Environmentalism’s Role

William E. Small, Third Pollution: The National Problem of Solid Waste Disposal (Praeger, 1971). Frontispiece.

William E. Small, Third Pollution: The National Problem of Solid Waste Disposal (Praeger, 1971). Frontispiece.

As noted earlier, compactors were marketed as green products in an age of both consumption and environmental concern. A significant strike against the compactor’s success was a healthy air of skepticism surrounding its promotional claims to environmental responsibility. Although compacted trash might take up less space, consumers and experts alike reasoned that the neat plastic-lined package of waste would degrade more slowly. Others, like Consumer Reports,  simply dismissed the environmental claims out of hand- presumably on the logical that transforming the shape of the trash had no inherent ecological benefit. Still others denounced the whole idea of a domestic techno-fix, rather than larger, systemic changes to solve the looming solid waste catastrophe:

The waste disposal crisis is a terrifying reality today, and compacting is simply another delay tactic in a war with matter that is continuing to defeat technology. […]Any ecologically concerned consumer, therefore, would be naive, if not misinformed, to believe that by purchasing a home waste compactor, they are contributing significantly to solving our waste disposal problems.” (Heidi Sinick, “Waste Compactor Is Latest Home Convenience,” Washington Post, January 5, 1971.)

Finally, since the main strength of the compactor was in handling bulky packaging and bottles, its biggest weakness came when exactly those materials were diverted elsewhere in the waste stream; arguably, recycling was the biggest single blow to the compactor’s utility. “If you recycle metal cans, glass, or paper, you may find that you do not have enough trash to justify buying a compactor,” Southern Living magazine warned consumers in June of 1983. Recycling began significantly affecting the municipal solid waste stream in the late 80s, by which time over 5,000 municipalities offered recycling programs. And the number has only increased; in 2002 46% of Americans had access to municipal curbside recycling programs, let alone all those with local recycling drop-off centers and other convenient options. In February 1993 one appliance vendor cited recycling as a factor in the shrinking market for compactors in the pages of The Weekly Home Furnishings Newspaper: “It’s not a product of the future,” he concluded.

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Back to Packaging Disposables                                          Onward to Compactor Failure

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