BINGHAMTON, NY – Josh Reno, assistant professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, spent a year working as a paper picker at a large mega-landfill on the outskirts of Detroit, M.I., to explore the relationship North Americans have with garbage. His two big takeaways: a) People don’t think twice about what happens to the garbage they throw out and b) the American dream of two cars, a house and perfect commodities is made possible by creating tons of waste.
“By sending so much things 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?'” said Reno. “But the counter-intuitive thing is that it also, in its absence, is shaping our way of looking at things.”
Reno delivers the nitty-gritty details of his job and the impact of waste management on society in Waste Away: Working and Living with a North American Landfill, a new book published by the University of California Press.
“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,” said Reno. “This partly has to do with mega-landfills, like the one I studied, because they are designed to disappear into the landscape and be forgotten. By making the things we dispose of swiftly vanish, they distort our relationship to the things we keep (which appear to transcend process and time) and to one another.”
According to Reno, people have gotten used to the idea that things just disappear. For example, for a consumer to get a bottle of Coke that is identical to every bottle of Coke he or she has had before and every bottle of Coke that will be produced in the future, that requires waste.
“We have this distorted view of things where we put too much emphasis on what the consumer throws away, like in terms of household MSW (municipal solid waste), and we put too little emphasis on how our relationship to consumption, how those things create lots of waste, too,” said Reno. “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.”