Americans are missing out on proven, commonsense solutions to waste management. That’s one of the takeaways from Edward Humes’ book “Garbology: Out Dirty Love Affair With Trash” (Avery), which examines why America produces so much trash, where we dispose of it, and how we might be able to mend our ways. To be sure, America’s waste management system is remarkably adept at handling waste, but that capacity is a double-edged sword, because it enables Americans to produce massive amounts of trash with little regard for the costs and consequences.
In the following interview, I question Humes about this success-failure paradox, touching on everything from junk mail to plastic grocery bags.
Why are Americans generating so much more trash than we did in the past?
If you look at the trajectory of our garbage over time, we’ve essentially doubled our output since 1960. The big difference between then and now is the exponential growth in the single-use disposable packaging and container category. This packaging is made of incredibly durable materials that really never go away, yet the objects have useful lives measured in minutes or hours. The rise in our trash has matched the rise in our disposable use culture.
In the book you say that America is in a state of garbage denial. How so?
What our waste management system is best at is hiding the waste from us. We roll it to the curb and away it goes. Or we put it in the recycling bin and we feel virtuous. When you have the almost magical ability to make the waste disappear, it enables us to keep on doing what we’ve been doing and stay on this trajectory.
If we couldn’t dispose of all our trash, would we make less of it?
If we had to pile it on our lawn, at the end of the year we’d have 1.3 tons of trash [for every person in our household]. I think that would be a deterrent. It would also be a public health hazard. The reason we developed landfills in the first place is because people used to dump their trash on the street.
Since you mentioned landfills, how is today’s sanitary landfill different from yesterday’s municipal dump?
There has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary change. In the 1960s and ’70s we used to see open dumps, which were an eyesore and health hazard. The modern sanitary landfill uses some pretty complex engineering. It’s made up of football-field-sized rectangles of waste. The common practice is to have an impermeable liner beneath the landfill, to keep noxious compounds from leaching down into water tables or contaminating surrounding areas. To control odors and vermin, every day the trash is covered over with a layer of dirt and then compacted.
One of the interesting things about the modern landfill is that it’s a huge methane generator. The Environmental Protection Agency looked at how much methane [a greenhouse gas] is pumping out of landfills and came to the conclusion that they are worse for the climate than modern waste energy plants that burn trash.
Landfills are America’s preferred method for disposing of trash. But what are other countries doing?
Waste energy is a component of the European model. Germany landfills less than one percent of its waste, as opposed to sixty-nine percent for the United States. Germany recycles fifty-six percent of its material, versus about twenty-five percent for us.
Denmark is about fifty-fifty waste-to-energy versus recycle. And they are net energy exporters on the backs of their waste-to-energy plants and wind farms. They also have more of a community-based solution. They don’t build what we would call utility-scale power plants. The idea is that trash is a local phenomenon so a community should deal with its own trash. Their plants are relatively modestly proportioned and they provide heating as well as electricity through a system of underground conduits.
In the U.S. it’s never a distributed community-level approach. We build these enormous facilities that are almost prohibitively expensive, and many communities are reluctant to have these facilities close by. We fail on that score because if you can make smaller, more cost-effective plants that are a source of community pride, then you avoid a whole set of problems that the Japanese and Europeans are avoiding.
What’s wrong with our emphasis on recycling?
Recycling is a better-than-nothing solution. The problem with recycling is that for most materials it is incredibly inefficient. Some materials, like aluminum, you get a lot of bang for your buck, but for many things, like plastic bags, there isn’t much market. The most recycled content you can put into a plastic grocery bag is thirty percent, because the polymer chains break down when they are recycled and are not as strong.
The go-to solution for waste should first be reducing the waste stream and avoiding materials that need to be recycled. After you move down the waste stream, then it makes sense to look at what to do next, whether it’s recycling or composting or making energy.
Since you mentioned plastic bags, why is it so difficult to get people to stop using them?
It’s not difficult. A little over a year ago Los Angeles County said: No more plastic bags in supermarkets. You can have paper bags, but pay a dime. Or bring your own. People grumbled but fast-forward a year and the county reports that ninety-five percent of grocery store shoppers are bringing their own bags. So people have completely changed their behavior and it [only] took a dime. What you need is the right incentives. It’s just that we’ve created more incentives to be wasteful than we have to be less wasteful.
Junk mail comes to mind.
We subsidize junk mail by giving it an artificially low postal rate versus every other class of mail. And we further subsidize it because the businesses who send out unwanted junk mail aren’t responsible for disposal, cleanup or recycling. If we charged junk mailers the cost of dealing with the waste product I dare say the industry would suddenly be transformed into something less horrendous for the environment.
What is the most surprising thing you learned when writing “Garbology”?
The first thing is how bad we are about being aware of and keeping track of our waste. The other surprise was just hanging out at landfills and seeing what comes in. I had this image of Hefty bags filled with stinky, rotting garbage. But what is getting buried is not useless stuff. You see truckloads of food being dumped. I saw a truckload of Jacuzzi’s being dumped. You see furniture, beds, tools and the whole contents of people’s houses. We are a profligate people and it’s just amazing that even in these times when we recognize that our resources are not infinite, we still throw away things that could and should be reused.
What are your top tips for becoming less wasteful?
My go-to source is Bea Johnson of the Zero Waste Home family. Her best rule is to refuse wasteful things. Don’t accept junk mail, don’t accept things that come in excessive packaging, and buy in bulk. Don’t accept free stuff, and don’t use plastic utensils. That’s the way her family lives. That goes with the strategy that the real solution to waste isn’t finding the right destination for it, it’s finding ways to make less of it. The Johnson’s also emphasize reusing things and buying things that are used. There is a strong economic case for being less wasteful, as well as a strong environmental one. It’s a win-win.
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