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May 2006
Waste and Citizenship: What an Individual Can Do About the Garbage Problem
By Samantha MacBride


Aluminum Cans. Photo by Samantha MacBride

New York City’s residential recycling program has been back in full swing for nearly two years, and residents are recycling as much as before the 2003-2004 program cuts. Today, according to the 2006 Fiscal NY Mayor’s Management Report, about 20 percent of what New Yorkers put out at the curb is not going to disposal, but re-entering the stream of commerce through recycling. A recent study of the materials that make up NYC’s waste suggests that there isn’t too much farther “traditional” recycling can go. Only a third of what residents throw out in total consists of paper, metal, glass and plastic recyclables to begin with.

Yet in New York, as elsewhere, there is still a serious garbage problem. Residents of industrially-zoned neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens see, smell and breathe in waste flows every day, as city sanitation trucks converge on transfer stations to dump trash. Privately contracted tractor trailers (and to a much lesser extent trains) take over from there. Belching exhaust, fleets of 18-wheelers haul their loads to points near and far, for landfilling and incineration by waste management corporations. Money and natural resources are spent; pollution is generated; and nothing of beauty or utility results.

Recycling as we currently know it does very little to solve this problem. In certain instances, it saves public money and mitigates some of the pollution from waste transport and disposal. But its impacts shouldn’t be exaggerated. The savings in resources or energy that come from recycling—in the face of a globalized materials economy predicated on geometrically expanding growth rates—are minimal. And because what is recycled corresponds to its marketability, not its toxicity, recycling only mildly reduces the hazards associated with disposal.

The Politics of Trash
What is to be done? A common response is that we must get people to become aware of the impact their lifestyles have on the creation of waste, and alter their consumption and waste generation behavior. Each of us should recycle more, buy less, compost and reuse things. Yet this familiar argument is misfocused on the individual as the agent of social change. Trash and the pollution that attends it emanate first and foremost from systems of production that exist to make profit. Addressing the garbage problem requires strong and sustained intervention at large scales, to regulate the freedom of the firms that control extraction, production and distribution of goods that end up as waste. Those firms have fought tooth and nail against anything that threatens profit. Moreover, it is in their interest to promote individually-focused actions, like more recycling or green purchasing, in place of policies and programs that limit their autonomy, such as bottle bills, take-back requirements or toxics bans. Encouraging individuals to “make a difference,” in contrast, poses no threat to producer autonomy, and often creates new opportunities for profit.

Producers have a great advantage here because the current politics of trash do not align neatly with right/left politics. Social conservatives stress personal accountability for one’s actions; free-marketeers see consumer sovereignty as the only legitimate brake on the excesses of industrial production. Neither is particularly concerned about waste or other ecological issues. Nonetheless, these right-wing concepts get mobilized by the environmental movement when individuals are called upon to think more and buy less. Among greens, support for “polluter pays” approaches—targeting the production system rather than the individual consumer—are compromised by voluntarism, while natural capitalism—a perspective that advocates harmonious relationships with enlightened segments of industry bent on good design—is gaining more credence among progressive waste activists. The expectation is that the next generation of corporations will realize a moral imperative to protect the earth and will figure out how to make profits while doing so. The agents of change will be visionary eco-entrepreneurs and savvy green consumers—individuals, again.

It’s not easy to put the role of the individual into perspective when the system seems to be as much “us” as it is institutions, practices, history and the bottom line. To challenge this primacy of the personal role in waste solutions is, I’ve learned, just as subversive among the environmentalist left as it is among proponents of a thousand points of light. “Big government,” the originator of some of the most influential acts to regulate environmental excesses in the 70s, is now mistrusted no less by the grassroots than the libertarian right. Producers have achieved their goal: an ecologically-minded focus on the individual serves as a diversion from contemplation of larger scale, systemic change.

Consider how eco-heretical this sounds: when we recycle, we do not save a tree because the harvesting of trees and production of paper does not diminish in response to our return of wastepaper to the commodity stream. As a ton of recycled paper is marketed, a quantity of trees somewhere is not correspondingly protected. Production just isn’t organized on such a substitution basis. Instead, the harvesting of timber, both virgin and plantation, expands apace with the use of recycled paper. This is what it means to live in a global economy predicated on growth. So although recycling may slightly diminish our utilization of trees, it doesn’t save them. And given that we desperately do need to “save” (in all of the complexity this means) our ecosystems—both those that do and do not include trees—the continued environmentalist claim of tree-saving is naïve and misleading.

When I express such heresy to my green colleagues, they assume I am saying we should stop recycling as it is currently practiced. I am not. What I do advocate is a clear-headed strategy in which a more ample, informed, and critical type of personal action, one collectively geared towards countering producer power, is the goal. Through speaking, thinking, working up of ideas, dialogue and even protest, we must bring topics to the policy agenda that are hard to talk about under conditions of status quo. Through experimentation, enterprise and teaching, we must translate those topics into practice. There is precedent for such an approach. It has taken the environmental justice movement decades to convey the concept that historical patterns of discrimination can be reproduced bureaucratically through zoning, housing and industrial development policies. Slowly, and so far incompletely, this message made active is changing the way waste is handled.

It’s tempting to turn to consuming our way out of the problem, seeking “win-win” natural capital solutions. Instead, we need to talk about the forces that make wastes and toxics an inescapable part of our daily lives—forces of globalized production as they intersect with the life and work of the city.

Samantha MacBride teaches Urban Environmentalism at New York University and is a policy analyst for waste issues in municipal governance. Contact:


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