Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Joshua O. Reno's "Waste Away"

Joshua O. Reno is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Binghamton University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Waste Away: Working and Living with a North American Landfill, and reported the following:
My book is about how the lives of North Americans have been shaped by waste disposal, especially landfilling, without our being aware of it. Strangely, page 99 not only reflects that overall focus of my book, but also encapsulates my scholarly career!

Here is an excerpt from Page 99:
So much focus has gone into what consumers do or do not wantonly throw away that it is easy to forget that being a mass consumer—one who buys things in shops that are made somewhere else by someone else—is itself a decision. The understanding of choice in consumer societies is often limited to what we buy, not whether we do so; it therefore involves implicit assumptions about how people are related to things and to each other. The question that goes unasked (except by scavengers) is why anyone would choose to be a consumer at all, with so much perfectly good waste lying around. That is, why would anyone spend money on new goods when they could shop for free by touring the neighborhood landfill or diving into the Dumpsters behind the supermarket?
In this passage, which comes from the introduction to the third chapter, I argue that people do not scrounge for things in the garbage purely out of necessity, as if they had no other choice (after a zombie apocalypse, for example). Rather, scavenging itself is a choice; it can be regarded as liberating and exciting by those who do it, and not at all as an act of desperation. In fact, this was one of the central arguments of my very first publication (“Your Trash is Someone’s Treasure,” which appeared in the Journal of Material Culture in 2009). Then, I argued that people who scavenge waste from landfills are much like consumers: they are looking to improve themselves and build relationships by acquiring valuable things.

Some of the evidence from that initial publication appears again in this chapter. Over subsequent years, however, I realized that much more could be said about the relationship between scavenging from waste and buying things from a store. One reason that there is so much recoverable waste to be found in landfills is that consumers throw away perfectly good stuff. But there is another connection between mass consumption and waste disposal infrastructure, one that we are not meant to see. Producers and retailers routinely dispose of commodities that “spoil” or simply do not meet their own quality control standards, which not only provides salvageable goods (sometimes in large quantities), but also makes mass consumption a repetitive and worry-free ritual. The scavenger and the consumer are not only similar (in that they both want stuff), but their different choices are a product of mass waste disposal. This subtracts unwanted materials from the official sphere of exchange so that the commodities we wish to buy appear new and untroubled. And being exposed to so many perfectly reproduced and reliable commodities can make mass consumption appear like the only possible choice.

That is the focus of the book as a whole, not only what happens to our waste, but how its subtraction unknowingly constrains our experiences and imaginations.
Learn more about Waste Away at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue