As surely as the presidential contest is a horse race, the Trump campaign—and, more broadly, the GOP nomination fight—has been a garbage fire. The Huffington Post and Salon have both used the term for the candidate’s campaign, and New York magazine can’t seem to write about him without it.
Samantha Bee called Trump a “trash can fire.” FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver and Harry Enten have likened his nomination to a “dumpster fire,” a formulation that has also been employed by Mother Jones and the American Conservative. In March, the Hillary Clinton campaign referred to the debate where Rubio and Trump sparred over the size of the latter’s penis as a dumpster fire. (And who could forget Slate’s own, excellent headline from this January, envisioned by writer Michael Beeman, “Hot Mess Endorses Dumpster Fire”?)
The political press covering the Trump campaign has not so much trashed Orwell’s rule of good English writing—“Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print”—as crumpled it up, sparked it, and fanned it into a rhetorical inferno.
In this case, our whole crew boarded the good ship Garbage Fire without pausing to think much about garbage fires at all. If we had, we would have realized it wasn’t a very good metaphor for Donald Trump’s terrible campaign, because actually, garbage fires are good.
I get that the garbage fire is a well-structured allegory. It’s perceived as a crisis befalling a thing that’s already bad, like a Nazi train wreck or a beached jellyfish. That seems well-suited for the Trump campaign, a noxious thing in a state of performative dysfunction.
I also know that burning garbage doesn’t have the best reputation. It certainly can be a primitive way to dispose of waste, and is strongly associated with both smoggy metropolises abroad and urban decline at home. (Is there any more reliable symbol of the run-down city than hobos clustered around a trash can fire?)
But these days, most experts believe trash fires—now called “waste-to-energy” plants—represent our best near-term solution to the waste crisis. This American Life did a good episode about the subject last year, with a focus on New York City, which trucks its waste at great cost to landfills as far away as Ohio and South Carolina. The city has sent more than 2 million trucks of garbage to be buried out of state.
Waste-to-energy plants, which are basically high-tech dumpster fires, aren’t just a cheaper way for New York City to get rid of trash. They would also reduce the U.S. dependency on landfills, which account for the country’s third-largest source of methane emissions (after natural gas and petroleum, and livestock), release toxic chemicals into the water and soil, and force big cities to ship garbage hundreds of miles. It seems counterintuitive, but burning trash is probably better for the planet than burying it.
In Europe, countries with developed waste-to-energy networks, like Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have virtually eliminated the landfill. Oslo heats about half its buildings using the technology, and even imports garbage across the North Sea from England.
Most environmentalists who are against incinerators worry not that trash-burning is worse than landfilling, but that it directly competes with recycling in the short term—and in the long term, creates a financial and political incentive to waste. Right now, though, a few more trash fires could solve a lot of our problems.
All that’s to say that garbage fires don’t deserve to be associated with something as undignified as the GOP presidential nominee. If, as Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse wrote last month, “there are dumpster fires in my town more popular” than Clinton or Trump, that may signal something about the virtuous judgment of Nebraskans. Waste-to-energy plants, like so many infrastructure projects in this country, deserve bipartisan support.