The trash economy

In a hyper-consumerist world, Adam Minter goes on an adventure trail to trace the afterlife of goods we once owned

Published 4 years ago on Dec 20, 2019 6 minutes Read

As the industrial revolution drew families into cities and mass production jobs, society's relationship to stuff began to change, and modern notions of "waste" emerged. For example, in traditional farming communities, food scraps are fertilizer. But the nineteenth-century urban tenements into which rural families relocated provided little space or opportunity to "recycle" food. In the absence of waste collection, food scraps often literally went out of the window, into the streets. In 1842 the New York Daily News estimated that ten thousand pigs were roaming the streets of New York, consuming mostly organic garbage. Modern trash collection and disposal had yet to be invented.

Likewise, before mass production rendered clothing cheap and large wardrobes a middle-class entitlement, garments were homemade and expensive. A shirt could require days of labor; bed linens and blankets were heirlooms. When they wore out or tore, they were mended, reused in other garments, or-ultimately reduced to rags for cleaning.

Industrialization and urbanization changed everything. Busy days spent in a sweatshop provided little time to mend a shirt, repurpose it into a new garment, or reduce it to rags. As a result, store-bought alternatives emerged, and families used the money earned from hourly or daily wages to buy them. They were still expensive-it would be decades before middle-class Americans could afford multiple changes of store-bought clothes. But the idea that a garment or other object was a resource that should be renewed at home was eroding. In the process, the sentimental value associated with clothing declined as quickly as the material value. After all, it's easier to discard a store-bought shirt than one made at home by a mother, a wife, or a sister.

Of course, a preindustrial agrarian lifestyle is more environmentally sustainable than a modern one. But so too is the brutish nomadic life that preceded the development of agriculture. Nobody is clamoring for either, and it bears repeating that neither is worth romanticizing: sanitation and nutrition were poorer, and the average lifespan was considerably shorter and less interesting. No doubt, there are downsides to an economy built on mass production and consumption. Factory production, in particular, can take a significant toll on air and water quality. But even in places where that toll is most tangible, such as contemporary China, consumers understandably embrace mass production and urbanization over the alternatives.

That's worth celebrating. But spend a few hours at an average American home cleanout, and there will be moments when you doubt that you're celebrating the upward arrow of human progress. 

I meet Sharon Kadet in the garage of an upscale multilevel townhouse in the trendy Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis. Empty the Nest crewmembers-Sharon says there are "eight or nine"-are maneuvering chairs and boxes between the hills of other furniture and boxes cluttering the garage and into an Empty the Nest truck partly filled with stuff acquired during another cleanout earlier that morning. Sharon says she typically organizes seven to thirteen cleanouts per week. But thanks to several complicated multiday jobs-including this one-there's just seven scheduled this week.

"I've seen everything," she reminds me. "But the family really built this one up." The townhome belonged to an elderly woman who'd recently passed away. According to her relatives, none of them-including the sister who lived nearby-had been allowed into the house in years. She was embarrassed,” Sharon says. "But this actually isn't close to the worst I've seen."

She leads me into the house and up a stairway covered in carpet with years' worth of grime ground into it. At one end of the landing is a room that was used as an office. Three crew members are inside, opening drawers and rapidly emptying them into trash bags. "They're not looking for anything," Sharon explains. "But they're going through everything." Personal papers go into recycling bags; broken staplers, used pens with ink leaking out, a stray plastic paper clip-that all goes into a trash bag. Unopened reams of paper, of which there are several, land in boxes for the thrift store. "A job like this, there's probably not much Empty the Nest stuff. So we become more of a service."

A tall and muscular older man walks into the room and kneels beside a desk and bookshelves covered in white vinyl. "Particleboard," he mutters as he presses a hand against them, testing their weight and build. Sharon introduces him as Carl, and he is excited to reveal his knowledge of moving to a journalist. "I've been doing moves for thirty years," he tells me as he stands up. "And I'd never buy something from Ikea. We'll shrink-wrap them, but it's only fifty-fifty they make it."

Sharon leads me out of the office and up the stairs. As she does, she reminds me she's not as optimistic as her movers. "That desk and those shelves aren't the sort of thing we can salvage in most cases. Particleboard can survive one move, maybe. Then it's done. Nobody wants to buy it-it's so cheap already." 

This upper floor is what must have horrified the owner's relatives. It's a bright, high-ceilinged space, and the main living area is a forest of banker's boxes, books, and loose paper. The tan carpet is stained brown; two vintage exercise machines-the HealthRider and the SoftWalk Plus-are in the center of the room; bottles of nutritional supplements are scattered randomly until they concentrate and overtake the kitchen. Every spare filthy counter is covered in stacks of bottles and containers of something allegedly healthy: slippery elm, tiger balm, organic barley sprout powder, reishi extract, organic wheat juice. Perhaps hundreds more are stashed in boxes.

A smashing occurs downstairs, and I jump. "The white particleboard shelves will not make it,” Sharon announces with a shrug. "The boys are breaking them up. Not worth the trouble."

Ally Enz is here, seated on a box, going through banker's boxes of paper and binders. "This would all go faster if we could just toss all of the paper into the recycling," she says as she shakes out a binder, seeing what falls from it. “But you never know what's in these binders, or books that we might be able to reuse." Three books are on an end table next to Ally: Office 2008 for Mac, Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, and Clutter Free by Kathi Lipp. "Folks usually know they have a problem," she tells me.

She reaches the bottom of a box and pulls out a handful of small porcelain cats. They land in the trash. "We're not doing anybody any favors saving these kinds of tchotchkes," she says dismissively. "I've seen stuff like this in really nice houses, with Goodwill tags still on them. How many more times are we going to send them through the reuse cycle?"

Spend time around cleanouts, and a few patterns emerge. Seniors born during the Depression tend to hoard more. Ally mentions finding plastic bags containing plastic bags among those clients. Baby boomers, by contrast, tend to have more electronics and less stuff in general. "The real interesting cleanouts are the ones where people have lived in the same house for forty, fifty, sixty years. Interesting and emotionally hard. They even kept the kids' artwork. Even baby books." She pauses and gives me a sad smile. Nobody cares about your old baby books but your family. And sometimes they don't care, either. "If they're vintage, the baby books can go to the thrift store." 

This is an extract from Adam Minter's Secondhand published by Bloomsbury Publishing