A group of ten New York street sweepers pose, pushing garbage into a pile on the street (Niday Picture Library/Alamy)

(Niday Picture Library/Alamy)

Display typography of title "Garbage Island" covered with specks of dirt

A History of Waste in New York City—and Why It’s So Worth Studying

By Andrew Postman

Some things are just better now.
     In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, New York City had much-needed laws forbidding residents from dumping chamber pots or letting privies overflow into the streets. After all, denizens could legally dump effluent into the rivers after 10:00 p.m. in winter and 11:00 p.m. in summer. Given how often residents ignored those time constraints and the apparent lack of interest in schlepping their chamber pots and privies to the East or Hudson rivers, “night soil” was a constant problem.
     So that part is better now.

Silhoutte of a White Wing street sweeper with a large broom

New York’s White Wings earned hero status in the early 19th century. Named for their bright white uniforms, the sweepers kept the streets cleaner than they had ever been. (NYC Municipal Archives)

     To understand our history and ourselves, we tend to look to architecture, art, literature, film, fashion, poetry and documents, tools and machines, and even coins and stamps. And they’re instructive, sure. But can anything tell us more about who we are than the waste we produce, what happens postconsumption, and how and where we discard or store what’s left behind? That we leave things behind to begin with? How we’re so often willing to pretend that our garbage is not really of us?
     DiscardStudies.com launched a decade ago: a thoughtful, trailblazing, important look at “how we generate waste, what qualifies as waste, how it’s managed, what its environmental consequences are,” says NYU Liberal Studies clinical professor Robin Nagle, cofounder of the blog, as well as anthropologist-in-residence for the New York City Department of Sanitation and a person endlessly fascinated by garbage. The serious study of waste is nothing new. But Nagle brought to it a more anthropological approach when she taught a graduate seminar in 1995 titled Garbage in Gotham: The Anthropology of Trash. The curriculum committee recognized the value in the rich subject matter, and soon there were courses like Discard Studies: Exploring the Abject, Discarded, and Disposable; Oral History, Labors of Waste and the Value of Knowledge; and Waste, Water, and the Urban Environment. Now Nagle, who teaches anthropology and environmental studies, is extending her decades-long interest in refuse and giving it a 21st-century spin. NYU’s Center for the Humanities provided funding to solicit relevant works in progress, run a teaching workshop, and help crystallize a community around the topic.
     Nagle champions the Discard Studies collaborative as “an inherently interdisciplinary field” that touches on economics, aesthetics, philosophy, politics, urbanism; on “laws, labor, and land.” Nagle’s interest in garbage began at an Adirondacks campsite, where a teenaged Nagle and her dad found the otherwise pristine location spoiled by the refuse left behind by previous campers. Incensed, Nagle wondered, Who did they think would clean up after them? “That question marinated—or composted—into adulthood” and through her graduate studies, she says, until she could give it more direction. Beyond her own fascination with the subject is a desire to awaken others to the profoundness and urgency of asking questions that rarely get asked; about things we throw “out” or “away.” Discard Studies aims to “shine a light on the second half of a picture that has remained obscure.”
     “When I give talks,” says Nagle, “I’ll pull a prop from the audience—a plastic water bottle destined for the recycling bin—and do a life-cycle analysis: where it came from and how it’s used and what happens to it next. What discipline would not have a node in Discard Studies? It includes things like labor, and how do we construct meaning, and why am I never going to put this plastic water bottle on the mantlepiece as a heritage heirloom. Where did we learn to become so oblivious to the transcendence and impermanence” of these objects?
     Nagle is developing this burgeoning field of social science at NYU with program codirector and Gallatin associate professor Rosalind Fredericks, who has explored the politics, economics, and cultural dynamics of garbage in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Senegal. Like Nagle, Fredericks sees in waste, well, everything. “As an urban geographer, I’ve been considering waste and its politics for some time, because it’s the nexus of people, society, and environment,” says Fredericks, who points to the centrality of the “production-consumption-discarding triad.”
     Fredericks and Nagle are organizing a major three-day Discard Studies conference at NYU this April during Earth Week that they’re hoping will be a game-changing moment for the field.

— • —

     Nagle is fascinated by what New York City’s history of waste says about New Yorkers. She helped to explore that in an exhibit held last year at the City Reliquary Museum, titled NYC Trash! Past, Present, and Future. “Solutions to the problems of trash shaped the city’s geography, economy, and fortunes from the earliest days of European settlement,” Nagle wrote in the exhibition text. Pieter Stuyvesant, director-general of the Nieuw Amsterdam colony, decreed in 1657 that residents couldn’t toss “any rubbish, filth, oyster shells, dead animal [sic], or anything like it” into the streets; they were directed to deliver their waste to dump sites along the East River.
     Stuyvesant’s edicts apparently were ignored. After the British took over in 1664, enacting their own street-cleaning laws, citizens largely disregarded those, too, despite the growing problem. “Effluents from noxious trades,” wrote Nagle, “such as slaughterhouses, tanneries, and breweries, mashed with myriad animal and household wastes, lingered in the streets and along the waters’ edges. Mayors, constables, and laborers charged with the task of cleaning the streets had little impact. The stink was nauseating.”
     For more than two centuries, the story of waste in New York City may be oversimplified as: more people, more waste, no organized trash removal, and little willingness by citizens to do their part. “By 1700, when the city’s population neared 5,000,” wrote Nagle, “rubbish seemed permanently beyond the capacity of householders, cartmen, constables, scavengers, laborers, or mayors. Again and again, householders were enjoined to sweep in front of their homes so cartmen could collect the piles.”
     It didn’t happen.
     As Nagle explains, failed solutions shifted from government to business. At first the city paid the cartmen. Then private contractors employed the cartmen and directly charged householders. Then carters partially charged households themselves and kept some of what they collected, including profitable manure. Then cartmen started picking up only manure

