While often singled out for their excess, Americans are no more than average wasters today. In 1965, an average American threw away four times as much as a Western European. Today, it is Danes, Dutch, Swiss and Germans who generate the most waste.

That the United States has been pushed off the podium is, in part, because other societies have caught up with it as they have gotten richer and bought more packaged, processed foods—87 percent of packaging is for food and drink. In that sense, everyone is a bit more American now.

What is less often appreciated is that Americans have also become a bit more European, returning their bottles, composting more, and leaving leaves and cut grass on the lawn. Some 20 American states imposed a ban on organic garden waste in the early 1990s. Such measures played a significant role in overcoming the landfill crisis of the 1980s, symbolized by the notorious odyssey of the garbage barge Mobro in 1987, which set off from Islip, Long Island, only to be refused harbor first in North Carolina and then in Belize, and to end up virtually back where it had started, in New York, where its waste was eventually incinerated.

Waste, these divergent national trends show, cannot be treated as shorthand for national consumerism. Consumer cultures vary. People can be thrifty with money (the Germans and the Swiss) yet throw away more than people who live on credit (Americans). Germans go through a lot of plastic (5.5 million tons a year) but also recycle a lot of it (42 percent). It is, similarly, wrong to imagine a natural affinity between making things and caring for them at the end of their lives, on the one side, and between a service-leisure society and wastefulness on the other. Britons and Americans started to recycle more at the very time they stopped making cars and clothes.

The speed with which recycling has been taken up by countries previously stigmatized as throwaway societies means that wasteful behavior shouldn’t necessarily be seen as rooted in national traditions and cultures. Salvage drives and the pursuit of self-sufficiency during the Nazi years did not automatically predispose later generations of Germans to become world champions in recycling: In the 1960s and ’70s, they were notorious for throwing out plastic bottles and packaging. It was the state and a grassroots movement called the Greens that turned habits around through changes in law, taxes and awareness, and through smaller bins in the home, curbside collection, and bottle banks.

Nor are slightly less consumerist societies naturally more inclined to recycling. After a slow start, Britain—the commercial society par excellence—today recycles more than Finland or Portugal. Recycling has increased everywhere, but at different speeds and in conjunction with other forms of waste treatment. By 2010, Germany, Austria, and Belgium recycled 60 percent of their municipal waste. Portugal and Greece barely managed 20 percent; Turkey almost nothing. In Japan, intense recycling co-exists with incineration. In the Netherlands, by contrast, the shift to incineration since the 1980s has meant there is little incentive for residents to reduce their waste. The content of bins also continues to vary. In Sweden, 68 percent of municipal waste is paper; in France and Spain, it is merely 20 percent. Swiss and Danes dispose of lots of textiles; Germans don’t.

Roughly, Europe today is made up of three waste regions: a Northern one, stretching from Belgium and Germany to Scandinavia, with few landfills and a lot of recycling but also a lot of household waste; a Mediterranean one, where landfills continue to be more plentiful and recycling is modest; and Eastern Europe, where hardly anything is recycled and the bulk of municipal waste ends up in a landfill. The typical fees and taxes to send non-hazardous municipal waste to landfill in Northern Europe is three to four times higher than in Eastern Europe. For all the progress made towards greater harmony by the European Union, plenty of dissonances remain. Food and garden waste, for example, lacks a common standard. Plenty of Dutch and Spaniards recycle theirs, whereas it goes to landfill in Croatia and Portugal.

Nowhere was the road to recycling more twisted and dramatic than in Eastern Europe, where socialism charted its own path. In the communist lexicon, waste was a capitalist phenomenon and typified the reckless squandering of human energy and material resources for short-sighted profit and imperial expansion. In the hands of socialists, it was deemed valuable, a source that never dried up: “old raw” or “secondary material,” as propaganda had it. (In a way, socialists picked up the capitalist crusade for efficiency led by Herbert Hoover and others earlier in the century.)

