The Trash Empire: a ‘State’ of Mind

Despite promises of streets paved with gold, walking through the New York metropolis you’re more likely to be met with the golden arches of a Mcdonalds food wrapper, than the precious metallic ore.

Estimated to be the globes most wasteful city, the concrete pavements carry a daily burden of 14 million tonnes of trash tossed aside by the average resident. New Yorks essentially, is ‘trashing’ its’ own city.

New York, You dropped something

What’s developed as a disposable city, is rooted in a long shadow of refuse reforms which has created an imagined divide between what can considered trash and what treasure.

The Citys’ initial attempt to’ clean up its act’ can be traced back to the Dutch era. A very different vision from the brimming curb side trash bags of Starbucks today, the mounding 17th century ‘trash’ of horse Caracases, oyster shells and manure were given 5 specific ‘dumping grounds’ across the city, to unburden its streets and canals. But as the 19th century population grew, so did its waste, a new widespread fear of disease met with a new social paranoia of cleanliness, order and organisation (Moore, 2009).  

The ‘white wings’ 1890s Street cleaners of New York (source, TheBowryBoys)

The aim for a ‘glittering city’ sits in the legacy of Willian Strong, whos’ 1890s vision saw the creation of a new white collared army of sanitation workers, creating an imagined modern order by whisking away the ‘unclean’ elements of the city away from the noses of urban residents. While the wealthy middle class of the New York could pay for private waste disposal, a social stigma of ‘dirty and unclean’ was taxed to poorer migrant communities whos’ pavements piled with litter.

New York Garbage Truck (source: Unsplash)

This association of dirt and disorder continues in the structural organisation of modern New York; weaving through the concrete jungle, the streets are negotiated by 6000 garbage trucks, readily sweeping away the tossed remains of daily commuters, costing the city over $1 billion to ensure out of sight, and out of mind.

Consuming the city

Each 10,500 tones of consumer waste, tossed aside by the daily Starbucks customer is not an idle material, but writes the material biography of New Yorks’ modern lifestyle. Both the sheer volume and nature of waste of New York is a physical trophy to the success of modern capitalism (Eliot, 1922).

Capitalism both requires and encourages wasteful practise; material waste positioned as a necessary agent and unquestioned sacrifice in a society where value is seen akin to economic growth and productivity . In a city with the longest working week in America, the paced ‘need it now’ mentality unfortunately doesn’t favour carrying a keep cup on daily errands or careful crafting a bento box for lunch (Nagle, 2014).

These archives that pile onto the Manhattan curb side, create multicoloured socio-political sculpture that represent our desires for ‘immediate’ and convenient gratification; the archaeologically findings of a 30th century escapade, most likely to be rewarded with piles of Starbucks plastic cups, bagel wrappers, rejected food scraps and now PPE. Moore describes this as the ‘parallax nature of waste’, dashing commuters having to negotiate their way past what is a result of consumption itself (Moore, 2012).

See it, buy it, bin it

But vanishing within 24 hours thanks to over 7,000 sanitation workers, the ease and normalisation of ‘throw-away’ created by this consumer landscape, has allowed a mentally of detached and temporary ownership of the materials we demand (Moore, 2012). A coffee cup quickly transitioning from a precious vehicle of morning caffeine fix, to a frustrating burden, and hunt for the nearest bin means thew jump from value to value-less is within the space of a few sips.

As Robin Nagal mentions, the ‘away’ in throw away is a mythical idealism as a symptom of modern New York culture whos’ remains can never really vanish, but geographically shifts (Nagle, 2014).

What New Yorks’ waste symbolises, is the essential need to re-evaluate what we perceive as waste and an evolution in our relationship to our own physical material footprint.

Words: 628


Eliot, T., 1922. The Waste Land. New York: Horace Liveright.

Moore, S., 2009. The Excess of Modernity: Garbage Politics in Oaxaca, Mexico. The Professional Geographer, 61(4), pp.426-437.

Moore, S., 2012. Garbage matters. Progress in Human Geography, 36(6), pp.780-799.

Nagle, R., 2014. Picking Up: On The Streets And Behind The Trucks With The Sanitation Workers Of New York City. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

planyc, 2011. Solid Waste. A GREENER, GREATER NEW YORK. [online] New York: planyc. Available at: <; [Accessed 27 November 2020].

Young, G. and Meyers, T., 2019. Talking Trash: A History Of New York City Sanitation. [podcast] The Bowery Boys. Available at: <; [Accessed 27 November 2020].

4 thoughts on “The Trash Empire: a ‘State’ of Mind

  1. Hi there! This was a really enjoyable take on NYC’s throwaway culture. Your writing style makes the piece really engaging as well. You mentioned that the wealthy middle class could afford to pay for private waste disposal while poorer migrant communities bore the brunt of the city’s litter problem in the past. Is this something that is still seen in NYC today? How do you think the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality brought about by the city’s efficiency at clearing its rubbish can be changed for people to be more mindful of what they are throwing away?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi – I’m glad you enjoyed the read! Todays New York is still a combination of private and public waste services – though the number of private trucks is outweighed by public, questions of efficiency have been raised especially in less wealthy neighbourhoods. You’re correct in pointing out the true issue is not the inefficiency of collection, but the policies in the States which fail to limit or regulate the creation of virgin materials, something I will discuss in my next post! Stay tuned!


  2. Hi, this is a really interesting post on New York City’s trash! What stood out for me was the city’s “army of sanitation workers” or “white wings” who laboriously swept trash out of sight. I could draw parallel links to the way Singapore’s cleanliness is similarly maintained by her large force of cleaners, which increasingly gathered the view of the city as being “a cleaned city” rather than a clean one. Additionally, I find that the reliance on cleaners to manage cleanliness in Singapore is also tied to social inequalities, as the majority of cleaners are foreign workers who receive low pay and are often treated with prejudice. I wonder if NYC also depends on foreign labour to do the “dirty job” of cleaning up the city’s trash? Do you see the case of cleanliness management as an issue of inequality too?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, thank you for your comment! It is interesting to draw an international comparison – NewYork certainly parallels Singapore in this sense as the majority of sanitation workers in the 20th century were minority ethnic groups. Today, I have read a to of interesting reports that say the social stigma around sanitation workers still carries; often the trucks and workers themselves treated as ‘in the way’ or a nuisance. ironic, considering the job of sanitation is to get rid of the waste that would otherwise be ‘in the way’ of everyday life, created by residents themselves in the first place! It shows that the stigma of sanitation is a global issue and one that certainly must be battled!


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