Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Social History of Trash

Waste and Want - a social history of trash, by Susan Strasser, was one of the weirder book titles on my Amazon wish list and Simon kindly obliged me. I finished and Bill is now reading it. I learned a number of amazing / obvious things:

The practices of housewives shape society and have a major economic impact. Back when women worked almost exclusively in the home with little spending money of their own, they - and their children - made pocket money by selling things like rags (made into paper before wood was used) and fats (for soap and candles - though many housewives made their own). Pedlars literally 'traded' door to door, offering household goods to homemakers far from shops but also collecting recyclable goods that their employers sold on to scrap dealers. A housewife might not have enough money to buy a new implement, but she might have goods for which she could trade part of the price.

There was a day when clothing was patched and re-patched until the textiles were altogether hopeless. Fabric and clothing were expensive before industrial times, being very labour intensive to produce.

If homemakers didn't need the cash, such re-sell-able items were given to servants or put out for poorer families to find in their scavenging. Many children scoured the streets to find such things to add money to their family income; they were called 'swill children'.

It is typical to put one's waste items on the periphery of one's property. It seems obvious that trash bins are set out for collection near the street and they are generally kept outside of the home in the mean time. Things on their way to the trash sometimes reside for a while in attics, basements or garages...(or at least that is what Bill hopes).

Children have always scavenged for spending money. I remember collecting the odd pop bottle I found for the 5-10 cent deposit that I could spend on candy. Bill remembers paying for movie admission with jam jars. Which explains the name of a local small theatre called the JamJar Cinema - I always wondered about that!

I was amazed to learn that sorting trash was a common requirement before World War II, not just a recent innovation as an environmentally friendly practice. Re-cycling trash - indeed just collecting trash - has always been a profitable business. Said businesses haven't always been particularly ethical in the manner of disposal and lower socio-economic locations have always born the brunt of disposal.

I remember dumpster diving being discussed in The Tightwad Gazette. This isn't something I've ever done much. A friend and her dad used to find bits of jewellery behind the mall near her house and she mentioned cases of food on the odd occasion. I've walked past the back of Subway and seen enormous plastic bags full of bread loaves in the trash bins. The amount of food wasted by commercial concerns has always seemed wrong to me. Dumpster diving is classed as stealing in the UK, but trespassing is the greater difficulty; most garbage bins are on the private property behind the premises, often gated. I recently saw a comment remarking about grocery stores having collection points for food banks at the front of the store at the same time they are filling their trash with discarded food in the back of the store.

Two terms were discussed at length at the beginning of this book, one familiar and one new to me. In fact, in one of those many little coincidences I encounter when reading a lot, I just now was reading a magazine interview with Annie Lennox (Vivien brings me her magazines which I read and pass on to Lucy who passes them on to the waiting room at the hospital where she works). Lennox mentions that these days we're always looking for the latest new thing whereas in her (my) grandparents' day whatever they had they kept and re-used. They were looking for value. Lennox says she thinks that's important. Not what you'd expect from her, eh? Maybe we all start looking for more value as we approach 60?

In Waste and Want Strasser talks about 'stewardship', about valuing the material something is made with and valuing the labour, the time and the skills that went into making it. Dictionary definitions of stewardship talk about careful and responsible management of something; protecting and being responsible for something. Responsibility is obviously a major component of stewardship. Valuing and re-using what we already have doesn't seem to be the mainstream these days, but it is definitely what feels right to me. Mechanization has removed much of the skilled labour once required and so much is made from convenient but uninspiring plastic or fiber board; I can see why it's hard to value these cheap new things. This is one of the many reasons I prefer old things and buying secondhand to get them. 

Strasser also talks about 'bricolage' and 'bricoleurs', terms I'd never met. Apparently the former is French for 'tinkering' but Strasser uses it as making things from what you have on hand. The Tightwad Gazette taught me to make Halloween costumes from what I already had, to cook from the ingredients in my kitchen (something I should have learned from my Mom, who made amazing meals from scratch). Strasser talks about the days when people kept parts and bits they knew would come in handy for future repairs or other projects. She talks about the skill set that is now largely lost, the knowledge of how to fix things. 

As a child I remember bragging that my Dad 'could fix anything'. I grew up watching him build shelves and stairs, make the refrigerator and the toaster work again, do all sort of automotive repairs. He and Grandpa both understood how things worked. My confidence in my Dad's ability to put things right was one of the corner stones of my childhood security since I knew we didn't have a lot of money. Maybe that's why I so love this idea of bricolage. Any fool can throw money at a problem; it takes a bit of ingenuity to find a different solution, a more hand made one.

