BackStory gets trashy this week, as the hosts pick through America’s history of garbage – from the filth-eating pigs that once ran free in New York City and kept the city clean, to the soda industry’s promotion of recycling to boost their bottom line. We’ll learn why Americans produce so much garbage and the different ways we’ve disposed of it.
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BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
MARTHA STEWART: Well, now that spring is in full swing and Easter is past, I’d like to ask our audience if they’ve started their spring cleaning. Raise your hand.
[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]
Oh everybody! Oh good.
BRIAN: Including us. We’re taking Martha Stewart’s lead this week and doing our own spring cleaning. We’re rooting through history for stories about trash. Like the one about early New Yorkers outsourcing their trash collection to an army of pigs.
BRETT MIZELLE: Then all of a sudden, when the pigs are gone, there’s like, oh crap. Pardon the language, but you’ve got to figure out what to do with all of this stuff left in the streets that you used to have animals taking care of.
BRIAN: We’ll also hear about the turn of the century trade in scrap metal, and consider the constitutional question of who has the right to look at our garbage? Taking out the trash throughout American history. That’s all coming up on today’s BackStory.
[MUSIC – GIRLS FROM MARS, “SPRING CLEANING”]
PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
MALE ANNOUNCER: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.
PETER: Welcome to the show. I’m Peter Onuf.
BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. Ed Ayers is away this week.
Think back to the last time you bought something you didn’t really need. Something perhaps to replace an article of clothing, or maybe a piece of furniture or a phone that still worked just fine for the most part. Well, chances are that you wouldn’t have gone out and made that purchase if you were around in the 1930s.
BERNARD LONDON: People everywhere are today disobeying the law of obsolescence. They are using their old cars, their old tires, their old radios and their old clothing much longer than statisticians had expected on the basis of earlier experience.
BRIAN: This is from a 1932 paper by an economist named Bernard London. London observed that Americans had gotten used to buying things that they didn’t actually need. The latest model car, for instance. Or maybe a kitchen appliance with some brand new bells and whistles.
PETER: But the Depression had put the brakes on buying, leading, said London, to a vicious cycle. Manufactured goods were piling up in warehouses, causing factories to cut production, jobs to disappear, and workers’ buying power to contract. All because people weren’t throwing enough away.
BERNARD LONDON: The cause of our present stagnation is that the supply line, or arteries furnishing the needs of the country, are clogged. There is a little demand for new goods when people make their old and worn out things do by keeping them longer than they should.
PETER: So what was to be done about this epidemic of frugality? London had a plan.
BERNARD LONDON: I would have the government assign a lease of life to shoes and homes and machines, to all products of manufacture, mining, and agriculture when they are first created. After the allotted time had expired, these things would be legally dead, and would be controlled by the duly appointed government agency and destroyed. New products would constantly be pouring forth from the factories and marketplaces to take the place of the obsolete.
BRIAN: London referred to his solution as “planned obsolescence.” People who chose to hang on to their things past their designated lifespans, well those people would be taxed. While people who followed the rules and got rid of their “dead” items would receive a sales tax credit on the cost of replacements. All of that would encourage Americans to step up and do their patriotic duty to throw more stuff away.
BERNARD LONDON: In wartime, we conscript the flower of our country’s manhood and send them to the front to fight and often be destroyed. If such drastic procedure is deemed wise and necessary in the crisis of war, would it not be far more logical and profitable in our present emergency to conscript the dead things and send them to the front to be destroyed in the war against depression?
PETER: These days, it would be hard to find serious economic policy types getting behind government mandated expiration dates as a solution to what ails our economy. Instead, we’re more likely to hear the phrase “planned obsolescence” used to describe the business plans of tech companies like Apple, often accused of designing devices soon to be superseded.
BRIAN: But what struck us about the Bernard London story is that here we have someone making explicit a truth that most of us take for granted. Consumption is something that we’re always told is good for the American economy. Yet that consumption relies on an act that seems to be its very opposite– disposal. Making garbage, in other words, is what makes America go.
PETER: For the rest of the hour, we’re embracing this profound truth with a show about the ways Americans have dealt with all the garbage they produce. At last count, we were generating the equivalent of more than four and a half pounds of the stuff per person each day. More than the citizens of any other nation. Today as always, we’ll consider what light history can shed on this somewhat disturbing current day reality.
BRIAN: We’ll begin with a story from the late 19th century, when American cities were awash in trash. A lot of that trash was leftover metal. It came from the steel production that had powered the railroad boom and the industrial manufacturing that was taking off all over the country.
By the 1880s, big companies like Carnegie Steel began to realize that recycling those metals was much cheaper than mining virgin ore. And their new demand for recycled steel gave rise to a new line of work, collecting scrap metal that would ultimately make its way back to those giant corporations. I sat down with historian Carl Zimring to talk about how this scrap trade really worked.
