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.