Over 43 million gallons of milk has been dumped into manure pits and fields the first eight months of 2016. There is too much of it. Yet milk is only the most recent commodity to become waste in an economic system that depends on waste. The Treadmill of Production refers to the processes by which industrial systems achieve consistent growth, and waste plays a central role. 


A rotary milking parlor at a modern dairy facility. Photo by Gunnar Richter. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the glut of wasted milk in the United States:

More than 43 million gallons’ worth of milk were dumped in fields, manure lagoons or animal feed, or have been lost on truck routes or discarded at plants in the first eight months of 2016, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That is enough milk to fill 66 Olympic swimming pools, and the most wasted in at least 16 years of data requested by The Wall Street Journal.

The excess of produced milk has caused a steep drop in prices, so dumping becomes an economically viable option. Farmers and their industry partners are trying to find a place for their excess milk, from extra cheese in Egg McMuffins to using butter instead of margarine in buns. These extra milk products have lead to an increase in milk consumption: “on average, each American last year ate an extra pound of cheese and butter combined.” But even with these extra milk stashes in the supply chain, the plummeting price of milk makes it so that even shipping the raw milk to be processed for cheese too expensive. This is the context where dumping makes sense. Milk is not the only thing dumped in the face of fluctuating and falling prices– recycled plasticssugar, and other commodities are sometimes cheaper to dump than to sell or use.

43 million gallons of milk is only possible because of technological interventions, such as hormones and industrial scale farming. These interventions are difficult to reverse because they are so systematic– they become ingrained as part of infrastructures and regulatory systems and consumer taste and livelihoods. This entire system is called the Treadmill of Production. The Treadmill of production is an idea introduced by Allan Schnaiberg in his 1980 book, The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity. It refers to the processes by which industrial systems, particularly capitalist ones, seek to continually increase their rate of growth. Schnaiberg and many others argue that that dominant institutions and social structures, from business schools to agricultural practices to the way we define success and failure, understand growth as an inherent good, and even an economic necessity. This means that our businesses, farms, schools, and other institutions, continually produce more products and services to create more consumers that must consume more products and services. As this becomes normal, growth plateaus, and more consumers that consume more are needed (see Strasser 2000, Cohen 2004, and Liboiron 2013 for a history of how this trend was created in post-war United States in particular). This process requires ever more energy and resources. It also produces ever more waste. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal article about dumped milk laments the increase in wasted milk in the past year, but the graph they use to show this increase also illustrates that dumping is normal. It has only increased.

Waste is central to keeping the treadmill of production going. First, the production of energy and extraction of resources used to make and deliver ever more goods and services produce industrial waste. Secondly, to make room for ever more consumption, products have to go somewhere– the logic behind planned obsolesce, disposability, and fashion is to make room for more consumption. Third, sometimes more is produced than can be consumed, as in the case of 43 million gallons of dumped American milk. It is not just that we aren’t thirsty enough, but that there is an entire social, technical, and economic system that creates lots of milk, but can’t support all that milk.

But there is more to the discard story! Policy makers, economic analysts, and decision makers know that waste, wether in the form of pollution or dumped commodities, is an outcome of growth. But such waste is often dismissed as being a temporary disruption (milk) or something that can be fixed with technology (such as the Ocean Clean Up Array that is supposed to clean up marine plastic pollution). But this framing and these technologies allow the treadmill to keep going. Even in a literal sense, garbage technology allows more garbage. For example, a new study in the Journal of Marketing Research f0und that people wasted more if recycling was available (Sun and Trudel 2016).

Even if waste is reduced with regulation, planning, design, and technology, it is still central to industrial growth. This isn’t just the case with capitalism. Soviet historian and waste researcher Zsuzsa Gille found that waste was also central to communist productionism, including the dumping of commodities (2007). In any economy that demands growth, waste prevails. The central concept of discard studies is that waste is born of systems, not of instances of dumping or spillage, and our socioeconomic system would have to change dramatically if we want waste to become less ubiquitous and plentiful. Josh Lepawsky and I have written on the relationship of waste to other economic systems such as degrowth:

Other ways of organizing economic life not premised on profit or increasing production, such as degrowth, or even steady-states, would fundamentally challenge the conditions of modern discards. In many ways, this is the ideal Grand Experiment in discard studies: what would waste in a degrowth economy look like? What would happen to tonnage, toxicity, disposability, externalization, NIMBY politics, and the banishing of waste to sacrifice zones?

What would happen to all that milk? Without the Treadmill of Production, it likely wouldn’t exist to be dumped in the first place, and if it did, the reasons for and meanings of that dumping would be quite different. In the meantime, we can ease off reporting massive dumping and spillage as unexpected catastrophes, and turn our attention to the slow and expected disaster of continual growth.


References & Further Reading

Cohen, L. (2004). A consumers’ republic: The politics of mass consumption in postwar America. Journal of Consumer Research, 31(1), 236-239.

De Kadt, M. (1999). Solid waste management at a crossroads: Recycling on the treadmill of production. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 10(3), 131-160.

Gille, Z. (2007). From the cult of waste to the trash heap of history: the politics of waste in socialist and postsocialist Hungary. Indiana University Press.

Gould, K. A., Gould, K., Schnaiberg, A., & Weinberg, A. S. (1996). Local environmental struggles: Citizen activism in the treadmill of production. Cambridge University Press.

Gould, K. A., Pellow, D. N., & Schnaiberg, A. (2004). Interrogating the treadmill of production everything you wanted to know about the treadmill but were afraid to ask. Organization & Environment, 17(3), 296-316.

Kallis, G. (2011). In defence of degrowth. Ecological Economics, 70(5), 873-880.

Lepawsky, J., and Liboiron, M. (2015). Why Discards, Diverse Economies, and Degrowth? Society and Space Forum. 

Liboiron, M. (2013). Modern waste as strategy. Lo Squaderno: Explorations in Space and Society, 29, 9-12.

Schnaiberg, A. (1980). Environment: from surplus to scarcity. In Environment: from surplus to scarcity. Oxford University Press.

Strasser, S. (2000). Waste and want: A social history of trash. Macmillan.

Sun, M., & Trudel, R. (2016). The Effect of Recycling versus Trashing on Consumption: Theory and Experimental Evidence*. Journal of Marketing Research.