Culture In, Garbage Out

LAST EDITED JUNE 24, 2013 · JUNE 23

What around you is waste? The built environment tries to answer before you can begin a thought. But the meanings of the word don’t bend so easily to architectural design, nor do they sit comfortably with one another. Waste is something used up, something idle, or some useful thing’s byproduct. To a degree, each thing you own has a latent wasteness. Municipalities try to direct traffic between these meanings. They settle the question as follows: sanitary waste belongs in the sewers; garbage in the green bin; recyclables in the blue bin.

Michael Munger has an economic definition: “if you have to pay someone to take it, then the item is garbage.” That’s from his column that kicked off a Cato Unbound debate on the political economy of recycling. Munger’s basic claim is that recycling for recycling’s sake has become an affluent ritual divorced from cost:

Recycling, including the costs of collecting the waste in tiny, mixed amounts, transporting the waste to a handling facility, sorting it, cleaning it, repackaging it, and then transporting it again, often for great distances, to a market that will buy the commodity for some actual use, is almost always more expensive than landfilling that same waste in a local facility.

In a long run counterfactual, markets would strip mine the used up, reallocate the idle, and find new uses for the byproduct. The leftovers of this process would be bona fide waste: that which reaps no profits. Planners are as likely to identify that stuff ahead of time as they are to beat the stock market. Shit turns out to be fuel – or to take one of several hundred examples of 19th century recycling listed in Peter Lund Simmonds’s Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances, palm oil residue turns out to be glycerine – because of profit opportunities, not blue bins.

It’s a sound argument. And hidden inside it is a story about class.

Think of a wealthy North American neighbourhood. Curbside, one class proudly deposits its small, disparate bundles of metal and paper and glass to be picked up by trucks making frequent stops throughout the city. Perhaps they’ve cleaned and sorted the items themselves; perhaps others will do that for them. The broader public both subsidizes and valorizes these small efforts. In the alley out back, another class sifts through dumpsters to amass large, homogeneous collections of things like aluminum cans that other people will pay for. They burn zero fossil fuels in transit. The broader public alternates between pity and disgust, countering the behaviour with signs, police harassment, and even locked dumpsters.

Remarkably, the higher class behaviour is the one that makes a point of ignoring price signals, while the lower class behaviour responds to them.

The ritual of mandated recycling plays out in part through a fetish for sorting. When a poor person interrupts the ritual, unsorts the waste stream, and reinterprets what is waste by taking certain items and leaving others, it breaks an associative circuit in the minds of affluent observers. The ‘what is waste’ question is supposed to be settled by the containers, not through them. Which activity truly conserves most is culturally irrelevant.

A harsher reading of this discrepancy is that the classification and sorting of waste reenacts the classification and sorting of people. Municipalities arrange to pick up and separate waste in a way that causes taxpayers the least cognitive dissonance; likewise do they police the visibility of their homeless.

Where cities are successful in identifying waste, it is doubtless better to manage its disposal than let it collect in the streets. The trouble is that where they fail, the logic of waste management displaces, and with classist moral pretense, voluntary schemes that better serve the aim of conservation.

There are many such schemes besides can collecting that route around the existing waste management infrastructure. For-profit recycling, dumpster diving, compost toilets. Even placing a wine bottle in the green bin instead of the blue one is, in most regions, a choice that lowers net harm to the environment. Yet rituals are hard to shake. Michael Munger himself admits he can’t bring himself to throw away wine bottles.