Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash
A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist takes readers on a surprising tour of the world of garbage.
Take a journey inside the secret world of our biggest export, our most prodigious product, and our greatest legacy: our trash. It’s the biggest thing we make: The average American is on track to produce a whopping 102 tons of garbage across a lifetime, $50 billion in squandered riches rolled to the curb each year, more than that produced by any other people in the world. But that trash doesn’t just magically disappear; our bins are merely the starting point for a strange, impressive, mysterious, and costly journey that may also represent the greatest untapped opportunity of the century.
In Garbology, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Edward Humes investigates the trail of that 102 tons of trash—what’s in it; how much we pay for it; how we manage to create so much of it; and how some families, communities, and even nations are finding a way back from waste to discover a new kind of prosperity. Along the way , he introduces a collection of garbage denizens unlike anyone you’ve ever met: the trash-tracking detectives of MIT, the bulldozer-driving sanitation workers building Los Angeles’ immense Garbage Mountain landfill, the artists in residence at San Francisco’s dump, and the family whose annual trash output fills not a dumpster or a trash can, but a single mason jar.
Garbology digs through our epic piles of trash to reveal not just what we throw away, but who we are and where our society is headed. Are we destined to remain the country whose number-one export is scrap—America as China’s trash compactor—or will the country that invented the disposable economy pioneer a new and less wasteful path? The real secret at the heart of Garbology may well be the potential for a happy ending buried in our landfill. Waste, Humes writes, is the one environmental and economic harm that ordinary working Americans have the power to change—and prosper in the process.
“Humes’s argument isn’t a castigation of litterbugs. It’s a persuasive and sometimes astonishing indictment of an economy that’s become inextricably linked to the increasing consumption of cheap, disposable stuff – ultimately to our own economic, political, and yes, environmental peril….his arguments for the rank inefficiency of our trash-happy, terminally obsolescent economy are spot on.” –Bookforum
“Humes offers plenty of surprising, even shocking, statistics…An important addition to the environmentalist bookshelf.” – Kirkus Reviews
“Unlike most dirty books, this one is novel and fresh on every page. You'll be amazed.” –Bill McKibben, author of Earth
“Edward Humes takes us on a real romp through the waste stream. Garbology is an illuminating, entertaining read that ultimately provides hope and tips for a less wasteful future. This book will make you want to burn, or at least recycle, your trash can!” –Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland
“In this well-written and fast-paced book, Ed Humes delves into the underbelly of a consumer society—its trash. What he finds is so startling and infuriating, you will never think about ‘waste’ in the same way again.”
–Samuel Fromartz, author of Organic, Inc. and Editor-in-Chief of the Food & Environment Reporting Network
Why did you decide to write about garbage?
Everybody knows waste is a problem. But did you know trash is now America’s biggest export? That one of the tallest structures in Los Angeles is a mountain of garbage? That the average American is on track to make 102 tons of trash in a lifetime, twice what we were rolling to the curb in 1960?
Garbology began with a simple question: Is there a way back from our disposable economy, this addiction to waste? The short answer is: yes. I found a growing number of families, communities, and businesses doing just that -- cutting waste and prospering in the process. Garbology is their story.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered during your research?
The most surprising part of the story is just how wasteful we are without really knowing it -- the true numbers are much worse than the official line. Almost as surprising: Being less wasteful is liberating, timesaving, and wealth-creating. Waste is one of the few big societal, economic and environmental problems ordinary people can fix.
Did researching garbage make you more aware of your own trash habits? Do you throw out more or less now?
Absolutely. My family has made a real effort to cut down on waste by refusing the trashiest stuff (plastic shopping bags, excessive packaging, non-recyclable products, disposables) and repurposing or recycling the rest. It's a start.
Is there a viable solution for getting rid of our trash, other than landfills?
Sure. Landfills are glorified town dumps, a low-tech solution as old as ancient Greece. Landfilling rather than repurposing trash wastes billions of dollars -- burying treasure while creating environmental havoc. Other countries with vibrant economies send almost nothing to landfills. They use clean power plants to make heat and electricity from trash. They recycle more. They reject disposable, high-waste products.
What do you think of reality shows like Hoarders that showcase our garbage?
They lead us to believe that those men and women with trash-filled homes are aberrations. But the amount of waste hoarders accumulate is completely normal. It's just that the rest of us hide it in landfills, deceived by the illusion that our waste can be rolled to the curb then magically disappear. But it doesn't disappear. It drags down our economy, our environment and our future, because waste is another word for money squandered. Hoarders understand this better than most.
Who is more wasteful? Business and industry, or individual Americans? Who needs to reform their ways more?
Both need to rethink the disposable economy (and many companies already are). In terms of volume, business and industry make the most waste. But because that trash is created to provide goods and services, consumers are ultimately responsible for embracing -- or rejecting -- the disposable economy by "voting with their wallets." The thing to remember is that waste costs money, which means wasting less saves money. And that's a truism on Wall Street, Main Street and everywhere in between.
What are the unexpected consequences of the amount of trash we produce?
What can we learn about ourselves from our trash?
If you could sit down with a year in the life of your waste bins dumped on your front lawn, you'd be shocked by the size of the mound: 1.3 tons, on average. That's 50% more waste than your Danish counterpart makes. Twice as much as the average Japanese citizen. And you'd see that much of what you buy ends up in the trash within a year. What at waste!
Is it truly possible to live waste-free?
The process of living makes waste -- there will always be some. But can we lower our individual waste footprints? Yes, anyone can. Most families could cut their trash 30 to 50 percent without breaking a sweat, and save money doing it.
What are five things anyone could do to put their 102-ton legacy on a diet?
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