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.