CARL ZIMRING: These are usually one person businesses. Maybe two or three working together. They might just be walking through the streets with a sack on their back.
And they’re just going around and looking. Maybe be in demolition sites. They may be knocking on doors and saying pardon me, do you have any old pots and pans? I’d be willing to buy them for a nickel. And literally thousands of such businesses sprang up between the 1880s and World War I all across the United States.
BRIAN: Another form of putting the peddler to the metal.
CARL ZIMRING: Oh geez. That is an absolutely appropriate pun, that I’m unfortunately going to remember until I go to my grave.
BRIAN: [LAUGHS] Now Zimring says that scrap dealing proved especially appealing to one ethnic group– Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Zimring, himself descended from immigrant Jews, told me that he got interested in this history after a conversation with his grandfather.
CARL ZIMRING: His family came to the United States because a scrap dealer in Waterloo, Iowa– very small town Iowa– paid my great-grandfather’s fare to come over from Austria in 1904 to come to rural Iowa and go from farm to farm collecting scrap metal that would then be sold to this person’s scrap yard. And as I started talking to more people who happened to be Jewish, I started to learn that there’s this narrative that this is a Jewish industry.
I started looking through the historical record in the trade literature. By the 1920 census, I found that people of Jewish heritage– who made up a tiny minority of the general population of the country– made up over half of all the individuals enumerated as working within the scrap trade. And that could be everyone from small peddlers to large brokers. But it shows that well over the representation in the general population, Jews are working in scrap.
BRIAN: And why did Jewish immigrants corner the market on scrap metal?
CARL ZIMRING: There are a few related reasons. One involves simple timing. That the era of mass migration of Jews from Eastern and Central Europe coincides with the rise in demand for scrap iron and metal. But that’s only part of the story, because clearly this is the same time as mass migration from Southern Europe, and also from Eastern Europeans who weren’t Jewish as well. And yet their participation in scrap metal is at far lower numbers.
There’s a sense from a lot of the people whose stories were later put in oral histories that scrap metal offered Jews the possibility of starting one’s own business without too much money involved. And scrap metal also afforded Jews the possibility of practicing their own religion, if they were religious, without discrimination from an employer who say, would not want them to take off early Friday for the Sabbath.
BRIAN: I see. If they were working on their own, no one was going to worry if they knocked off at four in the afternoon on Friday.
CARL ZIMRING: Precisely.
BRIAN: Now there’s a long tradition of associating Americans who do dirty work with being dirty themselves. Did this happen to these scrap metal dealers?
CARL ZIMRING: This was a problem as soon as the industry became a large industry. And I would argue this remains a problem in scrap recycling in the 21st century.
By the turn of the 20th century, there’s a fairly large trade in scrap metal. And there are many different groups who are concerned about the dirty people– be they unsanitary or unethical– doing the work. Progressive reformers such as Jane Addams were very concerned about scrap peddlers in urban neighborhoods going from door to door, interacting with children, exposing children to say, rusted, jagged metal. But also encouraging children to go into abandoned homes or construction sites and stealing pipes or other things.
BRIAN: So these would be kids who were working for these scrap metal peddlers.
CARL ZIMRING: Absolutely. It’s very much the stereotype of Fagin in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist as expressed in early 20th century American life.
BRIAN: Huh. I see.
CARL ZIMRING: And so progressive reformers began campaigns to rid residential neighborhoods of “the moral menace to juveniles,” as it was described many times. The other people who considered scrap dealers potentially dirty were their customers, the iron and steel producers.
A lot of professional trade magazines had allegations of fraud being put over on reputable iron businesses by these nefarious and oftentimes– the language is used– “foreign” scrap dealers, who were low on the level of ethics and morals. And a lot of the time, the discussion was you have to worry about doing business with these people because they are Jews.
There is literature from iron forge businesses that use explicitly Jewish identity as a synonym for being a fraud, a shyster. And that definitely had a very negative effect on the industry’s perception in mainstream America.
BRIAN: It seems though that a lot of these immigrants were damned if they did or damned if they didn’t. I mean, they’re pursuing an opportunity. Very American, very entrepreneurial. But the very fact that they’re pursuing these opportunities in relationship to something considered dirty means that they’re tarred with this discrimination.
CARL ZIMRING: Yes, and that’s despite the fact that a few could make a lot of money doing this. And in fact, what we see happening after the 1930s and 1940s is those businesses which are successful, a few of them are passed from generation to generation. But many dealers complain that their children who grow up with some money do not follow into the business and instead work in less dirty occupations, oftentimes going to law school and instead of then coming back to run the firm, working in corporate law for someone else.
BRIAN: Some would consider that dirtier. But I understand the transition.
