The Garbage Syllabus (a work in progress)

So far I’ve been focusing on teaching small children about garbage and reducing consumption. Perhaps because of my training as a professor I’ve kept myself busy reading and watching everything I can get my hands on that relates to rubbish. I have lists on Goodreads and IMDB related to trash, but my friend Sarika who teaches at Wayne State University mentioned she wanted to include some readings on garbage in one of her classes so I thought I’d formally share a few titles here that could be of use to anyone who is teaching at the college level and who wants to introduce this subject to their students. There are some catalogued at Discard Studies for those who want fully formed syllabi from faculty who are actually teaching in this field. My favourites include “Garbage in Gotham: The Anthropology of Trash”, “A Natural History of Garbage”, “Trash Matters: Development, Environment, and Culture Through Garbage”, and “The Anthropology of Trash”.

The topics that I think are useful to cover in any syllabus on the subject are the same that I cover in the fourth standard: consumption, recycling and sustainability, composting and the natural world, waste workers, and waste culture. To get at these subjects the following books are essential for any syllabus:

  1. Susan Straser’s Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash: This book provides a great deal of insight into America’s history of consumption and gives a real sense of when the disposable culture took hold and irrevocably altered the course of history.
  2. Susan Freinkel’s Plastic: A Toxic Love Story: This is another kind of cultural history text which explores the way in which plastic emerged in our lives and how it affects us in almost every imaginable facet of our lives.
  3. William Rathje’s Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage: This is a classic written by the man who was the first to seriously study garbage an academic subject.
  4. Michael Braungart and William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things: This is a great exploration in the field of design written by an architect and a chemist. It examines sustainable methods of making products, building buildings, and creating an overall healthier society as a result.
  5. Chris Jordan’s Running the Numbers: This is a great book for exploring how people use garbage in their artwork as well as showing how one can use such art to educate the public about our consumption habits.
  6. Kaveri Gill’s Of Poverty and Plastic: Scavenging and Scrap Trading Entrepreneurs in India’s Urban Informal Economy: This book is more academic than the others. It provides a useful comparative context of India and how waste is dealt with here. When studied with Straser’s book you can see how the U.S. used to operate in similar ways to India with respect to reusing and recycling raw materials.
  7. Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems: The entire volume doesn’t deal with trash, but a substantial number of them do. These are excellent imagistic poems that bring to life the stark contrast between the artistic elites of a city and the workers and impoverished people who are invisible, even just outside their art gallery windows.

Of course films also can play an important role in vividly bring to life a subject. Here are the films I think are the best for a college classroom discussion on the subject of waste, mostly because they tie together so many elements of this topic and maintain a more-or-less global framework:

  1. Andrew Morgan’s The True Cost: An exploration of the fast fashion industry and its effect on the land, workers, health, the climate, the economy across the globe.
  2. Lucy Walker and Karen Harley’s Waste Land: A striking portrait of Brazilian artist Vic Muniz as he works with waste scavengers to produce art and explores the meaning of their labour.
  3. Candida Brady’s Trashed: The film follows Jeremy Irons around the globe to see what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong with our garbage.
  4. Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow’s Dirt!: Although it’s not specifically focused on garbage per se, the role that soil plays–and composting if we begin to separate our wet and dry waste–is an important element to highlight in a class on garbage.

This is going to be a work in progress. I’ll add to it if I get suggestions or as I encounter more texts. I read a review recently that said Toni Morrison’s newest novel, God Help the Child, is an indictment of American consumer culture. I suspect this may be a good text to add here, too.

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