I was disappointed to read that even as early as the late 19th century women purchased fabrics to make patchwork quilts. I'd always imagined that paying a small fortune for coordinating fabrics to cut up and then sew back together was a relatively recent development. However, according to Strasser women often at least supplemented their collected bits with new fabrics and almost no quilt that survives today can't be tied in with a published pattern which may even have come with the pieces cut and ready to sew. 

One of the reasons silk dresses have survived far more frequently than linen, cotton or wool dresses is not just because they may not have been worn as often, being special, but because silk wasn't recyclable as these other materials were. As mentioned earlier, paper was originally made from the plant based fabrics; wool was put onto fields for fertilizer, something I'd not heard about before.

My former job threw some interesting experiences my way, one of which was to tramp through a landfill site (I had to buy special safety shoes to wear!). It didn't smell great, but the odour was not at all the worst part of it for me. The sheer volume of recognisable items being bulldozed was insane, things that didn't look like rubbish to me, at least no more rubbish than they were brand new. A person could have started a new Toys Were Us chain from all the plastic toys I saw. They looked 95% OK, just not perfect anymore. Clothing, paper, all sorts of things that could have been saved from landfill with a bit of effort. The worst for me was the idea that people spent hours of their lives earning money to buy things that were casually discarded; that limited resources had so little value for most people. The landfill seemed to me evidence of a lot of what's wrong in the world: greed, ignorance, sloth.

I'm sure Bill thinks I'm slightly mental on this topic and I agree that I spend a stupid amount of my time walking to my paper recycling bag with bits, but I am mindful of what I send to landfill, which is why I wanted to read this book. I'm in no way Zero Waste myself, but I am completely amazed at what people throw away. 


Just recently (another coincidence) I was directed to this man's website showing the way he makes his living scavenging trash in Montreal. I'm grateful someone is prepared to do that to save some of these beautiful/interesting things from landfill.

I don't suppose you spend much time thinking about the implications of your trash, do you?


Gam Kau said...

Flagrant waste makes me cringe. I used to live in a community with a large recycling/rubbish collection area. The things people tossed into the skip dismayed me so much. There were so many items I salvaged and passed on to others. Luggage, garden furniture, clothing…
I try my best to no buy much, and to buy 2nd hand if I have to. It's not always achievable, but I enjoy the challenge.

Jg. for FatScribe said...

THIS is a great post. Thank you for sharing. I LOVE the stewardship component of this discussion. When times are tough, every last drop of ink or gas in the tank, or morsel of food, or $3 bucks to buy a latte ... they all are precious. Trying to remind myself and teach my kids about value. Totally appreciate the reminder from you, my yank pal in the land of Britannia!

Books are great; i try for two a week, but I never/rarely get to update my reading list at FatScribe. Glad you got the ones you requested!


Shelley said...

Gam Kau - "Cringe" is a good word for how I felt at the landfill.

Jg - So glad you liked the post! If I didn't keep my reading list on this blog current, I'd never remember all the books I'd read. Have too many on the go at the moment, so need to finish a few off before I choose another! It's always tough this time of year when I get my hands on so many great books at once! Teaching kids value, tough one. Probably only when you work for the money and buy the stuff yourself do you 'get it' - and even then, not everyone does. Strasser's and several other books - Cooked by Michael Pollan - point out how industry has carefully taught us to consume and discard so we can consume some more. I do my best to resist!

Carolyn said...

That sounds like a really good book to read; I think I'll have to seek it out. Thanks for the recommendation! :)

D A Wolf said...

"Bricolage." That's a term I learned the first time I lived in France at 15, and something I enjoyed when I lived there for 9 months at 19 - and certainly, as an adult. In my experience, in Europe there is, without question, more of an affinity for and appreciation of reusing and repurposing what we already have, certainly than in the US.

What we pick up from others - at no cost or via purchase - that they no longer want or use, is a perfectly fine source of functional and decorative items -- and not contributing to the unfathomable levels of waste on our planet.

Over the years, money constraints required me to repurpose as much as I could, but I am also glad to have passed along these habits to my children - which I hope they will observe.

I still have a long way to go. Like many in the US, too much food goes spoiled in the fridge; I've been working over the past year to stop this needless waste. I've been making some progress, but there's still room for improvement.