CARL ZIMRING: [LAUGHS]
[MUSIC – DEAN MARTIN, “PEDDLER’S SERENADE”]
BRIAN: Carl Zimring is a historian at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He’s the author of Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America.
PETER: It’s time for a short break. But don’t go away. When we get back, the time when New York City outsourced its trash collection to an army of animals.
BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be right back.
We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh, picking through history’s waste bin here with my pal Peter Onuf.
PETER: [LAUGHS] Hey, it’s a thrill to join you.
BRIAN: Today on the show, we’re looking at how Americans have dealt with their trash. Take New York City. These days the Big Apple alone produces as much as 12,000 tons of waste a day. Trucks, barges, and trains ship most of this trash to landfills as far away as South Carolina.
PETER: 200 years ago, long before curbside pickup was the thing, the usual way of managing trash in New York was well, pretty unusual by today’s standards. BackStory producer Kelly Jones has this story about what that method was and why it got snuffed out.
BRETT MIZELLE: The sidewalks of New York in the 19th century would have been really disgusting.
CATHERINE MCNEUR: Oh, it was filthy.
KELLY JONES: These are historians Brett Mizelle and Catherine McNeur. They say that 19th century New York was filthy because trash was mostly organic, and people just chucked it into the street to rot.
BRETT MIZELLE: So for example, if you’d bought meat somewhere, it would be wrapped in paper. So you would have bones and scraps and offal from processing and cooking that meat at home. You’d also have the paper that that was wrapped in. You would have the leftover foods that you might throw away that were not edible.
CATHERINE MCNEUR: You know, watermelon rinds and fish bones and chicken bones. And then the random carcasses of animals that were in the city that just died on the streets, like a horse.
BRETT MIZELLE: You’d also have human waste. In a lot of the neighborhoods of New York waste was just tossed out into the street ’cause there’s really no organized system of sanitation early on in New York history.
KELLY JONES: There wasn’t an organized system of sanitation. But there was a system of sorts. And it was manned by a team of pigs. Free range pigs.
Pigs eat pretty much anything organic. Even bones, even human waste. So they were turned loose to clean up the garbage and get fat on New York trash.
CATHERINE MCNEUR: And I should note, these aren’t feral pigs. They’re owned by mostly poor New Yorkers. Also by butchers too who would set them out ’cause basically they were getting free meat that was being generated from the city’s waste. They were turning waste into protein.
KELLY JONES: In the early 19th century, New York was mostly concentrated south of what’s now Central Park, and the pigs roamed everywhere. And what’s unbelievable is just how many pigs there were.
CATHERINE MCNEUR: In around 1820, I’ve found an estimate that there was about 20,000 pigs. Which is roughly about one pig for every five New Yorkers.
KELLY JONES: 20,000 pigs in the city! And these weren’t pink cuddly farm piggies.
BRETT MIZELLE: Right. These pigs are not like the pigs you would see in a movie like Babe. These pigs are bristly, kind of making a living as best they can. You wouldn’t see too many fat lazy pigs in New York City.
KELLY JONES: City pigs took no guff. And they were pretty big, ranging from 100 to 300 pounds.
CATHERINE MCNEUR: Sometimes horses would bump up into them and there’d be accidents because of the pigs. Pigs would also bully pedestrians around. So people would get knocked over, knocked around.
BRETT MIZELLE: Yeah, they just don’t care. I mean, my sense from the accounts I’ve read of pigs in New York in the 19th century is that they don’t care if you’re in their way or not. They’re going to go do their thing. It’s probably a pretty good life, actually.
KELLY JONES: But elite New Yorkers didn’t care if the pigs were happy. They were conscious that free range pigs made New York look pretty backward. European visitors wrote accounts of urban American life and they made fun of the pigs. The most famous example came from Charles Dickens.
CHARLES DICKENS: Here is a solitary swine lounging homeward by himself. He is, in every respect, a Republican pig. Going wherever he pleases and mingling with the best society on an equal, if not superior footing.
Sometimes indeed, you may see his small eye twinkling on a slaughtered friend whose carcass garnishes a butcher’s doorpost. But he grunts out “Such is life. All flesh is pork,” buries his nose in the mire again and waddles down the gutter, comforting himself with the reflection that there is one snout the less to anticipate stray cabbage stalks at any rate.
KELLY JONES: Those Republican pigs, said elites, had to go. Anti-Hoggites, as they were called, wrote petitions to the city government demanding the pigs’ removal.
The backlash from pro-Hoggites was swift. The pigs were a reliable source of food for poor, mostly immigrant New Yorkers, who worried that if the pigs went, they would go too.
BRETT MIZELLE: And so there’s a series of riots– 1821, 1825, 1826, 1832– when the city is fine tuning its legislation about tracking down and controlling these pigs. And people respond with literal violence. They literally attack these animal collection officers. They overturn the carts. They liberate the pigs.
