A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape

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The story told in this book began with the extraction of raw materials from deep in the earth. We end by closing the cycle, looking at what becomes of the leftovers, the wastes, the stuff nobody wants anymore. More often than not, the ultimate fate of these materials is to go back into the earth. It’s mining in reverse.

When we enter the world of refuse and waste, we cross over into a mirror-image economy. In the “normal” world, we pay to acquire things; on the other side of the looking glass, we pay to get rid of them. Junk isn’t merely worthless; it has negative value. A chemical engineer once told me about a recent improvement in a manufacturing process; by fine-tuning a chemical synthesis he had increased the yield of a certain commodity from 98 percent to 99 percent. I congratulated him, but I couldn’t help remarking that this seemed like a rather small improvement. “Ah, you miss the important point,” he said. “The amount of waste goes from 2 percent down to 1 percent. It’s cut in half. We save tremendously on disposal costs.”


English has some fine, forthright words for it: trash, rubbish, refuse, garbage. For waste professionals, shades of meaning distinguish these terms. Trash is dry stuff (junk mail, empty cans, ashes, gum wrappers) and garbage is wet stuff (moldy cheese, orange peels, used chewing gum). Refuse is a broader term, encompassing both wet and dry; it’s everything you’d ever put in the trash can or the recycling bin, including grass trimmings and other yard scraps. Rubbish means about the same as refuse, but sometimes it also includes debris from construction sites, such as broken concrete.

These are all fine words, but sanitation workers I’ve met talk about MSW. The initials stand for municipal solid waste.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) keeps tabs on just how much MSW Americans produce, as well as what’s in it and where it goes. The latest figures are for 2001. Total collections that year were just under 230 million tons, which works out to 4.4 pounds a day for every person in the nation. Is that a lot? Is it too much? Are we scandalously wasteful people? A throwaway society?

The historical context is hard to interpret. Over the 40 years that the EPA has been keeping records, the total annual tonnage has more than doubled. Although part of that increase can be explained away as a consequence of population growth, the per capita discard rate has also risen sharply, from about 2.7 pounds a day in 1960 to the 4.4 pounds of 2001. It’s interesting to note, however, that all of the increase in rubbish per person was recorded before 1990; the rate has been steady since then. And, looking farther back, it seems likely that our forebears a century ago were even trashier than we are. In the era of wood-burning and coal-burning stoves, ashes alone amounted to more than 3 pounds per person per day, according to some estimates.

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