Actually, I have only been reading about garbage. Elizabeth Royte actually went to the transfer stations, landfills, recycling plants and compost facilities and wrote all about her discoveries in Garbageland. And in Gone Tomorrow, Heather Rogers traces the history of waste disposal, from the toss-it-out-the-window era to the contemporary “sanitary” landfill. Before reading these books, I was uneasy about the mountain of trash my household generates. Now, I am completely obsessed with reducing that mountain. (And my family thinks I’m weird for being so interested in trash.)
Despite what we have been led to believe, it is not normal to discard tons of packaging, used paper products, broken toys, and outdated electronics and just expect them to conveniently disappear. But we have been trained to think so (and do so) because it is great for business. As Elizabeth Royte observes:
“The changes in garbage handling helped constitute an infrastructure crucial for mass consumption and discarding. …emerging garbage collection and disposal methods met the manufacturers need to have mounting levels of commodities, including packaging, tidily hauled away.”
In the years after World War II, the industrial system was producing vast quantities of stuff, and they needed to make sure the public would keep shelling out for it. This is when planned obsolescence was invented, easy credit became available, and marketing tried to make everyone feel like they were the only ones on the block not out buying more crap.
“Had they been obliged to deal with their castoffs more directly, perhaps greater numbers of people would have diagnosed the emerging system of mass production and consumption as deeply flawed.”
In other words the mass production system, as it is designed, relies on the regular removal of stuff that never should have been made in the first place. For the inane reason of making space for yet more stuff. If our trash did not disappear so regularly and effortlessly, we’d have to be a lot more selective about the products we choose. If we all had to store our trash for a year (or a month or ten days, as some have challenged themselves to do) we might choose things that didn’t have excess packaging. We’d think about whether each item were made to last, could be repaired easily, repurposed if necessary, or ultimately composted at the end of its usable life. Most importantly, we would have to ask ourselves if we really needed that shiny new thing in the first place, or whether we would be better off without it.