The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Talking Trash with Heather Rogers


THE CLUI PROVIDED ANOTHER INSTALLMENT in its thematic program about the waste stream, with a presentation by Heather Rogers, author of Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, last spring.

Rogers is an independent filmmaker and writer whose widely praised book is a history and analysis of the main channels of the waste stream - hauling, dumping, landfillingand the reasons why we generate so much of it, in the first place.

Garbage is a fairly new invention, connected with mass production of things made out of paper, plastic, metal, and glass. In the last 30 years, Americans have doubled the amount of trash we collectively generate, and now packagingnot even really a product itself - takes up around 30% of landfill space. Rogers suggests that recycling makes us feel better about our waste generating habits, while instead we should be feeling worse, and compelled to do something.

Understanding garbage enables us to understand ourselves. As Newton’s third law states, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” And so, the other side of consumerism could be said to be excretionism, which is something we all participate in, though we would sooner not think about it. This realm is not always pleasant of course, which is exactly why it is so…rich.

As the great garbologist Bill Rathje observed, modern dumps are the midden mounds of contemporary culture. In his work at Fresh Kills landfill in New York, the largest dump in the nation, he found that the stratigraphy of this archeology was aided by the fact that the historical layers inside the mound were dated to the day, by still legible editions of the New York Times. He found that trash disintegrates a lot slower than we thought. It is here to stay.

Rathje’s work sampling and analyzing the past 50 years of America entombed at Fresh Kills, along with the work of the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona, which sampled local waste streams and made demographic and social extrapolations based on their findings, is microcosmic.

Heather Rogers’ work is macrocosmic. She is a garbologist (which, I’m sorry Heather, you become after you write a book about garbage, whether you like it or not) who strives to see the big picture. Under her gaze is the system of flow, the networks and nodes that refuse passes through on its way to some hypothetical disappearance.

And as we illustrate in numerous projects here at the Center, there is no away. The Gone Tomorrow in the title of her book is the perpetual horizon of the near future that we never can reach, as we are always here today.

Rogers showed her film and addressed a packed house at CLUI Los Angeles, providing insight into the world of waste. Her presentation was supported by the Center’s Independent Interpreter Program, where we periodically invite someone who is doing interesting work in and about the landscape to present their work to a general audience at the CLUI.

It was also an event in the CLUI thematic program series on the waste stream. Other upcoming events in the Waste Stream program include an exhibit about a journey through Los Angeles’ solid waste network, and a public tour to the dump, coming up.