Dirty work: How hygiene and xenophobia marginalized the American waste trades, 1870-1930

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AT THE BEGINNING of the twenty-first century, Americans think recycling is a good, even moral behavior. We all would like to see more reuse of things, tempering our rampant consumption and reducing the amount of garbage we throw into landfills and incinerators. Recycling now means leaving a cleaner, better planet to our children. Yet even today, most of us took down on the actual work of recycling, displaying little respect for the people who handle our waste, whether residential or industrial. The United States is by no means unique in attaching stigma to waste handlers. The work by definition occurs on the border between what societies deem valuable and worthless. The industrialized world has several examples of this dynamic over the past two centuries; Donald Reid has observed the complex and often negative public image of Parisian cesspool workers despite the importance of their work. Americans, however, conflate waste not only with ethics and social standing, but also with xenophobia, raising questions of what handling this material has to do with being an American. This dynamic exacerbated tensions for the waste trades in the United States just as they were growing, tensions that forced waste-handling businesses to assert their legitimacy according to a set of cultural perceptions relating to ethics, economics, and patriotism. One of the methods scrap firms used to assert their legitimacy was to employ the rhetoric of conservation. This article's contribution to the understanding of waste in America is to explore this dynamic at work between 1870 and 1930.

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Environmental History