Category Archives: waste

George Waring and the Legacy of Clean and White

george_waring_mdToday is the anniversary of Col. George E. Waring’s death. Waring, most famous for the sanitary reforms he developed as Street Commissioner of New York City, had been appointed by President McKinley to investigate sanitation in Cuba. There, he contracted yellow fever, which killed him at the age of 65.

Waring had immediate and enduring influence on the sanitation of two major American cities. He developed a sewer system for Memphis that alleviated that city’s chronic cholera and yellow fever epidemics. In New York City, he modernized waste management, establishing the “White Wings” street-cleaners (teams dressed in immaculate white uniforms to sweep the streets), and transforming sanitation work from patronage to a necessary city service.

Waring’s work saved thousands of lives and made urban life both cleaner and safer. The way he conducted his work also revealed attitudes about waste and race widespread in late nineteenth-century American life. In New York City, Waring expanded the department to scavenge value from discards. To do so, he hired Italian immigrants, “a race,” Waring reasoned, “with a genius for rag-and-bone picking and for subsisting on rejected trifles of food.”

C&WcoverThis attitude is jarring in 2015, but was commonplace in the 1890s. Sanitary engineers, sociologists, and advertisements have all left evidence that peoples other than native-born whites in the United States were seen as somehow more fit to handle waste or otherwise be exposed to waste. How this attitude developed, how it was resisted by many affected people, and what consequences it has had for American society is the subject of my new book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States. Available Nov. 13 from NYU Press, the book contextualizes Waring’s work in a time when fears about waste and racial purity intertwined, producing new labor markets and spatial arrangements to manage the materials Americans classified as waste. Waring is one of the actors in a long history of Americans’ often troubled relationship with those wastes and with each other.

Waring’s death from yellow fever was a reminder that the hazards he sought to eliminate endured in the Americas. His life, and his life’s work, showed the complex ways in which perception of those hazards shaped American society. He should be remembered for both his accomplishments and these complexities, and that is one of the goals of the book.

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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.

Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (NYU Press, November 2015)

C&WcoverNow that it’s on the NYU Press website, I should mention my book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States is coming out at the end of 2015.

From the press:

When Joe Biden attempted to compliment Barack Obama by calling him “clean and articulate,” he unwittingly tapped into one of the most destructive racial stereotypes in American history. This book tells the history of the corrosive idea that whites are clean and those who are not white are dirty.

From the age of Thomas Jefferson to the Memphis Public Workers strike of 1968 through the present day, ideas about race and waste have shaped where people have lived, where people have worked, and how American society’s wastes have been managed.

Clean and White offers a history of environmental racism in the United States focusing on constructions of race and hygiene. In the wake of the civil war, as the nation encountered emancipation, mass immigration, and the growth of an urbanized society, Americans began to conflate the ideas of race and waste. Certain immigrant groups took on waste management labor, such as Jews and scrap metal recycling, fostering connections between the socially marginalized and refuse. Ethnic “purity” was tied to pure cleanliness, and hygiene became a central aspect of white identity.

Carl A. Zimring here draws on historical evidence from statesmen, scholars, sanitarians, novelists, activists, advertisements, and the United States Census of Population to reveal changing constructions of environmental racism. The material consequences of these attitudes endured and expanded through the twentieth century, shaping waste management systems and environmental inequalities that endure into the twenty-first century. Today, the bigoted idea that non-whites are “dirty” remains deeply ingrained in the national psyche, continuing to shape social and environmental inequalities in the age of Obama.

Reviews

“What an innovative study! In Clean and White, Carl Zimring addresses an age-old critique of racism that posits white as clean and good and black as dirty and bad. In so doing, he elevates the discussion by demonstrating the cultural roots of this nefarious comparison within the context of environmental racism. Those interested in both questions of race and modern environmentalism will benefit from reading this book.”

—Martin V. Melosi, author of The Sanitary City

I’ll write more about the book on this blog as the publication date draws near. For today, as we observe the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have been to the mountaintop” speech ahead of his April 4, 1968 assassination, it is worth remembering that he died in Memphis supporting a strike by hundreds of African-American sanitation workers. The strikers (and the circumstances leading up to the strike) are the subject of this book’s final chapter.

“Destroy, She Said: Decay, Dissolution, and the Anticipatory” March 7 at the Boiler

I’ll talk trash (and decay) with a few of my Pratt colleagues on Saturday. Details below.

HMSstuff

 Destroy, She Said
Decay, Dissolution, and the Anticipatory

Readings, performances, and exhibition
Ethan Spigland, Saul Anton, Ira Livingston, Thom Donovan, Melissa Buzzeo, Carl Zimring, May Joseph, Julie Patton, Laura Elrick, and others

March 7, 2015
The Boiler (191 N. 14th St. Brooklyn), 5:30-7:30pm

An exhibition, along with an evening of short readings, performances, demonstrations on the theme of aesthetic, ecological, deliberate, and incidental destruction, decay, and dissolution. Open to the public.

Saturday’s program follows Friday’s opening reception.

Distillations Podcast: “Trash Talk: The Persistence of Waste”

CHFlogoRecently, I spent an afternoon discussing various aspects of waste past and present with the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Michal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy for their Distillations podcast. The episode is now complete. Listen or download to iTunes here.

Thanks to Michal and Bob, as well as Mariel Carr for producing and David Barnes for suggesting me as a guest.