Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash

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Overview

A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist takes readers on a surprising tour of America’s biggest export, our most prodigious product, and our greatest legacy: our trash

The average American produces 102 tons of garbage across a lifetime and $50 billion in squandered riches are rolled to the curb each year. But our bins are just the starting point for a strange, impressive, mysterious, and costly journey that may also represent the greatest untapped ...

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Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash

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Overview

A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist takes readers on a surprising tour of America’s biggest export, our most prodigious product, and our greatest legacy: our trash

The average American produces 102 tons of garbage across a lifetime and $50 billion in squandered riches are rolled to the curb each year. But our bins are just the starting point for a strange, impressive, mysterious, and costly journey that may also represent the greatest untapped opportunity of the century.

In Garbology, Edward Humes investigates 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’ Garbage Mountain landfill, the artists residing in 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 reveals not just what we throw away, but who we are and where our society is headed. Waste is the one environmental and economic harm that ordinary working Americans have the power to change—and prosper in the process.

Garbology is raising awareness of trash consumption and is sparking community-wide action through One City One Book programs around the country.
It is becoming an increasingly popular addition to high school and college syllabi and is being adopted by many colleges and universities for First Year Experience programs.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“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 Eaarth

“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

"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

Publishers Weekly
On average, every American will generate 102 tons of trash in their lifetime. Pulitzer Prize-winner Humes (No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Life of Juvenile Court) asks how that number came to be, and what can be done to reduce it. To answer those questions, he interviews an interesting cast of characters, including Mike Speiser, the operator of the massive trash compactor at the Puente Hills landfill in Los Angeles, home to a 130 million-ton pile of waste; archeologist Bill Rathje, "the world's first garbologist," who asserts that "people don't really know their trash…But through their trash, we sure do know a lot about them;" and Andy Keller, a vocal and provocative advocate for reusable shopping bags. Humes provides a history of waste management in America, from the use of piggeries in the 19th century (where garbage was fed to pigs) to today's reliance on landfills, and he examines the cycles of consumerism and the advent of plastics as obvious causes of the current trash crisis, pointing to a San Francisco family who lives a "near-zero waste lifestyle" as an example of possible alternatives. In his epilogue, Humes offers excellent tips for being more resourceful, so that our lives might not be "monuments to waste." Humes' take on the science and culture of "garbology" is both academic and deeply personal, making this a fascinating read. (Apr. 19)
Kirkus Reviews
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Humes (Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart's Green Revolution, 2011, etc.) examines how wastefulness is built into the American way of life. The author shines a spotlight on every aspect of the economy, from corporate practices to the habits of individual families, to substantiate his thesis that "the American Dream is inextricably linked to an endless, accelerating accumulation of trash." Marketing encourages wastefulness, he writes; planned obsolescence is built in to manufactured products, and purchasing the new rather than repairing the old has become the order of the day. The products "all come packaged in instant trash [and] what's inside that packaging is destined to break, become obsolete, get used up or become unfashionable in a few years, months or even days." Humes offers plenty of surprising, even shocking, statistics--e.g., one in every six big trucks in America is a garbage truck; according to the EPA, from 1980 to 2000, "the average American daily trash load increased by a third." This is more than 50 percent higher than in other countries with a similar standard of living. Humes discusses the problem of pollution caused by the proliferation of trash, specifically hazardous, nonbiodegradable waste. He uses the example of Coca-Cola's mid-1960s substitution of plastic for reusable glass bottles to show how companies have cheapened their cost of production at the expense of the environment. The author also writes about families who have enthusiastically adopted more frugal lifestyles to protect the environment, taking simple measures such as downsizing their living accommodations, buying in bulk and not wasting food. He looks at the case of Ireland, where the government has introduced a tax on plastic bags; a similar proposal in San Francisco was blocked. An important addition to the environmentalist bookshelf.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781583335239
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/5/2013
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 144,388
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward Humes

Edward Humes is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author whose eleven previous books include Force of Nature, Eco Barons, and the PEN Award–winning No Matter How Loud I Shout. He lives in Seal Beach, California.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: 102 Tons (or: Becoming China's Trash Compactor) 1

