talks 'trash' at environmental forum
is not a late-20th-century phenomenon. There was a highly developed,
post-consumer recycling system in the 19th century, said writer
and historian Susan Strasser at an April 7 talk on "What
Counts as Trash."
materials were essential to the 19th-century economy, said Strasser,
author of Waste and Want and a University of Delaware history
professor whose research centers on everyday life in the development
of consumer culture.
rich and poor conserved goods. Women switched the sleeves on their
dresses -- right for left and left for right -- when they became
worn at the elbows, to prolong the life of the garment. Some also
sent their out-of-vogue frocks back to couturiers in Paris for
refashioning. Housewives' instruction booklets advised on how
to save food. Excess butter left on a plate, for example, was
to be returned to the container, she said.
also sorted refuse -- rags, scrap metal, old rubber, paper and
bones (used primarily for fertilizer, but also to make dice, dominoes
and knife handles). Peddlers visited households to trade for these
goods, which they then sold back to the manufacturers.
was a good system, Strasser said, but it wasn't ideal due to the
filth. Animal waste and carcasses littered the streets, and the
manufacturers polluted the land and water. "However, compared
to today, there just wasn't that much trash."
municipal solid waste collections continued this system of reuse.
In the 1890s, New York City earned $90,000 by picking through
garbage before trash incinerators were built. It wasn't until
the 1930s, when the sanitary landfill management of garbage began,
that separating trash ended.
did we get from a closed system to dumping everything into a toxic
landfill?" Progress, she said. Wood-based paper meant rags
were no longer needed; glass bottle manufacturing increased; meat-packing
houses began making their own fertilizer; and manufacturers abandoned
recycling because consumers paid money instead of trading for
new products. The home went from a recycling center to a consumption
center, and skills such as mending and practices of reuse became
associated with poverty, Strasser said.
wanted electric lamps instead of oil ones, and paper cups and
product packaging were introduced for public health concerns and
people can employ creativity and skills to rethink what counts
as trash. Nothing on the planet is really disposable, regardless
of how it's marketed, said Strasser, who hopes her latest book
"makes people think about our habits."
Tremaine Forum on the Environment series will offer talks April
19 and 26. See the Web