Friday, June 08, 2007
Heather Rogers - Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage
On average, each American produces 4.2 pounds of rubbish a day. Most of this is packaging. This staggering statistic starts Heather Rogers' fantastic book on garbage - a book that has lots of numbers, but never seems to let the reader drown in facts and figures. The figures are important, because the scale of the garbage problem is incredible. Rogers tells the historic story of rubbish, but she inevitably concentrates on the last 100 or so years. Before then, people were either so poor that their few belongings were used over and over, or (and this is the most important fact) their belongings were designed to be used, over and over again.
Heather introduces us to the odd roles that developed in a time of low garbage levels - the men and women who collected human waste to sell to farmers, the people who swept roads clear of horse manure to facilitate a easy crossing.
However the central theme of Rogers' book, is the way that modern day capitalism created the garbage problem, and how it has used and abused the solutions.
In its desperate drive to sell commodities to make profits, capitalism found that objects that lasted, didn't make the corporations money. So, they invented disposability, selling it to the consumer as convenience. We get the disposable bottles, razors and nappies. Then, the capitalists take the next logical step, they build in obsolescence or failure. Either the particular model goes out of favour, or it stops working a few years later and needs to be replaced.
Finally, the author examines at great length the great recycling swindle. Recycling is of course a good thing, it's often the first step that most people take down the road towards environmental awareness or action. However, it is very much a diversion. Rogers' points out how simply putting "please recycle this product when finished" on the outside of a drinks can, gives the corporation a sheen of green colouring, even though they are producing millions of "use once" tins.
The recycling industry gives people the impression that everything is OK. That "something is being down" and stops people questioning why so much stuff is produced in the first place. Why don't we have re-usable bottles? Why do we need disposable razors?
In a fascinating chapter, Rogers examines how the packaging companies in 50s America were well aware of this. "Keep America Beautiful" is the most famous, and first anti-litter campaigns. It wasn't started by environmentalists, but by the packaging companies who wanted to shift the blame for "waste" onto the individual consumer and avoid the finger being pointed at corporations that were in the process of pushing extra packaging on to the market.
Competing companies soon found that extra-packaging, disposable containers, or every changing marketing materials gave them an edge over competitors who remained with the same old, returnable, reusable bottle or container.
The last century has seen the rise of a consumer society, fueled by manufacturers desperate for us to purchase and purchase again their products. In doing so, they have contributed to a gigantic problem of waste. Where do we put this garbage? What does it do to the environment if we burn it, or dump it?
At a time when millions of people are looking at the sustainable nature of the society we live in and asking how we can avoid ecological disaster, Heather Rogers has produced more ammunition against the very nature of the system. Capitalism is, she argues, inherently wasteful - if we are to save the planet, we have to fundamentally change how society uses, produces and treats the material goods that currently form such an important part of our lives. In doing so, we may well create a society that feels it doesn't need so many of these objects in the first place, opting instead for lives that use less and share more.