A Social History of Trash

By Susan Strasser

Metropolitan. 355 pp. $27.50

Susan Strasser has now published three books about American domestic life and its social implications. The first, Never Done, is a history of housework and its evolution, with (obviously) a heavy emphasis on the changing obligations and expectations of American women. The second, Satisfaction Guaranteed, traces the development of the mass market, which came into being as households became more numerous and their demands more complex. Now, in Waste and Want, Strasser takes the logical next step: "a history of trash making as a social process," in which she shows, sometimes to startling effect, how radically both our notions of trash and our means of coping with it have altered over the years.

The core of her story can be simply stated: We have changed from a culture in which frugality was valued and waste abhorred into one in which waste -- "planned obsolescence" -- is the engine that drives the national economy. As recently as a century ago, households and cities were "closed" systems, "to use an ecological analogy," in which waste at one end of the system was a raw material for another: "Just as the table scraps once fed the chickens and Dad's torn trousers provided the material for Junior's new ones, so cities, too, were once systems that incorporated ragpickers and scavengers to process the detritus of others."

Strasser acknowledges that the analogy does not take into account "the notorious air and water pollution" or street filth of the old system. But, she argues, "The ecological analogy does offer a way to think about reuse and disposal as part of a process that also encompasses both extracting raw materials and manufacturing, distributing, purchasing and using industrial products. The process was once generally cyclical, if not perfectly so: waste products were important to economic growth because they served as raw materials for other industrial processes. Toward the end of the 19th century, disposal became separate from production, and Americans' relationship to waste was fundamentally transformed. Trash and trash making became integral to the economy in a wholly new way: the growth of markets for new products came to depend in part on the continuous disposal of old things."

Until relatively recently, most Americans practiced what Strasser calls "stewardship of objects." Yes, the rich were less frugal than the poor, "but the profligacy represented by home garbage disposers and throwaway cameras is new." Though "profligacy" may imply a value judgment if not indeed an ideological position, it is unnecessary for Strasser to be dogmatic or homiletic -- the facts speak for themselves. Even if one declines to believe, as millions of Americans do, that "throwing things away not only was all right but could make a positive contribution to the quality of life," one has to admit that trash has become just about as central to the American way of life as football and apple pie.

This is, as Strasser understands, a huge change in that way of life. Although it has been accomplished with considerable dispatch, the process of change occurred incrementally, so that few people noticed what was happening and fewer comprehended the true dimensions of it. In the old order, "people of all classes and in all places . . . practiced an everyday regard for objects, the labor involved in creating them, and the materials from which they were made." The clothes people wore, the furniture they used and the food they ate were generally made or prepared at home, so people were acutely aware of both the raw materials and the labor this entailed. Cloth, for example, was hard to make and, if store-bought, expensive; there was a powerful economic motive to use and re-use it rather than toss it away because of minor wear or changes in fashion.

This was scarcely recycling as we know it now -- in which used material picked up at curbside is delivered to plants that may or may not use it to produce new goods -- but it was an effective recycling system all the same. It operated both in individual households and in industry, especially the paper industry, which used ragpickers and scavengers to collect worn cloth that it broke down and made into rag paper, just as bones were collected and transformed into buttons, knife handles, "and the dice and dominos that are still called `bones' by devotees."

If there is a serious shortcoming in Waste and Want, it is that Strasser pays insufficient attention to the brisk trade still done in what are called the "byproducts" of various industries. The bones, offal and other refuse of the vast food-processing industry, to cite one example, are not always trucked off to landfills or incinerated but are often sold to other industries that have their own uses for these seemingly useless commodities. If it was true a century ago that there's a use for every part of a pig except the squeak, it is no less true today; it's just that the process takes place in industrial plants rather than family farms, so most of us are (blissfully) unaware of it.

The real change lies in the rise of mass production, which thrives on obsolescence, and packaging, which exists solely to enhance a product's salability and is of no intrinsic use. The landfills of the United States are filled not just with the carcasses of chickens or the frames of automobiles but with hard plastic containers in which screws and nails are now packaged -- once upon a time they were scooped out of bins and tossed into paper sacks -- and with broken telephones, outmoded computers and unwanted phonograph records.

Some of this is pure waste -- indeed, a case can be made that just about all packaging is pure waste -- and some of it is the inadvertent result of technological progress. Many things, as Strasser readily acknowledges, get "better from year to year," as technology advances. The problem is that we are entirely focused on progress and pay scant attention to its byproduct, which is waste. The amount produced by computers and their innumerable offshoots is staggering, yet we do nothing about it except build more landfills. By the 1950s, Strasser writes, "Most people were fundamentally oblivious to what happened to household trash once it left their sight. It had been turned over to technicians, as a problem to be solved by refuse collection and disposal." Now, a half-century later, that is more true than ever. Yes, we do have recycling, but whatever its successes, it is largely "a means to get rid of things with a clean conscience," a "moral act, a symbol of care about the environment." Though Strasser correctly insists that this is not to be taken lightly, the piles of trash grow ever larger, far faster than the best of our efforts to bring profligacy and waste under control.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.