KELLY JONES: It took almost 20 years following that 1832 riot to persuade pro-Hoggites to let the pigs go. They came to believe, as the anti-Hoggites did, that because pigs ate trash, they were naturally dirty and even diseased.
Before germ theory, Americans believed that bad smells could transmit disease. Pigs, because they smell, were scapegoats for a series of cholera epidemics that swept through the city.
CATHERINE MCNEUR: And that’s actually how the pigs ended up getting off the streets of the city. The big 1849 epidemic, there was finally enough panic behind the city’s sanitation problems that they were able to remove the pigs.
KELLY JONES: By June of 1849, collection officers corralled between 5,000 and 6,000 pigs and moved them to piggeries or hog towns, consolidated pens, and slaughterhouses. Anyone found keeping pigs in secret faced stiff fines.
The anti-Hoggites got their wish. But in their intense focus on pigs as a problem, they lost sight of pigs as a garbage solution. And that turned out to be a profoundly messy mistake.
BRETT MIZELLE: All of a sudden when the pigs are gone, there’s like, oh crap. Pardon the language, but you’ve got to figure out what to do with all of this stuff left in the streets that you used to have animals taking care of.
CATHERINE MCNEUR: And so the city decided that the only thing that they could do with all this extra offal and all this animal waste was to throw it in the river. And they throw it in the Hudson River with the expectation that it would all float out to sea and that would be it, and out of sight, out of mind.
But it didn’t actually go anywhere. It stayed put it. And they were all of these horse carcasses especially, bouncing in the river.
KELLY JONES: Once again, elite New Yorkers worried about foreign judgement. In 1853, the city prepared to host a World’s Fair. It was going to be really awful to have a bunch of tourists descend on the city ready to see the sights only to be treated to a river of garbage and dead rotting horses. So they found the obvious fix.
CATHERINE MCNEUR: They hired all these men to go swimming in among the carcasses and attach weights to them so that they would be pulled down to the bottom of the river floor.
KELLY JONES: It took another 40 years, but in the 1890s the city finally found replacements for the pigs. An army of men who would sweep the streets and collect trash daily. But the question remained, what to do with the trash?
One by one, modern concerns about public health and the environment limited their options. In 1934 it became illegal to dump household trash in the ocean. In the late 20th century, incinerators shut down in the face of new emissions regulations. And in 2001, the last landfill in the city closed its gates.
These days, New York trash is shipped to landfills and processing centers up and down the East coast. But for current mayor Bill de Blasio, the key question isn’t where should the trash go, but rather how can we stem the tide? He’s even talking about compost pickup for household organics. No word yet from Mayor de Blasio on whether sanitary pigs could be commissioned to lend a snout.
BRIAN: That was Kelly Jones, one of our producers. Helping her tell that story were historians Brett Mizelle, author of Pig, and Catherine McNeur, author of Taming Manhattan– Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City.
PETER: Right around the time New York City contained its pig population, it started setting up an alternative method for disposing of all those dead horses that used to litter its streets. The carcasses were shipped out to an island off the coast of southern Brooklyn. There, a community of mostly immigrants processed them into things like soap, glue, and fertilizer. These people also manned fish oil plants and incinerators for the city’s non-horse garbage. It was a notoriously foul smelling place.
BRIAN: As horses were replaced by automobiles, those rendering plants were shut down. The stench gradually subsided. But Dead Horse Bay, as it was known, would soon get a second life as a destination for trash.
In the 1920s and ’30s, the marsh separating the island from the mainland was filled in with garbage. That garbage included the bulldozed homes of nearby neighborhoods. Those homes were cleared to make room for one of Robert Moses’s infamous urban renewal projects.
This enormous landfill was capped in the early 1950s. But almost immediately, that cap broke. Ever since, the detritus of early 20th century life has been washing up on the beach, along with a random horse bone.
On an early morning a few weeks ago, producer Emma Morgenstern headed out to Dead Horse Bay. Along with her was Robin Nagle, a scholar of New York City’s trash history. Emma sent back this audio postcard.
ROBIN NAGLE: I’ve never been out here at 6:30 on a Saturday morning in April. This is lovely.
This beach is, in some places, so completely covered with bottles and shoe leather and bits of china and toys and pots and pans and tormented nylons that you can’t actually see beach. And there’s a horse bone.
EMMA MORGENSTERN: So why don’t you tell me how all this stuff got here?
ROBIN NAGLE: All this stuff got here when Robert Moses was expanding the landfilling of garbage around the city, which was especially urgent after the United States Supreme Court told New York it could no longer dump garbage at sea, which we had been doing for centuries. That Supreme Court order took effect in 1934. From that point forward, we started building landfills and incinerators all over the city.
