A recent poll shows that the average American spends upwards of $84 per day, but what exactly are they buying? Journalist Edward Humes helps answer that question in “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash” by investigating what Americans throw away. It could have been a dense, depressing tome on American consumerism; instead, Humes pens a “voyage of discovery” that starts on a landfill and ends in a zero-waste household.
Waste management has never been America’s forte. From piggeries to incinerators, nearly every method had unintended consequences. Landfills are no exception, but Humes’s real fear is that trash creation will one day exceed their capacity. Today, most Americans generate 102 tons of garbage over a lifetime, 69 percent of which goes to places like Puente Hills, the nation’s largest landfill. Americans could compost and recycle more—food makes up about 14 percent of landfill waste by weight and recyclables do get trashed—but that wouldn’t address the main problem “Garbology” reveals: plastic.
In 2000, Americans threw out 63 times more plastic than they did in 1960—the result of mid-century marketing. Humes quotes ad man J. Gordon Lippincott who said: “our willingness to part with something before it is completely worn out… must be further nurtured…” And nurtured they were. In glorious technicolor, TV shows celebrated suburban life, commercials created demand for disposable products never before needed and plastic bags were introduced.
A generation later, Americans save less, carry more debt and make more trash than the rest of the world. At the same time, 10 percent of the world’s oil is used to make and move disposable plastics. And each year 5.6 million tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans. Tiny floating plastic bits are hard to locate and remove, causing scientists to simply write areas like the Pacific Garbage Patch off, despite the risks to marine life and our food chain.
The way Humes approaches seemingly insurmountable problems like these is what makes “Garbology” so different from other environment-oriented books. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist follows a traditional problem-investigation-solution outline, but he is never prescriptive.
Instead “Garbology” is told through the voices of people like Mary Crowley, a sailor who, at 61, is helping scientists prototype plastic-removing devices in the Pacific. Then there is Niki Ulehla, an artist-in-residence at a San Fransisco landfill that awards grants to artists, who have big ideas for the humble materials they scavenge from the site.
Humes avoids another common failing: slapping a happy ending on to an otherwise dismal read. With every chapter, the problem, and its potential solutions, gets more personal. “Garbology” may begin with 130 million tons of Puente Hills trash, but it ends with Bea Johnson’s family, whose annual trash output barely fills a Mason jar. Ultimately, Humes accomplishes what few green authors can: he fleshes out a 102-ton problem without alienating or overwhelming readers, who turn the last page still feeling like they can make a difference.