Monday, June 4, 2018

Intrigo for Module PhLB: the Anthropology of Waste I: The Garbage Man

Intrigo for Module PhLB: the Anthropology of Waste I: The Garbage Man
By T.H. Culhane

When we lived in Germany and my son was about 2 years old all he could think about and talk about were garbage trucks.  Of course we had to get him a toy one big enough for him to sit on and to ride around on. When I would take him in his stroller, his favorite thing to do was to be pushed up to the recycling bins and throw something in and then kick them with his feet. He had to touch every bin on the street before he would let me take him home. And his heroes were garbage men.  Whenever the real garbage trucks rolled into the neighborhood with what I considered to be the most annoying, horrible shrill beeping noise he would run to the window with delight and point breathlessly and insist that I take him outside to greet the guys, decked out in their dayglo yellow and orange outfits, and watch them load the recycle bins he had kicked from his stroller  into the truck. His highlight was getting to sit up in the cab with them, pretending to be a real “Müllmann”. Garbage men might as well have been superheroes as far as he was concerned.
4 years later my two year old daughter went through the same phase.  It apparently isn’t just a boy thing, although we noted that in Germany, where we lived, there were no grown up garbage women.
Loving garbage people and being fascinated by the waste management cycle, and particularly the trucks, actually seems to be a universal thing; when you start buying children’s books for garbage truck obsessed toddlers you find a plethora of offerings in almost every language. One American mother living in Germany wrote a blog listing all the books for all the other parents with similar kids, from “Bei der Mullabfuhr” to “Heute kommt das Mullauto”, saying as her opening “ You might be surprised just how many German kids books are written about garbage”.  Since my kids are German-American with ¼ Arab thrown in the mix, we’ve found them of course in English and Arabic too. From “Buster the Little Garbage Truck” to “I am a Garbage Truck” and “I stink” one could spend an entire childhood reading about nothing but garbage trucks and garbage men.
Yet despite this early anthropologically universal fascination with garbage and its handling, it isn’t long before children’s idolization of the people who deal with dreck turns into disdain or revulsion or some other kind of class biased prejudice.  
Taking out the trash becomes a chore, and devoting your life to taking out and dealing with other people’s trash becomes a job not for superman, but for the those who did worst in school.
There is a stigma associated with garbage people.
I remember when I was a kid, during the heady 1960s and 70s era with our civil rights and women’s rights and environmental movements, using the moniker “garbage man” fell out of fashion.  People in the profession of waste management started referring to themselves as “sanitation engineers”. It was a way to sanitize the profession socially, even as health and justice groups lobbied to have its image and practice cleaned up environmentally.  After we landed on the moon in 1969 and saw how small and fragile spaceship earth looked, after Earth Day in 1970, and on the heels of the publication of “Limits to Growth” in 1972, recycling was supposed to be in, and throwing things out was supposed to be out.
Nearly half a century late we know we haven’t gone nearly far enough toward zero waste through complete recycling, but the image of the garbage man has improved somewhat in the eyes of adults. Even I got invited as a garbage obsessed urban planner to be a National Geographic Explorer and to  join the Clinton Global Initiative because of my work in collecting and transforming smelly food waste and turning it into fuel and fertilizer. President Clinton actually put his arm around my shoulder to take a picture of the two of us with our “commitment to action” sign and said, “Now Thomas, YOU KNOW there is treasure in that there trash -- let’s do this!”
 Real sanitation engineering principles -- systems thinking principles -- are being put in place in waste management and exciting new startups are starting up to mine the treasure in that there trash.  It is slow going, but at least the stigma is gone. There are as many opportunities for well educated garbage men and women as there are combinations of elements on the periodic table.
This course, and this module,  is one place to start!

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