Everything we see here was placed here sometime between early February and mid-March of 1953. And it’s all from somewhere in Brooklyn. I’m not exactly sure where yet, but I’m working on that.
And these are the debris from homes that were razed to make way for various forms of urban renewal and highway construction. And so when people think this is garbage, this is no more garbage than if you took everything from your own home and just put it all in a truck. First knock it all down, then put it in a truck, and then cart it away.
Well, I’m very excited. This is a vinyl bottle of Stopette spray deodorant. This is when these forms of plastics were just coming into common use.
So it’s a squeeze bottle with a small opening on the top and you aim this at your armpit and you squeeze it. And you would be sprayed with the Stopette spray deodorant and then you won’t offend people when you go out in the world. I can’t quite read it.
EMMA MORGENSTERN: Something fluid ounces.
ROBIN NAGLE: Chicago, Illinois.
EMMA MORGENSTERN: Contains abrasive something chlorides.
ROBIN NAGLE: OK, that doesn’t sound too good.
EMMA MORGENSTERN: [LAUGHS]
ROBIN NAGLE: I have never found a bottle of Stopette. And I have heard about Stopette for years.
EMMA MORGENSTERN: Oh really?
ROBIN NAGLE: Yeah!
EMMA MORGENSTERN: Oh.
ROBIN NAGLE: Because we don’t use this form anymore for deodorant. This is a sculptural nightmare, sort of. It’s a tangle of bleached white cloth that is choking whatever it’s wrapped around, a visual cacophony of knotted, tangled, entwined, and some filled little sacks almost where the sand is inside.
You find this throughout Dead Horse Bay. Ladies’ nylons. And I find them horrifying, because they’re just so contorted from what we think they’re supposed to look like. And there it looks like a little bit of bathroom floor tile.
EMMA MORGENSTERN: And also a syringe. That looks new.
ROBIN NAGLE: Oh yes. I’m sure it’s new indeed.
I want to know the stories of the human beings who were part of these objects 60 years ago. And I want to know what happened to them and where they went, and why they bought that bottle of Stopette deodorant, and who used the roller skate and who cooked in the frying pan?
I almost feel like the people whose lives were part of these things are standing just behind a scrim. And if I could just get through that scrim of time, I could meet them and hear their stories. And these objects are that scrim.
PETER: That’s Robin Nagle. She’s the director of the Draper Program in Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. She’s also the anthropologist in residence in New York City’s Department of Sanitation. Our audio postcard was produced by Emma Morgenstern.
If you have a story of little known history that happened near you, we’d love to hear it. You can email us at email@example.com, or leave a comment at backstoryradio.org/postcards.
BRIAN: Anthropologists aren’t the only ones who appreciate how much garbage has to tell us about the people who create it. The police know that as well. Which is why, back in 1984, a trash collector in an LA suburb was conscripted into saving some of the trash set out by a guy on his route.
NEWS REPORTER: In Laguna Beach, California, the local trash man became an arm of the law.
BRIAN: This is from an ABC News report a few years later.
NEWS REPORTER: Police had a tip Billy Greenwood was dealing drugs. Not enough evidence to get a warrant to search his home. So they got the garbage man to turn over Greenwood’s trash, and there they found receipts for drug sales and drug paraphernalia.
BRIAN: Police used the garbage to get a search warrant for the house, where they found enough evidence to indict Greenwood and his girlfriend on drug dealing charges. Not so fast, said Greenwood. He challenged the indictment, saying the garbage search violated his right to privacy. The California Supreme Court agreed and the case eventually found its way to the US Supreme Court. Here’s anchor Peter Jennings covering that court’s decision in May of 1988.
PETER JENNINGS: Court has now decided that once your garbage is as far as the curb, if the police want it, they don’t need a warrant to look through it.
BRIAN: It was a 6-2 decision, with Justice Byron White writing the majority opinion. For decades, the Court had interpreted the Fourth Amendment as protecting people’s privacy. When, that is, they have a quote, “reasonable expectation of privacy.” And Stanford University legal scholar David Sklansky says this was also the nut of the debate in California v. Greenwood.
DAVID SKLANSKY: Justice White said if you put your garbage out on the curb, it’s liable to be pawed through by animals, scavengers, children, snoops.
BRIAN: [LAUGHS] Right.
DAVID SKLANSKY: So it’s not reasonable to say that you can expect privacy in something like that. That was one argument. And the second argument was you can’t really have a reasonable expectation of privacy in something that you’ve voluntarily given to a third party. The third party here was the garbage collector.
And the Court’s theory was since Greenwood and Van Houten had voluntarily conveyed this stuff to the garbage collector, they couldn’t really say that they had a reasonable expectation of privacy anymore. Because when you give something to somebody else, you don’t know what they’re going to do with it.
BRIAN: Who knows what those garbage collectors– I’m sure they’re just prying through people’s trash all day.
