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Technology and Culture 43.3 (2002) 615-617

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Book Review

Waste and Want:
A Social History of Trash

Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. By Susan Strasser. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. Pp. 368. $26.

Tampons, DiposAlls, and the ever-varying tail fins of the postwar Cadillac—these are a few of the cultural artifacts that suggest America's tense and complicated relationship with consumption, poverty, and waste. Susan Strasser's Waste and Want sits firmly astride the American transition from a culture that insisted on a simple but careful stewardship of objects to a disposable society in which consumption is patriotic.

The most important transition came near the turn of the last century, as industrialization and the relative decline of agriculture produced a more affluent, mobile, and urbanized population in the United States. Simultaneously, social reformers achieved measures that limited traditional waste-recovery [End Page 615] cottage industries organized largely around child labor. Sewage treatment plants and landfills were designed to protect the public, further limiting informal scavenging and recovery.

Strasser focuses primarily on the role of women in determining household behavior. Instead of presenting an archaeology of garbage, as William Rathje and Cullen Murphy did with Rubbish (1992), Strasser investigates broader issues of American consumption and its evil twin, poverty. Constantly returning to wives and mothers as they navigate the needs and wants of their family, she extracts important observations about American values through the prism of disposal behavior over time.

On the American frontier, for example, traveling salesmen took waste items (mostly rags) in payment for new products. Ironically, these were men working in a woman's world, negotiating with frontier housekeepers. But as communities grew, stores replaced the peddlers, eliminating the opportunities for exchanging used for new goods. Mass-merchandising of throwaway items of course meant massive increases in waste. Growth in household income permitted average families to embrace the new culture of consumption without fear of destitution. Papermaking, for example, which made considerable strides with the enhanced popularity of newspapers during the Civil War, now could use wood pulp rather than scarce and expensive rags. The result: even more waste. Strasser traces these trends to contemporary times, identifying the stimulative role of a political economy fueled by annual increases in consumption.

Some of the most interesting parts of Waste and Want focus on the new sciences of "efficiency," particularly those that enabled more leisurely homemaking. Lillian Gilbreth, after studying numerous families (including her own, as famously documented by her children in Cheaper by the Dozen) consulted with Johnson and Johnson about how best to appeal to modern women's desire for disposable sanitary napkins. Tellingly, Gilbreth was not a market-research expert; Johnson and Johnson sought her out because of her expertise in household efficiency.

The theme of efficiency through waste soon metamorphoses into the theme of freedom to dispose, cresting at the height of the cold war with the famous Nixon-Khrushchev kitchen debate. One of the gadgets highlighted was General Electric's DisposAll, which efficiently removed all organics to the sewer. The episode showed off American wealth and reinforced a popular view that disposability was a convenience founded on our rights as free Americans.

And what of the current belief in recycling as a key aspect of today's waste-management equation? It seems clear that this, too, relates to the American tension between abundance and poverty. The current recycling fad is peculiar in that it focuses primarily on those wastes generated in our homes. Recycling efforts are important for (among other things) their ability to focus the public's attention on limiting waste, but domestic waste [End Page 616] should be contrasted with its much (more than thirty times) larger sibling, industrial waste. Although recycling rates continue to rise, increases in total waste disposal (even on the residential side) far outstrip gains in recovery. Moreover, decisions of the greatest importance to waste disposal and resource use are made on the industrial side of the equation, largely unaffected by domestic recycling.

Waste and Want is full of insights for all...


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