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 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.
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.
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: <http://s-media.nyc.gov/agencies/planyc2030/pdf/planyc_2011_solid_waste.pdf> [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: <https://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2019/08/talking-trash-a-history-of-new-york-city-sanitation.html> [Accessed 27 November 2020].