DAVID SKLANSKY: That was the theory.
BRIAN: OK, so that’s the decision. What did the dissent say?
DAVID SKLANSKY: So the dissent was written by Justice Brennan, joined by Justice Marshall. And they essentially were incredulous. They said, we can’t believe that the Court really thinks that it’s not an invasion of privacy to paw through somebody’s garbage to find out what they’re doing inside their house.
Justice Brennan said he thought any ordinary American would be outraged to find out that people were pawing through his or her garbage. And the fact that it might happen to you shouldn’t mean that it’s OK for the police to do it to you.
BRIAN: OK. So David, when we go back to the actual items that really helped convict Greenwood, those items are things like plastic straws and plastic baggies that were tinged with cocaine. That’s what the police officer found who was investigating. I don’t think we’d find that kind of trash in 19th century garbage. Has the nature of trash changed a lot?
DAVID SKLANSKY: Yeah, I think the history of trash searches as an investigative tool is kind of all bound up with advances in technology. Partly because trash itself is bound up with advances in technology. I mean, we didn’t have disposable straws and disposable razor blades–
DAVID SKLANSKY: In the 19th century. We didn’t have weekly curbside trash collection in the 19th century, because people didn’t generate enough trash.
So I mean, part of what makes trash searches a valuable investigative tool is that we all today regularly discard so much. We’re constantly shedding evidence of what we’ve been up to that wasn’t as much the case in the 19th century.
BRIAN: Makes me wonder about the technology of the 21st century. For instance, I’ve got this cute little icon on my desktop of a trash can. And I’m wondering where do my emails go when I put them into the quote, “trash?”
DAVID SKLANSKY: Well, where they go is a really interesting question. Whether the police can get to them is another interesting and more practical question.
And the short answer to the second question is yeah, the police can get to them in a variety of ways. And we know, for example, that when you put something in the trash can of your computer, it doesn’t necessarily wipe out all electronic traces of that file on your computer. We know that sophisticated techniques can be used to recover the file.
So how does the Fourth Amendment think about that stuff? One of the Court’s theories was that anything that you do that other people can potentially see or look at is not something you can claim a reasonable expectation of privacy in. The advances in electronic surveillance technology, including drones, including GPS tracking, have made the Court more and more uncomfortable with that idea, the idea that just because it’s out in public you can’t claim a privacy interest in it.
Also at least one member of the Court– Justice Sotomayor– has said on the record that she thinks it’s time for the Court to reexamine the idea that you lose Fourth Amendment protection in anything that you voluntarily give to a third party. Which was the other basis for the Supreme Court’s decision in Greenwood.
BRIAN: Right. Giving that garbage to the trash man was giving it to a third party.
DAVID SKLANSKY: So the Supreme Court is in a position of thinking we can’t keep saying that anything you give to a third party automatically doesn’t get the protection of the Fourth Amendment. And we can’t keep saying that anything that is potentially open to snoops or other members of the public is something that you can’t complain if the police choose to examine. But they don’t know exactly how to move forward from that.
BRIAN: David Sklansky is a professor at Stanford University Law School.
PETER: It’s time for another break. When we get back, we’ll look at why soda companies in the 1970s got all bubbly about recycling.
BRIAN: You’re listing to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re spending an hour this week on trash in American history.
BRIAN: You might remember this opening music from a 1971 anti-litter commercial. It’s the one with Iron Eyes Cody, an American Indian character played, as it turns out, by an Italian American.
We see him paddling a canoe down a river. Along the river, there’s a jungle of factories pumping out air pollution.
Iron Eyes pulls his canoe up to a sandy bank next to a highway. Someone chucks a plastic bag out of a car and it splatters at his feet. Iron Eyes turns to the camera and a single tear rolls down his cheek.
BART ELMORE: That’s right. The Iron Eye drips this tear as this trash is thrown at his feet in an industrialized landscape.
BRIAN: This is historian Bart Elmore.
BART ELMORE: And the great thing in that scene is the omniscient narrator. He says, “People start pollution. People can stop it.”
BRIAN: As the commercial fades to black, a logo fades in for the Keep America Beautiful campaign.
BART ELMORE: Such a great name! It’s the Sierra Club. It’s people that love polar bears.
But no. Really what this is is it was founded by the brewing, soft drink, and packaging industries in 1953.
BART ELMORE: And it was designed specifically to change the conversation, to deflect accusations that industry was to blame for the problem.
BRIAN: The litter problem Elmore is talking about really got going in the 1940s. Before that, consumers paid a deposit on soda bottles and got that money back when they returned them.
Bottlers reclaimed almost all of their containers. 96% percent of bottles made their way back into circulation. But in the ’30s and ’40s, industry officials started switching over to a more cost effective option– disposable cans. Now they wouldn’t have to collect, wash, and ship heavy glass bottles.
