An Exercise in Rubbish Theory

A most valuable and elusive book.

A most valuable and elusive book.

Back when I was working on the dissertation that later became Cash for Your Trash, Marty Melosi suggested I deepen my theoretical understanding of waste and value by reading Michael Thompson’s 1979 book Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value. I checked a copy out of the library and was so taken by it that I spent a couple of hours in the department office making a copy of the entire book. (More on why I chose to do that in a minute.)

Thompson’s discussion of how the value of an object is dynamic, rising and falling depending upon context as it ages was perfectly suited to my study of scrap recycling markets. Most objects will decline in value, but perceived scarcity or other changes of valuation might cause prices to rise as the object ages. Sometimes we see this in antiques, vintage automobiles, and real estate pricing. Thompson’s work remains relevant, earning separate entries for the book and author in the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste.

The history of Rubbish Theory (the book) is also an object lesson in rubbish theory (the theory). Oxford University Press published the book in 1979, listing the hardback for £7.50. The book went out of print, presumably because the market was a handful of academics and libraries, and most who were likely to purchase the book had already done so while it was in print.

Most, but not all.  Over the years, used copies sold for many times the list price. By the time I became familiar with the work, it was well out of my price range. (And I looked. Scouring used book stores and online outlets earned me great bargains like Edwin Barringer’s The Story of Scrap for $3, and Charles Lipsett’s 100 Years of Recycling History for $5. No such luck, however, for Rubbish Theory.)

About a decade ago, once I started teaching Thompson to my undergraduates, I devised a little exercise in rubbish theory. Since the students were now experienced internet shoppers, I instructed them to go out and see who could find the lowest price for the book. Using Amazon, Abebooks, and other outlets, students found the price of the book varied with its condition, but uniformly, all copies were expensive.

Most years, students found the book for about $200. Occasionally, one would find a copy as cheap as $120. Those $120 copies were more frequent after the economic meltdown in 2008, but as late as 2010 (when I last taught my Waste seminar at Roosevelt University), the book tended to price in the $160-$170 range.  The value remained largely stable for years.

I’m teaching a new seminar (Production, Consumption, and Waste) at Pratt this semester. The first three weeks are devoted to theoretical understandings of waste, so we discussed rubbish theory (and Rubbish Theory) last week. Turning to Abebooks and Amazon, we found variations in the book’s price. $250. $181.  $128.  $103. (Hey, that’s pretty good.) $74. $48. $42.

$42? And listed in very good condition? The students were not yet out the door to lunch when I placed my order.

At long last, my own copy!

At long last, my own copy!

Rubbish Theory arrived in the mail this week. My copy, a hardback lacking a dust jacket, had been remaindered from an academic library. Despite the low price, it is in excellent condition – the binding is intact, and the pages are neither torn nor (to any serious extent) marked up. For whatever reason, the perceived value of the book has declined to the point that I can finally own a copy without feeling like I chose the book over paying for food for the week.

My long exercise in the dynamic value of objects has a happy ending. I no longer need to rely on the dog-eared copies I made, and I can add a chapter to the story I tell students when we do this exercise. Perhaps Oxford University Press can add another chapter to the story by reprinting the book after 34 years. Might that reduce the value of my copy (more copies in print) or increase it (the relative scarcity of a first edition at a time with heightened interest in the book)?

Time, as Thompson points out, may tell.


One thought on “An Exercise in Rubbish Theory

  1. Michael Thompson

    What a delightful article! I’d heard something about the course you have been teaching, from a doctoral student at the art college in Bath (UK) where I now live, but she didn’t know your name. And I was much encouraged by your plea for “Rubbish Theory”‘s republication, since I’m just in the process of getting that to happen. I’ll need a publisher (the rights reverted to me from OUP many years ago – there’s a long and not very edifying story to that) and then I’ll need to write a new introduction to explain where it has all led and where I got things wrong.

    Though I live in the UK, I’m still working, part-time, at an international think-tank in Austria: the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). Indeed, that’s where I am just now, sitting here in the early morning sunshine in my office which used to be the office of the Emperor Franz-Josef (we’re housed in a re-cycled Hapsburg palace). So I’m still immersed in rubbish/Glorious Heritage. It was our excellent librarian, Michaela Rossini, who alerted me to your article, no doubt dragging the whole institute down into the dirt in the process.

    All the best,


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