Research and Writing

I am an environmental historian interested in how attitudes concerning waste shape society, culture, institutions, and inequalities. My new book, Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in zimringpostedHistorical Perspective, was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in March 2017. Upcycling, the practice of recycling discarded material into good of elevated value, is a popular sustainable design strategy, and this book explores how to tell the history of this practice. Using secondary aluminum’s use as a case study, the book includes successful design examples in furniture, vehicles, and musical instruments since World War II, including furniture by Herman Miller, Emeco, and the Eames Office, vehicles by Aston Martin, Cannondale, Honda, and Ford, and instruments from Wandre, Veleno, Travis Bean, Kramer, and the Electrical Guitar Company.

“A refreshingly clear, open, and engaging contribution to the discourse on aluminum, this deeply researched book is a logical and extremely balanced contribution to the history of technology and environmental history.” —Samantha MacBride, New York City Department of Sanitation, Bureau of Recycling and Sustainability, author of Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States.

CleanandWhite_FullAt the beginning of 2016, New York University Press published my book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States.  This book situates the history of environmental racism in the work and attitudes surrounding waste from the colonial era to the 1968 Memphis Strike, with attention to scrap recycling, garbage, street-cleaning, laundry, housekeeping, and janitorial work.

“Offers a significant and startling new perspective on United States history, revealing the many ways in which ideals of cleanliness, notions of environmental propriety, and definitions of whiteness have been interwoven for centuries, to devastating effect. With deft prose and thoroughly researched arguments, Zimring unravels some of the previously overlooked origins of deeply rooted American racism, and in the process shows how these have come to justify economic, social, and political discrimination against people of color. It is an important original analysis, and it brings much needed insight to our ongoing national debate about race and justice.” —Robin Nagle, author of Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York.

My first book on the history of waste work focused on the scrap recycling industries in the United States. Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America (Rutgers University Press, 2005) discussed the businesses involved in salvaging discarded materials from Paul Revere’s work in the colonial period to the growth of rag businesses in the nineteenth century and metal recyclers after the Civil War.  Because it was particularly common for immigrants to own or operate a scrap business in the nineteenth century, the history of the industry reveals much about ethnic relationships and inequalities in American cities. Readers are introduced to the scrapworkers, brokers, and entrepreneurs who, like the materials they handled, were often marginalized. These businesses provided the context for recycling as we understand it today, and the history is valuable in assessing how successful contemporary recycling programs are in returning collected materials to industrial production.

“Zimring goes beyond the limited historical literature on municipal solid wastes. Cash for Your Trash gives us a sweeping account of industrial recycling long before residential recycling became popular. It is a fine contribution to urban and environmental history.” —Martin V. Melosi, author of Garbage in the Cities.

IA-The Journal for the Society of Industrial Archaeology editor Fredric Quivik invited me to ia-v39-n1-2cover-only-ver-2-212x300co-edited a theme issue of the journal focused on industrial waste. This double issue (1 & 2 of volume 39, dated 2013) includes articles on mining wastes, coal ash, arsenic, automobile graveyards, and several reviews of relevant books, including Kate Brown’s Plutopia and the edited volume The Business of Waste by Raymond G. Stokes, Roman Köster, and Stephen C. Sambrook. It also includes “Infamous Past, Invisible Present: Searching for Bubbly Creek in the Twenty-First Century,”  an article about the South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River coauthored by Michael Bryson and me.

With William Rathje, I edited the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage, which Sage published in hardback and searchable electronic formats in 2012. The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste explores how and why societies across the world have developed practices to discard materials and manage their wastes throughout human history. The entries span multiple disciplinary perspectives within the social sciences, providing reference for relevant theoretical approaches, history, geography, and economics.

“Upcycling in History: Is Past Prologue to a Zero Waste Future? The Case of Aluminum,” Rachel Carson Center (RCC) Perspectives,  2016, No. 3, pp. 45-52.

“Infamous Past, Invisible Present: Searching for Bubbly Creek in the Twenty-First Century,”  IA – The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archaeology 39, Nos. 1 & 2, 2013, pp. 79-92. Co-written with Michael A. Bryson.

“The Happiest of Finds: William L. Rathje’s Influence on the Field of Discard Studies,” Ethnoarchaeology 7, No. 2 (October 2015), pp. 173-178.

“The Complex Environmental Legacy of the Automobile Shredder,” Technology and Culture 52, No. 3 (July 2011), pp. 523-547.

“Creating the Sustainable City: Building a Seminar (and Curriculum) through Interdisciplinary Learning,” Metropolitan Universities 20, No. 4 (July 2010), pp. 105-116.  Co-written with Michael A. Bryson.

“‘Neon, Junk, and Ruined Landscape’: Competing Visions of America’s Roadsides and the Highway Beautification Act of 1965,” in Christof Mauch and Thomas Zeller (eds.), The World Beyond the Windshield: Roads and Landscapes in the United States and Europe. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2008, pp. 94-107.

“Recycling Is Not Garbage: Market Agents and Municipal Recycling in New York City,” Progress in Industrial Ecology 3, No. 4 (December 2006), pp. 329-343.

“Dirty Work: How Hygiene and Xenophobia Marginalized the American Waste Trades 1870-1930,” Environmental History 9, No. 1 (January 2004), pp. 90-112.

“Review of Susanna Rankin Bohme’s Toxic Injustice: A Transnational History of Exposure and Struggle,” Journal of American History 103, No. 3 (December 2016), pp. 732-733.

“Roundtable Discussion of Catherine McNeur’s Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City,” H-Environment Roundtable Reviews 6, No. 3 (February 2016).

“Review of Carl Smith’s City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago,Indiana Magazine of History 110, No. 2 (June 2014), pp. 188-189.

“Review of Stephanie Foote and Elizabeth Mazzolini’s Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Cultures, Social Justice,” Technology and Culture 54, No. 3 (July 2013), pp. 50-51.

“Roundtable Discussion of Finn Arne Jørgensen’s Making a Green Machine: The Infrastructure of Beverage Container Recycling,H-Environment Roundtable Reviews 3, No. 2 (February 2013).

“The Births, Deaths, and Rebirths of Great American Cities” (review essay of 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), Reviews in American History 40, No. 2 (June 2012), pp. 264-269.

“Martin V. Melosi’s The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America from Colonial Times to the Present,” Environmental History 14, No. 2 (April 2009), pp. 377-378.

“Daniel Eli Burnstein’s Next to Godliness: Confronting Dirt and Despair in Progressive Era New York City,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 38, No. 1 (Summer 2007), pp. 149-150.

“Flint’s Sorry Legacy of Environmental Racism,” From the Square, January 25, 2016.

“The Dirty History of White Supremacy,” History News Network, December 15, 2015.

“No Scrubbing Award America’s Racist Past,” From the Square, January 20, 2015.

“We Ignore Our Infrastructure at Our Peril,” History News Network, September 20, 2010.

“Labor History and Culture in Chicago: LAWCHA 2009,” History News Network, June 4, 2009.

“The Economic Crisis is an Environmental Crisis: Trash Has Crashed,” History News Network, February 9, 2009.

Download my CV (pdf) and see my page.

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