Part 1 The Biggest Thing we Make

1 Ain't No Mountain High Enough 19

2 Piggeries and Burn Piles: An American Trash Genesis 36

3 From Trash TV to Landfill Rodeos 53

4 The Last and Future Kingdom 75

5 Down to the Sea in Chips 97

6 Nerds vs. Nurdles 115

Part 2 The Trash Detectives

7 The Trash Trackers 131

8 Decadence Now 143

Part 3 The Way Back

9 Pick of the Litter 169

10 Chico and the Man 187

11 Green Cities and Garbage Death Rays 221

12 Put-Downs, Pickups and the Power of No 240

Epilogue: Garbage In, Garbage Out 256

Endnotes 263

Index 269

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION
“It’s tough to overcome an addiction when you can’t even admit how big a problem you’ve got” (p. 9)

Edward Humes wants us to think about garbage—specifically the world–record–breaking 102 tons that the average American will produce in his or her lifetime. For the majority of us, garbage is something that is whisked away from our homes once a week and just as cleanly erased from our consciousness. A Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and bestselling author, Humes warns that we are on the brink of a dangerous precipice, sounding an urgent wake–up call to the true economic and ecological price of our garbage.

Since the dawn of civilization, municipal leaders have grappled with the question of how to best handle waste and “the resulting hazard, filth, disease, and odor” (p. 27). The streets of the Roman Empire were built upon successive layers of discarded rubbish, and the rotting trash of medieval Paris rendered its citizens vulnerable to both attacking foes and the bubonic plague.

Over time, advancements in transportation and landfill engineering have made garbage disposal easier and more remote from our everyday lives. For the past thirty years, Los Angelenos have sent their waste away to the Puente Hills landfill, a 1,365–acre, one hundred and thirty million ton mountain of trash producing “a constant flow of 31,000 cubic feet a minute of landfill gas” (p. 23).

Almost wholly removed from the rot and stench of their garbage, however, Americans have adopted an out–of–sight, out–of–mind attitude. Enabled by cheap waste removal and driven by post World War II consumer culture and the proliferation of plastic goods and packaging, “America, with just 5 percent of the world’s population, accounts for nearly 25 percent of the world’s waste” (p. 9). Landfills at least partially contain some of the pollutants, but “the United Nations estimates that a minimum of 7 million tons of trash ends up in the ocean each year” (p. 121).

Indeed, anyone who’s walked on the beach has seen the plastic detritus that litters America’s coast. Less visible—but posing a greater threat to marine wildlife and ultimately the planet’s wellbeing—is the floating plastic garbage that is converting our once pristine oceans into plastic soup. “Plastics can leach potentially toxic chemicals over time” (p. 119) and these particles are finding their way into the oceanic food chain.

Many Americans now recycle, but most environmental advocates believe that recycling is just a panacea. Historically speaking, archeologist Bill Rathje notes “cultures replace extravagance with frugality only after the resources have dried up” (p. 163). The only real solution is to reduce our garbage production and to follow the lead of countries like Denmark and Germany that are successfully turning garbage into energy, weaning themselves from foreign oil in the process.

Both sobering and inspiring, Garbology is a much–needed inquiry into America’s trash habit. Humes interweaves his compelling narrative with history and statistical data as he profiles a range of “trash optimists,” (p. 13) scientists, artists, small business people, and ordinary citizens whose lives and work point the way forward to a cleaner, safer future—if we choose to listen.

ABOUT EDWARD HUMES

Edward Humes is the author of eleven critically acclaimed nonfiction books, including Force of Nature, Monkey Girl, Over Here, School of Dreams, No Matter How Loud I Shout, and the bestseller Mississippi Mud.The winner of a Pulitzer Prize, a PEN Center USA award, and numerous other honors for his journalism and books, he has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine, and Sierra.Humes lives with his family in California.

