Dirty Work and the Social Constructions of Waste

ChicagoJunkCart1941I’ve spent a long time seeking to better understand how people create practices to classify and manage wastes, and how those practices shape interactions between people. Nine years ago, Environmental History published my article on how concepts of hygiene and xenophobia shaped the waste trades in the United States between 1870 and 1930. Back then I wrote:

A comprehensive understanding of the social construction of waste requires consideration of both the discarded objects themselves and the people whose business it is to discard or reprocess the objects. We occasionally recognize the importance of waste-trade workers, especially when there is a garbage hauler’s strike or other crisis. Without their daily labors, the orderly removal of wastes breaks down. Despite their importance, the waste trades rarely have garnered respect. To call waste-trade labor “dirty work” is not novel, for waste handling involves unsanitary conditions. Stuart Perry titled a 1998 study of San Francisco garbage haulers Collecting Garbage: Dirty Work, Clean Jobs, Proud People. In Perry’s conception, the work is low-status, high-risk, and physically dirty, but also honorable and necessary. Perry’s study rightly emphasizes the importance of garbage hauling, but it does not examine the many ways in which garbage haulers and related occupations are seen as dirty.

The term “dirty work” may be expanded to include other connotations of dirty behavior. The dirtiness of the waste trades extends beyond issues of sanitation to include notions of ethics and xenophobia. Garbage hauling, toxic-waste storage, and scrap dealing are three waste industries whose images are associated with crime; not coincidentally, they also are associated strongly with ethnic groups who migrated to the United States in large numbers between 1870 and World War I. Contemporary cultural examples abound: Anthony Soprano from HBO’s The Sopranos uses a garbage-hauling business as a front for his mafia operations, mirroring reports of toxic waste handlers being prosecuted for mafia-related activities over the past two decades. The most recent Star Wars films featured a scheming, hook-nosed, seemingly Semitic junk dealer who enslaves the young boy who grows up to be Darth Vader. Scrap and garbage are linked to identifiable ethnic and criminal identities in popular culture, a link that—justified or not—is both strong and long-lasting in American history.

The article goes on to examine xenophobic attitudes by reformers, political bodies, and the customers of scrap dealers, establishing links between public health and safety and unscrupulous practices involving waste materials. Those concerns led to restrictions on who could trade scrap, where it could be traded, where it could be processed, and where it could be stored.

Today we think of recycling as a good, even moral behavior. That was not always true, and concerns over the effects of scrap recycling on children’s health and morals shaped legal structures that have endured for more than a century. The unease with which we have treated the materials and people involved in scrap recycling continues to affect our materials and each other. I examine this relationship more deeply in Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America, and in my current project about constructions of whiteness and purity in American history from the age of Jefferson to the rise of the Environmental Justice movement, I argue that the dynamic between hygiene and whiteness shaped some particularly noxious attitudes regarding race that American society still contends with. (Remember when then-Senator Joe Biden attempted to praise then-Senator Barack Obama by calling him “clean and articulate?” He may not have meant any harm by that, but the comment tapped into this corrosive idea that “white people” are somehow cleaner than people who are not considered white. When and how this attitude evolved is the subject of the project.)

This article has a more narrow focus than that. But it’s a good place to start the conversation.

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