Sunday, December 13, 2015

Waste and Want by Susan Strasser

An old proverb relates trash and treasure as a matter of perspective. In Waste and Want, Susan Strasser describes American’s changing perspectives on waste from the colonial era to our own day.

In the colonial and revolutionary period of American history, manufactured objects were rare and expensive. Repair and mending were common even among the wealthy because it was difficult and costly to replace objects. In addition, the various types of home industry practiced by both men and women equipped them with skills in handling materials that made them adept at repair. Even when and object was beyond repair, it parts, or the material it was made of, might be usefully repurposed themselves or as part of an assembly. This lack of goods and facility with handling materials made bricolage common. Because things had durable value, people had a sense of stewardship relating to them.

Strasser establishes this as a beginning state. The development of industry and consumerism led to a current state in which all of these have been reversed. We have an abundance of goods, and many of them are inexpensive. We work in factories and offices where we do not develop skills for repair, and particularly have lost familiarity with materials needed for practical bricolage. These and other forces, particularly those related to health and cleanliness, have resulted in waste being something of the home where additional value may be extracted to something that is the realm of specialists that is taken away and handled by government agencies or specialized companies.

There are many stages in this development. It is interesting to me that the value of household waste as raw materials American industry provided a mechanism for poor and rural people to purchase manufactured goods. Even so, as industrialization made more goods available, along with larger quantities of more manageable waste, household waste became less valuable, and reuse and recycling became associated with poverty.

By the end of the 1920s, consumer culture was established in America, and it reinforced the trends identified by Strasser.  Planned obsolescence was developed in the automotive industry, and along with the craze for fashion, it took hold for almost all consumer goods. Even during the Great Depression, when lack of credit and unemployment made doing it yourself attractive, there was an assumption that people had access to new and old consumer goods and their packaging. Even during this period of economic distress, demand for certain types of consumer goods grew. Thrift was reimaged for a consumer age. For instance, refrigerators became commonplace, and instead of being presented as luxury items they were sold on the notion of thrift, allowing housewives to save on food by keeping leftovers and buying in bulk.

People were encouraged to conserve and recycle to support the war effort during World War II. However, this did little to reverse changing attitudes that valued the new over the old and saw little value in trash. People had jobs and money, and wartime rationing created a pent up demand for goods that was unleased after the war. Disposable goods and packaging represented cleanliness and convenience; it was freedom from dirt and drudgery. There was no value in trash, which was taken away by collectors.

There were reactions against this even in the 1950s. They grew into the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, which were skeptical of corporations and consumerism. The environmental movement also grew out of this counterculture. Reuse of second-hand goods became more acceptable for even middle-class families, though few had the skills needed to rework these items to make them seem new or adapt them to current fashion. Little used goods were seen to have some value that could be recovered through yard sales. (I grew up on a stretch of highway that now boasts and annual 100 mile yard sale.)

This counterculture has not resulted in a broad return to a stewardship of things. Strasser suggests that a rising ethic of environmental or resource stewardship may lead to the mitigation of problems related to the abundant trash created by disposable and rapidly obsolete goods. There is no turning back, but we might find new reasons and ways to reduce use, reuse, and recycle.

Stasser, Susan. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999.