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Strasser talks 'trash' at environmental forum

By Rebecca Arrington

Recycling 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."

Recycled 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.

Both 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.

People 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.

It 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."

Early 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.

"How 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.

People wanted electric lamps instead of oil ones, and paper cups and product packaging were introduced for public health concerns and convenience.

Today, 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."

The Tremaine Forum on the Environment series will offer talks April 19 and 26. See the Web calendar.


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