Published by EH.Net (September 2014)

Raymond G. Stokes, Roman Köster, and Stephen C. Sambrook, The Business of Waste: Great Britain and Germany, 1945 to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xiii + 331 pp. $99 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-107-02721-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Andrew Spadafora, Harvard Business School.

The lowly status of municipal solid waste and the whiff that clings to those who study it partly explain the delay in serious historical treatment of the waste management business. There have been less obvious hindrances as well.  The unavoidably local nature of waste collection, and often disposal, during the past century makes generalization about the industry before recent decades somewhat hazardous.  Consistent aggregate statistical data on waste generation in most nations are lacking before the 1990s.  Access to the internal records of private-sector enterprises is difficult, as they either were small and transient, or are large and secretive.

The Business of Waste provides a major service by confronting several of these impediments to offer the first scholarly history of the evolution of municipal “public cleansing” into “waste management” and “resource recovery” in Britain and Germany.  The three authors, based at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Business History and at Munich’s Universität der Bundeswehr, are well suited to collaborate on an Anglo-German comparative history.  They have done extensive research in numerous municipal and state archives in both countries, and although existing secondary accounts are not at all neglected, it is waste practitioners’ memoranda and correspondence alongside government reports at all levels that form the basis for their narrative.

Both practicality and the desire to make their findings relevant to the historiography of consumption lead the authors to consider only ordinary household waste and not the bulkier commercial and industrial varieties.  They also employ a case study approach, drawing primarily on the experience of six substantial cities: Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Dortmund, Frankfurt, and Mannheim, chosen as representative of the urban experience outside the nations’ capitals.  Delimiting the subject in this manner is a sensible way to come to grips with the mass of material, although the authors would have done well to emphasize that their focus also ensures that this is very much a history of municipal enterprise.  It is written primarily from the perspective of local government planners and municipal practitioners rather than that of entrepreneurs or managers in the private sector, which thrived by serving commercial and industrial clients and smaller cities and towns well before its expansion into large urban household waste markets beginning in the 1970s.

The first half of the volume traces municipal waste departments’ efforts to return to normalcy following World War II, and then to reform their operations in a postwar environment of increasingly voluminous and complex wastes.  Following some brief background on the origins of collection and disposal infrastructure, which locates the roots of the interwar system in late nineteenth-century municipalization of city services, the authors depict urban waste authorities grappling with logistical problems of restoring interwar standards.  While some German cities had attempted to use integrated and standardized “dust-free” garbage can and vehicle systems in the 1920s, what the authors term the “rationalization” of public cleansing mainly awaited the years after 1945.

Cleansing departments in both nations had suffered years of deterioration owing to labor and materials shortages and wartime destruction of plant and vehicles. But the first substantial divergence between two nations with otherwise comparable histories of public cleansing — an ongoing theme of the book — owed to the greater physical destruction in Germany, and the consequent opportunities for “rationally” remaking the waste system as well as to the rapid growth of consumption in the 1950s’ “economic miracle.”  Rationalization of logistics was thus more extensive in Germany than in Britain, but the authors are at pains to avoid cultural explanations for the divergence.  For instance, they consider the adoption of new types of garbage cans and vehicles, observing the greater willingness of German authorities to experiment with dumpsters and plastic bins and the widespread use of waste-compacting trucks.  They attribute this difference to such factors as higher disposable incomes leading to a more pressing waste crisis, stronger professional associations, and a more concentrated industry structure among can and vehicle suppliers. Throughout the book, British cities appear as willing to reform their services and systems to lower costs if possible, but otherwise evincing certainty that their existing approach was adequate to cope with health, environmental, and efficiency requirements.

The most notable differences between the two countries lay in the increasingly central field of waste disposal.  Here Britain could claim early leadership in innovation, with decades of experience in waste incineration technology, and well-developed markets for “salvage,” or recovery of reusable materials such as paper, glass, and metals, to defray some of the departments’ operating costs.  Prior to the 1970s, practitioners paid scant attention to environmental concerns, in part because of lack of knowledge and in part because the wastes themselves were less damaging before the growth of thermoplastics, household chemicals, and other novelties.  The authors discuss the shifting balance between sanitary landfilling, incineration, and salvage and observe the growing unease over decreasing landfill capacity during the 1960s.  Although landfilling remained the primary option in Germany through the 1980s and Britain through the present, both environmental and space concerns led to a revitalization and re-conception of the old salvage tradition as recycling.  Not long after high price volatility caused British cities to abandon longstanding salvage programs, a new environmentally-driven emphasis on recycling gained prominence in Germany, leading to government price guarantees to support private companies’ and citizens’ involvement.  From the 1980s to the present, Germany achieved vastly higher rates of recycling than Britain.

The authors devote copious attention to the major social and political changes affecting the waste business, particularly growing environmentalism and national and European Community legislation of the 1970s through the 1990s. Scientific knowledge of environmental impacts, environmental activism and scandals over toxic waste, and the involvement of the state by means of new legislation and regulatory supervision — especially in 1972-1974 and the mid-1980s — all contributed to a reorientation toward sophisticated waste management and recycling. The focus on logistics and controlling the growing waste stream in the 1970s gradually shifted to reducing waste and environmental impact.  There is less discussion of changes in the disposal technology and materials recovery here than of the ways in which waste management authorities reconceived their goals and the way in which national politics affected the structure and responsibilities of local government, especially in the UK.  Here again the authors point to greater German innovation, explaining the divergence largely in terms of the differing political systems — federal and open to the Green movement in Germany, and centralized in Britain — and the differing mechanisms by which national governments attempted to influence local waste authorities.  In the UK, the use of tax policy proved too blunt to be effective, while in Germany, unprecedented “polluter pays” legislation like the 1991 Packaging Ordinance brought new packaging industry stakeholders into the country’s “dual system” of recycling.

Finally, The Business of Waste does take note of the increasing involvement of private-sector firms in the industry.  Often, they argue, it was state action that created opportunities.  The 1972 German waste law opened a new market in medium-sized cities; Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl actively promoted the privatization of city services in the 1980s; guaranteed minimum prices allowed German companies to remain in the recycling business, while the Packaging Ordinance added an entirely private second recycling system.  The authors might have gone further in discussing individual firms, which are mentioned by name only once or twice, despite handling well over half of Germany’s household waste after 1980 and much of Britain’s, and in addressing the multinational nature of the waste business.  In comments on the private sector, the authors sometimes make claims that lack supporting citations (e.g., pp. 31-33, 66, 70-71, 108-109, 167, 260), doubtless owing to difficulties in gaining access to records.

This criticism aside, Stokes, Köster, and Sambrook have set a high standard for comparative history in the waste management industry, in the study of municipal enterprise, and in the integration of environmental and political with business history.  One of the book’s other strengths is its attempt to go beyond generalities to construct a more accurate statistical picture of the waste problem of the years after 1950. Altogether this is a fine example of collaborative scholarship without any loss of narrative or analytical focus.

Andrew Spadafora received his Ph.D. in history from Harvard University and is currently a research associate at Harvard Business School. On this subject, he has written “Waste, Recycling, and Entrepreneurship in Central and Northern Europe, 1870-1940,” HBS Working Paper 14-084 (2014), with Geoffrey Jones as co-author.

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