Category Archives: Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste

OAH Blog Post on History of Recycling

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Organization of American Historians asked me to write a brief post on the Process blog about the history of recycling. Here’s the lede:

In the popular imagination, recycling arose out of the modern environmental movement. Some associate recycling with efforts to to divert discards from landfills or with World War II scrap drives when the government mobilized resources for the war effort. But recycling’s history is both older and more complicated than either of those depictions.

Paul Revere recycled, though he did not use that word…

Read the rest, including discussion of curbside programs, wartime scrap drives, and the turn towards upcycling as a sustainable design strategy.

Brief Note on the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste

encyclopediacover-300x300I have added my introduction to the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage to my site. (To learn about how you might read the rest of the encyclopedia, see the publisher’s site.)   Because doesn’t everyone want to learn more about our consumptive habits on Valentine’s Day?

Don’t answer that question.  Just send me a box of chocolates and I promise to treat the packaging in a responsible manner once I devour the contents.

New Book on History of Waste Management of Great Britain and Germany

BusinessofWasteSeveral books on the history of waste and urban environments have been released over the past few months, some of which will be formally reviewed by me in journals. One that will not deserves mention. Cambridge University Press has just published The Business of Waste: Great Britain and Germany, 1945 to the Present by Ray Stokes, Roman Köster, and Stephen Sambrook of the University of Glasgow. It’s a terrific comparative history, and a valuable contribution to the field. I had the opportunity to read the manuscript, and I stand by the comment the press is using on the dustcover.

The Business of Waste advances our understanding of the history of waste management in the United Kingdom and Germany in the postwar period. Stokes, Köster, and Sambrook give systematic attention to how municipal refuse and salvage operations evolved in both nations. This book is an important comparative history on waste management and valuable context for the success of zero-waste initiatives.”

If you have access to the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste, you can read the stellar entry on Great Britain that Stokes and Sambrook wrote. It serves as a preview of this excellent book.

Pratt’s Sustainability Studies Minor Begins Today

PrattlogoPratt Institute’s fall semester starts today, and with it, the new Sustainability Studies minor officially begins.  See this post for a full list of courses in the minor.  Here’s an update on three courses with spaces left as the three-week add-drop period begins.

IND 487-01 Sustainability and Production has several spaces left.  Taught by Frank Millero, this seminar gives students experience assessing the environmental consequences of production methods.  Although it is taught through the Industrial Design program, it is relevant for any student concerned with the relationship between the environment and modern society.  

This course explores issues of sustainability and social responsibility in product design with an emphasis on materials and supply chain flows. The importance of the designer’s role in understanding the environmental and social consequences of creating and producing products will be emphasized. Intended for the advanced undergraduate, studies on the impacts of production and consumption will be covered through readings, class discussions, and lecture materials. Students will be introduced to tools to assess the environmental impacts of products and services to create baseline models; their findings will be used to develop alternative concepts that reduce environmental impacts of products.  Fall 2013: Wednesdays, 2pm-4:50pm.  2 credit hours.

SUST 405-01 Production, Consumption, and Waste has three seats available as of this morning. The seminar examines the ways production and consumption patterns from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the present day have shaped the waste stream, the ways we have defined and handled waste, the consequences of that waste, and ways in which we might reduce the impact of our waste.  Here’s a quick summary:

SUST 405-01 Production, Consumption, and Waste
No product or building is adequately designed without considering the consequences of its deterioration and disposal. Evaluating the ways in which consumers. states, and manufacturers define and classify waste allows us to consider those consequences. In this course, students analyze ways in which waste is created, defined, and managed in industrial society, and they create recommendations for improving problems with the waste stream.

Fall 2013: Tuesdays, 2pm-4:50pm.  3 credit hours.

The range of topics will in many ways resemble the scope of the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage, as I kept in mind that reference work’s utility in the classroom when I was editing it.  (Students will not have to buy that book, let alone lug it around!)  We have our first meeting tomorrow.

I am also leading a team of Pratt Institute faculty teaching the third offering of SUST 201-01 The Sustainable Core, which starts this afternoon.  This course is designed as our introduction to sustainability and is an excellent way to get familiar with the many ways sustainability is practiced at Pratt.  We’ve raised the enrollment cap on SUST 201-01 to 25 students, so we have space available for students interested in the minor.

