Bill Rathje was one of my favorite people…a true original whose unique vision of waste was merely a subset of his view of archeology, the field in which he was renowned for several landmark achievements. One of these was his Garbage Project at the University of Arizona at Tucson, where he was a professor of anthropology, while another was his seminal works on Olmec and Mayan cultures in Central America. Archeology, he pointed out with relish to colleagues, students, and friends alike, was in fact the study of trash, the detritus of cultures since the good stuff was scooped up and put back into service
Rathje published a number of books and monographs on various aspects of waste based on a variety of sorts in different locations that led to new insights into human behaviors that generally ran contrary to common beliefs. Best of all from my standpoint were the 30 stories dating back to the late1990s he did for MSW Management under the banner of Beyond the Pail. Many of you will remember with great delight the entire series, but others of you may not have seen even one, So for those of you on either end of the spectrum as well as you in between, I will be presenting one of them each week as an inducement to notice whatever else is on my mind.
Bill, wherever you are, I know that regardless of what it was like before you got there, it is a better, brighter place for your presence.
They Don’t Make ’Em Like They Used to . . . and Never Did
By W.L. Rathje
Last week, as I left a supermarket, one of the plastic bags I was carrying split open under the weight of its contents. As you might imagine, a few choice expletives fell out with the groceries. But given time to think about the lessons of archaeology, I smiled. Here are my thoughts:
In northern Mexico most appliance stores resell old washers, dryers, stoves, and the like acquired from the US—and the older US models cost more than the newer ones! The reason is simple. The older appliances might look clunkier and have fewer glitzy features and less fashionable colors, but they are expected to last longer and be less costly to repair than the newer models. The lesson is an obvious one that we all know well: They don’t make ’em like they used to!
This key insight helped ignite the environmental movement in the 1970s and is exemplified by Vance Packard’s bestseller, The Status Seekers. According to Packard, and others, “built-in obsolescence” was the engine driving exponentially increasing consumption. Their argument was that every year the latest model of a product would come out in a new “style” with new convenience features that made the older models obsolete. At the same time, these newest models used cheaper, less durable materials and designs that also quickly made the products obsolete or, at least, nonfunctional.
I believe that Packard had a point. But what I’ve learned from an archaeological perspective covering thousands of years is that this is nothing new. No one has ever made ’em like they used to!
What that means, simply, is that manufacturers throw an abundance of resources and labor at products in their early stages of research and development in the marketplace. But once they find a mix that works, their efforts invariably shift to cost control—shaving away resources and labor in the hopes that the product will still do its job and consumers won’t notice the difference while the manufacturers’ profits increase, or at least don’t decrease in the face of ever-escalating resource and labor costs.
Manufacturers also add frills, in typical PR style, to make sales—a new icemaker on a refrigerator, a new setting on a VCR, or an “in” color on anything—and, amazingly, it works. A study in Tucson of why people get rid of old “durables” found that the reason was rarely, if ever, because the old machines or furniture broke or wore out; instead, it was to obtain the new gimmicks and styles.
How typical of contemporary US! But also how typical of the past. Take jade carvings in Mesoamerica. Really exquisite pieces could take much of an artisan’s lifetime, since fine jade was so hard that it could only be ground with jade dust. Virtually all the most time-consuming carved jades date to Olmec (“Mother Culture,” circa 1200–400 BC) or Classic Maya (circa AD 300–850) times. Later examples are mostly smaller and cruder baubles by comparison.
Or take pottery. Classic Maya figural polychromes, complete with glyphic inscriptions surrounding their accompanying tableaux, were followed by cruder Fine Orange mold-made pots at the beginning of the Postclassical and, finally, in the civilization’s final Decadent Period, by aptly named “Dribble Ware.”
In fact, this pattern of change is so typical that systems theorists—those scholars who look for similar patterns in organisms as diverse as civilizations, fetuses, and sunflowers—have devised a few general principles to describe it.
My favorite is the “Principle of Non-Proportional Growth.” It states that if one part of an entity increases significantly in size, other parts will increase as well, but often at a different rate. For example, if a cardboard box doubles its linear dimensions—length, width, and height—its outside area will increase four times and its volume will expand by a multiple of eight.
For potters this meant that producing lots more decorated pots could not be accomplished by simply hiring lots more potters. They’d just end up fighting each other for the best clays, slips, paints, brushes, and drying space or, at best, literally bump into each other all the time.
