Skip Navigation
Regional News
Robin Nagle, from Saranac Lake, is the anthropologist-in-residence in the New York City Sanitation Department.  Photo: Brian Mann
Robin Nagle, from Saranac Lake, is the anthropologist-in-residence in the New York City Sanitation Department. Photo: Brian Mann

America's never-ending war against garbage

Listen to this story
We've all had the experience of being told that it's our turn to take out the trash. Or sort the recycling. Or make the weekly trip to the dump.

More and more of us are trying to reduce the amount of waste we produce, by composting and buying stuff with less packaging.

But Americans still produce massive amounts of garbage.

And the way we deal with it shapes our lives and the future of our communities and our environment.

Hear this

Download audio

Share this


Explore this

Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

On a bright spring morning, Robin Nagle takes me through her neighborhood to show me how the public sanitation system works in New York City. It looks civilized – tidy brownstones, trees just budding out, people heading to work.

Every day, crews from the Sanitation Department's 9,000-strong force fan out across New York City.  Photo:  Brian Mann
Every day, crews from the Sanitation Department's 9,000-strong force fan out across New York City. Photo: Brian Mann
A parade of gleaming white trucks stretches down a Manhattan street. Guys wearing bright t-shirts and vests scramble back and forth from the curb, hoisting big bags of cardboard and paper.

Robin Nagle says it's all closely choreographed, the trucks, the men – fanning out every day across New York City. "Think of it as a perpetual war and the enemy is never going to be defeated."

The enemy is garbage. Gunk. Vermin- and disease-filled trash. It's easy to sort of overlook the neatly bound bags of trash and recycling that sit everywhere, waiting to magically disappear. But multiply this street times a thousand streets and suddenly you have 11,000 tons of garbage flowing through this city every day.

The flow of trash from NYC's millions of inhabitants is relentless, with roughly 11,000 tons generated daily.  This worker is gathering recycling on a spring day in Manhattan.  Photo:  Brian Mann
The flow of trash from NYC's millions of inhabitants is relentless, with roughly 11,000 tons generated daily. This worker is gathering recycling on a spring day in Manhattan. Photo: Brian Mann
"In a city of 8.4 million how do you keep all that material moving so that it doesn't backlog or the flow doesn't sort of get clotted?"

Nagle is an anthropologist who teaches at NYU – she's also the resident anthropologist for the New York City Sanitation Department.

This idea of garbage clotting – of it just sort of staying in our lives – first struck her years ago. She was a kid in Saranac Lake and went on a camping trip with her dad in the Adirondacks. She described what happened next in a TED Talk presentation last year.

"I was about 10 years old. We got to our campsite and behind our lean-to was a dump," Nagle recalled. "I was astonished, I was very angry. The campers who were too lazy to take out what they had brought in — who did they think would clean up after them?"

 

Garbage left in a campground – that's gross and infuriating. But garbage left in a city is terrifying, and dangerous.

Back in 1968, a garbage strike in New York City became a national scandal and threatened to become a public health emergency.

"Every moment that goes by the situation that gets more serious," warned then-governor Nelson Rockefeller. "We're up to more than 100,000 tons [of uncollected garbage] now."

Robin Nagle is convinced that sanitation workers – those guys in bright t-shirts and vests – are the most important part of America's public health system, keeping us free of the vermin and diseases that come with garbage.

Before public sanitation, she says – New York City was a nightmare. "The crud, the garbage, the mud, the congealed mass of God-knows-what was in some places knee deep in the street. That was daily life. You had to wade through what by today's standards is a really unimaginable level of filth."

Nagle, who is also an author and teaches at NYU, developed her fascination with the ecology of trash while on a camping trip in the Adirondacks.
Nagle, who is also an author and teaches at NYU, developed her fascination with the ecology of trash while on a camping trip in the Adirondacks.
Nagle's new book, out last year, is called "Picking Up." It's an effort to make Americans think more about the waste they produce and the sometimes invisible workers who keep it from clogging our lives.

This is a fight that's been going on for a long time. In 1971, the Keep America Beautiful campaign broadcast that famous ad – with the crying Indian.

Robin Nagle says that ad helped raise consciousness among Americans – but it was only a first step. "It was very effective. The problem is that we think that if we recycle meticulously we will have saved the planet."

Nagle says now the next step is to convince manufacturers to produce less waste and to pay more for disposing of the massive amounts of trash and pollution they produce.

She also thinks we'll all need to learn to consume less. For now, those sanitation workers are sweeping away the tons and tons of trash we create each day.

But that kind of waste, Nagle says, just isn't sustainable over the long term.

 

Visitor comments

on:

NCPR is supported by:

This is a Visitor-Supported website.