Shortages of raw materials—the result of geographic destiny and inefficient planning—made recycling an everyday concern in the Eastern bloc during the Cold War. Collecting waste saved hard currency. Hungary had lost territories and faced an embargo, which made salvaging everything from metal scraps to door handles a matter of life and death for its metal industries. In 1951, when collections got under way, 2,000 tons of iron were gathered in a single week. For the Communist Party, “the material squanderers must be subject to disciplinary action.” But people also had to be enticed. Socialist ideals were not enough. Rags paid for shoes; bits of hog leather could be traded in for pepper and rice. In 1950s East Germany, half a kilo of used paper secured a precious roll of wallpaper; a kilo of bones one bar of soap.

Salvage drives were the socialist equivalent of fair-trade campaigns in the West. Instead of consuming ethical coffee, young pioneers showed their “solidarity with Vietnam” by gathering old newspapers and rags. The German Democratic Republic perfected a nationwide network for the collection of secondary materials, the so-called Kombinat für Sekundärstofferfassung (SERO), which in the 1980s brought a pink elephant—its mascot, “Emmy”—to the lakes of Mecklenburg and the chalk hills of Saxony. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, SERO operated 17,200 collecting points and 55,000 containers; there were additional points for metal recycling and containers for food waste. More, not fewer, returnable bottles made the rounds. East Germans recycled an estimated 40 percent of their refuse—something Britons only managed in 2010 and Italians and Spaniards have yet to accomplish.

It would be unwise to get too nostalgic, though. Waste collection was driven by the needs of dirty industry, not the environment—East Germany raised some 10 percent of its raw materials through recycling. A good deal of salvage was immensely wasteful, with firms holding back materials to meet artificial targets. A lot of old scrap rusted away, unwanted by industry. Under socialism, recycling went backwards as well as forwards. Hungary in 1960 collected one-third of old tires, miles ahead of its capitalist neighbors. But, by 1973, this had dropped to 3 percent. When it came to recycling municipal waste, socialist states fell behind in the 1980s; West Germans already collected more paper than their brothers and sisters across the Wall in the 1970s. Nonetheless, the collapse of socialism amounted to a major disruption in existing channels and habits of recycling. Within a couple of years of the fall of the Berlin Wall, only a hundred collection points were left in East Germany. Elsewhere back-purchase systems lost their subsidies and gave way to cheaper, privatized forms of disposal. In the Czech Republic, paper and glass collection all but collapsed. If the 1990s were golden years for recycling in the West, they were a lost decade east of the Elbe. Recycling had to start again from scratch.

Rather than being the natural end point of affluence, the “throwaway era” of the 1950s and ’60s was merely one stage in a longer transformation of people’s relationship to their waste. At the beginning of the 21st century, rich countries are both wasting more and recycling more. Indeed, citizens are more directly implicated in handling and sorting their rubbish than their Victorian forebears.

It is not certain that all developing societies will necessarily follow the trajectory of American and European cities in the past and replace “backward” rag-and-bone men—who went door to door collecting used items and then selling them to merchants—with technological solutions. In Colombia and Brazil, authorities have recognized scavengers as valuable partners in waste management and organized co-operatives since the 1980s; in India today, over 3 million waste pickers recycle almost 7 million tons of scrap a year, saving municipalities millions.

In the rich West, however, a wondrous new constellation has appeared. The sifting and separating once done by lowly rag-and-bone men is now done by all citizens. Rich and poor alike are getting their hands dirty, separating old bottles from cardboard and smelly food. Recycling has turned an old hierarchy of value upside down. Since ancient times, handling and sorting rubbish has been the fate of the lowest of the low, hence the stigma of the “untouchables.” Today, it is a sign of environmental awareness that marks one out as a responsible citizen. Instead of sending their collective rubbish to highly sophisticated sorting machines, the richest people on the planet insist on doing it themselves and for free, as if wanting to defy the economic law of the division of labor. Recycling is no longer treated as backward or traditional. It has become the ally of high-octane consumption, a kind of ersatz sacrament that cleanses consumers of their stuff. A new steady state of waste has emerged. Instead of “waste not, want not,” the new maxim is to use more, recycle more.


This article has been adapted from Frank Trentmann's book, Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First.