Author Archives: Carl Zimring

About Carl Zimring

I study junk and talk trash. Author of Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America and general editor of The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage.

Recycling Is A Process

recycle-logoRecycling is a process. It exists not because of sentiment, but because the systems of industrial production and disposal that have developed over the past two centuries have found that reclaiming post-industrial and post-consumer materials is a better use of time, energy, and money than harvesting virgin resources. I elaborate on this history in Cash for Your Trash.

Recycling programs have their limits. Municipal recycling systems struggle with the hazards of manufactured goods that were not designed with disassembly in mind. Efforts to restrict problematic materials (such as New York City’s attempted ordinance to ban polystyrene food containers) face well-financed campaigns by industries resistant to taking producer responsibility for their materials. Since the 1950s, such industries have promoted the emergence of recycling collection systems to shift the burdens of waste away from producers. Design decisions (such as the shift from reusable glass bottles to disposable PET bottles) now burden recycling programs rather than Coke or Pepsi.

But recycling endures and grows. It does so because the markets for salvaged material in industrial society endure. The markets rise and fall; lower prices for copper and steel in 2015 due to problems in the Chinese economy follow price declines during the global economic meltdown of late 2008, and previous recessions and depressions dating back to the nineteenth century. Economic history suggests the decline is temporary; recycling is big business because squandering the value of discards in landfills and waterways is inefficient.

The hazards and efficiencies of recycling can always improve. Designing goods for recycling (by reducing the use of toxic or unrecyclable materials, as well as making separating of materials from the finished product easy) will allow recyclers to safely and successfully return materials to production. These measures will improve a resilient practice that has thrived at a large scale since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Human societies have recycled for millennia and the growth of this practice since the advent of mass production and disposal of industrial goods represents a rational response to what would otherwise be the squandering of value in unprecedented mountains of discards. Any analysis of waste management practices that does not recognize this history is a waste of time.

Talking Trash on Science Friday (Second Hour)

UPDATE: They did not call me as scheduled, but the segment has good information with anthropologist Robin Nagle.

I’m scheduled to be on the second hour of this week’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow talking about landfills, recycling, and trash. If your local public radio station carries both hours, you can hear it on the radio. If your local station only carries the first hour, you can find the full episode on the podcast version.

Pratt Sustainability Studies Minor Resources

PrattEastBuildingA new semester begins Monday, and Pratt students with questions about the Sustainability Studies minor can find some answers in the following places:

What classes count for the minor? We have a list of the permanent catalog courses that may be used for the minor on the minor’s web site.

How do I declare the minor? Check with your academic advisor to ensure you have enough time in your schedule to complete the minor as well as your major and general education requirements. If you do, download this form and arrange to see me. We’ll discuss your schedule, and once I approve you for the minor you can bring it back to your advisor [EDIT] go to Myrtle Hall and turn it in to the Registrar’s Office and be registered.

When do you have office hours? I hold regular office hours Tuesdays noon-2pm in DeKalb 108. I can also make appointments at other times pending my teaching schedule and committee obligations.

Does Pratt have sustainability resources on campus? Yes, all sorts. If you are interested in integrating sustainability into your design process, I highly recommend visiting the Center for Sustainable Design Strategies in the basement of the Engineering building for brainstorming and options on sourcing materials, evaluating material choices, and assessing design options. (CSDS just moved into a new, larger space; go down the stairs and follow the signs.)

Art students who would like to conserve supplies can check out Turn Up Art’s room to get salvaged materials. Turn Up Art is also in the basement of the Engineering building.

The library’s expert research librarians have developed a set of useful LibGuides for pursuing sustainability research. Here’s one for the Sustainable Core course. We have access to several databases relevant to sustainability, including Building Green (case studies of sustainable architecture projects around the world) and Material ConneXion (materials library in Manhattan with searchable database indexed on materiality issues such as durability, toxicity, recyclability, and just about any factor a designer would want to consider for clothing, buildings, furniture, or the range of designed goods). Access is free for Pratt students logged in through the campus network.

Does Pratt have student groups interested in environmental issues? Yes. Pratt Envirolutions meets regularly during the school year; the faculty advisor in 2015-16 is my officemate Professor Jen Telesca. Pratt’s chapter of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) regularly undertakes political action campaigns related to the environment. Pratt students have also worked with groups such as Greenpeace, though the two organizations above have perhaps the most visible presence on campus.

What do I do if I have questions about the minor that are not answered by this page? Talk with me and I will do my best to answer them.

Our Friend Hudson

Hudson the puppy.

Hudson the puppy.

It started with a message from our greyhound rescue organization. They had a puppy, which is rare in the world of greyhound rescue. Jen, me, and the two older dogs decided we would add the little guy to the household. He came home at Thanksgiving.

It wasn’t always easy, as puppies rarely are. He chewed up the carpet and much of a chair. He went for Huey’s dinner once, resulting in a bite wound under his eye that required stitches. As a young dog, he ate everything he could find on the

Running in the snow.

Running in the snow.

Holding paws with Chloe.

sidewalk, from the bark on trees to cicadas to plastic to rocks. He had big ears that we thought he’d grow into and never really did. (He could make them look like a comb-over.) He had a deformed lower jaw that gave him the overbite of the Simpsons’ dog. And he was unusually narrow for a greyhound, looking like an exaggerated Gorey cartoon of the breed. He adored snow. But he was a smart, sweet guy who was a fast learner that grew into a lovely adult dog. And he was the softest greyhound we’ve ever met, the Velveteen Greyhound.

