The garbage wars began in the 1990s when New York City found that it was running out of room to store its trash. At first it may have seemed like a simple problem, nothing that could not be solved by a fleet of tractor-trailers carrying garbage to open spaces further south and west. If only Virginia's Gov. James S. Gilmore had not spoken up. “The home state of Washington, Jefferson and Madison has no intention of becoming New York's dumping grounds,” he declared. 1 New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani responded that accepting some trash was a small price to pay for the enormous cultural benefits that tourists from all across the nation experienced when they came to town on vacation.
Culture in exchange for garbage seemed like a reasonable deal, unless you found yourself living in one of the unlucky places now playing host to what the city no longer wanted. “It may be out of sight, out of mind,” for New Yorkers, remarked one resident of Old Forge, Pennsylvania, home to a landfill that receives trash originating in Brooklyn and Queens. “But in our neck of the woods, we are the ones feeling the impact, we have the hundreds of tractor trailers every day with the New York license plates and a landfill that is tearing apart the side of a mountain.” Not everyone is so negative, of course. Charles City County, Virginia, received some 3.4 million dollars in 2000 from Waste Management, Inc., for the privilege of operating a 1,000-acre landfill, the ultimate destination of waste produced in a large part of Brooklyn. “Our elementary, middle and high schools are all new and they were built from landfill dollars,” the chairman of the county's board of supervisors recently explained. “That is a very concrete benefit.” Indeed, the trash-financed schools certainly gave the term recycling new meaning. 2
Show me your trash and I'll tell you who you are. A consumer culture eager for the newest and latest gadgets was a society destined to confront the avalanche of items it no longer needed. Indeed, the very concept of planned obsolescence, introduced by GM in the 1920s, presupposed increasing amounts of waste. Before World War II, GM made small model changes each year, with a major revision once every four to five years. After the war, significant stylistic changes—a new set of tail fins or lights—occurred more frequently. Quality also declined, to the point where, by 1956, Americans were junking their cars roughly three years earlier than in the 1940s. It is little wonder that in 1969, New York City alone faced the problem of dealing with 57,000 abandoned automobiles. 3
Derelict cars made up just one small part of the solid waste stream produced by the culture of consumption, a stream that turned into more of a torrent as the baby boomers came of age during the 1960s and 1970s. Before the war, plastic