Keiner on Pollans, 'Resisting Garbage: The Politics of Waste Management in American Cities'

Lily Baum Pollans. Resisting Garbage: The Politics of Waste Management in American Cities. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021. 248 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4773-2370-0; $45.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4773-2372-4. 

Reviewed by Christine Keiner (Rochester Institute of Technology)
Published on H-Environment (November, 2022)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version:

Opening the Black Box of Waste Management

In this thought-provoking book, urban studies and planning scholar Lily Baum Pollans pries open the proverbial “black box” of waste management that has evolved in the United States since the 1980s (p. 113). Black boxes, as explained by STS (science and technology studies) researchers, refer to taken-for-granted technologies, that is, technological objects and processes that most people no longer question. Indeed, the complex systems for handling garbage usually escape notice unless disrupted by sanitation-worker strikes or disastrous events. To bring to light these hidden infrastructural systems and relationships, Pollans mines municipal archives, oral history interviews, mainstream media coverage, and literature from multiple disciplines. The result is a meticulously detailed comparative analysis of waste management policy in two US cities: Boston, Massachusetts, and Seattle, Washington.

In Resisting Garbage, Boston exemplifies the current conventional US approach to waste management, which features low rates of recycling residential waste, reliance on capital-intensive technocratic initiatives, and an emphasis on consumer-based rather than producer-based responsibility. Seattle, by contrast, represents an extraordinary alternative—a relatively proactive, environmentalist commitment to sustainable waste management, which includes aggressive recycling and waste reduction programs and strong citizen participation in the planning process.

To denote the waste management systems now used by most US cities and Boston specifically, Pollans uses the phrase “weak recycling waste regime” and its acronym WRWR (p. 5). Furthermore, to convey adherence or resistance to the US WRWR, she uses the phrases “compliant wasteway” and “defiant wasteway.” While making for a rather jargon-heavy read, Pollans’s sociological terminology fits. Her concept of “wasteways” is especially useful as a garbage-based analogy to foodways (p. 9).

Pollans contextualizes the Boston and Seattle waste regimes with a historically grounded analysis that explains how the US WRWR emerged in response to the breakdown of the nineteenth-century “Sanitary City” approach to containing municipal waste in landfills designed to make trash “disappear as efficiently and hygienically as possible” (p. 45). When landfill closures sparked a widespread sense of crisis during the mid-1970s, Boston officials and solid waste planners maintained a narrow focus on technocratic, neoliberal solutions, such as incineration and limited curbside recycling. Boston’s compliant wasteway approach reinforced the cynical messaging of manufacturing and packaging interests that benefited from the status quo, as exemplified by the 1971 “Crying Indian” ad that invoked “individual and municipal action as a solution to the problem of litter” (p. 30).[1]

But their Seattle counterparts paid close attention to citizens’ concerns about the assumptions underlying the WRWR, thereby redefining waste management and providing “the foundation for more radical transformations later on” (p. 98). That is not to say that Seattle’s defiant wasteway represents a complete break with the WRWR nor that all of its transformative trash-reduction initiatives have resisted disciplining by powerful interests. While not offering a panacea, Pollans concludes that “Seattle offers a small glimpse of what a post-WRWR world could look like” (p. 141).

Pollans completed her book during the COVID-19 pandemic, when medical and consumer use of disposable plastics soared. At the same time, many cities, states, and countries around the world suspended recycling programs, thereby increasing pressure on landfills and incinerators and otherwise compounding the plastic crisis. Nevertheless, the conclusion provides a brief, slightly hopeful analysis of how “the nested crises of climate and plastic are altering the calculus of municipal policy” away from the weak recycling waste regime toward radical solutions, such as zero waste planning (p. 141).

Because the pandemic waste crisis provides yet another opportunity to rethink the waste and recycling sectors, this book offers a timely reminder of critical historical transitions.[2] City planners, waste management professionals, public policymakers, and urban residents have a lot to learn from how their predecessors responded to earlier garbage emergencies. One of the most important insights is that systems are not impervious to change, however permanent they might appear to be. By demonstrating contingency and alternative approaches to waste management through vivid case studies and intriguing concepts, Resisting Garbage provides both a practical guide and a theoretical contribution to understanding and reforming harmful wasteways.


[1]. For another recent analysis of the “Crying Indian” public service ad campaign, see Jeffrey K. Stine, Green Persuasion: Advertising, Voluntarism, and America’s Public Lands (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2021), 18-24.

[2]. See, for example, Emma Garnett, Angeliki Balayannis, Steve Hinchliffe, Thom Davies, Toni Gladding, and Phillip Nicholson, “The Work of Waste during COVID-19: Logics of Public, Environmental, and Occupational Health,” Critical Public Health (2022):

Citation: Christine Keiner. Review of Pollans, Lily Baum, Resisting Garbage: The Politics of Waste Management in American Cities. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.