SUST 201-01 The Sustainable Core
This course provides an overview of sustainability by exploring definitions, controversies, trends, and case-studies in various systems and locales (urban/rural, local/national/global). Investigation of critical elements of sustainability, including environmental history and urban ecology, sustainable development and landscape transformations, recycling/waste management, ecosystem restoration, and environmental justice.

Fall 2013: Mondays, 2pm-4:50pm.  3 credit hours.

Both of these courses may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, SUST 201 is required for the Sustainability Studies minor, SUST 405 is an elective for the minor, and there are no prerequisites for either of them. If you are a Pratt student and have any questions about these courses, please feel free to contact me at

We are excited to bring students the opportunity to take these courses either for the minor or as electives, and we are looking forward to the start of a productive and interesting semester.

Chicago Checkout Bag Ordinance Hearing June 18 at City Hall

PlasticBagsChicagoOne of the themes covered in several entries of the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage is the vast proliferation of plastic wastes generated over the past half century, and the toll these wastes have had on ecosystems throughout the world.  Plastic bags, which jam sorting machinery at recycling facilities, choke aquatic life, and clog sewer systems, impose particular difficulties on modern societies and other species.

Ordinances to impose fees or outright ban single-use plastic shopping bags have proliferated across the United States over the past five years.  The City of Chicago has no such ordinance, yet the idea of one is being discussed amongst aldermen.  On June 18 at 10am, City Hall will host a hearing on a Chicago Checkout Bag Ordinance, and the public is invited to attend.  The group Bring Your Bag Chicago is coordinating attendance and circulating petitions, and you may learn more about their efforts on their Facebook page, or from this short video: 


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.

2012: A Look Back

The first trip of 2012 was on the CTA Green Line.  Others followed.

The first trip of 2012 was on the CTA Green Line. Others followed.

The first journey of 2012 was a half-hour trip on the CTA Green Line from my home in Oak Park to downtown Chicago for the annual conference of the American Historical Association.  There, I presented a portion of my current research project on the ways notions of whiteness and environmental health have intertwined in American history from the age of Jefferson to the emergence of the Environmental Justice movement.  This presentation, titled “Race, Soap, and Environmental Inequalities in Gilded-Age America” focused on racist advertisements distributed by several soap and cleanser companies between 1880 and 1914 that used the trope that white skin was clean skin (and nonwhite skin was dirty skin).  I find it difficult to think of Ivory Soap’s boasts of purity without thinking of these advertisements.

In February, the Chicago Architecture Foundation unveiled its “Loop Value: The How Much Does It Cost? Shop” exhibit.  Roosevelt University Sustainability Studies Professor Mike Bryson and I served on the exhibit’s advisory board and taped supplemental video segments on, respectively, the Chicago River and obsolete cellphones.

encyclopediacover-300x300A few days after the AHA conference ended, I made final revisions to The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage, about eighteen months after I began work on my first entries for the project.  SAGE Publications released the encyclopedia in two hardback volumes around St. Patrick’s Day (and, soon afterwards, an electronic version).  The hardback version was released just in time for the American Society for Environmental History conference in Madison, where several of the contributors attended the Envirotech breakfast.

PrattlogoIn April, I saw my Roosevelt University senior seminar and Sustainability Studies students walk across the Auditorium Theatre stage to receive their diplomas, ending an academic year that saw the first Sustainability Studies majors in the state of Illinois receive their diplomas two years after we had introduced the major.  By the time the students had graduated, I had agreed to develop a similar curriculum at the Pratt Institute, taking the opportunity to discuss the consequences of production and waste to the design and architecture students who will influence the industrialized world’s waste streams for years to come.

Summertime brought the publication of my review essay “The Births, Deaths, and Rebirths of Great American Cities” in Reviews in American History.  This piece was a consideration of two very different (and excellent) approaches to American urban history in the long nineteenth century, Michael Rawson’s Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston and Nick Yablon’s Untimely Ruins: An Archaeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819-1919.  Summer also brought another Wright Plus tour of Oak Park architecture; this year my wife Jen was one of two leaders handling house operations for the entire event, and I volunteered at the E.E. Roberts-designed Howard L. Simmons house.

