The Roots of Freeganism Part II: Disposable Culture

By Nelson Harvey


Yes Virginia, those are cell phones

In May of each year, as school winds to a close, many NYU students throw their lives away. I’m not talking about binge drinking, lazy days on the beach, or even the taboo subject of suicide, which has been sadly common lately at NYU. I’m talking about actually putting things in the trash.

They do it for many reasons; most obviously, many would rather purchase their necessities again in the fall than ship them home. Whatever their motives, though, the dumpsters outside of NYU dorms in early May are anthropological treasure troves.

And the freegans know it. Last year around move-out time, they were having a field day, scavenging gleefully through NYU dumpsters, bringing in TV’s, i-Pods, lamps, cleaning products, paintings, and innumerable other items that students had disposed of in their rush for the shelter of summer vacation. Often, the harvest from such events is so great that it can furnish entire apartments.

Affluent NYU students make an easy target for those who would scorn our wasteful society, but their behavior is hardly unique. Disposable culture has become the norm, and it can be understood in terms of three trends: we’re buying more products, the cost of production for many of them is falling, and there are few comprehensive mechanisms in this country for making producers responsible for their waste.

The trend toward disposability in the U.S. is hardly new. In fact, it has its roots in the turn of the 20th century. As historian Susan Strasser points out in her 2003 book “Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash,” the explosion of American industry coincided with the rise of municipal waste collection during the early 1900’s, bringing many previously homemade or bulk-bought goods into the home as packaged products that could be conveniently discarded.

Cars at the scrap yard

Strasser notes that disposability meant more than just convenience: it also implied social standing. “From the start,” she writes, “disposability was promoted for its ability to make people feel rich: with throwaway products, they could obtain levels of cleanliness and convenience once available only to people with many servants.”

This trend also transformed economic relationships, according to Strasser. “Customers” who bought from local storekeepers became “consumers,” who interacted only with large, centralized corporations. Suddenly, advertising was the principle mechanism for people to learn about products. Advertisers, capitalizing on the fact that human desires are infinite, began to fabricate needs left and right.

The results have been impressive. Over Thanksgiving weekend this year, the phone company T-mobile offered a free airplane flight with the purchase of a certain calling plan. I may not have needed to go anywhere before I saw their ad, but such an incentive made a trip to the Isle of Tobago seem as essential as brushing my teeth.

Today, the forces of industry and advertising have combined with the global flows of capital and labor to leave us in quite a fix, one that was summed up nicely in a recent story on the NPR program Marketplace. In it, the reporter relates a story of wanting to fix her broken DVD player, but realizing that it would cost about $150 dollars, while getting a new one would be just over $100. The result? She hit the mall, and the old player wound up at a hazardous waste pickup station.

Gas Cylinders

At least in the case of electronics, any holiday shopper can attest that many goods are cheap and getting cheaper (the iPhone notwithstanding). The falling prices of many technologies are closely tied to globalization, since manufacturers can produce their goods wherever labor is cheap and sell them to Americans at a tremendous markup. Technological obsolescence accelerates product disposal, and e-waste is currently the fastest growing portion of the municipal waste stream. But there are at least two less familiar trends at work here as well.

First, an increasing number of consumer goods are simply not reparable. In their seminal book “Cradle to Cradle” about sustainable design and manufacturing, Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart refer to such goods as “monstrous hybrids;” mixtures of technological and biological nutrients that were not designed with recycling in mind and cannot be readily disassembled.

Many freegans, who can tend to benefit from such design practices, attribute them to corporate greed. “I think it is ‘good for business,’” said New York freegan and high school Spanish teacher Janet Kalish, in an email message. “I think companies don’t work hard to make their parts accessible for repair because it is more profitable for them to have customers buy more.”

Circuit Boards

The “Cradle to Cradle” authors propose one solution that could preserve profits while transforming “consumers” back into “customers”: service-based business models, where companies could lease durable goods like computers, washing machines, or other appliances, offering trade-ins and upgrades with the advent of new products.

A better-known solution is the idea of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which would shift responsibility for end-of-life processing of products from governments to the companies that produced them. This approach is based on the idea that many of the factors that make contemporary products so difficult to dispose of–hazardous materials content, lack of biodegradability–would be “designed out” once producers were burdened with their consequences.

As usual in the environmental arena, those curious about the performance of new policies need only look to California and Europe for guidance. In 2003, The European Union passed a directive requiring producer take-back of many household appliances, and this was followed three years later by an outright ban of many toxic materials in consumer products, including lead, cadmium, and others.

California followed suit in 2005, with the E-Waste Recovery and Recycling Act, which requires that retailers attach a fee to certain consumer electronics. The fee is then passed on to companies that collect and process the goods when they are no longer wanted. At the beginning of 2005, there were more than 550 hazardous waste drop-off sites throughout the state, and collection was projected to exceed 50 million pounds by year-end.

Phones, chargers, and who knows what else

The California approach may encourage recycling, but as Resources For The Future (RFF) economist Margaret Walls told me in an email message, it could be less effective at getting companies to change the design of their products. That’s because the program relies on third party recyclers to process electronic waste, rather than the companies themselves.

“An individual company never sees its own product again at end-of-life,” said Walls, “…this yields some economies of scale in collection and recycling, but it diffuses the incentive to undertake green design.”

Some companies may be shifting their design practices anyway. The rise of government programs has coincided with a spate of EPR initiatives from private companies; Hewlett Packard, Dell, Apple and Xerox are a few of the many corporations that accept some products for recycling and reprocessing. At least in the case of Xerox, this seems to have yielded concrete changes in the design process.

Although Walls notes that many EPR programs remain most costly than municipal recycling efforts, she holds out some hope. “In theory,” she said, “this could work for every product we consume — a general sales tax coupled with a payment to recyclers and re-processors for every ton recycled.”

The photos in this article were taken by Seattle-based photographer Chris Jordan, and are used with his permission.


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