Do you ever wonder how it has all come down to this – Frantic consumption while curbs are overflowing with trash on garbage day? To better understand, I read “Gone Tomorrow – The Hidden Life of Garbage” by Heather Rogers and “Waste and Want – A Social History of Trash” by Susan Strasser and searched the Internet. Here are some interesting tidbits –
During the 17th and 18th century almost nothing was thrown away, reusing and recycling was commonplace practice as it was generally cheaper to reuse items than to buy new ones.
1830s – The poor and “swill” children scavenged the streets for any items of worth. Ragmen worked the streets buying bones, paper, old iron, bottles and rags.
1842 – Estimated 10,000 hogs were on NYC streets. The roaming pigs consumed so much garbage and furnished so much food for the poor that efforts to ban them ran into political opposition.
1866 – Rags were used to make paper. By the late1870s wood pulp was used for newsprint, and prices dropped rapidly. Soon paper was recycled into more paper.
1890s – Articles in magazines focused primarily on germs; cleaning supplies purchases more than doubled between 1900 and 1929.
1894 – Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog began; by 1897 the Sears catalog was 786 pages long.
1895 – In NYC, garbage was hauled to Barren Island where people sorted it and salvaged 60% for reuse.
1900s – As technological innovations and mass production became common, producing goods became easier and cheaper. Heinz and Procter & Gamble were mass-producing and selling packaged products. Middle-class people learned to toss things in the trash, attracted by the convenience and repelled by the association of reuse and recycling with a new class of impoverished scavengers. As the city’s trash system improved, it became easier to throw things away.
In 1902 about 4/5 of cities required some separation of organic garbage or ashes so that these wastes could be recycled or reused. Contractors hired immigrant workers to pick through trash and separate out marketable bones, rags and bottles.
By 1930 – Waste services no longer needed to pay for themselves through salvaged materials. Organic discards were no longer put back into the soil.
1914 – Home Economics Extension Service formed – introduced farm women to new products, labor-saving devices, and provided latest methods instructions.
Late 1920s – Movies, magazines and Radio become major commercial enterprises.
1924 – Kleenex introduced by Kimberly-Clark; “Germ-filled handkerchiefs are a menace to society!”
1929 – The rhetoric of convenience, luxury, and cleanliness was potent; the ideal of the durable and reusable was displaced by aspirations of leisure and luxury, ease and cleanliness.
Flies and Disease: Kill the Fly and Save the Child. An early British public health poster (c.1920)
1930s – Art Deco was introduced; industrial design became a fad among manufacturers.
1933 – The common practice of dumping garbage in the ocean ruled illegal by US Supreme Court.
1930-1940 – Engineers packed earth with trash to reclaim low land; Site of NYC 1939 World’s Fair was built on land filled with trash.
1939-1945 – World War II – Due to a massive material shortage some items were rationed and recycling by participating in scrap drives is considered patriotic. Millions of people donated metals (pots and pans, kettles, ice cream scoops, and hair curlers) and conserved fiber. National Rubber Drives secured tires for the military. Waste fat was collected to make glycerin for explosives. Citizens planted “Victory Gardens to produce food.
Post WW II –After years of deferred gratification, consumers spending increased 60%. Advertisers encouraged people to buy more than one of everything and manufacturers started adding built in obsolescence – Planned failure of materials; functional obsolescence (outdated), style obsolescence. Recycling was largely forgotten.
1950s – Age of paper plates, polyester, fast food, TV dinners, new refrigerators, washing machines, lots of packaging.
1953 – Keep America Beautiful (KAB) was established by the packaging industry. It focused on individual’s bad habits & laws that steered clear of regulating industry. Reducing consumption and mandating reuse was threatening so they switched the focus to litter and recycling. Centerpiece was its great cultural invention – Litter.
1955-1958 Standard Packaging expands and triples sales of discardable trays, boxes, bags, plates, bowls, utensils.
Advertising spending mushroomed from one billion in 1920 to more than 4.5 billion in 1950 & by 1956 almost 10 billion – all to promote consumer spending; Advertising tapped into insecurities – bad breath, body odor. Marketing based on desire, anxiety and envy were highly effective; Advertising connected social status and human value with ability to consume. Sound familiar?
1960 – Plastics became one of the largest industries in the country; Styrofoam emerged as a new disposable.
1961 – Proctor & Gamble introduced disposable diapers.
1970 – First Earth Day, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” concept promoted; Recycling became popular again, drop-off recycling centers were established; Rising energy costs – recycling saved energy.
1970s – Manufactures deployed smoke screen of job losses and economic doom to head off packaging regulations.
1972 – First deposit law in the US, roadside litter down 35% by volume, millions fewer beverage containers were consumed, energy savings, jobs increased, prices stabilized; Later most repealed – Disposables favored by grocery store chains as it saved labor and space.
1976 – Beverage containers fastest growing type of solid waste; Packaging, measured by weight, became the single largest category of municipal solid waste at 34%.
1980s – Curbside recycling systems began.
Late 1980s – An EPA study reports more than 99% of all plastic containers were discarded after only a single use. Americans were throwing away 10 million tons of plastic each year, 25% of all waste by volume.
1981 – Americans held over 6 million garage sales a year, generating nearly a billion dollars, freeing up space for more consumption.
1993 -The EPA reported that domestic recycling had tripled from 7% to almost 22%. Recycling programs are expected to pay for themselves, while solid waste departments are fully funded no matter what. Recycling has long been the enemy of the solid waste industry, stealing volumes otherwise headed for profit making landfills.
2005 – Over 30% of municipal waste is packaging & 40% of that is plastic; Much of America’s discards get shipped overseas for recycling and disposal.
Our population and consumerism has grown exponentially – All at the expense of our Earth and finite natural resources. It seems our appetites are insatiable – exactly what the advertisers and Billionaires want. We are bombarded by ads, stores even open on Thanksgiving vying for the Christmas buck. We all “need” things, I get that. But when it comes to “wants” or simply the desire to shop, maybe try a Second Hand Store or take a nature walk instead! Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!