The Many Mysteries of MSW

September 4th, 2013, by § 1 Comment

Picture a garbage truck – say, the classic rear-compactor model. Listen to its diesel engine growl as it comes down a street in a large city. Hear its air brakes hiss as it stops next to a pile of trash bags or a row of garbage cans. Watch a worker climb from its cab and tug on his gloves as he walks toward those bags and cans. See him bend, reach, lift, and fling bag after bag, or empty can after can, into the gaping maw of the truck’s hopper. Observe: he feeds it until it can hold no more, then pulls a pair of levers and pauses while a wide blade descends to scoop the contents of the hopper into the body of the truck.

Versions of this scenario, mundane and unremarkable, are repeated every day in cities the world over. Garbage collection constitutes a form of mobile infrastructure that makes it possible for any metropolis to stay healthy, yet it is often a victim of its own success: when management of municipal solid waste (MSW) is done well, it is taken for granted, or even ignored.

From an anthropological perspective, however, it is quite remarkable. In fact, it is one of the richest possible subjects we can study. During several years of research with the Department of Sanitation in New York City (DSNY), I have learned that any single variable in the logistics of waste management points to a tangle of questions about technology, infrastructure, capital, labor, history, economics, politics, bureaucracy, materials science, and ecology, to name only a few possibilities. The truck provides a useful example. Its size, mechanics, and structure are continually refined toward greater efficiency (can household trash be compacted more tightly?), less environmental impact (how many fewer particulates are in the air if we use compressed natural gas instead of diesel fuel?), and enhanced worker safety (will a newly engineered mirror eliminate blind spots for drivers?). Each of these considerations exists within a larger context of competing interests. For instance, compressed natural gas might be a viable fuel alternative, but not without sufficient supply. Or safety measures advocated by the union might raise the price of the truck beyond limits set by those responsible for its cost.

Effective garbage removal is key to the success of capitalism, since discards must be taken away to make room for new Things. Effective garbage removal is also fundamental to public health. Before New York figured out how to clean up after itself, its mortality rate made it one of the deadliest cities in the world. For these reasons, I have long argued that the DSNY — the world’s oldest and largest uniformed sanitation department — is the most important workforce on the streets. The skepticism that met my assertion was part of the inspiration for my research.

When I started fieldwork, I wanted to understand dynamics of the labor, rhythms of the day, relationships between the workers and the public they serve. I assumed that stigma was as inherent to the job as the uniform, and I especially wanted to know what it was like to build a career around a despised profession. It took me a while to recognize that, for many, there is no stigma. Whatever negative value the work may be assigned by the outside world is not the burden of those who actually do the job. The regard or disdain of an always cranky public are not as important as the respect a worker earns from his colleagues.

I also wanted to get a better sense of the job’s dangers. A new hire told me that his mother was glad he’d taken a sanitation job because he’d be safer than if he’d joined the police or fire department. It’s true that he wouldn’t face guns (though it happens) or fires (that also happens) as a regular part of his day, but his mother was sorely mistaken about his safety.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics regularly ranks refuse work among the ten most dangerous occupations in the country.[1] A sanitation worker is many times more likely than a police officer or a firefighter to be injured or killed on the job. The truck taught me the first set of hazards. Let’s go back to the sanitation worker we observed in the beginning. When we left him, he had just filled the cavity in the back of the truck and activated the hopper blade.

Nothing resists the blade. Refrigerators, stoves, every variety of furniture bends under it, often with shrieks of protest. Humbler objects submit to its force, too, though when the pressure pops the bags, the contents try to escape, with potentially disastrous consequences. Who knew that a ragged scrap of wood studded with rusty nails could so perfectly imitate a javelin, or that a plastic lawn chair could explode into a thousand knife-sharp fragments? Sanitation workers from every part of the city have told me stories about, and showed me scars from, wounds in their legs, arms, face, back. One lost two fingers when he couldn’t extricate his hand from the string that wrapped a bundle of newspapers that he’d tried to toss in the truck just as the blade descended. Another lost his eye when it was punctured by a dowel like a 6-foot-long knitting needle protruding from a recycling container.

Worse risks come from the street. For much of their shift, sanitation workers are in and out of the truck, and therefore in and out of traffic. That traffic is impatient. Where a school bus has strict laws safeguarding its precious cargo, workers in a collection truck have no such protection. They are hit, grievously injured, and killed with alarming frequency.

Until recently, solid waste has earned little scrutiny from anthropology, but that’s beginning to change.[2] We are starting to recognize that the seemingly routine chores of MSW management hide a wealth of insight about daily life and global trends, about the fickle vagaries of value bestowed or withheld, about the vast structural challenges of making an unloved material continually flow.[3] I invite us to take up, from within our many subspecialties, an anthropology of discards. The world’s trash awaits its transformation into scholarly treasure.


[1] See the Bureau of Labor Statistics News Release, August 22, 2013: “National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2012 (Preliminary Results).” http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/cfoi.pdf

[2] For example, see Robin Nagle, Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013; see also Josh Reno, “Beyond Risk: Landfill Emplacement and the Production of Environmental Evidence,” American Ethnologist 38(3):516-30 and “Your Trash is Someone’s Treasure: The Politics of Value at a Michigan Landfill,” Journal of Material Culture 14(1):29-46.

[3] See Samantha MacBride, Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.

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Garbage collection constitutes a form of mobile infrastructure that makes it possible for any metropolis to stay healthy, yet it is often a victim of its own success: when management of municipal solid waste (MSW) is done well, it is taken for granted, or even ignored.

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