BY: CAROLINE ROLF
It is difficult to deny that we are the most wasteful people in the history of the planet, especially when we consider how little we hold ourselves accountable for the ramifications of our daily consumption and waste. Joshua Reno, assistant professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, wanted to investigate how sanitary landfills have shaped North Americans. The author spent a year working as a labourer at a mega-landfill just outside Detroit, Michigan to explore how waste management helps our possessions and dwellings to last by removing the temporary materials they shed and sending them out of sight and out of mind. The author’s fieldwork led to two major conclusions:
1) People don’t think twice about what happens to the garbage they toss out.
2) The American dream, two cars, a big house with all the commodities, is made possible by creating copious amounts of waste.
Waste Away: Working and Living with a North American Landfill demonstrates how the landfills we create have a hand in shaping our society, often behind our backs and beyond our view. The report uncovers the circumstances that led one community to host two landfills and made Michigan a leading importer of foreign waste. The book’s ethnography analyzes the attempts to politicize the removal of waste elsewhere by local activists opposed to transnational waste. The study conducted with the landfill workers also shows how their job consists of containing and concealing other people’s waste, while simultaneously negotiating the filth of their occupation, grasping middle-class aspirations, and scavenging a decent piece of trash from a mound once in a while.
According to Reno, people have gotten too comfortable with the idea that things just disappear. For example, a consumer may continue to get a can of pop that is identical to every can of pop they have purchased in the past and will continue to be produced in the future, not knowing the amount of waste that requires.
“We have this distorted view of things where we put too much emphasis on what the consumer throws away, like in terms of municipal solid waste, and we put too little emphasis on our relationship to consumption, how those things create lots of waste, too,” writes Reno.
“By sending so much to dumps, by subtracting them out of our lives, that actually has an effect on us. We tend to think, ‘How does all that waste affect other people? How does it affect the Earth?’” says Reno. He adds that this is a counter-intuitive way of thinking because the absence of waste is actually shaping the way we look at things.
“When we think of the disposal of a good, rather than its production, we are more often encouraged to imagine ourselves in a relationship with ‘Nature,’ in the abstract, and forget the many people and communities who take our waste away, and work and live with the consequences,” explains Reno. The relationship we have with garbage is partially to do with the major landfills, like the one Reno worked at, because they are designed to disappear into the landscape and go unnoticed. By making the discarded trash vanish overnight, our relationship is distorted with the items we choose to keep and to each other.
Reno concludes that, “The common theme is that waste affects us in ways we don’t even realize. We’re so used to it that for everything that we come to think of as modern, civilized, what every American deserves…all of those things are made possible by creating lots of waste. And if we’re going to have those values, have those beliefs in the home, and the two cars and the perfect commodities, then we have to acknowledge that is a waste-making form of life.”