The Anthropologist in the Landfill

These aren’t just enormous piles of trash, but human workplaces too.

The Simi Valley Landfill and Recycling Center in Simi Valley, California. (Hector Mata / Reuters)

Despite the fact that minimalism is in vogue, the average American still produces 130 pounds of trash a month (and some Europeans are apparently worse). Garbage is an ancient problem, and although the scale of it today is massive, humans in modern economies have done a pretty good job of creating systems to haul it away and process it out of sight.

But what is it like in America’s landfills? Joshua Reno, an assistant professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, spent months visiting and interviewing waste workers at landfills in the U.S. and Canada as well as working at one outside of Detroit, in order do research for his recent book, Waste Away: Working and Living with a North American Landfill. In it, Reno “seeks to reconnect waste producers to our landfills—to show the many ways in which we are already connected to it without being aware of it.” I recently chatted with Reno about his book and why he believes it’s important to think about garbage. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Bourree Lam: What motivated this interest in waste and landfills and why did you decide to go work at one?

Joshua Reno: I was interested in the fact that there was a secret world of activity that was utterly necessary to all of us, but completely hidden from most of us. There are people doing work to sanitize our surroundings for us, who are caring for our health and happiness, and many of us don’t even know where our waste goes. Given how wasteful we are as a society, this intrigued me.

Most of our waste ends up in landfills, despite how much we try to recycle and use alternatives, so it made sense to study them. I chose to work at a landfill because I wanted to know what it was like on the inside, as someone paid to take care of waste for everyone else. I wanted to know what that felt like, and I thought my co-workers would be more likely to talk to me about their experiences if they saw me in a uniform too.

Lam: Is this what you refer to as the "social relationship" of waste, as opposed to the environmentalism aspect that’s commonly discussed?

Reno: Partly, yes. We rely on other people to work with, and to be exposed to, waste on our behalf. Because there are very few, very big landfills and many communities who depend on them, that means that some people and places bear a disproportionate burden. Rural communities, in general, bear this burden, and some states, like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Virginia, import a lot of waste on behalf of others. They are making a sacrifice on all our behalf, but when we think of waste we are more likely write them out of the picture and think only of nature in the abstract, and a vulnerable earth we are overusing and polluting.

If we recognize this, we might also ask ourselves whether anyone wants to be closer to waste.  In other societies, throughout the world, it’s understood that some informal recyclers live near and work with everyone else’s waste in order to enrich themselves. People do that in our country too, but we don’t tend to give them access to the best waste.

Lam: Tell me about the inequalities of waste in the U.S.

Reno: There is a lot of space in the U.S. for landfills, yet there are some communities that end up taking a lot more waste than others. Since there are very few, big landfills, you need a lot of space for one now. You also need to be relatively close to a highway so you can transport waste from further and further away to get there, and you need cheap land for sale and you can’t have strong resistance from the surrounding community.

What that means is that rural places with a small tax base and less political organization are more likely to end up with a big waste site in their backyard. As a result, most waste sites end up located near communities of color and poorer people. So even though we have so much space in this country, compared to others, we still end up exposing disadvantaged and minority groups to everyone else’s waste. The small rural town I studied had two landfills, which is unusual. And this was a consequence of an aging, farming population that couldn’t say no. The landfill that ended up there was supposed to go in a whiter, wealthier town nearby, but they successfully resisted. The waste from Canada that ended up going there was supposed to go to indigenous-held lands in Northern Ontario, but they successfully resisted. Waste tends to end up where people can’t hold it back anymore.

Lam: You worked at a landfill for nine months for your research. In your book, you wrote that, from your experience, it seems that the landfill and garbage are something humans can’t seem to control or contain. Why do you say that?

Reno: Any waste operation has a basic problem: When organic materials break down, it is an invitation to many scavengers across the animal and microbial kingdoms.

The first landfills were designed with cover soil partly so that flies couldn’t lay eggs in the waste, so stray animals couldn’t scavenge as easily, so fires don’t break out. This worked to a certain extent, but you can’t keep living things away for long. Instead, at landfills you get lots of birds, and you get methane-producing microbes under the surface. The birds create a nuisance, but the microbes are producing an atmospheric pollutant that is 25 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon. So no matter what you do, living things and other elements are going to mess with your waste operation and with human designs.

Lam: What did you learn working at a landfill and how does understanding waste workers help us live better?

Reno: I learned that it is hard work, first of all. Landfills are not merely dumps, where you just leave stuff to decay in the open air. They carefully spread out, compact, and bury wastes of different kinds—sludge from sewers, ash from incinerators, yard waste and building material from residences—and do so to make sure that nothing escapes beyond the landfill boundary.  But since they are difficult to contain and control, this tends to happen, which is why you need laborers working for little money, picking up paper, repairing gas and leachate lines, paving roads, and so on. This is what I did for nine months, and until I did it, I didn’t appreciate how intricate an activity landfilling is.

But that led to a second insight, which is that they do such a good job of landfilling that it makes it easier for the rest of us to forget that this is a social relationship, which makes us reliant on other people and places. If landfills vanish easily out of sight, than we can continue disposing of things at an ever greater rate, as if there were no consequences to our actions. This was the most unexpected thing, that landfills actually reshape how we think and what we imagine to be possible. I argue in the book that because of the work they perform, removing things and burying them out of sight, it actually distorts reality, it makes everything seems disposable and also makes us think we can keep things exactly the same as they are or better, at no cost.

I think we need to reconnect with the places we’d rather forget about, like landfills. To understand what needs to happen to keep our lives as they are, the people and the activity required. I think this can motivate us to think of alternative ways of living.

Lam: This is what you call “reproducible sameness,” which I found interesting because often we think of consumerism as buying things because they are new and different. How does desiring sameness create waste? And what are some alternatives ways of living so we don’t create so much waste?

Reno: Reproducible sameness means we want commodities to be exactly the same as previous ones we’ve bought and as future ones we might buy. The rise of packaging can be explained as a result of this commitment to sameness. Packaging makes sure that goods do not get dented or damaged on their voyage from factory to retailer to consumer, that we can be guaranteed of its quality.  And we waste all that packaging. And on the producer side, they waste a lot of goods that do not fit their criteria of quality product, because they deviate from the sameness consumers demand and expect. The irony, of course, is that there might be a perfectly good commodity—a can of Coke, for example—that would satisfy our idea of “Coke” but which has a slightly smudged label or something, so it is tossed and sent to landfill. In other words, a lot of this waste is not only to preserve what we want as consumers, but the corporate brand.

So one thing we could do is to start consumer-awareness movements where we make clear to producers that we don’t mind if things are less than perfect. We will take them at a lower price. That sort of thing can happen, but it is only an imperfect solution. Really, we need to be more comfortable, in general, with making or finding things rather than only buying them. If we had more access to landfills to informally recycle, like people do all over the world, then I think it would challenge this reliance on reproducible sameness and make us more comfortable with transience.

Lam: What else did you conclude from your fieldwork?

Reno: My main takeaway from my fieldwork is not only that we throw a lot of stuff away, but that we are really attached to keeping things the same and not changing. I think this is about more than environmental awareness. There is some kind of existential resistance we seem to have to anyone or anything aging.

We have a systematic denial and resistance to death in our culture as a whole, and refusing to get close to our waste is only one part of that. That is why I talk about landfills as disrupting entropy and distorting our sense of process and change, because I believe that they accumulate so much decay and material instability so that the rest of us can be preserved and inhabit stable surroundings. That was my big takeaway, and I think that one solution to that existential crisis is for us to learn to accept loss and death, but that is about more than recycling more or loving the environment.