walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Cash for your Trash_, Carl A. Zimring

Subtitled: Scrap Recycling in America

I bought this in November 2006 from Amazon. I don't know what prompted me to buy this, although it certainly ties into several reading projects of mine over the years.

The book is a rework of Zimring's dissertation (according to the front matter) and it shows in a couple of places. I don't know how many dissertations or reworked dissertations you've read, but in my experience there are inevitably these odd passages that show up repetitively in several places that make you go, hey, I've read that bit already did my bookmark get moved? But no. Of course there are extensive notes and sources.

Zimring traces the rise of scrap dealing alongside the rise of consumer culture in the US, carefully documenting how cultural trends emphasizing newness and cleanliness generated increasing consumption, "waste" and opportunities for scrap dealing aka recycling. He examines the ethnic and racial makeup of the scrap trades and how they changed over time. He sketches zoning changes and how that affected scrap dealing, and technological changes (especially in steel-making, paper making and similar) that impacted the value of traditionally collected scrap (e.g. rags lost value when paper switched to wood pulp; Bessemer process couldn't use scrap but minimills could use scrap almost exclusively).

He walks the reader through regulatory changes, zoning, initially, but later Superfund and other environmental regulation. He also talks about how the public movement to recycle for moral/environmental reasons intersected with waste haulers and scrap dealers. The NYC suspension of curbside recycling for plastic, for example, led to a rethinking of what happened with the plastic. They had been paying to have it picked up by waste haulers whose business structure is oriented towards efficiency of getting-rid-of; they ultimately switched to having it picked up by scrap businesses whose business structure is oriented towards efficiency of extracting-value -- and who would pay for the sorted waste stream, instead of demanding payment. Zimring is emphatic about how scrap dealers have not been treated well by the mainstream recycling/environmental movement and how that has manifested in regulation and contracts and so forth.

Good stuff. It took a while to read, but I did learn a lot (and found that really fantastic essay by Jane Addams that I wrote about earlier). Should you read it, too? I don't know. I think a book that hammered more on the importance of use-less and producer-pays (implicit and occasionally explicit in this book) would be a more effective advocate for desirable change. But this is good history, which has a value all its own.
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