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Material Remains: The Perpetual Challenge of Garbage

For millennia, we humans have tried many ways to dispose of our waste, such as burning, burying and even moving away from it. How we safely handle trash, including new kinds from modern technology, will be essential to a sustainable future
Conquering Garbage



Scientific American

Editor’s note: The following is the introduction to a special e-publication called Conquering Garbage (click the link to see a table of contents). Published this month, the collection draws articles from the archives of Scientific American.

Garbage is one of the oldest and most vexing of human creations. In early times, small-scale societies frequently relied on natural scavengers to make their discards disappear, but when trash accumulations grew too troublesome even for that convenient symbiosis, the entire community often pulled up stakes and moved. Ancient cities dealt with trash by building atop their detritus over the centuries (to the delight of today’s archaeologists). It is now one of the most urgent challenges of contemporary life. Difficulties with waste have grown critical in the crowded modern world, and debates about what to do with our castoffs have grown controversial and divisive.

This collection of articles from the archives of Scientific American reveals the thoughtful, inventive and sometimes unlikely approaches that waste management has inspired across the past century and a half. As a scholar of discards, I am often impressed when contemporary activists and policy makers take on the deeply rooted complications of garbage. I am puzzled, however, when such efforts approach the problem as if no one had ever thought about it before. The search for genuinely effective answers to our trashy habits must start by considering work that has already been done. Although it is true that some initiatives from the past were unsuccessful or were better suited to another era (consider that few, if any, U.S. cities still field complaints about basement piggeries or accumulations of horse manure in the streets), we have much to learn from our forebears and from the progression of thinking about waste management over time.

Some constants remain. Garbage is a predicament of maintenance, regardless of context. How do we choose what kinds of things to safeguard and what kinds of things to discard? This question, often not given much thought, is a crucial one; once an object has been relegated to the rubbish heap, it requires many complex infrastructures and various forms of labor. The conundrum is especially acute in cities, where individual aggregations quickly multiply into great piles of trash. Where do we put it? How do we get it there? How do we keep it from overflowing its containments? Can garbage even be a source of profit for the municipality that manages it?

A few specifics and the language that describes them belong to the past—“Cremation in the Household,” dating back to 1875, for example, refers to the mechanics of burning trash at home – but the basic notion of transforming garbage into fuel is not new. Crematories for garbage became “destructors,” then “incinerators.” They now are called “waste-to-energy facilities.” The feedstock also had different names over time; today it is known as biofuel. Like those who were pondering these problems a century ago, we are still in search of an affordable alchemy that turns solid waste into an inert, hazard-free, usable by-product such as bricks or glass.

Early essays in this collection focus on scientific developments and technological innovations that made waste management more efficient, but writings in the past few decades consider a broader context. What is the impact of solid waste on global climate change? How might landfill management improve so that buried waste no longer takes up so much space or adds such wanton quantities of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere?

Solutions from a century ago focused on materials such as wood, ash, textiles and “putrescibles” (organic wastes), but radically new materials and compounds in many of today’s commodities need fresh thinking. Electronic waste, prolific and finely wrought, has not yet been met with large-scale environmentally sensitive processes of discard and recycling. Similarly, we have only recently become aware of the pernicious effects of plastics, whether measured in ecosystems or in the bodies of human beings, and we have yet to understand the consequences of plastics’ endurance: even if all plastics manufacture stopped today, unknown millions of tons of it would last for unknown centuries into the future.

As with trash itself, which English speakers “throw” to an always vague “away,” the challenges that garbage imposes have not always earned the attention they require. But it is a costly habit; the myriad forms and permutations of contemporary waste play a role in nearly every environmental crisis we currently face. In working to solve problems of trash, we would be wise to consider solutions already tested, rejected, refined and tested again. Our way forward will be far more effective if first we take the time to look back—which makes this collection of articles particularly relevant and well timed.

See also:

>> Trash Is Her Treasure: A Profile of Sanitation Anthropologist Robin Nagle

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