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Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America

Author(s):Zimring, Carl A.
Reviewer(s):Beaulier, Scott A.

Published by EH.NET (April 2008)

Carl A. Zimring, Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America . New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005. xi + 220 pp. $40 (hardback), ISBN: 0-8135-3686-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Scott A. Beaulier, Department of Economics and Management, Beloit College.

Cash for Your Trash is a fascinating historical account of the waste recycling business in the United States from the time of the American Revolution to the present. Zimring opens the book with a brief description of the recycling habits of Paul Revere (p. 1): “Revere did not call what he did ‘recycling’ ? that term first was used regularly by the petroleum industry in the 1920s ? but he saved old metal objects for reuse, just as we save cans and bottles today. … Revere recycled because using old metals provided valuable economic returns.”

Beginning with this mention of Revere, Zimring gives the reader a sweeping overview of waste recycling in America. Zimring (p. 2) claims that while “the republic has never seen a time without substantial quantities of old materials being reused,” our main reasons for recycling have shifted from economic concerns, such as those of Revere and his contemporaries, to moral concerns. Zimring discusses the role that costs and benefits ? both monetary and non-monetary (e.g., the time costs or the ideological benefits of recycling) ? have played in people’s decisions about what products to recycle and how much to recycle. The author describes two different notions of waste: “waste as inefficiency” and “waste as pollution” and describes how our changing attitudes about waste over time have shaped the recycling industry.

Zimring’s detailed history of the junk and scrap industry is full of interesting anecdotes and carefully researched information on the prices of scrap materials and the industry’s size. However, the information gets a bit too specific at times; for example, the author occasionally focuses on his own relatives’ experiences in the trash business. While this personal connection to the industry may be motivating his research program, it does not add much value to the manuscript for readers.

Zimring, who is an historian, demonstrates a clear understanding of economic theory in this book. However, there are portions of the text ? such as Chapter 3, “Nuisance or Necessity?” ? that would have been strengthened by the use of additional economic reasoning. When discussing “crookedness” in the scrap business, Zimring (p. 61) claims that “a common complaint involved the quality of materials sold. … No written agreements defining the classifications existed, and many disputes centered on the question of material quality …” The author seems to suggest that cheating and deceit were rampant in the scrap business in the 1860s. As an economist, though, I could not help but wonder whether or not there were reputational mechanisms helping to sort out the cheaters from the reputable dealers. For example, in the business world of the Internet, we see evidence of cooperation when people make deals on eBay or; we put our trust in anonymous dealers and, to a large extent, dealers deliver reliable products.

Moving along in Chapter 3, Zimring’s section titled “A Moral Menace” also caused me to pause and think carefully about Zimring’s implicit economic theory. According to Zimring (p. 67), “Large cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago gave increasing scrutiny to old, potentially infected matter. … Progressives working to improve urban life blamed the scrap metal trade for a variety of moral and physical ills.” While a genuine concern about the public’s health was probably part of the story behind these changes in the scrap industry, I suspect that interest groups, such as local housing associations, were recommending reform to secure economic benefits (i.e., higher housing prices); in economics, we often find that “moral” causes are nothing more than thinly cloaked attempts to “rent-seek.”

In Chapter 4, Zimring writes (p. 85), “Though many African Americans worked for scrap firms, they did not own or manage large processing yards or brokerages, likely owing to racism among customers and other dealers.” Here again, economic theory complicates the story Zimring tries to tell. While de facto racism, coupled with explicitly racist policies in the 1930s, clearly contributed to the African-American struggle, a general lack of capital ? both financial and human capital ? also played a role in African-American poverty.

I have a number of other minor quibbles with the book, but most of my concerns are similar to those described above. If Cash for Your Trash had included more economic theory, the book would have been a more enjoyable read for this economist. That said, there are no noticeable flaws in Zimring’s economic reasoning, and the book provides readers with a solid history of scrap recycling in America. It’s an interesting read about an industry’s evolution over time, and it would be an excellent supplement to American economic history classes.

Scott A. Beaulier is an assistant professor of economics at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin. His most recent publication is (with Bryan Caplan) “Behavioral Economics and Perverse Effects of the Welfare State” in Kyklos (2007)

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII