*This is an edited transcript from the IDEAS City lecture on waste by Max Liboiron.

Modern waste—that is, mid-20th to 21st century waste—is characterized by a few things. First, there is its tonnage– there is a lot of it, mostly industrial. About 98 percent of waste produced in the United States is industrial solid waste, the majority of which is mining and agricultural waste. It is heavy, wet, and plentiful. Secondly, modern waste is toxic. Third, it is heterogeneous meaning it’s made up of many different things. Even something called “plastic” in a waste audit is made of potentially thousands of variations (MacBride 2012). And, fourthly, what I’m going to concentrate on here, modern waste has a pivotal role in an economic system as a strategy for growth and profit.

A short history of modern waste

If you look at waste in general, most of the tonnage and toxicity is actually industrial as opposed to municipal solid waste. When we talk about garbage, in general we tend to mean municipal solid waste (MSW). This is the waste that we have experience with. But MSW represents only one to three percent of waste produced in the United States.

Graph by Max Liboiron. Figures from EPA 1997.

Graph by Max Liboiron. Figures from EPA 1997.

This is a very generous graph. It’s putting MSW at three percent. While the vast majority of Industrial Solid Waste (ISW) is onsite from industrial processes, and a large portion of those are extractive technologies such as mining and energy. So this is what waste actually looks like:

Syncrude Aurora Oil Sands Mine, north of Fort McMurray, Canada. Photo by Peter Essick National Geographic.

Syncrude Aurora Oil Sands Mine, north of Fort McMurray, Canada. Photo by Peter Essick National Geographic.

These are the tar sands in Northern Alberta. This is where I’m from. Now that we know what waste really looks like, we now have a good place for intervention. If you want to deal with waste in general, or waste economies and cyclical economies of waste, this is what you have to deal with. This is where you intervene to put your energy where it would matter the most, where it would scale.

graph_2009SolidWasteBut I want to argue that even municipal solid waste is a form of industrial solid waste. If you look at the breakdown of municipal solid waste, only about fifteen to thirty percent of it are things that would exist in pre-modern waste. Food and yard trimmings: organic compostables. And the rest of it is almost entirely disposables or things treated as disposable. And this large portion of disposables is what characterizes modern waste. Disposability is a strategy.

volkswagen theory of evolutionIn 1956, Lloyd Stoffer famously stated “The future of plastics in the trash can.” At the time, this was considered a very controversial statement, and he got in some trouble for it. Stoffers sentiment comes during a period where industry was facing a unique problem. The Volkswagen theory of evolution (left) was to build something to last, without versions, fashions, and make it easy to fix. So when someone bought it, that was it. They only needed one. With this mode of production, markets were saturating. The opportunities for growth and profit were diminishing and reaching stability.

Companies and industries that wanted to grow, that were premised on growth and profit started to intervene at a material level and developed disposability—planned obsolescence and fashion supported by a regime of advertising. They designed a throw away society. People bucked against this design. They had just come out of the Depression in the United States, and an ethos of saving, fixing, and stewardship was the norm. Industry was designing a shift in values.

In his 1960 book The Wastemakers, Vance Packard writes against this sort of strategy for profit.He images a city called Cornucopia City, “located on the edge of a cliff, and the ends of [the] assembly lines can be swung to the front or rear doors depending upon the public demand for the product being produced. When demand is slack, the end of the assembly line will be swung to the rear door and the output of refrigerators or other products will drop out of sight and go directly to their graveyard without first overwhelming the consumer market” (Packard 1960: 4). Even earlier, Susan Strausser recounts riots by soldiers in train stations in the 1917 when the communal tin cup for water was replaced with disposable paper cups (Strasser 1999: 177). Such waste was seen as abhorrent.

Seven years after Lloyd Stoffer’s controversial statement, he addresses plastics industry representatives at a conference in New York City:  “It is a measure of your progress in packaging in the last seven years that this remark will no longer raise any eye-brows. You are filling the trash cans, the rubbish dumps and the incinerators with literally billions of plastics bottles, plastics jugs, plastics tubes, blisters and skin packs, plastics bags and films and sheet packages–and now, even plastics cans. The happy day has arrived when nobody any longer considers the plastics package too good to throw away.” Wasting has been naturalized. Disposables have been naturalized.

Recycling is complicit in this. It’s not a coincidence that the largest supporter of recycling is industry. The founder of the recycling symbol is the Container Corporation of America. One of the biggest supporters of New York City’s recycling program is the American Chemistry Council, the chemical (and plastics) lobby. Recycling not only saturates markets in a certain way—it lets industry externalize costs. If a company uses reusable bottles, it has to pay for those bottles to return, but if it uses disposables, they get sent out into the world made with very cheap materials, and municipalities pick up the bill for running them to the landfill, or recycling station, when they are done. The money saved can translate into profit. This is what is meant by “externalization.”

The way that recycling currently operates naturalizes disposability It allows it to happen with a green veneer (Liboiron 2010). Recycling also produces waste and consumes energy and results in a lot of down cycling, because modern waste, municipal solid waste, is so heterogeneous that sorting things like plastics becomes impossible, and it is all melted together into a blob that best serves as a speed bump or railroad tie. The exception is PET bottles, which, minus their caps and labels, are usually one type of plastic. Industrial solid waste is less heterogeneous, more homogenous, and so more recycling happens there. But as you can tell from the fact that industrial solid waste still accounts for most waste in the United States, not all ISW is recyclable.

