yes sir.
Robin Nagle 50:29
Robin Nagle 50:37
Which points back to my earlier example of time itself being we have this new relationship to it. And we complain about it all the time in all kinds of ways like that the electronic assault and how that's changing how we think of it as time and how our brains are now wired to being rewired. So it's all it's all connected. You can, you can again, you can put a piece of garbage in the middle of a table and start drawing the web. It really goes quite far. But thank you for your comment. Yes go.
Robin Nagle 51:04
Robin Nagle 51:08
When I was on the job in the park sanitation, I was a sanitation worker, I was broom qualified. One of this pieces of language that came up was to be broom qualified means you're trained on the street sweepers. Fascinating vehicle! I felt like I was in a really really slow jet because that dashboard wraps all the way around you and there are all these gauges for each broom and its angle and its pressures and the water and how much you're spraying and when and if there's a malfunction, and how do you raise one to go around something but you got to keep the other one down. And how do you, I love the broom and and also, you're supposed to be looking at what you're collecting but you're also driving and needless to say the number one accident in broom operators is that they hit things. I also I did collect trash, and no matter how I picked it up, they told me I was doing it wrong. Which was its own lesson. I know to lift with your legs and exhale and all that. But everybody has their own way. And especially guys who have been on the job. And I say, guys, because it's mostly men. The guys who've been on the job longest, they have not only their own way, but that's the right way. So I would do it and they say, No, no, no, no, let me show you and then I would do it that way. And then the next day, someone said, No, no. Who, Percy showed you that? So there was there was that kind of learning. And then the I'm sure this is not just the case in New York, the bounty, the wealth that was going into the back of a, of a collection truck. The blade exerts pressure about 220 pounds per square inch. So if it was a couch or a refrigerator or whatever, it got crunched, chewed, the noise was amazing. And then it was gone.
Robin Nagle 52:57
Surely there's a better way. And then I'll get mad at the people who put out the perfectly good table or chair or there's a thrift shop down and they'll come get it for you how lazy can? [INAUDIBLE] Their time's too valuable! Exactly. But see, this is the danger of working with garbage, you get preachy, you lose everybody who wants to hear who wants to be preached at. So when I get finger shaking, I have to do that all by myself in the corner because it's one of the it was one of the flaws of the early environmental movement. People who were saying it was kind of the skies falling argument, and the sky didn't fall. And it was very preachy and very finger wagging. So an entire constituency who perhaps could have become part of a different way of thinking just turned away. And it's where the idea of tree hugger. I mean, that's, again, that's a separate, that's a separate issue. But the other thing about being in uniform, New York's is a uniformed sanitation force. The extent of my visibility was astonishing. Not to my fellow worker to anybody on the street, as soon as I put on that uniform, it was a Romulan cloaking device in contemporary life or it was Harry Potter's cloak or it would mean any sort of fantastical. invisibility, magic, put on a sanitation workers uniform and watch you you're like you're not there. And I can give all kinds of examples of how that played out. But it was very rich.
Robin Nagle 54:23
Yeah, yes. Oh, sorry. We're done.
Pamela Gerardi 54:28
I think I would like very much to thank our speaker Robin tonight and ask that you join us in the Peabody for a reception and Robin will be available to answer. Thank you.