Who knew that recycling machines could be so controversial? I recently edited another roundtable for H-Environment, and the experience was slightly different from previous ones. I approached Finn Arne Jørgensen to participate in it because I thought his book (his first) was a nice example of the nexus between history of technology and environmental history. There’s even an interest group with the name “envirotech” that meets at both fields’ annual meetings. Jørgensen graciously agreed to take part, subjecting himself (like every roundtable author does!) to the slings and arrows of 3-4 commentators. These roundtables are designed to generate discussion.
The result was a provocative set of comments that touched on the social construction of “trash,” the far-flung technological networks of our so-called solutions to environmental problems, and even a strongly-worded critique about the disturbing trends in environmental history. In short, it was far more contentious a story than I imagined. I encourage you to read it. I’m including my brief intro, which tells you something about the participants, here, but there’s a link at the end to the whole roundtable.
Here’s my intro:
Do our individual actions to address environmental problems really matter? With repeated failures of diplomats to negotiate meaningful agreements, efforts of businesses to thwart regulations, and the difficulties in making economic plans that include environmental costs, it is no wonder that even the most conscientious people flirt with despair or apathy. And yet individuals do make decisions each day that define their own roles and attitudes toward these challenges. Recycling, with its internationally recognized symbol of green arrows turning in a triangle, has become one of the most common environmental choices that people decide to make.
The meaning of that act is contested. Some see it as pointless, mainly psychological, or worse, that it puts the responsibility on the consumers rather than on industries. Others see it as an important part of each individual’s engagement with larger issues facing entire societies. Recycling, for better or for worse, is the most visible connection between environmental challenges and many people’s daily lives.
For Finn Arne Jørgensen in his Making a Green Machine, this “everyday environmentalism” is an ideal opportunity to explore the nexus of environmental history and the history of technology. After all, for millions of people, the main interface in the decision to recycle has been a machine, not the natural world. In Norway, the company Tomra made the reverse-vending machine (RVM) ubiquitous, allowing people to take their old beverage containers back to the shop and cash them in for a small refund. It was enormously successful in Scandinavia, generating extremely high rates of return.
And yet the technology did not catch on everywhere. When the company tried to export it to the United States, it struggled. Jørgensen takes this as an opportunity to explore the importance of technological systems, which require us to look beyond an individual piece of equipment and to take in all that make it possible: business practices, local values and traditions, politics, and the law. As these differ from place to place, we can see how the experience of “everyday environmentalism” changes, too.
I invited Peter Thorsheim to contribute to this roundtable because of his past writings about pollution and his current interests in the history of scrap metal recycling in Britain during World War II. He is an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. Like Jørgensen, Thorsheim has shown a keen interest in how environmental ideas and motivations differ from one context to the next. In Inventing Pollution, Thorsheim explores British industrial history to show how pollution itself was a social construct, and that its meaning clearly changed, especially toward the end of the nineteenth century, due to the prevalence of smoke in major cities such as London. Pollution reversed in meaning over time, as the supposedly purifying and civilizing actions of humans changed into contaminating, ruinous ones.
Heike Weber offers us the insights of a historian of technology. She holds the position of Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin at the Technische Universität in Berlin, and her past work has focused on the history of portable electronics. Her analysis of the standardization of GSM mobile phone technology points to a long-term international negotiation that had more to do with European ideological and economic integration than the mass consumption of cell phones. And yet in time, the priorities of individual users changed a technology into something quite different from the designers’ intentions. As her comments in this roundtable attest, she adds here the insights of a scholar trained to think critically about technological systems. Like Jørgensen, she is particularly interested in the fate of consumer items, and her current project analyzes the history of household wastes.
Tim Cooper also has written about recycling, with a view to understanding its role in reinforcing economic and political relationships. He is a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter, at the campus in Cornwall, England. His analysis of Britain’s postwar “waste regime” identifies the economic, political, and ideological elements that made it possible. He observes that environmentalists’ and others’ criticisms of Britain’s “throwaway society” were strong enough in the early 1970s to constitute a serious threat to the status quo, but that technological solutions such as recycling were tools for negating these political inroads.
Carl A. Zimring has written extensively on the business of recycling. He is an associate professor of Sustainability Studies at Pratt Institute, in New York. His book Cash for Your Trash offered a portrait of scrap metal recycling not as an environmental solution but as an industry, one that held a longstanding but under-appreciated role in the American economy. His work is also concerned with specific technologies. In his study of automobile shredding, for example, he confronts a technology that was designed to extend the useful life of iron and steel by reducing old cars into scrap metal. And yet the shredder, perceived at times as an environmental solution, emitted a toxic residue of metal, plastic, rubber, glass, and a smorgasbord of chemicals. These became over time a serious source of industrial waste and pollution, a reminder of the unintended consequences of so-called solutions.
Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part. In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.
The roundtable, along with all the others, can be accessed (for free) at
A direct link to this roundtable’s PDF is
 Peter Thorsheim, Inventing Pollution: Coal, Smoke and Culture in Britain since 1800 (Akron: University of Ohio Press, 2006).
 Heike Weber, “Consumers as Innovative Actors? The Role of Users in the Shaping of German GSM Telephony,” Le Mouvement Social 228 (2009), 117-130.
 Timothy Cooper, “War on Waste? The Politics of Waste and Recycling in Post-war Britain, 1950-1975,” Capitalism Nature Scoialism 20:4 (2009), 53-72.
 Carl A. Zimring, Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005); Carl A. Zimring, “The Complex Environmental Legacy of the Automobile Shredder,” Technology and Culture 52:3 (2011), 523-547.