A CONVERSATION WITH EDWARD HUMES

Q. 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.

Q. 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.

Q. 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.

Q. 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.

Q. 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.

Q. 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.

Q. What are the unexpected consequences of the amount of trash we produce?

–Oceans and beaches littered with millions of tons of plastic.

  • Artificial mountains built of garbage, bleeding climate–warming methane for decades.
  • Communities that spend more on trash than on schoolbooks, fire protection, libraries or parks and recreation.
  • A national economy in which our largest export is scrap.
  • A planet where one of the two man–made structures visible from space is a landfill.
  • An America where one person’s lifetime trash production is 102 tons –– the average adult body weight times 1,200.

Q. 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!

Q. 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.

Q. What are five things anyone could do to put their 102–ton legacy on a diet?

1.Refuse. From unwanted mail–order catalogs to grossly over–packaged produce, just refuse them. Say no to promotional key chains and tchotchkes that come free at conferences and fundraisers. You know it’s junk, and accepting it just encourages more. Refuse.

2.Buy Used and Refurbished. Keep resources out of the waste stream, save money.

3.Stop Buying Bottled Water. It’s a waste and a fraud.

4.No Plastic Grocery Bags. One–use bags are the gateway drug of waste. Go reusable.

5.Buy Wisely, Buy Less. The disposable economy wants you to think about the price at the cash register, not what it costs to own in the long run. That’s how we end up with cheapo DVD players that get trashed in a year and clothes that fade and wear out after a few washes. Saving up for fewer products that are more durable, efficient and higher quality costs less over time and radically reduces waste.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How much did you think about your own garbage production before reading Garbology? Do you agree with Humes’ assessment that America’s trash habit has reached dangerous proportions?
  • Do you take reusable bags to the store or use a refillable water bottle? If so, what spurred your decision to eschew the disposable versions? If not, why not?
  • Did you come across anything in Humes’ book that made you pause and reassess your own habits? What is your own most entrenched garbage addiction?
  • If you were part of Recology or a similar group using art to raise social consciousness, how might you repurpose waste to create a statement about our garbage crisis?
  • San Francisco became “the first major city to collect household food waste at the curb in separate bins along with green waste for composting” (p. 175), and Portland “adopted a climate change plan in 1993, five years before the famous Kyoto Protocols” (p. 222). Is the move toward sustainability better effected at the local level rather than by the federal government?
  • It’s ironic that conservation–minded Portlanders produce garbage at a slightly higher rate than the average American? Why might this be? How could this be counteracted?
  • Would you—like the citizens of Denmark—be willingly to pay a significantly larger percentage of your income in taxes if it meant an end to “medical, insurance and tuition bills . [and] a more conservation–conscious culture when it comes to purchases, energy, and fuel” (p. 229)?
  • How would you feel if a garbage–to–energy plant were built in your town? Would you feel more comfortable living adjacent to a landfill?
  • When was the last time that you saved up the money to buy something? Did you value it any more or less than something you bought on a whim or on credit?
  • What do you think about Bea Johnson’s lifestyle? Why do you think her blog (zertowastehome.com) and her family’s lifestyle have attracted such vehement negative criticism?
  • At the end of Garbology, Humes offers his five tips for reducing trash production. What are yours?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 28, 2013

    ¿Garbology¿ will teach you more about trash, waste, and garbage

    “Garbology” will teach you more about trash, waste, and garbage in America than you ever thought there was to know about this subject. For example, waste is big business. Landfills were originally a temporary solution that became a permanent practice. The US is one of the most wasteful nations on the planet. Our current rate of waste production cannot be sustained for much longer. Recycling isn’t nearly as helpful as most people think it is. And all of this is evidence of American selfishness, indulgence, and obliviousness.

    Humes’ writing is entertaining and informative. He weaves his narrative so well that it’s quite easy to forget that you’re actually reading about garbage. He also structures this book very effectively—he tells a great deal about the history of waste management in the US, he examines the current garbage crisis, and he offers very practical solutions.


    Obviously, this book is not for everyone. If you like non-fiction, however, give this one a try. You’ll probably enjoy it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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    Posted July 15, 2012

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    Posted March 17, 2013

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