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“Historicizing discardscapes: People, Place and Waste at Newtown Creek”

Carl Zimring
Professor of Sustainability Studies, Pratt Institute

Newtown Creek in the popular imagination is a polluted place. To use the terminology of historian Joel Tarr, the water in and land around the creek have served as sinks for New York City’s wastes, including the biological wastes from one-fifth of the city’s toilets and industrial wastes from the variety of manufacturers that operated on and alongside the creek in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although the city’s largest wastewater treatment facility disinfects sewage before discharging it into Newtown Creek, combined sewer overflow events regularly release untreated sewage into the water. The industrial past continues to affect the waterway through the presence of persistent organic pollutants on the creek’s bed, in its water, and in the land and groundwater in its vicinity. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the waterway a Superfund site in 2010 after a long campaign by area residents and developers (the latter working to gentrify an area long settled by immigrants from eastern Europe and Latin America).
The narrative of waterway as sink is an accurate but insufficient portrait of Newtown Creek and its relationship to the discards of New Yorkers. I urge us to consider three narratives of Newtown Creek to better understand industrial society’s relationship to our discards. Doing so involves using the frameworks of critical discard studies. In this framework, material intended for sinks is included. So, however, are the efforts to extract economic value from resources within discarded material. In this framework, the site of waste management is not simply a sink, but, as the geographer Josh Lepawsky argues, a discardscape of multivalent meanings and activities. 
Newtown Creek is a rich site to evaluate as discardscape, in terms of its industrial history, its relationship to residential waste concerns, and the implications of different definitions of waste management in the area to future uses of the land and water. This paper examines three narratives of waste in Newtown Creek, with consideration of the future implications of each narrative to the land, water, and people.

Carl A. Zimring is an environmental historian interested in how attitudes concerning waste shape society, culture, institutions, and inequalities. He is a professor in the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute, where he coordinates the Sustainability Studies program. His books include Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America (2005), The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste (with William L. Rathje, 2012), Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (2015), and Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective (2017).

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