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See Inside October 2010

Trash Is Her Treasure: A Profile of a Sanitation Anthropologist

A New York University anthropologist discusses why she has spent the past four years working alongside New York City's garbage men and women



Courtesy of Robin Nagle

Name: Robin Nagle
Title: Anthropologist-in-Residence, New York City Department of Sanitation
Location: New York City

How did you get interested in trash? When I was a child, my dad and I went hiking in the Adirondack Mountains, and we spent hours in a forest that seemed like we were the first human beings to ever walk in. And then we arrived at our campsite; behind the lean-to there was a dump left by hikers who had come before. I was absolutely astonished that people I assumed cared about the environment would in fact trash it. Who did they think was going to come and clean it up? And that question stayed with me.

How do you describe your job at cocktail parties? I’m an anthropologist by training and by passion, and right now I’m working on a project with the New York City Department of Sanitation that grew out of questions I had around issues of waste. When I framed [the question of] “who cleans up after us” anthropologically, I came to know the men and women whose work it is to pick up the garbage, to sweep the streets, to plow the snow. After I had been doing fieldwork for a while, I actually took the job as a sanitation worker and was trained to drive the trucks. But I realized I couldn’t hold that title and my N.Y.U. job at the same time, so I became an anthropologist-in-residence, a position from which I can organize a museum and pull together an oral history project of sanitation folk.

Are there other sanitation anthropologists? In many ways, archaeology rests on the study of garbage, except that the garbage is a few hundred or a few thousand years old. But there are also some archaeologists looking at contemporary household waste—Bill Rathje is one of the key founders of that particular discipline. There are other anthropologists working with sanitation workers, but I know of no one else with the title “anthropologist-in-residence.”

Why have we created a global economy that generates such vast quantities of waste? That’s rooted in the basic structures of capitalism, which requires perpetual renewal to continue to generate profit at the pace that is now understood to be necessary for local, regional and global economic health. It’s the rhythms of our economic structures that have set up these patterns.

What are some surprising things you’ve learned by analyzing garbage? In affluent neighborhoods, I was profoundly impressed with how much good stuff rich people throw away.

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