Elmore says it didn’t take long before American roads and highways were covered in garbage. And that’s when the public demanded that their government hold beverage makers accountable for this mess.
BART ELMORE: You could say that there were criticisms emerging in the 1950s. But certainly by the 1960s, we see concerned citizens and I think environmentalists really raising the alarm.
And what’s interesting Brian, is that we don’t think of highways today as the center of environmental activism. But it was the highways that were unclean. It’s not the national parks or these kind of– it’s the beautiful roadways that we need to keep clean.
So we see this in the ’60s, people saying wait a minute. Industry should be a part of cleaning up their act. They really need to be taking responsibility for this. We don’t need these throwaway containers. Maybe we need to return to the returnable.
BRIAN: What form did the pressure take? Were soda companies and bottlers worried that they were going to have to return to this more costly system of picking up the old bottles and reusing them?
BART ELMORE: Right. I think this concerned citizen movement moved into the area of politics. And we began to see, in the 1960s and ’70s, state legislature saying we’re going to place a mandatory deposit, that is, a small tax– five to 10 cents– on these containers that can be redeemed by consumers. And we would have seen Vermont and Oregon, by 1972 they would actually pass the first mandatory deposit laws in the country.
What’s amazing Brian, is that in 1970, there was a national law proposed by the House of Representatives and supported by 22 members of the House that would have banned throwaway containers in the United States. Imagine that.
Certainly by 1970, but beginning in the 1960s, wow, industries has to act. It’s got to find a way to combat this problem. Because even at the national level– there may be a ban on these things– what are they going to do?
BRIAN: What did they do?
BART ELMORE: Well you know, industry at the time is holding the legislators at bay by saying we’ll do this ourselves. We’ll build recycling centers privately run, and we can make this happen.
And that’s what you see at the same time is changing the public’s image of industry is one thing. But also showing legislators that hey, we’re going to build infrastructure ourselves that will solve this problem. And so we see the beginnings of these private reclamation centers.
BRIAN: And is it the private sector that comes up with the idea of reclaiming, recycling?
BART ELMORE: They’re being quite creative with trying to do different things. You know Coca-Cola would partner with Mobil Oil at one point. And they would try and organize these recycling centers at gas stations and things like this.
What we see though, is that it doesn’t work. It’s very expensive, for one. And two, people aren’t willing to bring back containers that don’t have any price on it. Going back to the beginning of the 20th century, we saw that the bottlers recognized that you had to put a price tag on waste if you wanted people to bring it back.
And so another solution really had to be proposed if the legislators were going to be held at bay. And that solution was really curbside recycling.
BRIAN: And who proposed that?
BART ELMORE: We think of curbside recycling as the quintessential model of environmental stewardship.
BART ELMORE: But if you go back to the congressional debates about federal funding for recycling in the United States, the people that are really front and center are the soft drink industry, the brewing industry, the packaging industry, who realize that this was their silver bullet. If we can convince the public that there’s a system that will work, then this will get people off our back.
And what a great system this will be. The taxpayer will pay for this and wow, we actually will get a benefit from this. All this reclaimed material will come back to our front door, but it’ll be financed by the public, not us. And this is what they push.
And so we begin to see the decline of mandatory deposit bills. And into the 1980s there’s 10 states that have mandatory deposits. After 1989, only Hawaii passes one. And that’s it. And they pass it in 2002, which is kind of weird.
BRIAN: Bart, you look angry.
BART ELMORE: [LAUGHS]
BRIAN: This strikes me as a good thing, right? Is this not the ultimate win-win? We’ve got everyone pulling together to actually create at least a more sustainable model.
BART ELMORE: Right. One of the things I always worry about when people misread what I write about recycling is that they think I hate recycling. That I’m this anti-environmentalist. But that’s not true. I think recycling is a great system.
But as historians, we look back at this and say OK, what’s the track record? What has actually happened? The promise of curbside recycling was that it would reclaim this material, that it would be a closed system.
BART ELMORE: I mean, we think about the logo for the recycling system.
BRIAN: It’s a loop.
BART ELMORE: It’s a loop. It’s this closed system. But the reality here is, from the perspective of the [? 2010s ?] we see that it’s not a closed system.
And I’ll give you a stat for that. If we look at PET plastic bottles– that is the plastic that we most consistently see for water bottles and things like that– 70% end up going to landfills. Now that’s after over almost three decades of trying to build a curbside recycling system that would reclaim all this material. What we’ve seen is that when you don’t put a price on pollution, you don’t see the types of reuse and reclamation that are at a rate that is truly that circle that we have when we think of that logo.
BRIAN: Bart Elmore is a historian at the University of Alabama, and the author of Citizen Coke– the Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism.
