Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash | By Edward Humes | Avery | 288 pages, $27.00

Humans have always produced garbage. Archeologists use trash debris to help them understand past civilizations. The rubbish people leave behind is often much more honest than their written records, which are often more about their aspirations than how they actually lived.

American remains are therefore likely to be very valuable for future archaeologists, because Americans produce a lot of trash. While the country has only five percent of the Earth’s population, it generates almost a quarter of all waste. Edward Humes aims to show us how we became a nation of selfish squanderers, and what we might be able to do with all of this crap we produce.

Humes, a freelance journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize back in 1989 for several investigative stories about the United States military, has already written several books about aspects of environmentalism—like Force of Nature, which examined Wal-Mart environmentalism, and Eco Barons, which examined several entrepreneurs’ and celebrities’ efforts to save the planet from environmental destruction. In Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, he attempts to examine the role of waste in American society: how we generate it, how we live with it, and what we might do about it. Humes argues that waste is built into America’s economy and its citizens’ way of life; he aims to show how our wastefulness is destroying us.

The United States has had problems with garbage for years. In 1934, the Supreme Court intervened in a case between the city of New York and the state of New Jersey. New York had long dumped its garbage into the ocean. The fact that this garbage washed back up in New Jersey beaches forced the Supreme Court to address, perhaps for the first time, the fact that state trash policy can actually impinge on other states.

This is pretty much the story of all American trash. First, a state or municipality does something awful with its trash for years and years until someone realizes it’s awful and sues. Then the municipality starts doing something else with its waste, until someone realizes that new plan is also pretty dangerous, and the municipality tries another tactic. The country bounces from one “garbage crisis” to another, without ever addressing the causes of these crises—and that’s what worries Edward Humes.

In Garbology, Humes presents the reader with almost everything he or she could ever want to know about trash. But, in doing so, he faces a problem familiar to all writers trying to discuss the environment. There’s not really much left to say that will shock us: readers have seen this stuff before. Humes attempts to get around this by writing entertaining stories about the people who work in environmental protection and garbage-related jobs. The trouble with this tactic is that an entertaining environmental story is not necessarily a meaningful one.

Just because a scene has interesting characters, smells, and “local color” doesn’t mean the scene reasonably reflects the important discussions and trends in waste removal. In a book like this, which aims to present a comprehensive picture of American garbage, there’s no benefit to focusing on marginal characters and fringe ideas. They just make it hard to understand what the important factors really are here; sort of like using Dennis Kucinich to illustrate how the Democratic Party functions.

Humes spends one chapter reporting on a trash tracking project in Seattle in which researchers from MIT attempted to monitor trash flow using electronic devices. After describing, in for pages and pages, how the project came together, Humes comes to his conclusion:

Trash track… has started to point out some major inefficient in the waste stream by bringing transparency to the normally invisible remove stream. It raises serious questions about the efficacy of current recycling efforts, which all too often send certain kinds of waste great distances, expending fuel and energy that could be conserved if more waste and recycling was handled locally.

Well, duh. So what does it matter how you tracked evidence if in the end the conclusion is just “it raises serious questions about the efficacy of current recycling efforts”? What are those questions? What might the answers to those questions be? Where is our garbage going, really? Where should it go?

Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly.