May 14, 2012

How Do They Get Rid of It?
Susan M. Lee

Trash has always been a problem for humankind. The Romans would raise the street level and build new structures on top of trash, or toss waste out in alleyways and in poorer parts of the district. Mayans had open dumps near the edges of their settlements. Around 500 B.C., the Greeks built the first municipal dump in the Western world. And more than two thousand years B.C., the ancient city of Monhenjo-daro, situated in modern-day Pakistan, had chutes built into homes, trash bins, and a drainage system.

In How Do They Get Rid of It?, published in 1970, a book intended for readers aged ten to fourteen, Suzanne Hilton tries to explain how Americans deal with of our refuse. When it was published, Americans were dealing with relatively new manmade materials that needed disposal. The 1960s saw the growth of atomic energy and nuclear power; plastic bags were not ubiquitous in grocery stores across America yet and paper bags were the disposable carrier of choice. The Environmental Protection Agency didn't even exist until the year Hilton's book appeared. Companies were not subject to federal controls on disposing hazardous wastes; rules varied from state to state. Some of the worst toxic disasters from manmade waste in America were not yet widely known or had yet to happen, such as the toxic chemicals that polluted the Love Canal in Niagara Falls, NY, which led to alarming rates of birth defects and miscarriages for residents nearby, and the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in Pennsylvania.

But greater public awareness around the effects of hazardous waste and municipal landfill conditions was circulating and a growing environmental movement that would carry into the next decade had begun fomenting. News about the deteriorating conditions of the Great Lakes - mainly due to the automakers, steel and chemical plants, and oil refineries that populated their shores - became common; large numbers of dead fish washed up on their shores regularly during the 1950s and 1960s. A report by the federal Bureau of Solid Waste Management, created in 1965 - a precursor to the Environmental Protection Agency - said that the amount of waste was creating a "refuse disposal problem that far outstrips the waste handling resources and facilities of virtually every community in the nation." The same year that Hilton's book came out, the Environmental Protection Agency was created to address industry waste regulation and enforcement.

It seems fitting that Hilton, who was born in the steel city of Pittsburgh, who was married to an industrial engineer, and who was an ardent nature lover according to her bio, wrote this book. In her introduction, she makes her purpose clear: "Man is a maker of things and a born collector. That is why this book had to be written. He has made and collected too much." She pitched her manuscript idea to Westminster Press in Philadelphia, where she had been working as a researcher and copywriter for the advertising department. They approved it, and she embarked on an endeavor to learn as much as she could about the trash we create - everything from chewing gum to train cars. It also launched an illustrious children's book writing career and she went on to write dozens of titles, including "It's Smart to Use a Dummy" about crash test dummies and "Beat It, Burn It, and Drown It," on how companies test products to endure their safety, and "The Way It Was - 1886," about the private lives of middle-class Americans.

In How Do They Get Rid of It?, Hilton also looks at how companies utilized technology to address waste. Hilton details the larger-than-life machinery like the Iron Shark, which flattened cars "as neatly as a loaf of bread" or the Carbasher that bashed "100 cars a day into pancakes" and the Fragmentizer which "takes a car in its huge claw, shaking it up and down like an angry dog with a sock." From airplanes, paper, cars, factory and radioactive waste, each chapter is peppered with anecdotes and tongue-and-cheek accounts about trash and the many ways in which we try to compact, bury, and minimize it.

While Hilton was researching the book, she wrote to dozens of companies and governmental agencies with her questions. She inquired about whether a new type of plastic car that was being developed would need a special kind of junkyard. The company that was in charge told her "the concept of the all-plastic car is still in development" and to even think about whether a special junkyard would be needed "would be sort of shopping for a casket at the time we are hunting for a cradle." Her letter to the Southern Railway Company was direct: after the salutation she asks, "How on earth do you get rid of old engines?"

