Chapter 1: The history and future of municipal solid waste characterization: New York City and the study of fortunes in refuse
In the fall of 2004, I found myself in a shuttered waste transfer station, standing with a group of masked, white-suited men around a wooden table. Before us were a dozen black bags of trash, waiting to be examined. We got to work, tearing the bags open with garden cultivators, spreading out the contents, and sorting the material into what would be 91 different categories. To sort, we needed to tease apart rotting, sometimes maggot-ridden food from used diapers; damp tissues from old toothbrushes; wine bottles from cracked stereos; and many other substances from one another. As we worked, each of us tossed items we had classified over our shoulders into buckets with labels such as 'non-clothing textiles', 'thermostats', or 'polyvinyl chloride bottles' (to name a few). The buckets would later be weighed, resulting in data for the calculation of waste composition. But even before the numbers were crunched, we at the table were developing a sense of the materiality of daily life. What before had been a mixed mess would, upon sorting, paint a picture of the daily life of city inhabitants - a life of eating, cleaning, packaging, furnishing, entertainment, and information - all made concrete in the substance of discards. This odd but fascinating undertaking was a waste characterization study. In 2004, I was fortunate to be the municipal manager charged with overseeing this research project. The results would be detailed, based on thousands of measurements taken over four seasons.