Robin Nagle’s work is garbage.
The New York University anthropologist has devoted much of her career to the study of refuse and the people who handle it. And not from a distance, but up close.
Dr Nagle got a job as a New York sanitation worker to study the process by which 11,000 tonnes of household waste are carted away from the city every day.
Having recently published a book on the topic, Picking Up: On the Streets and behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, she has also been appointed anthropologist-in-residence at the city’s Department of Sanitation.
“To learn about the topic by accompanying the sanitation workers was essential, but I was still a visitor,” Dr Nagle said. “So, within the anthropological tradition of participation, I took the job.”
It is a role that is not just smelly and labour-intensive but also surprisingly dangerous. More sanitation workers are killed per working hour in the US than police officers or firefighters, dependent as they are on heavy equipment and subject to such hazards as toxic chemicals.
“Who are the human beings we rely on to manage the waste deluge we create?” Dr Nagle wanted to know. “We are absolutely dependent on them.”
Questions like these are gradually being considered less eccentric.
“As interest in environmental issues has been becoming more urgent in the past decades, my work is no longer seen as boutique,” the anthropologist said.
Dr Nagle dates her own fascination with the subject to a hiking trip she took when she was 10, during which she came across an illegal pile of garbage in the wilderness.
“If we’re ever going to change the way we live, we have to understand as many factors as we can within the system, and that includes the human costs,” she said.
Now Dr Nagle is working to create a museum of sanitation and a memorial for the workers killed on the job.
Her process has been as interesting as her findings. Anthropological tradition notwithstanding, Dr Nagle found friends and colleagues puzzled by her decision to become one of the city’s 7,000 sanitation workers, driving one of the 2,000 trucks that haul its garbage off the street corners and sidewalks.
“You can almost see the light bulbs go off over people’s heads as they think, well, that’s what an anthropologist does,” she said. But sanitation workers “are so invisible that it’s almost like a magician shining a bright light on something that was always there. They’re right here and no one’s ever looked at that.”
As for strangers, they seemed to stare right past her when she was on the job, Dr Nagle said.
“I saw people glance at me and there was almost this physiological erasure in their consciousness of me, and that was weird. It was a little bit irritating, but I also realised that I could then observe them and they would have no idea.”
She has come to connect this wilful avoidance of waste workers with a fear of mortality and a desire to avoid reminders of decay.
“Nothing lasts. Including us,” Dr Nagle said.