Tag Archives: consumption

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.

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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.

Victory Auto Wreckers and the Long History of Junk as a Dirty Word

chinews-victory-auto-wreckers-launch-20150121Personal history frequently dovetails with broader historical trends. That was my experience this week after seeing news about a staple of my childhood.

Most kids who grew up in Chicago households with televisions over the past fifty years have probably seen ads for Victory Auto Wreckers. Most scrap and salvage businesses do not advertise on television, but rare was the White Sox game or Saturday afternoon movie of my youth that did not feature at least one Victory ad.

Most of the ones I saw are lost to history, but one 1985 Victory Auto Wreckers ad has aired on Chicago television for thirty years. Victory Auto Wreckers is in the news in 2015 because the business has decided to finally update its ad. Although the phone number, address, name, and type of business has remained unchanged, Victory wants to update its image. Owner Kyle Weisner, who took over the business from his father since the last ad was filmed, spoke with Wailin Wong of The Distance (which then provided the story to the Chicago Tribune website) about the image problem.

….change — and an all-new commercial — is finally coming to Victory, which was founded in 1945 by two World War II veterans and is located in Bensenville, Ill., just beyond the southern edge of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. A place like Victory, where broken-down cars are stripped and flattened, seems like an unlikely candidate for a makeover. But the business has invested millions of dollars into upgrading its facilities and reshaping its image from a dirty junkyard to a modern recycling center, complete with its own mobile app.
“The commercial shows a shot of the yard, and you see it almost looks like it was filmed on a rainy day,” Kyle says. “It’s so muddy and disgusting, and everything is haphazard and all over the place. Now it’s paved. It’s beautiful. You can come in here after work with your suit on or your loafers or whatever, and not have to worry about getting dirty. …It’s something that we’ve never had before. We’ve entered the 21st century.”

CashforYourTrashWhat I love about this quote is how explicitly it uses the rhetoric scrap recycling businesses have used to distinguish their businesses from waste and filth for a century. This point is a continuity through the history of scrap recycling, as I noted in my 2005 book Cash for Your Trash. While popular perceptions of recycling in the 21st century link it to environmentally virtuous, ethical behavior, the acts of reclaiming and reprocessing post-consumer and post-industrial materials bore stigma in the early 20th century. Progressive reformers like Jane Addams railed against scrap businesses endangering the physical and moral health of urban children. Zoning ordinances after World War I sought to keep such businesses out of sight and out of mind of most residents.
In response, scrap and salvage businesses published trade magazines and founded trade associations to advocate for their work. As they did, they distinguished themselves as modern agents of material conservation far removed from “primitive junk dealing.”

Time and again, scrap recyclers have distanced themselves from the term “junk” and its dirty connotations. During the debates over what became the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, Scrap Age defended its constituents against potential regulations requiring yards not to provide visible blight on the nation’s highways. It also instructed readers to avoid using the work “junk” in their names and descriptions of their businesses, going so far as to say “the name of this game is ‘scrap.’ Anything else is a disservice to your firm, your industry, and your future.” (See p. 127 of Cash for Your Trash for the full citation.)

Half a century after the Highway Beautification Act debates, Victory Auto Wreckers continues the rhetorical attempt to define scrap as modern rather than dirty. I look forward to seeing the new ad and wonder whether any kids in 2015 will have any different idea of what goes on inside a salvage facility after watching it. If history is a guide, attempts at an image change will face challenges.

Spring 2015 Sustainability Classes Begin at Pratt

Pratt_DeKalbThe Spring 2015 semester begins at Pratt today, and students in the Sustainability Studies minor have several options for classes.

Some sections (including SUST 401-01 Power, Pollution, and Profit and MSCI 438-01 Chemistry of Modern Poly Materials) have filled to capacity, but other options remain for Pratt students interested in taking sustainability-related coursework from the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies. (There are also options in other departments; discuss them with your academic advisor.)

I am 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.

In addition, Assistant Professor Jennifer Telesca (Pratt’s newest Sustainability faculty member) has two new special topics courses of interest.  The first is SS 490-15 Environmental Justice, offered Thursdays from 2-4:50pm. While aspects of EJ are covered in SUST 201, SUST 401, and SUST 405, this seminar gives students the opportunity to have in-depth discussions of equity issues relating to the environment.

Jen Telesca is also teaching two sections of The Human-Animal Relationship. While the Tuesday section (SS 490-21, Tuesdays from 2-4:50pm) is filled to capacity, SS 490-22 is offered Wednesdays from 9:30am-12:30pm and has spaces available.

There are no prerequisites for any of these courses. 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 Sustainability Registration Options for Spring 2015

Pratt_DeKalbThe Spring 2015 offering of SUST 401-01 Power, Pollution, and Profit has filled to capacity, but other options remain for Pratt students interested in taking sustainability-related coursework from the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies. (There are also options in other departments; discuss them with your academic advisor.)

I am 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.

In addition, Assistant Professor Jennifer Telesca (Pratt’s newest Sustainability faculty member) has two new special topics courses of interest.  The first is SS 490-15 Environmental Justice, offered Thursdays from 2-4:50pm. While aspects of EJ are covered in SUST 201, SUST 401, and SUST 405, this seminar gives students the opportunity to have in-depth discussions of equity issues relating to the environment.

Jen Telesca is also teaching two sections of The Human-Animal Relationship. SS 490-21 is offered Tuesdays from 2-4:50pm and SS 490-22 is offered Wednesdays from 9:30am-12:30pm.

Eric Godoy is teaching PHIL 356-01 Environmental Ethics Mondays from 5-7:50pm. In addition to being an elective for the minor, PHIL 356 discussions relate closely to themes of each of the courses described above.

There are no prerequisites for any of these courses. 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.