The Southern Railway System informed her that most of their trains were scrapped but that the bells were donated to churches and schools and the steam whistles were occasionally given to factories in order to signal the lunch hour or the end of the workday. The New York City's Department of Sanitation sent her an information leaflet they created entitled, "Some Facts About the World's Biggest Housekeeping Job." And an employee at a nuclear engineering company explained how men disposing of nuclear waste in drums at burial facility have devices to record their exposure at all times, "pocket ionization chamber" and "a film badge quite similar to the little packet a dentist uses to take X-rays."

While boasting with unbridled enthusiasm about the hammermill they used to pulverize paper for making pulp, a representative at a company compares the machine to a boy with a baseball bat. The boy "picks up a clod of soil and bats it in the air...The dry clod disintegrates in the same manner that our big hammermill disintegrates material that is fed to them." A representative of the William Wrigley Jr. Company practically seemed offended by her suggestion that chewing gum could be contributing to the waste problem since it doesn't biodegrade. He wrote back, telling her that the chewing gum has followed "strict standards of purity, quality and moisture content" for many years.

Interspersed with these technological highlights, Hilton also wants her readers to get excited about reuse and recycling. She writes, "As long as the garbage and trash are collected regularly from the doorstep, few persons care at all where their refuse goes." During the initial research, she wrote to the U.S. Department of Interior with her typically tongue-and-cheek manner: "The age group we are aiming at should be about 25 years old when they realize there are no longer enough trees to cut down the amount of paper they want, of when they learn that pollution has reached the point of no return at their favorite summer resort."

Hilton, who for the most part avoids being too didactic, tries to impart a lesson to her readers by describing just how thrifty Americans were in the past. She contends that around the time the country declared independence, paper was in shortage and "letters were written on flyleaves torn out of books and even in the margins of book pages," that George Washington wrote key battle plans on a back of an envelope from his wife Martha, and that children's books often included a note reminding children that they should trade their books to be recycled. She also writes about companies who at that time were trying to make reuse sexy for consumers by producing trendy and attractive packaging. In Hilton's day, that meant corrugated boxes were "made with psychedelic designs, in mod colors and all sizes."

Hilton is underscoring the fact that Americans produced a lot less trash before the twentieth century. Recycling and reuse, far from being modern methods, were once part of our daily lives. And rather than being doled out, garbage was much a part of our purview and responsibility.[1] Solid waste collection is a relatively recent phenomenon and it wasn't all that long ago that residents of urban areas such as New York City would throw their garbage out the window to be devoured by pigs and stray dogs. Household goods and supplies were sold in bulk. Across the country, people bartered their old rags for other supplies like buttons to peddlers who sold the rags back to manufacturers. Broken things were repaired. Bartering and trade are essentially recycling and reuse systems; waste that couldn't be reused was burned. While burning and dumping trash caused egregious air and water pollution in the early nineteenth century, other aspects such as material reuse and repurposing, was fairly benign.

As Susan Strasser, author of Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (1999) points out, our throwaway culture shifted with industrialization: products on the market now depended upon the "continuous disposal of old things." "As fewer people made their living doing handwork, their expert knowledge of materials became irrelevant; leftovers and scraps that they once might have valued became trash instead," Strasser writes. "This process of change over time was not even...But their meanings had changed: now they were old-fashioned ways, fading as consumer culture developed."

This "veneration of newness" introduced the most integral component of our throwaway culture: packaging.[2] Marketers and advertisers promoted packaging as markers of modernity, and the key to healthy and sanitary modes of living. To deal with trash, twin technologies began to develop: incineration and "reduction." In the nineteenth century and first part of the twentieth century, the method of "reduction" - a system adopted from Europe that involved boiling garbage and dead animals to distill a grease that was used to make soap, candles, and perfume - produced noxious odors in addition to liquid run-off. Incineration - simply burning trash - would win out and experience a revival after World War II.

