Histories of the Dustheap

Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Cultures, Social Justice
Editors: Stephanie Foote and Elizabeth Mazzolini
Pub: The MIT Press
Price: £17.95

Histories of the DustheapDon’t judge a book by its cover, the old adage goes, and never has this been more true than with Histories of the Dustheap:

Waste, Material Cultures, Social Justice. The combination of the title and the cover (depicting rubbish bales), suggests a dense history of the landfill system, but instead, this book – a selection of essays – is an overarching study of the impacts our waste has had, and is continuing to have, on human health and the environment.

Made up of three parts: ‘The Subjectivities of Garbage’, ‘The Places of Garbage’ and ‘The Cultural Contradictions of Garbage’, the selected essays take the reader on an emotional and moving journey as humankind’s disturbingly carefree attitude to disposing of waste and the impacts it has on the environment (and health) are laid out in their ugly entirety.

With contributions from professors and scholars, the essays are surprisingly accessible. Author and Professor of History at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Richard Newman sets the tone of the book with ‘Darker Shades of Green’, catching the reader’s attention, and bringing to the fore feelings of sympathy and moral outrage (which only increase as the book continues) through a look at the rise of ‘toxic autobiography’ literature, following the toxic waste scandal at Love Canal in the 1980s.

Moving on to ‘The Places of Garbage’, the reader’s anger at humankind’s wilful disregard for its actions reaches fever pitch in three essays charting the impact of waste on place: from New Orleans’s ‘ignorance’ of waste pre- and post-Katrina, to the toxic effects of burying e-waste and the impact of tourism on Mount Everest. Emotions simmer down to a thoughtful consideration of the ‘cultural contradictions’ of waste in the final chapter, and though the editors make no claims to outline ‘a triumphant set of solutions’ to the problem, there is no doubt that the reader is enlightened to waste’s role in the ‘uneasy coexistence of economic abundance... and environmental degradation’.

Engaging, well written and covering a selection of topics, this book is well worth a read – but with a title and cover so off-putting, I fear it’s not going to get the attention it deserves.

Histories of the Dustheap is available from The MIT Press.