Joshua Reno, assistant professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, details how becoming more aware of where our trash goes might be a good way to start reducing it.
Josh Reno’s diverse research interests share a focus on controversial modern technologies designed to solve seemingly intractable problems, from waste and climate change to disability and energy insecurity. His early research focused on a large landfill in the periphery of Detroit, which he observed as both a paid laborer and an associate of local activists, documenting the complicated ways that our collective waste becomes entangled with the fate of particular people and places.
In collaboration with the Waste of the World Project, he has also conducted research and published on the introduction of new technological solutions to the waste crisis and climate change in the United Kingdom. He has new research projects on American warcraft waste and international carbon offsets in preparation. He is interested not only in environmental controversies, but in how technological innovations complicate what it means to be human.
One of the biggest surprises I encountered researching the relationship between Americans and our garbage is the fact that landfills—the end of the line in the waste management chain—are such elaborate operations. And we depend on them for much more than we realize.
My hands-on work that I pursued as part of my research provided me with a clearer understanding of these facilities, one that runs counter to the notion that landfills are little more than “dumps” without much sophistication. In fact, they are far more complex.
Landfills require the efforts of workers trained with a specific set of skills to keep things running smoothly, as well as on-site specialists for managerial tasks to satisfy regulations to minimize their environmental impact. In fact, the bigger problem is that many landfills are run so well, their workers are so good at concealing our waste from us, that we have become more wasteful as a result.
While it’s true that two generations of initiatives aimed at reducing the volume of trash in the garbage stream has had an impact, it’s also amazing—and not in a good way—to witness the amount of usable items that end up at a landfill. People throw away TVs, computers and other devices, sometimes still loaded with tons of personal information. While working onsite as a “paper picker” at a mega-landfill to better understand this phenomenon, I saw hundreds of items, often in perfectly good working order, discarded—sometimes by consumers, but more often from businesses.
Furniture items, alcohol and lots of food, still packaged and nowhere near the expiration date, were shipped off by the truckload. I heard stories about cases of snack cakes dumped off by the manufacturer. Still boxed up and neatly sealed in plastic wrap.
It’s clear that many people don’t think twice about what happens to the garbage they throw out. And—despite the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle”– the foundation of the American dream is still built on the notion that it is acceptable to produce tons of waste.