Category Archives: recycling

Time Feature on America Recycles Day

recycle-logoNovember 15 is America Recycles Day, so I am popping in late with a link to Time magazine’s feature on the history of recycling, featuring interviews with Susan Strasser, Bartow Elmore, and me.

Readers interested in the themes of this article may find expansion on several points in my book Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America (Rutgers UP, 2005).

A Future without Waste? Zero Waste in Theory and Practice. (New RCC Perspectives issue.)

The 2014 Rachel Carson Center workshop Whose Waste? Whose Problem? revealed many fascinating perspectives on the topic of waste, and now several of these contributions (including articles by Tian Song, Michael Braungart, Zsuzsa Gille, Jutta Gutberlet, Stafania Gallini, Herbert Köpnick, and me, as well as a roundtable) are available in the new RCC Perspectives issue “A Future without Waste? Zero Waste in Theory and Practice.”

A PDF of the issue is free at this link.

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.

BackStory Podcast on History of Waste

backstory-logoLast winter, Brian Balogh of the BackStory podcast interviewed me for an episode on the history of waste. Now, the episode (including that interview as well as ones with fellow waste scholars Robin Nagle, Catherine McNeur, Brett Mizelle, Bart Elmore, and David Sklansky as well as recycling logo designer Gary Anderson) is available to hear.

If you’re curious about my family’s story as it relates to this history (and also want to hear my voice decay), click the link, as the American History Guys chose to use the part where I discuss what prompted me to write Cash for Your Trash (and much of that book’s second and third chapters).

Brian Balogh also gets an egregious pun (and my reaction to said pun) onto the podcast.

Andrew Patner

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Andrew Patner’s author photo for the I.F. Stone biography. Taken about six years after his teaching stint at KAM.

Andrew Patner, who died yesterday after a brief illness, spent decades as a critic, radio host, and author in our home city of Chicago. His death is hitting the city’s arts community hard, as it should. He’s spent decades discussing classical music, jazz, and literature there, and his perspective will be greatly missed.

My experience of Andrew is as a reader, but also as a student.  The year before my Bar Mitzvah, Andrew attempted to herd the cats that were the 12-year-olds at Hyde Park’s KAM Isaiah Israel. Andrew exhibited unending patience with us before moving on to complete his education and begin his career.

My family moved to California the year after my Bar Mitzvah, but I’d occasionally cross paths with Andrew. I read his biography of I.F. Stone with interest when it came out in 1988, saw him at a memorial service for deceased University of Chicago professor Hans Zeisel a few years later, and, when I returned to Chicago, regularly read his work. (Which was easy, as Andrew was prolific.)

About five years ago, shortly after I began teaching at Roosevelt University, I went to the Spertus Institute to see Lee Shai Weissbach discuss his history of small-town Jews. Andrew and his mother Irene were in attendance, so we caught up. My book on the scrap recycling industry had come up in the discussion, and it interested Andrew. He related his family connection to the trade as a cousin of Michigan’s famed Padnos family (whose archival materials had been among the sources I used in my dissertation), and we chatted about the legacy of American Jews in the scrap trade.

His connection to the scrap trade should not have been a surprise; Andrew seemed to have connections everywhere. He was also a friend of Studs Terkel, and when I heard the sad news yesterday, I spent an hour listening to the two polymaths discuss everything from the University of Chicago Law School to Mahalia Jackson. The conversation represented the best of what I remember about Hyde Park, and it’s a good way to remember him.

Pratt Spring 2015 Course Registration Update

How do humans live in concert with the environment?  Discuss this question in these two Fall 2013 courses.

An update on the two Sustainability courses I am teaching next semester.  Each of these courses may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, each may count to satisfy credits in the Sustainability Studies minor, and there are no prerequisites for either of them.  All Pratt undergraduates are eligible and encouraged to enroll.

SUST 401-01 Power, Pollution, and Profit has filled to capacity, but I am also leading a team of Pratt Institute faculty teaching SUST 201 The Sustainable Core, which remains open for registration.  This course is designed as our introduction to sustainability, is the required core course for Pratt’s Sustainability Studies minor, and is an excellent way to get familiar with the many ways sustainability is practiced at Pratt.

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.

Spring 2015: Mondays, 2pm-4:50pm.  3 credit hours.

Both of these courses may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, and there are no prerequisites for either of them. If you are a Pratt student and have any questions for me about these courses (or about the Sustainability Studies minor), please feel free to contact me at czimring@pratt.edu.

Pratt Spring 2015 Course Registration Update

How do humans live in concert with the environment?  Discuss this question in these two Fall 2013 courses.

An update on the two Sustainability courses I am teaching next semester.  Each of these courses may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, each may count to satisfy credits in the Sustainability Studies minor, and there are no prerequisites for either of them.  All Pratt undergraduates are eligible and encouraged to enroll.

One of these courses focuses on how we power the processes that allow us to create and distribute goods, as well as transport ourselves and enjoy the conveniences of modern life.  We will discuss global climate change, nuclear power, and fracking (among other topics) in SUST 401-01 Power, Pollution, and Profit.  As of this morning, eight seats are still available in the seminar.

SUST 401-01 Power, Pollution, and Profit
Modern society relies on burning fossil fuel for energy, with serious economic, public health, and environmental consequences. Learn the history of how we came to rely on unsustainable energy sources and ways In which our future use of energy may be made mode sustainable.

Spring 2015: Tuesdays, 2pm-4:50pm.  3 credit hours.

I am also leading a team of Pratt Institute faculty teaching SUST 201 The Sustainable Core, which remains open for registration.  This course is designed as our introduction to sustainability, is the required core course for Pratt’s Sustainability Studies minor, and is an excellent way to get familiar with the many ways sustainability is practiced at Pratt.

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.

Spring 2015: Mondays, 2pm-4:50pm.  3 credit hours.

Both of these courses may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, and there are no prerequisites for either of them. If you are a Pratt student and have any questions for me about these courses (or about the Sustainability Studies minor), please feel free to contact me at czimring@pratt.edu.