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Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash

Susan Strasser

Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash

Author:Susan Strasser
Publisher:Henry Holt and Company

By Scott Carlson | Posted 9/29/1999

We all know of grandparents who pass away and leave odd heirlooms for their kids and grandkids: peanut-butter jars filled with mismatched nuts and bolts; cooking utensils with handles which have been repaired and re-repaired; boxes of Ziploc bags, clouded from years of being scrubbed out and reused. The surviving relatives often attribute the ragged bounty to a Depression-scarred mentality—"Don't throw that out. You might need it someday." Susan Strasser's Waste and Want shows that, sadly, is indeed an old-fashioned way of living. The frugal virtues, she says, have been passed on for millenniums—that is, until the arrival of the 20th-century generations, which have been gradually weaned on the wasteful and never-ending fruits of mass production.

Strasser starts out showing the crafty, almost alchemical ways pre-20th-century Americans extended the lives of their precious goods. For example, she notes that one housekeeping publication suggested binding broken porcelain and boiling it in milk to fix cracks. The reader can see a couple of modern connections from these details: 1) Americans once valued their goods because we worked hard to buy them and, in many cases, they were made to last. (The old adage"They don't make 'em like they used to" has refurbished meaning when studying the disposable culture.) 2) Once Americans were raised with the convenience of disposability, they lost their connection with the production of objects and the ability to fix them. Now, Strasser writes, we've entered an era in which products come off the line ready-made for the landfill: disposable cameras, appliances that wear out quickly, designer garbage bags, etc. Mass production provides an endless supply of objects; to keep the industry going, the attitude has to be out with the old, in with the new.

Waste and Want represents a tremendous historical feat because trash leaves few records: It's so commonplace that it's invisible, not the kind of thing historians document, and the evidence is decomposed or buried. Strasser dug through the detritus of popular and scholarly sources to compose a panoramic history of American trash. In parts of the book, she spends too much time on banal details about the ways in which Americans recycled, repaired, or wore out materials, and not enough time on an analysis of the ecological, economic, and social effects of trash. Those meaty topics come up mainly in the book's second half, and by then the reader might be worn out by descriptions of the myriad ways a pair of trousers can be repaired. But overall Waste and Want is engaging—a vital read for anyone who wants to see the mountains of trash beyond the molehill under the kitchen sink.

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