Zero Waste: Underworld, the Landfill

Draconian measures delivered by government agencies as a solution to our current recycling efforts. Or engaging the users/consumers to prompt the first stage producers of waste headed to the landfill to think smarter. Or dreaming of a partnership enlisting all stakeholders that creates a circular economy. These are the zero waste possibilities we are left to consider in 2018. Decades before these real issues were front and center to our recycling discussions, Don DeLillo penned a novel about a world that understood these simple facts: Trash was everywhere and it had to be hidden – and hiding it in landfills does not address the real cause.

DeLillo wrote: “The landfill showed him smack-on how the waste stream ended, where all the appetites and hankerings, the sodden second thoughts came runneling out, the things you wanted ardently and then did not….” In this world, every scape tells a story and every scrape needs some sort of destination or closure.


I have no idea what drew me to Don Delillo’s Underworld while accompanying my wife recently to a local Goodwill. I was not attracted to the 827 page volume because of its girth. I wasn’t even necessarily looking for a new read. Even as the novel opened with a baseball game – and who doesn’t love a well-told yarn about this American pastime, readers are introduced to the organic waste of these events. Even here, waste enters the conversation as part of the experience and soon becomes the central character.

Eventually, the novel revealed itself as an incredibly well-written, non-linear story of a waste management executive or better, a past mid-century tale of how waste was managed. DeLillo wrote this magnum opus about a time that was uncannily familiar to me personally: The idea of recycling in the fifties, sixties and seventies or discussing the future of trash (landfills as tourist attractions!) or waste-laden ships wandering the seas looking for a port of entry or nuclear waste disposal, the relevance of waste as a thematic backdrop of that time compared to the conversations we are having currently was not lost on me.

Landfills worried (haunted) the story’s central character throughout. Sound familiar?

DeLillo said that the novel’s title came to him as he thought about radioactive waste buried deep underground and about Pluto, god of death. The waste and byproducts of history, dissected and discussed throughout the novel, constantly resurface from the underworld (or, subconscious) of the American population despite their best attempts to repress and bury things they would rather forget.

Our trash is our archeological past and we are increasingly uncomfortable with how future generations will portray our legacy. And we should be concerned. How far have we come regarding landfills or waste or even recycling since this novel was published in 1997? The answer is far, but not nearly far enough. How have we improved the landscape of landfills?

The Unplanning of Obsolescence

In the 1950’s, the concept of “planned obsolescence” sneakily entered the lexicon replacing the until-then manufacturer’s previous goal of product shelf life. This was not necessarily a waste considerate policy; it was instead a source of pride. Built-to-Last was even used as a tagline by one manufacturer of note and embraced by several other well-known brand names.The thought that something could be used and discarded in favor of a new improved version aligned itself with the rapid innovations coming to the buying public post-WWII actually began in the marketing department, the birthplace of audacious goals.

The adherence to the ideology that went past profits was the basis of Jim Collins’ and Jerry Porras’ book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. In a perfect world, the book could have easily been applied as a vision companies should have towards waste.

In a post-WWII America, affluence was the goal and we were told this was attainable at every level of the population. The consequences were not well known. Consumerism created waste and waste was the byproduct on the American march to affluence. The folks in marketing were increasingly focused on making the consumer feel unhappy with what they currently owned suggesting instead that a newer improved version would be the path to their satisfaction. J K Galbraith’s influential book The Affluent Society poked at this thinking sarcastically as “American genius”. The book, first published in 1958, and revised in 1969, 1976, 1984, and then in 1998 wondered if these consumers even reflected “on the unevenness of their blessings.” Increasingly seeking the new best thing, the average American did not consider the impact of this change in thinking. (I grew up with parents raised in the Depression and this era may have been the pinnacle of the reuse, recycle and repurpose effort, one we are attempting to recapture.) 

Hidden Landscapes or Not-in-My-Neighborhood

And still, while landfills loom large in our discussions, in the mental landscape of capitalism it remains almost as well-hidden as it did decades ago. In other words, there is no tangible profit in creating a different process.

The planned obsolescence that was quickly becoming the norm demanded that the nation rethink the open dump. With the experience in sanitary landfilling done by the military in WWII, and with the new concern over public health, the idea of burning refuse (which was done after the waste was spread to allow scavengers and after the pigs had their fill) was becoming unacceptable. Geology became a consideration as well. (This interactive landfill map illustrates landfills that have reached capacity and shutdown – green dots – and those that are active – red dots. In this map, sprawl is portrayed as larger, growing dots.) And yet, we still think we know landfills.

Without quoting statistics, in part because there is no exact number on how much food waste still enters into the waste stream, it is safe to estimate that those that are attempting to capture organic waste are only half as good at the effort as they think they are. Half is better than none is not the thinking we should embrace. Plastic recycling is only as good as the current market price for virgin material. In other words, and this applies to numerous other potentially recyclable materials, the culture is still not there.

We recycle best what our community recycles best and even then, we do not succeed at a level that would warrant congratulations. Why? Companies have not equated exceptional performance with a heart and soul in the right place.

We can hide our waste in a landfill, in an underworld, out-of-sight, out-of-your-neighborhood and we can tell ourselves we are trying when it comes to recycling. And while we try to build companies that will last, until we begin building products that will also exist beyond their present uses, something that have not done to date is decide we can build the environment to last. And if that fails, the option is to include much more post consumer recyclable materials in those products.

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