Deemed unfit to race early on, he got to be a domestic animal from the age of five months, and the cuddliest greyhound we’ve ever known. He tolerated us moving more than a greyhound’s normal comfort zone (zero change preferred) and made new friends in every neighborhood. His friendly demeanor on the street even got him acting work, when a neighbor arranged for him to act in an independent film shot in Fort Greene.

He was a happy, healthy dog right up to the seizure Friday night, and then he was gone. We miss him terribly, but celebrate the time we had with him.

Goodbye old friend.


June 9, 2007-July 31, 2015.

Chicago Recycling Coalition Event July 27: The State of Recycling in Chicago

CRCeventWhen the Chicago Recycling Coalition began, the city had no recycling and put its trash in local incinerators and landfills. Over the years, CRC has fought to provide Chicagoans more sustainable waste management and reclamation solutions. That fight continues, and it can be fueled with beer.

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the Chicago Recycling Coalition is holding an event at Revolution Brewpub (2323 N. Milwaukee Avenue) Monday July 27 6-9pm.  Have a beer and talk with CRC board members and guests about what’s improved in Chicago recycling, what CRC is fighting to improve, and what Chicagoans can do to get better recycling, yard waste, and composting services from the city in apartments, homes, schools, and workplaces.

A lot is going on in Chicago regarding waste, and not all of it is good. Come to discuss Blue Cart, the plastic bag ban, the Burke-Hansen ordinance “requiring” multi-unit dwellings to offer residents recycling services, and much more.

Featured speakers include:
Claire Micklin, who co-developed the eye-opening My Building Doesn’t Recycle! app revealing how many big residential buildings don’t offer recycling pickup)
Chris Bentley, WBEZ Curious City Reporter (who will elaborate on his recent stories investigating Chicago’s Blue Cart program and the Burke-Hansen ordinance)
Meredith C. McDermott, Chicago Public Schools Sustainability Manager (hear what’s going on with recycling in CPS)

Purchase tickets here.
$25 per person includes open bar and light hors d’oeuvres from 6:00 – 8:00 PM
$50 VIP tickets include all of the above PLUS a pre-event brewery tour at 5:30 PM

See the CRC’s website for more information, or follow the CRC on Facebook. (I’m on the CRC’s board of directors and am happy to answer questions about the event.)

The Hammer of the Gods

Michael Dahlquist, shirtless and hammering away at his drums.

Michael Dahlquist, shirtless and hammering away at his drums.

Ten years ago today, I was ten days into a teaching post at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. I had just shaken off the jet lag that comes from moving to a time zone 16 hours ahead and had gotten into the routine of checking messages from the States and watching the national news over breakfast before heading into the office.

The past week had already been rough with news of the London terrorist attacks, and this day started with more bad news. My in-box had several messages, all of which went like this:

“Apparently Silkworm’s Michael Dahlquist and two other guys were killed when some psycho woman rammed their car from behind.”

Michael Dahlquist was 39; his friends and coworkers were Doug Meis (29) and John Glick (35). He had been Silkworm’s drummer for 15 years. Silkworm was a rare band, at the same time deeply accomplished (Andy Cohen was and is one of the most effectively virtuosic guitarists alive, and former member Joel Phelps is my candidate for most talented musician of the past 30 years) and down to earth. After a period of heavy touring, each of the three remaining members after Joel’s departure settled in Chicago, where Andy had decided to attend the University of Chicago’s law school. All fit recording and touring into their jobs and routines; Michael, John, and Doug were on their lunch break from Shure in Skokie when they were killed.

Before their deaths, it seemed Silkworm’s work-music balance and dedication would carry the band long into the future. That was taken away ten years ago. As was a delightful person. I didn’t know Michael well (I’d moved from Chicago to Pittsburgh years before he relocated from Seattle), but I looked forward to seeing Silkworm come to Pittsburgh and when I did see him, he always seemed interested in whichever person he was speaking with. He was also hilarious, evidenced by the tour journal he kept between 1997 and 2005. That journal gives a little evidence to the sweat he’d work up as he hit his drums as hard as anyone I have ever witnessed. Michael regularly taped his sticks into gardening gloves to play.

Michael’s death ended Silkworm. Tim and Andy regrouped into the quartet Bottomless Pit (see this post for an appreciation of that band) and provided beautiful tributes to Michael on their first album Hammer of the Gods (itself a name used to describe a similarly hard-hitting drummer who died too young). Steve Albini wrote a moving obituary for Michael in the Chicago Reader (link opens pdf).

In the years since, a lovely documentary gave visual and audio evidence of what Michael was like. The Silkworm website became an archive and discussants their migrated to the forum associated with Albini’s Electrical Audio studio. There, conversations morphed into a terrific Silkworm tribute album An Idiot To Not Appreciate Your Time which captured the spirit of the band through the lens of 29 fans and friends. That spirit also lives on in the PRF BBQ festivals held in Chicago and everywhere from San Francisco to New York to my onetime stomping grounds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Jon Solomon reminded me of the anniversary with his open letter to Michael today. I saw Jon last month at the annual Chicago BBQ, and his letter reflects my feelings about that event, and how what has been built relates to Michael’s example and why we miss Michael ten years later.

But this post wouldn’t be right without giving Michael the last word. At one point, a few years after Silkworm’s Lifestyle album came out, he took it upon himself to make a video of one of its songs. Most videos are lip-synched to a studio recording. Not this one. Michael performed his own a cappella version of Andy’s song, starring and editing in the video just because he felt like it. Click the link and enjoy “Treat the New Guy Right.”