PETER: Now when we heard Bart mention the recycling logo, it got us wondering where that logo came from. So we did some digging, and here’s what we found. The symbol was designed by a college student at the University of Southern California.
BRIAN: Gary Anderson was at USC in 1970 when he saw a poster announcing a design contest for a recycling symbol. The competition was sponsored by, you guessed it, a big manufacturer. Not a manufacturer of soda, but one that produced cardboard products. It was called the Container Corporation of America.
The contest was open only to high school and college kids. As the company put it, “the inheritors of the earth.”
PETER: Anderson submitted three designs, one of which took the grand prize of some $2,000. His design is the one you still see everywhere– three flat arrows each with a sharp turn in the middle forming sort of an infinite loop of environmental responsibility.
We gave Anderson a call and he told us he was inspired by the idea of the Mobius strip, that continuous one sided surface you get when you twist a strip of paper and join both ends together. He said it had fascinated him since childhood.
GARY ANDERSON: When I was still in grade school, I read this little book of scientific rhymes or limericks, and they were all very clever. And one of them was, “Hickory dockery dick, a mouse on a Mobius strip. The strip revolved, the mouse dissolved in a chronodimensional skip.” And for some reason that–
PETER: Wow! [LAUGHS] That stuck!
GARY ANDERSON: Little poem just stuck with me. And the more I learned about it, the more I was fascinated by this idea of a strip with an infinite dimension.
PETER: Gary, designing a logo is about the coolest thing you could possibly do in the modern world of brands.
GARY ANDERSON: [LAUGHS]
PETER: Were you a glamorous character? Did you brag about this logo?
BRIAN: Yeah, did people say hey, that’s that guy who did the recycling logo?
GARY ANDERSON: They do that more now than they did back then.
PETER: [LAUGHS] Well, why is that?
GARY ANDERSON: Well for one reason, it wasn’t widely used right after the competition ended.
GARY ANDERSON: I guess there were a couple reasons for that. One was although I recall that on that poster that I responded to it said that the symbol would be turned over to the public domain, the company actually charged a very small fee to use the symbol.
BRIAN: Did you get a percentage of that?
PETER: Yeah. Royalties, right?
GARY ANDERSON: [LAUGHS] No, no.
GARY ANDERSON: That was the one rule on the poster that I do know was followed.
BRIAN: So you gave up your rights, but they didn’t give up their rights.
GARY ANDERSON: Apparently not. I’m really not very clear on this, because I was over in Saudi Arabia for a number of years teaching. And I guess a lot happened during that time.
BRIAN: And what year are we now?
GARY ANDERSON: I think this must have been in the late ’70s or very early ’80s.
PETER: Well, so you came back from your Rip Van Winkle phase of life. [LAUGHS]
GARY ANDERSON: Right. Right.
PETER: And discovered that you were a star.
GARY ANDERSON: Yeah. Coming back from Saudi Arabia, I stopped in Amsterdam for a week or so. And I came across these big igloo shaped recycling bins. Really large. I mean, they were taller than I was and brightly colored, and with the logo, my logo on it.
GARY ANDERSON: About the size of a beach ball.
PETER: So Gary, when you designed this logo, the idea of infinity, of capturing everything, recycling it, and a perpetual motion planet would go on forever. Beautiful idea. Does it seem plausible to you now?
GARY ANDERSON: [LAUGHS] It’s a tough question. I’m sure I’m more cynical in some ways than I was back then too.
GARY ANDERSON: Although I was not a totally naive young person.
GARY ANDERSON: I guess people don’t like to say they’re proud of things anymore. They say that they’re humbled. And I don’t know what that means.
GARY ANDERSON: When you’ve accomplished something, to say that you’re humbled. But I am. I’m proud and I’m gratified.
I think people are very much aware of the environment and ecology. And I would like to think that the symbol has helped to remind people frequently that those concerns are out there.
PETER: Hey Gary, great fun. Thanks for joining us.
BRIAN: Thanks so much, Gary.
GARY ANDERSON: Well, it’s been my pleasure. Thank you all.
PETER: Gary Anderson is an architect and planner in northern Virginia, and the recycling symbol he created is being featured right now at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It’s part of an exhibit called, “This is For Everyone: Design Experiments for the Common Good.”
[MUSIC – THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS, “TAKE OUT THE TRASH”]
BRIAN: Well, that’s all the trash we have for you today. But visit our website and check out the piles of historical detritus in our archives.
You can leave a comment at backstoryradio.org or drop us a line at (434) 260-1053. We tweet @backstoryradio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
PETER: BackStory is produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, and Robert Armengol. Jamal Millner is our engineer. We had help from Coly Elhai.
Special thanks this week to Dahlia Lithwick, Jeffrey Fisher, Natalie Jones, Dave Franzoia, and Matthew Davies, our voice of Charles Dickens. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel– history made every day.
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA, and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
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