Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash

Edward Humes’ new book is a surprisingly entertaining overview of the wealth wasted and resources lost in America’s trash. Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash reveals the past and current status of our trash addiction in a way that keeps you turning the pages. He brings the subject to life through the stories of a dozen or so interesting individuals who are real characters. Likewise, the last part of the book highlights several people, organizations, communities, and nations that create less waste and deal with the waste that is produced in more productive ways.

In the introduction, Humes grabs our attention with the story of an elderly Chicago couple rescued from their trash-choked home in 2010. The nearly 6 tons of debris which made their home impassable were the result of just about 3 years of hoarding their trash. To Humes, such trash hoarders provide a lesson for the rest of us about how much of what we buy is wasted. He then introduces us to a woman who became China’s first female billionaire by exporting used paper from the U.S. to China. In 2010, China’s number one export to the U.S. was computer equipment, valued at $50 billion. The same year, America’s top two exports to China were waste paper and scrap metal, valued at $8 billion. In Humes’ words, “America, a country that once built things for the rest of the world, has transformed itself into China’s trash compactor.”

Beginning with the story of Big Mike Speiser, the colorful equipment operator who helps sculpt 13,000 tons of trash each day into a landfill cell 15 feet tall and the length and width of a football field, the book outlines in fascinating detail how a modern landfill works and the ways it is superior to the open dumps, open burning, and just plain littering of the past. But despite the use of liners to prevent water pollution, methane systems to produce energy, and daily cover to discourage vermin, potentially useful material is still being locked away and wasted. One number you won’t forget after reading this book is the 102 tons of trash each American produces in his or her lifetime. Much attention is given to the value of this material and how avoiding that waste can be a way to improve our environment, reduce energy consumption, and improve our economy.

Humes suggests it is the very efficiency of our modern sanitation systems that keeps most people from realizing there is a problem. As long as the trash disappears from the curb, we don’t have to question too strongly why we bought all of that stuff in the first place. He believes the idea of buying our way to happiness began with the post-World War II explosion of marketing and the consumer economy. Humes summarizes: “This was the moment in which the Depression-era version of the American Dream – which held that hard work, diligent saving, and conserving resources paved the road to the good life – began to fade, surpassed by the notion that the highest expression and measurement of the American Dream lay in material wealth itself, the acquisition of stuff.”

While the first two parts of the book relate a bit of our trash history and raise our awareness about the impact of our current waste habits on the environment, the last part is devoted to “a small but growing number of businesspeople, environmentalists, communities, and families who see in our trash the biggest untapped opportunity of the century.”

Most of these later stories are about innovative ways to reuse or recycle the material currently being wasted. However, the last is about Bea Johnson, a woman whose family of four decided to avoid creating waste altogether. Their simplified, downsized lifestyle leaves them with a miniscule amount of waste that cannot be recycled, repurposed, given away, or composted. In one year, their household trash can fit inside a mason jar. That lifestyle also reduced their family expenses by 40% compared to what they used to spend. Humes says that the Johnson family has discovered less waste translates into more money, less debt, more leisure time, and less stress. “When you stop wasting, everything changes,” said Bea Johnson. “There is a way back. And, if it can work for a family, it can work for a country.”

Humes closes with a reminder and a few suggestions. First, the reminder – which he calls “the coolest thing about trash” – our creation of trash is one of the few “societal, economic, and environmental problems over which ordinary individuals can exert control.” As he notes, “you can choose to be more or less wasteful.” And his suggestions? They begin with a simple, “No, thank you.” Refuse what you don’t need. Choose used and refurbished items when you do need something. Replace bottled water with chilled tap water in a washable and refillable bottle. Carry your own shopping bags. And, finally, think about what it really costs to buy, maintain, and store goods.

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