What’s the solution? We don’t know for sure in really ancient times, since few chroniclers paid much attention to pottery factories. But we do know about Josiah Wedgwood.
When Wedgwood began to make pots in England the 1750s, there were common, everyday pottery makers—about whom we know precious little—and there were the potters who catered to the royalty and nobility—about whom we know quite a lot. These latter “master potters” were extremely compulsive and took a set of ceramics upon themselves from design through hand-dipping in glazes and finally firing. Wedgwood understood this system and felt there was a much more efficient way.
He noticed, for example, that master potters’ arms were stained black by the lead-based slips and glazes into which they dipped their pots, and that these talented men rarely survived past their mid-30s. In response, Wedgwood hired women to dip pots in lead-based solutions (he was really not a male chauvinist, but in his day women were worth less than men). He also noticed that a master potter spent a great deal of time carving figures or flowers or whatever on the key pieces that became the basis for molds to make the multiple plates, cups, bowls, and so on for one set of dinnerware. In response, Wedgwood’s master sculptors would carve the wax pieces used to produce a set of molds with scenes full of myriad Greek gods, women, satyrs, and their ilk. Then Wedgwood would have a few of the carved characters scraped off the original and produce a new set of molds for a whole new set of pots. Sometimes he’d even follow this reduction procedure again! The result: Wedgwood ceramics became England’s standard domestic pottery and the products of his factories began to supply a worldwide market.
Wedgwood might have been the Henry Ford of pottery mass production, but he had nothing to teach the Late Postclassical Maya. These people made incensarios (large and hollow ceramics in which an extremely pungent incense, copal, was burned) as generic full-figure god effigies and then personalized them with a mold-made head and a plethora of mold-made applique features, such as beards, goggles, and various items for the gods to hold in their hands. Thus, incredible diversity resulted from mass production. As the Burger King assembly line promotes itself today, “Have it your way.”
But nothing illustrates cost control and mass replication—what a systems theorist called “progressive mechanization”—as well as the story of Egypt’s great pyramids. A total of around 30 were built between 2700 and 1700 BC. The really big ones were numbers three, four, and five. After that, the sizes were diminished considerably. But more than the size changed. The big ones were fashioned out of Tura limestone blocks carried from the other side of the Nile River and cut so carefully that, as the guides gleefully tell the tourists, “You can’t fit a knife blade between them!” That was at the beginning of the sequence. Soon the cut blocks at the heart of the pyramid were replaced by rubble. Soon after that, the outer facing of Tura limestone was supplanted with poorer-quality limestone and then mud bricks. The last chapter is the saddest. Late in the dynastic cycle of the Old Kingdom, when Neb-hepet-Re-Mentuhotep built the last pyramid (between 2130 and 2080 BC), an interesting change took place. The architects of Mentuhotep’s pyramid solved the technological and labor costs of inner-chamber construction by deleting it and making the pyramid solid. The pharaoh’s body was placed in the associated mortuary complex next door. Poor pharaoh!
Why don’t we build “Great Pyramids” today? Because they would be such a great “waste” by the definitions of today’s society.
Kufu’s pyramid, the greatest of the Great Pyramids, was 90 million cubic feet of limestone with a small passageway up the middle to a burial chamber about the size of a very large motel room. It isn’t that we can’t duplicate the Great Pyramids; it’s that nobody wants to! Instead our megacities and corporations build structures like the World Trade Center—some 70 times Kufu’s pyramid in volume—with more than 800 acres of rental space inside!
What does this all mean? In the 1970s, I remember a movement among policymakers to make durables more durable: refrigerators and stoves and so forth that would keep functioning faithfully for 50 years. And no manufacturer would add any “new” conveniences. Of course, it didn’t work. But I am not unhappy. If consumers didn’t constantly replace their still-functional durables, where else would my graduate students, and other less economically privileged elements of our society, obtain used appliances? Furthermore, if the computer industry weren’t the archetype of rapid change and new features, I would be trying to carry a 2-ton Univac with me as I travel rather than a 5-pound laptop.
So when your plastic grocery bag breaks, smile and say, “C’est la vie!” For that is the way it has been for thousands of years and probably the way it will stay. They don’t make ’em like they used to … and never did!