A man equipped with a broom and shovel at the turn of the century

(NYC Municipal Archives)

A horse-drawn garbage cart on a cobblestone street with a row brownstones in the background

(Everett Collection Historical/Alamy)

Before the advent of sanitation trucks and mechanical street sweepers, the city deployed horse-drawn garbage carts and men equipped with brooms and shovels at the turn of the century.

     At the end of the 19th century, famously corrupt Tammany Hall politicians lamented that the city was uncleanable. (They also conveniently neglected to mention that money set aside for street cleaning had somehow found its way into their pockets.)
     And then New York got its hero.
     If we made a list of the people who helped make New York New York, we should find a place to include Colonel George E. Waring Jr.
     Waring, a Civil War hero and sanitary engineer, was appointed to be head of the Department of Street Cleaning by William Lafayette Strong, the reformer who upset the Tammany-backed mayoral choice in 1894. Waring helped bring to New York “a level of cleanliness that no one alive had ever seen,” wrote Nagle. “He reorganized the workforce along military lines ... cleared the streets of snow in record time and vowed to stop the city’s long practice of dumping at sea.” By requiring householders to use three separate barrels for their discards—for ash, rubbish, and garbage—he established one of the country’s first curbside recycling programs. In just three short years on the job (he died of yellow fever in 1898), Waring made profound changes in the what and how of New York City’s refuse and—no small thing—the way in which trash collectors were perceived by the public. Waring’s men wore uniforms, with the sweepers in bright white trousers, jackets, and helmets, which Nagle calls “a brilliant choice”: As “the initially skeptical public saw that the streets of the city were made and stayed clean even in the poorer quarters for the first time in memory, Waring’s white-clad sweepers earned hero status.”
     Perhaps the biggest change of all: it became impossible for any New York politician, post-Waring, to claim that the city’s garbage—now close to 40,000 tons per day—was unmanageable.
     Still, the last century-plus of New York City’s garbage history is uneven and often ugly.
     Mountains of garbage persisted; in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes of the “ash heaps,” located somewhere on Long Island, which represent decay, poverty, and neglect.
     Despite Waring’s attempt to stop the dumping of public waste into open water, it continued until 1934, when it was finally halted by a US Supreme Court ruling.
     A booming post–World War II economy saw a proliferation of consumer goods and an explosion of plastic, some of it single-use, which meant that New Yorkers got into the habit of throwing away a whole new category of waste, one generally not biodegradable. The irrational exuberance—and arrogance, and irresponsibility—of industry’s diabolically profitable “planned obsolescence” of its goods made matters worse for us; then, now, and in the future.
     Robert Moses, for good or bad the master builder of much of New York, didn’t help. As Nagle wrote, “When buildings were in his way, especially if they were in ethnically diverse working-class neighborhoods, he razed them. The resulting rubble was added to the mounting piles of household trash that he dumped on marshes and wetlands all over the city.”
     In 1948, Fresh Kills, another Moses legacy—one whose size would dwarf the pyramids of Egypt—opened on Staten Island. The locals were unhappy to hear that the landfill would “take trash” for three years. Moses misjudged, or lied: it lasted for 53.
     For the museum exhibition, Nagle wrote eloquently about the meaning of this looming monument (the size of nearly three Central Parks) to modern life. Fresh Kills, in her words, “is us. It came into existence because of cultural dynamics that demanded lifestyles of easy consumption, that depended on casual connections to material objects, that loved plastic and paper and the ability to let go without worrying about what happened next. Anyone who lived in New York between 1948 and 2001 contributed something to Fresh Kills. Archaeologists in a distant future will one day unearth Fresh Kills and encounter infinite intimate details about us, about our time. They will learn of a people obsessed with impermanence who built an enormous permanent record of squandered abundance.”
     Today our waste has no permanent home within the city. We send it elsewhere, by truck, train, and barge. Much of it had gone to China until they decided they wanted no more of it. So it gets moved out and away to other distant lands.

— • —

     Waste engenders disgust. “We don’t like thinking about our own waste, so we put it out of our minds,” says Fredericks. “When we throw things away at the curb, we think they’re gone.” This out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude breeds problems like ... more waste and pollution, precisely because of the refusal to look at what we’re generating. “If we think about waste in a more holistic manner, [we’d understand that] these things never go away. We would be more environmentally responsible and proactive,” she adds.
     The association between waste and revulsion also means that, for a long time, sanitation workers were the last key urban public servants to be unionized and respected, even as the job is far more dangerous, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, than policing or firefighting. Nagle worked as a New York City sanitation worker, chronicling her experience in the book Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and came away humbled and impressed. “I believe it’s the most important uniformed force on the street because you need two things for a city to thrive: clean water in and dirty water out, and garbage up off the streets and the streets swept with relative consistency.”
     Here’s one small change where one individual can make a difference. “Taking nothing away from firefighters and police officers,” says Nagle, “but when people see a sanitation worker, public or private, say thanks.”