Category Archives: Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste

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.

The (Electronic) Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste

Back in April, I mentioned that the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage was available.  At the time, I had four copies of the hardcopy version on my dining room table.  It is gratifying to, after months of work editing and revising entries, have a tangible, heavy object (more precisely, two tangible, heavy objects) as proof of your efforts.  The vast majority of readers may not care about that sweat equity, however, and may not wish to risk hernias to look up issues relating to sewage, climate change, recycling, nuclear power, or, well, the waste generated by publishing books and periodicals.

Thankfully, readers have another, lighter option.  If you go to SAGE’s website dedicated to the encyclopedia, you will see a box in the upper right-hand corner exclaiming “This title is available electronically via SAGE Reference Online.” This week, I had an opportunity to play around with the electronic edition, and it is an excellent way to search the wide variety of topics we included. The home page offers four search options:

Advanced Search – Use keywords if you have a specific query
Reader’s Guide – Find entries by browsing through thematic categories
Entries A-Z – Browse or ‘search as you type’ the entire list of entries
Subject Index – Browse A-Z or ‘search as you type’ the contents of the index

For a more than 1200-page, two-volume reference work, this electronic option is handy. It also gives you the option of printing or saving to PDF individual entries. Reading this version more closely approximates my experience of editing the work, as initial entries were submitted on Microsoft Word documents via a searchable database. This version has the advantages of polished entries, dozens of supplementary photographs, and easy-to-use links both within the entries and in the sidebar Subject Guide.

If your library or lending institution is interested in stocking this title, direct them to the publisher’s contact information to get the process started.

The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage

This is a blatant plug.  Since 2010, I have been working on editing a two-volume interdisciplinary encyclopedia about how we classify, create, and manage our wastes through consumption. The last bits were edited just before New Year’s 2012 and now The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage has been released by SAGE Publications.  This is what SAGE says about the book.

Why does the average American household send 470 pounds of uneaten food to the garbage each year? How do societies around the world cope with their refuse? How does trash give insight into attitudes about gender, class, religion, and art? Academic studies of garbage allow us to better understand the complexities of our consumption and waste.

SAGE Reference has just published the authoritative Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage, which explores the topic of trash across multiple disciplines within the social sciences. Extending further to also include business, consumerism, environmentalism, and marketing, the two-volume set was written by scholars from around the world, including anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, philosophers, policy analysts, and sociologists, who understand the intricate dynamics of consumption and waste. The 400 A-to-Z, up-to-date entries are helpfully organized in a Reader’s Guide within the following key topics:

  • Archaeology of Garbage
  • Consumption and Waste, Industrial/Commercial
  • Consumption and Waste, Personal
  • Geography, Culture, and Waste
  • History of Consumption and Waste
  • Issues and Solutions
  • Municipal/Local Waste
  • People
  • Sociology of Waste
  • U.S. States: Consumption, Waste Collection, and Disposal
  • World’s Largest Cities: Consumption, Waste Collection, and Disposal

Our trash is our testament; what we throw away says much about our values, habits, and lives. SAGE’s Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste is an outstanding resource for academic and public libraries serving those interested in municipal waste management systems, policy history, industrial research, environmentalism, marketing, design, and even psychology.

General Editor Carl A. Zimring is assistant professor of Social Science and Sustainability Studies at Roosevelt University. Consulting Editor William L. Rathje is the founder and director of the Garbage Project, which conducts archaeological studies of modern refuse.

The variety of viewpoints by the more than 80 different authors made this an exciting project to edit, and I think the result will be a valuable reference work on consumption and waste for years to come.  For more information about the encyclopedia and how your library might order a paper or electronic copy, see SAGE’s site for the book.

Recently, I appeared on WCPT’s Mike Nowak Show to discuss the encyclopedia, and you can hear this episode as a podcast (click the link to listen or download). The Mike Nowak Show can be heard Sundays 9:00 – 11:00am, CST on 820 AM and 92.7 (north), 92.5 9 (west), & 99.9FM (south). It also streams over the internet at