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Making garbage, making land, making cities: A global history of waste in and out of place

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The modern 'sanitary landfill', pioneered in the United States, is a unique solution to a universal problem of cities: where to put the waste generated by their citizens. It purposefully attempts a permanent separation of people from their byproducts and represents a rupture in both US and world urban history. After a brief excursus on the long history of middens using the example of Çatalhöyuk, one of the world's oldest cities, this article explores historical waste-disposal practices in three US cities (New York, Chicago and El Paso), showing how garbage was an integral part of a strategy of creating new land for these cities to expand onto. Waste was thus a tool for the (symbolic and literal) production of usable urban place. By contrast, one of the broadest, most invisible impacts of today's sanitary landfill is that it breaks this spatial and material cycle, instead producing empty ex-urban space.
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Keywords: garbage; land reclamation; sanitary landfill; trash; urban environmental history

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 April 2016

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  • The half-yearly journal Global Environment: A Journal of History and Natural and Social Sciences acts as a forum and echo chamber for ongoing studies on the environment and world history, with special focus on modern and contemporary topics. Our intent is to gather and stimulate scholarship that, despite a diversity of approaches and themes, shares an environmental perspective on world history in its various facets, including economic development, social relations, production government, and international relations.
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