Compactor Failure

Credit: http://thefocusedfilmographer.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/wall-e.jpg. Wall-E faced the same plight of irrelevance and near-obsolesence as his domestic compactor counterparts.

Wall-E faced the same plight of irrelevance and near-obsolesence as his domestic compactor counterparts. Credit: Terrence Faulkner, The Focused Filmographer. http://thefocusedfilmographer.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/wall-e.jpg.

Within 25 years of its initial release, the compactor seemed doomed to a marginal place in the appliance market. Compactor sales halved from 243,000 units in 1988 to 126,000 in 1992. Compactor ownership dropped to under 3.5% ownership across the nation by 2009.  Given all the timely ecological marketing and impetus, the appeal of technological modernity to accent the upper-class kitchen, the decreased number of trips to the garbage bin, and savings in per-bag fees, what kept the trash compactor from achieving wide success?

The compactor had physical and logistical problems, aside from its cost and hassle; getting a trash compactor entailed the loss of either cabinet space or walking space. In the Atlanta study, of those households that opted out of participating in the study, 19% cited as their reason “no place to put compactor.”

Bradbury Asociates, Inc. The Atlanta Household Refuse Compactor Demonstration Project. Atlanta, Georgia: National Technical Information Service, 1974.

This photo taken during the Atlanta study of compactors shows the compactor bag sitting practically atop a round bin left by the curb for collection. Bradbury Asociates, Inc. The Atlanta Household Refuse Compactor Demonstration Project. Atlanta, Georgia: National Technical Information Service, 1974.

Another physical limitation of the compactor was that it left the consumer with hard, compacted rectangular-shaped packages to try to fit into their round garbage bins.  The compactor brands today still produce rectangular compacted trash, no doubt related to their modular integration into rectangular cabinets.

The final physical problem of the compactor was that the laws of conservation of matter dictate that decreasing volume can only increase density, and therefore weight. A full compactor bag could be well over 30 lbs: too much for children and seniors to tote to the curb. “Compacting large amounts of trash can create a load that is too heavy for some people to carry,” Southern Living warned potential consumers on June 1, 1983.

Preiser, Amy Claire. “Technophobia: Trash Compactors Q&A.” House Beautiful, May 2009.

Preiser, Amy Claire. “Technophobia: Trash Compactors Q&A.” House Beautiful, May 2009.

However, compactors also offended the senses. The auditory issue was euphemistically glossed in Household Equipment in Residential Design, a book co-authored by a Whirlpool Corporation employee: “in general, the compactor is quieter than either the dishwasher or food-waste disposer, except in those instances where a loud noise is to be expected from the breaking of a bottle. ”

Another sense that proved easily offended was smell; the residue left in food packaging and decomposing  food waste would now be sitting in your kitchen for up to seven days, since it would take a week to fill a compactor. Popular household-advice columnist Heloise admitted, “although it is a terrific appliance, compacted trash tends to smell awful after several compressions”. Of course, this is because the compactor was designed for bulky packaging and disposables rather than for wet food wastes – a crucial shortcoming.

A Compact Conclusion

The story of the household trash compactor is not yet done. Prosperous customers remodeling kitchens continue to purchase these posh appliances, and almost every appliance vendor offers a trash compactor for sale. However, the compactor failed to live up to the hopes of its designers, marketers and manufacturers: a democratic appliance found in every modern kitchen, an indispensable labor saving device for families,  reduced stress on landfills and saving s for municipal collection and disposal services, a greener, cleaner, earth. These hopes and dreams all reflect a very specific moment in the American relationship with waste when consumption of disposables came into conflict with environmental goals and consumption of technology seemed the perfect solution to any problem. The anxieties about kitchen cleanliness, the sheer volume of how much we waste, the impact of our waste on the earth, class status and kitchen technology that the compactor represents are not gone with the 1980s, however. Those anxieties live on in the trash compactors of today, and will continue until we either find a solution or make peace with our disposable wastes.

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Back to Environmentalism’s Role                             Onward to A Compact Bibliography

Start again with Unpacking Trash Compactors

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