Alternative Economies

Luckily, there are other sorts of economies that are more cyclical, and therefore have different relationships to waste. They have less tonnage, less toxicity, because they have less growth and less of a profit driven ethos. Steady state economy is a term coined by Herman Daly, to refer to an economy of relatively stable size. It features a stable population and stable consumption that remains at or below carrying capacity. Usually it refers to a national economy, but it can also refer to a city economy, and ecological economists are now referring to it as a potential planet-wide economy.

A steady state economy is an entirely physical concept in which  physical components, like supplies of natural resources, human populations, and human built objects as well as waste, are constrained. The objective is to establish a sustainable scale that doesn’t exceed economic limits. Things that aren’t material like knowledge, spirituality, etcetera—those can grow. This idea of a cyclical, stable economy is a very old idea. Adam Smith talks about 200 years of growth followed by a plateau. Even Jon Keyes talks about valuing “good” as a form of economic stability in his writing. Via development without growth, things can change and develop and get better and become more nuance and deal with what needs to be dealt with in the present, but without growth and without the emphasis on profit, because continual profit requires continuous growth.

Steady State by Max Liboiron. www.maxliboiron.com

Steady State by Max Liboiron. http://www.maxliboiron.com

To illustrate this idea and its relationship to waste, I built Steady State, a participatory art piece. It’s a physical constraining situation, delimited by the island shape in the middle of the table. There are a lot of materials within the island and visitors are invited to build a city. But there’s so much stuff on the table that it becomes very difficult to do that, and the impetus is to just get rid of a bunch of stuff and put it on Staten Island so you can clear space and build, but you can’t do that in this piece. Instead, you have to work in this plethora of stuff.

This is what happens: it starts with everything covered by grass, and people have to dig through the grass to get to the materials underneath. The first thing people do is  clear and build Wall Street and dump everything in Harlem, reproducing a social trend in trashing that already exists. Soon people start building a very high city to deal with all those materials and not much space, much like New York City is built now. Then a woman comes along who’s an architect and says, “This is an extremely phallic city. I’m going to make it more sort of architecturally feminist city.” And with the help of some strangers, she flattens the city. This is amazing because suddenly it looks like all these materials just disappear, all with a change in physical design. Another architect comes along and says that this type of urban planning, where things are built up in available space, rather that clearing a flat space and building on top, is characteristic of South American architecture. People keep building, keep developing. Someone bans cars at some point and points them in a car museum. Someone unearths a dinosaur. Harlem becomes a jungle of parks because all the initial grass was “dumped there,” and to navigate all that green space they build zip lines instead of roads, which is good because the cars are all in the car museum. And finally two boys come along and wreck everything and return it back to a grassy state.

These are just some of the things that happened when people were given reign to build a state economy via urban planning. Different things happened to waste: waste was only waste if it was dumped somewhere for a while so other things could be built, and it was reclaimed as resource soon afterwards. Nothing could come on or off the island, and so everything was a potential resource. Everything was modular and built to be a potential resource. This is different than recycling, which currently downcycles and naturalizes disposables in a decidedly non-cyclical economy.

In a steady state economy, certain things would have to change. First, material production would have to change. In particular you would have to reduce or eliminate toxics because you can’t have toxics in your local, cyclical economy—toxics are currently made possible because they’re externalized. Even now, toxics are affecting what might currently function as cyclical material lives because compost full of contaminants. So part of shifting to a steady state, toxic-free economy would involve green chemistry, which is the elimination of toxins at the source—before things start, before things are made. This means education systems would change in a cyclical economy. You’d also need to change the material process of recycling, so it wasn’t the same kind of industrial process that it is now, which requires raw materials, produce pollution, and naturalizes disposables. Recycling would look quite different, more like the Cradle-to-Cradle version of recycling. Finally, you might have a reuse infrastructure that actually scales. Reuse is a better form of interacting with waste, because you don’t have the same material changes that require energy and produce waste to create new things. But right now our reuse infrastructure in the form of second-hand shops and used building materials doesn’t scale. It currently isn’t economic in the sense of being able to have significant amounts of things flow through it.

A Steady State economy is only one of many types of alternative economies that are not driven by profit, and so can change the role of waste. Any system that deals with the four aspects of modern waste–tonnage, toxicity, heterogeneity, and disposability/externalization–will change waste infrastructure and what counts as trash. Technological, individual, behavioral and other small scale fixes don’t address the larger scale sources that define and create modern waste. Solutions that work at the economic level have a real chance of making change. Thus, Steady State engages in a politics of possibility, where we imagine at larger scales of intervention.

Detail of Steady State. Photo by AnonRose.

Detail of Steady State. Photo by AnonRose.

Daly, Herman. 1991. Steady-State Economics, 2nd edition. Island Press, Washington, DC.

Liboiron, Max. 2010. “Recycling as a Crisis of Meaning.” eTopia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, (4) Spring 2010.

MacBride, Samantha. 2012. Recycling Reconsidered. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Packard, Vance. 1960. The Waste Makers. New York: David McKay.

Strasser, Susan. 2000. Waste and want: A social history of trash. Macmillan.
Max Liboiron is a postdoctoral researcher with the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing and the Superstorm Research Lab.