Trying to get honest about America’s garbage problem

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?

And then there’s the chapter-long digression about marine plastics, which have apparently taken over the Pacific Ocean. (Humes doesn’t really bother explaining how.) He profiles several scientists studying the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” The scientists have discovered that the patch is physically much larger than originally thought—as much as 5.8 million square miles, or a full 8 percent of the size of the Pacific Ocean. bigger than we thought and probably very destructive to sea life. One scientist, Mary Crowley, is “sure” she can figure it out how to clean up the ocean and so she’s devoting her life to it. Crowley says that all of this plastic “out there in the middle of the ocean, it just makes me sick. And I want everyone to feel that, too.”

Yes, this is related to our profligate lifestyle, but Humes doesn’t actually explain the problem: Why is the plastic in the damn ocean? How do we get it out?

This is a fundamental problem with the book: Humes is far too interested in describing the people and the way they’re figuring out what’s going on with America’s waste system. He is not, it appears, so interested in the actual results.

The reader gets the impression that the book Humes really wanted to write was about how consumption is destroying America; how it creates all of these crappy products we don’t need and subsequently discard. But he can’t really demonstrate that consumption is the most important aspect of garbage production to address.

One metaphor he uses, for instance, is addiction. We’re “addicted” to spending and buying and throwing stuff out. We just can’t stop. The addiction metaphor is a little odd, however. America is addicted to conspicuous consumption and has consistently avoided dealing with the waste byproducts of that consumption. But it’s not “addicted” to garbage any more than an anorexic is addicted to malnutrition or a smoker is addicted to respiratory problems. It not the garbage they’re addicted to; it’s the things that produce that garbage.

This means that his basic thesis just comes down to this: “Garbage: there’s a lot of it and I bet you didn’t know much about it.” Humes just can’t trace a straight line between profligate shopping and environmental destruction, despite his best efforts.

The biggest revelation might be that trash actually isn’t all that serious a problem. Buried near the end of the book, Humes writes that, in fact, “all of the garbage produced by the United States for the next thousand years could fit inside a single landfill” less than 1 percent of the land area of New Mexico. That’s a big landfill, but it’s not that big.

I’m as opposed to waste the next guy (probably more so; the shirt I’m wearing as I write this I bought in 1997), but if all this trash can go to a single, relatively small place, why is garbage a problem? Is it just that such profligate behavior is unseemly? It seems that the most important thing to address here might be just that our policies about garbage allow a lot of it to seep out of landfills and into the oceans and on the streets.

Perhaps this happens simply because we have no national guidelines on garbage. American waste is controlled municipally or state-wide, and generally in haphazard fashion. But for a book outlining the problems with American waste, Garbology is surprisingly weak on recommendations. At one point, Humes notes that 69 percent of US trash goes into landfills, 24 percent is recycled, and 7 percent is burned. This puts America on par with Hungary, which puts 74 percent of its trash in landfills, and Poland, a country that sends 72 percent of its waste to be buried. (Bulgaria, incidentally, dumps 100 percent of its garbage into landfills, though admittedly it also produces a lot less trash than we do.)

But Austria recycles 70 percent of all garbage, and sends only 1 percent of it to landfills. Germany recycles 66 percent of its garbage, incinerates 34 percent, and sends 0 percent, none at all of it, to landfills. Well, how do they do this? Isn’t that a pretty important thing to figure out?

His conclusion is astoundingly weak. Humes says the encouraging thing about the garbage problem is that:

It’s one of the few big societal, economic, and environmental problems over which ordinary individual can exert control. You don’t have to fight City Hall to do it. You don’t have to organize protest or marches or phone bank or political action committees. As a consumer, as a homeowner or renter, as a person who eats and wars clothes and drinks water, you can choose to be more or less wasteful.

He urges us to buy less stuff, buy used goods, stop buying bottled water, and stop using plastic grocery bags.

I would note, for instance, that it became dramatically easier for me to remember to take reusable bags from home once the District of Columbia instituted a 5 cent tax on all plastic bags. But no need for that here: it’s all about just being a better personal environmentalist.

But personal mindfulness isn’t actually going to do much to address the fact that, as a country, we simply do not dispose of our waste properly. Despite Humes’s Pollyannaish insistence that it’s “in the consumer’s power” to fix the problem, the American garbage problem is actually a policy problem. And it’s going to continue to be a problem no matter how many people start using reusable water bottles.

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Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly. Tags: , , , ,