Ever since publishing Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America, I field periodic requests for interviews about crime and scrap recycling.  These requests are usually for feature stories in general-interest periodicals, but Kevin Whiteacre, Director of the Community Research Center and Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and Sociology at the University of Indianapolis, interviewed me in July for his MetalTheft.Net website, which has amassed an impressive array of interviews and interdisciplinary resources about crime and scrap metal.

The interview was published as we packed up (including files ranging from my current research to the ones that inspired Cash for Your Trash) and moved from Chicago to New York City, stopping briefly at roughly the halfway point in Pittsburgh (a city that has changed since I arrived for graduate school in 1994).

Upon arriving at Pratt, I began teaching the initial version of The Sustainable Core and developing upper-division seminars on energy and waste.  The Urban History Association meeting came to my new hometown, and I chaired a panel considering the legacy of Robert Moses for it.  The conference ended just before Hurricane Sandy hit the New York metropolitan area, although a few attendees (including my dissertation advisor Joel Tarr) were stranded in town for the week because of cancelled flights and trains.

LGA underwaterI also experienced travel disruptions even though I am now a local.  I had intended to fly to Vancouver on Halloween to present my paper “Wasted Potential: Chicago’s Struggle for Effective Consumer Recycling” at the Social Science History Association meeting, but neither I nor my Urban Network co-chair Megan Stubblefield were able to get out of New York ahead of the storm.  Megan lost power for several days; the cancelled trip was the extent of my inconvenience (making me considerably luckier than many of my colleagues and millions in the region).  We sent several messages to conference personnel alerting them to our impending absence (as well as the absences of other participants who emailed in to say they were marooned in New York). Locally, the effects of global climate change on the weather and oceans produced a lot of conversation about how coastal cities should plan for similar events over the coming years, underlining the importance of both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and designing safe, equitable spaces with these changes in mind.

2012 was a year of great change, and 2013 promises to be eventful as well. Pratt Institute students will have the opportunity to tackle the issues raised in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in three SUST courses, The Sustainable Core; Power, Pollution, & Profit; and Production, Consumption, & Waste.  I’m also planning presentations and publications on the history of waste and its consequences and will announce details of these closer to the relevant dates. Thanks for reading these occasional missives in 2012, and I wish you a happy, healthy new year ahead.

Consumption and Its Consequences: Shopping Bags

Shopping consumes billions of bags each year.  Where do they go?

Holiday shopping consumes millions of bags each year. Where do they go?

Among the hundreds of entries in The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage are several pertaining to shopping. As we are in the peak of the holiday season, an apt one to consider is the entry on shopping bags, in which Scott Lukas notes that the vast majority of shopping bags used worldwide (over one trillion annually) are non-degradable single-use plastic bags.

There are numerous impacts associated with shopping bags. Plastic bags have been the subject of the most ridicule. In terms of their production, plastic bags require the use of petroleum. Aesthetics and quality of life are a concern with bag use. Plastic bags litter many nations, including South Africa, whose citizens have dubbed the bag the “national flower.” [Marine animals] are particularly affected by plastic bags. They often mistake bags for food and, after ingestion, die from intestinal blockage. Plastic bags have a long life cycle and may take 20–1,000 years to biodegrade. Plastic bags are sometimes culprits in the blockage of water drains. They were attributed as part of the cause of severe flooding damage in the 1988 and 1998 floods in Bangladesh, a country that later banned them in 2002. Bags are also expensive in terms of the cleanup that is needed to deal with them.

Lukas goes on to discuss alternatives to single-use plastic bags in use around the world, including biodegradables and high-status durable bags advertising brands such as department stores and fashion lines. For more on this subject and many others relating to shopping, see if your local library has The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage.

Give the Gift of the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste This Season

encyclopediacover-300x300Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah and the start of the gift-giving season. As we begin an especially active season for conspicuous consumption, it is a perfect time to learn more about how we consume everything ranging from food to toys. For the public or academic library in your life, what could be a better gift this year than The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage? 

Available in both two-volume hardcover edition and easily searchable electronic edition, the encyclopedia explores the topic of consumption across multiple disciplines within the social sciences and is a valuable reference for policymakers and students in fields ranging from anthropology to history. For more information about the encyclopedia and how your library might order either a hardback or electronic copy, see SAGE’s site for the book.

Hanukkah is a festival celebrating the miracle of resource conservation over eight days. We can’t promise that The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste can deliver miracles, but it may inform more enlightened consumption in the days and nights ahead.

In Chicago, a Coal-Fired Era Ends

One of the recurring themes across dozens of entries in The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage is the damage done in industrial society by burning coal for energy.  On a global scale, the greenhouse-gas emissions produced by incinerating coal contribute to the observation that since (as the American Meteorological Society put it this month) “long-term measurements began in the 1950s, the atmospheric CO2 concentration has been increasing at a rate much faster than at any time in the last 800,000 years,” and that this is a cause of the “unequivocal” warming of the Earth’s climate system.  Beyond the global effects, the process of releasing the tremendous energy inherent in coal has had consequences for local and regional environments.  Sulfuric and nitric acids released in coal incineration create acid rain, which threatens fish and aquatic life. Coal ash, a noncombustible waste product of incineration, has caused problems for urban residents who have breathed in particulate matter and hazardous materials ranging from arsenic to mercury.  In the years when coal was the primary fuel for domestic heat, cities (including, as Joel Tarr and I wrote in 1997, St. Louis) saw clouds of coal smoke blacken midday skies in the winter months.  Even today, in an era when natural gas has supplanted coal for many energy uses, coal-burning utilities dump more than 130 million tons of treated coal ash in landfills each year.  Mining the raw material has its own set of consequences, including short- and long-term hazards for the miners and pollution of the land, air, and water in areas of heavy mining.  Coal has powered industrial progress, but that power comes with a price.

And while everyone pays for burning coal, not everyone has paid for it equally.  In the Chicago area, coal-burning power plants opened in the early twentieth century south of downtown.  A large one, the State Line Generating Plant, opened in 1929 just across the state border in Indiana.  Air pollution from the plant blanketed the South Side for decades, filling the lungs of millions of Chicagoans (including, in the 1970s, a very young South Shore resident named Carl Zimring).  In 1903, the Fisk Generating Station opened in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.  In 1924, the Crawford Generation station opened west of Pilsen in the Little Village neighborhood.

All three of these plants produced electricity for the region.  All three of these plants produced pollution locally.  And all three of these plants were situated in areas where the people most affected by the local emissions were minorities.  The South Side of Chicago bordering Indiana has been majority African-American since the Great Migration.  Pilsen and Little Village are two of Chicago’s most established Hispanic neighborhoods.

Community members blamed the continued operation of the three plants (often in violation of the Clean Air Act) for a variety of respiratory illnesses, especially in children.  Residents founded the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) and the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) in order to fight the continued operation of these plants and draw attention to the consequences of that operation.

I became familiar with LVEJO’s work when I arrived at Roosevelt University in 2008.  A student named Carrie van Eck approached me to supervise an honors thesis in which she worked in LVEJO’s office and contextualized the organization’s work in the history of environmental justice and local environmental degradation.  Carrie’s stellar work gave me an appreciation of the commitment community members had battling for their health, and as I learned more about their work, so did many Chicagoans.  The organization’s profile was soon raised by protests that attracted activists from beyond the neighborhood (including, in 2011, Greenpeace activists climbing the smokestacks).

By this time, the costs of operating coal-fired power plants was getting higher.  After Barack Obama became president in early 2009, his administration began focusing on the consequences of mercury emissions from power plants.  President Obama had represented much of the South Side in the Illinois Senate.  He was familiar with the medical research linking mercury exposure to neurological problems in developing children, and as a community organizer in the Roseland neighborhood during the 1980s, had a more vivid understanding of the environmental inequalities facing urban communities than any of his predecessors as president.  In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency issued the first national standards limiting mercury emissions from power plants.

Enforcing the mercury emission limits led antiquated coal-fired power plants across the United States to shut down this year.  Back in March, the State Line plant closed.  This week, the Fisk and Crawford plants followed suit.  When the closures were announced earlier this year, LVEJO’s Lillian Marian Molina said “parents will not have to miss work, due to their children having asthma attacks. They won’t have to rush their children to the hospital as frequently. They won’t have to look at these polluting facilities much longer.”  Children growing up in Chicago in the coming years will not breathe in the pollution I breathed as a child.

Which is not to say that the other methods we use to generate energy in modern society come without consequences.  Far from it.  But the closures in and around Chicago this year both remove some of the most acute forms of pollution affecting thousands of residents and reduce the city’s emissions of greenhouse gases.