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In a 2009 essay in Orion magazine, environmentalist Derrick Jensen points out that municipal waste - stuff individual households throw out - accounts for only three percent of the total waste that's produced in the country. Industry and agriculture produce the bulk of it. Of course, industry and agricultural waste is fueled by what we consume, so using and buying less are still worthy pursuits. Jensen argues that simply reducing our personal consumption is part of a campaign to delude us into thinking that we are making a real difference, when in fact it is diverting us from seeing that political resistance that could lead to stricter standards on corporations would create a far greater impact. It seems that as long as we are steeped in a culture of obsolescence and continue on a path of overproducing materials, particularly hazardous ones, we will continue to create unfortunate notable traces: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, thought to be the largest floating mass of trapped plastic, chemical sludge and other debris in the Pacific Ocean, or our spent batteries that are sent to developing countries, or the three million tons of e-waste that Americans generate annually.

Not everything in recent trash-related history is entirely grim.[3] In the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of landfills closed when the EPA began requiring that they modernize in order to better contain leachate.[4] Modernization means that landfills are now lined with a layer of clay and plastic underneath, in order to prevent most of the groundwater from being contaminated; sections are capped off when filled to the brim. Modern landfills entomb our trash, so organic materials like food scraps that would otherwise deteriorate end up preserved in the oxygen-poor environment. This is not necessarily all bad, considering that these landfills also sequester the many toxic materials that they contain, which drastically limits the amount of hazardous fumes escaping. Although no modern landfill, no matter how state-of-the-art, is perfect at containing hazardous elements.

Hilton's apt title poses a question that is both existential and unanswerable. No one really knows how long plastic takes to degrade - some scientists estimate that it could take 500 to 1,000 years or more. Even then the degraded material would have become tiny particles, invisible to the human eye, but still potentially harmful. Hilton herself realizes this fact toward the completion of her book. In a note to one company, she writes, "Now that I have reached the end of the research and the book is going into production, I find the title is misleading. There is no such thing as REALLY getting rid of it, is there?"

In 1991, the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees a radioactive disposal site in Carlsbad, New Mexico, employed linguists, scientists and anthropologists, to produce a report on the best way to warn future civilizations, up to 10,000 years from now, of the dangers at the location - the equivalent of a "Keep Out" sign. Their report, which was published in 1993, details the debate among scholars over various symbols such as the skull-and-crossbones, which one expert worried might lead someone to associate it with pirates or buried treasure. Another saw problems with the red circle with a slash through it, because from a certain angle it could curiously resemble a hamburger.

Inevitably our trash - a great manmade threat - will remain an issue for the ages. Ultimately the remnants of our coffee cups, plastic wrappers, containers, paper, concrete, electronics, will be the artifacts, which future garbologists, sift through in order to interpret what we ate, what we valued, and how we spent our time. Our legacy, like civilizations before us, will be entangled in our trash.


[1] Benjamin Franklin had encouraged citizens to create pits to get rid of their garbage, and he began the first street-cleaning department in the 1750s. The New York City Department of Street Cleaning was created in 1881; it took charge over trash and recycling duties from the New York City Police Department. At the time the majority of the city's garbage was dumped into the sea. By 1933, its name was changed to the Department of Sanitation.

[2] The work done by the Garbage Project, headed by William Rathje at the University of Arizona in Tucson, challenges some common misconceptions about garbage. Combing through landfill sites in the United States, Canada and Mexico, their team of garbologists has found that paper and scrap lumber and concrete make up around 60 percent of a landfill's volume while items like disposable diapers and plastic bottles make up only three percent. In their studies, they found newspapers alone take up 13 percent.

[3] Up until the twentieth century, many American cities used to dump garbage into swamps, waterways and low-value land. Jean Vincenz, a public works commissioner from Fresno, Calif., is often attributed as the father of the modern landfill. During the World War II, the Army Corps of Engineers adopted Vincenz's methods, and by 1945, there were about a hundred sanitary landfills.

[4] In 1988, there were nearly 8,000 landfills across the country. By 1999, there were over 2,000 and by 2002, there were around 1,700. Owned and operated by a handful of corporations, "megafills" now are a $57 billion-dollar-a-year industry.

Susan M. Lee is a freelance writer and book researcher based in Queens, NY.

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