Discard Studies: Robin Nagle on Garbage, Sanitation, and the History of Waste

In 2006, Robin Nagle became the first ever anthropologist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Sanitation. It was a dream come true: garbage had been Nagle’s passion for years. While most of us produce our garbage, take it to the curb, and then wipe our hands clean, Nagle has devoted much of her academic career to the stuff, even going so far as to take a full-time job as a sanitation worker for a while. For her, garbage is never just garbage; it’s also, in her words, “an infinite, orgiastic display of humanness at its most mundane, disquieting, and mesmerizing.”

Her new book, Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, takes us inside the Department of Sanitation, describing the daily lives of its employees (Nagle included) while simultaneously working toward a basic theory of garbage and the city — how we think about trash, and why. The answer takes us through hundreds of years of waste-management history, into the driver’s seat of present-day compactor trucks, and right up to the edge of the city’s reeking landfills.

“Garbage is, always,” Nagle writes. “We will die, civilization will crumble, life as we know it will cease to exist, but trash will endure…our ceaselessly erected, ceaselessly broken cenotaphs to ephemera and disconnection and unquenchable want.”  On the eve of her book’s publication, Nagle answered our questions by email. —Peter C. Baker

The Barnes & Noble Review: Early in the book, you write about a childhood experience of finding an open-air garbage dump behind a pristine-looking forest campsite. You describe it as an “awful moment,” one that made you “angry.” Now, many years later, you write about garbage — and about the people who haul it away — very poetically, with a mix of fascination, awe, and reverence. What’s it like studying and writing about something that most people just aren’t inclined to think about? Or put otherwise: how did something that you once found viscerally disgusting become your grown-up passion?

Robin Nagle: I think people actually are inclined to think about garbage; it’s just that they don’t talk about it much. Nearly everyone who hears of my work has a garbage story they’re eager to share, and many people also have urgent questions about trash-related issues. It’s as if they need permission to admit how concerned they are, or in some cases how fascinated they are.

Garbage is still often disgusting to me, but I’m perpetually captivated by the complexities of its composition and its management, by how it connects to every facet of life, and by its many lovely ironies (it’s simultaneously intimate and rejected, ever-present and invisible, personal and global, fleeting yet permanent).  

BNR: You start tagging along in garbage trucks and hanging out at garages, taking notes as an anthropologist. But around the seventy-page mark you actually join the Sanitation Department. Your book is much more ethnography than memoir, but I’m curious to know how your life changed during this time. You’re an academic: did you stop teaching? What did your colleagues think? What about your family and friends?

RN: Thank you for saying that it’s more ethnography than memoir! That was my goal, but I was often uncertain about whether or not I was finding the right balance.

My academic appointment at NYU is unconventional — I don’t get sabbaticals or release time – so when I was on the job as a sanitation worker I was also still going full tilt at the university. I could only keep such a demanding schedule because of support from my colleagues, especially those in the master’s program I direct. My friends and family just shook their heads and wished me luck; they’re quite used to me being caught up with sanitation projects and stories.

BNR: As you describe it, New York’s Sanitation Department seems to resent its invisibility — its total taken-for-grantedness — but simultaneously shies away from any and all publicity. When you joined the department, did your coworkers know you were writing about them? If so, what were their thoughts on the project? If not, why not? I know the book’s not out yet, but have you had (or do you expect) any feedback from the sanitation work community?
RN: The DSNY doesn’t shy away from all publicity – the department’s response to Hurricane Sandy earned welcome praise — but so much publicity over the years has been knee-jerk negative that Sanitation people generally tend to avoid it. Why court attention when chances are it will only be critical?

When I joined the department, plenty of people on the job knew me and knew I was writing a book because I’d already spent considerable time in garages and other DSNY facilities around the city. While I was a sanitation worker I was glad to talk about the project with anyone who asked, but I didn’t broadcast it.

The feedback so far has been mostly positive.

BNR: You point out that being a sanitation worker today is more dangerous, in terms of injury and fatality rates, than being a police officer or a firefighter. Are these dangers intractable? Do you think they might be reduced if sanitation work and sanitation workers were less invisible?

RN: Sanitation work does not have to be so persistently dangerous. Waste management structures, work rhythms, and even the nature of garbage itself do not exist according to fixed laws of nature. We built these systems, which means we can change them. Such transformations require awareness and will, however, which is one of the reasons I wrote the book. Surely we can figure out a safer, more reasonable way to manage trash; surely we can come up with a better, more environmentally sensitive way to create products and commodities so that a garbage bag is not their inevitable fate.

And you’re right, the issue of invisibility is key. If we don’t feel the need to see or acknowledge a man or woman doing a task that we count as demeaning, then we are not going to be particularly concerned about that individual’s safety. As long as the larger culture looks down upon labors of waste, in New York City or anywhere else, workers are at much greater risk than they need to be.

BNR: Picking Up deals almost exclusively with waste disposal practices in New York City. To what extent is the reality you document representative of how waste is dealt with in other American cities, and/or other parts of the so-called developed world? Are there countries, for example, where sanitation work is not just conducted differently but perceived differently? Where it’s less invisible?

RN: Some of the technology is similar. I’ve seen compactor trucks – the classic model “garbage truck” used in New York – in the slums of urban Brazil, at waste transfer stations in Istanbul, on the streets of Dublin. In terms of visibility, citizens of wealthier nations tend to look less kindly on sanitation work than do people in poorer parts of the world, especially in places where scavenging is still a regular practice. In those cases, the work is differently visible, if you’ll excuse the awkward phrase. Systems in developed countries are generally more successful in segregating garbage, which greatly contributes to an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude.

BNR: In addition to describing sanitation work in present-day New York, you also give a tour of its history since 1624. Reading about garbage shin-deep in the streets, massive dung heaps polluting the air in vast swathes of Manhattan, and the like, I couldn’t help wondering: do you have any predictions as to which of our current waste management practices will seem particularly shocking (or just plain gross) to the readers of the future?

RN: Wonderful question! Samuel Delaney, one of my favorite authors, wrote a novel called Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand that includes a cameo appearance by a government official responsible for a planet’s waste management. She is charged with making sure that all discards and effluents are recycled, repurposed, and otherwise kept from fouling the environment. Her job is extremely high status because it’s understood to be essential to the immediate and long-term well-being of her world.

When I’m indulging my utopian leanings, I imagine that readers in the future will be appalled by all the waste management practices of our life today. Just consider the pattern. We extract finite resources from the planet, use those resources to manufacture a vast cornucopia of commodities, consume those commodities in staggering quantities, and then let it all become an unwanted thing called Trash that creates hazards across every spectrum of life. How absurd is that! If we sat down and tried to come up with a crazier system, I’m not sure we could.

BNR: What’s the current state of “garbage studies”? How did the field — or I guess sub-field — emerge in its current form?

RN: It’s great that you refer to it as a field, though that might be a little premature. Garbage studies – or as some of us call it, discard studies – is still in its early formation. I’ll know we’ve established solid ground when my colleagues in academia no longer chuckle at the phrase and when it’s a regular part of the curriculum at schools everywhere.

BNR: What’s next? Will you keep focusing on garbage? More broadly, what’s the next frontier (or frontiers) for garbage studies?

RN: Garbage is an endlessly rich field of investigation, from so many perspectives. I’ll be focusing on it, and specifically on the people whose careers revolve around it, for a while. The next frontier for garbage studies – or discard studies – is a more connected community of scholars, workers, and activists; a more clearly articulated set of approaches to waste definitions and analyses; a real push to raise awareness about (and responses to) the varied permutations of waste; and a hard look at its many hidden and pernicious consequences.