Friday, May 18, 2012


America is full of junk. Like, a lot of junk. Like we generate more trash per capita than any other nation in the world... an average of 102 tons per person over the course of a lifetime.

When Edward Humes started out to write a book about America's trash legacy he thought the number was closer to 64 tons -- but while researching the book he found that the real number was much, much higher. In fact, the average person throws out close to 7 pounds of garbage each day.

Garbology takes a close look at how (and why) we throw so much away, what alternatives exist, and what it all means.

Surprisingly, while Humes takes what you would think would be the non-controversial position that "waste is bad," he points out that there's actually plenty of space in the US to bury all the trash we generate... over the next thousand years. 

All we need to do is find neighborhoods that want to put up with enormous landfills. Good luck with that.

Another surprising fact? Almost nothing that goes into modern sanitary landfills decomposes. You can read newspapers that were thrown away 50 years ago, and identify food items that were dumped in more than a decade ago.

Landfills essentially preserve items indefinitely by smushing everything together and kind of mummifying the remains of plastic bags, food scraps, and even toxic materials such as battery acid and half-full paint cans.

The good news is that toxic chemicals don't leach out of landfills at nearly the rate that was once expected. The bad news is that they're still in there and it means problems associated with improper disposal of hazardous materials is just a long-term problem now instead of a short term one.

In the first half of Garbology, Humes identifies and describes the problems that lead to our 102 ton per person trash legacy, and in the second half he looks at partial solutions including trash-to-energy facilities that burn trash to create electricity (they're cleaner than they used to be, but wildly unpopular in the US), and ways individuals can reduce their own footprints.

Like other Humes books I've read, Garbology is a very readable volume, thanks to the author's method of combining statistics and facts with anecdotes and profiles of individuals including one of the first "garbologists" who applied archaeological research techniques to modern-day garbage and a family that lives a nearly zero-waste lifestyle by rejecting virtually every product that comes in a package, among other things.

On the one hand, Garbology is the kind of book that can make you feel very guilty about your life choices... on the other hand, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

While I doubt I'll be going zero-waste anytime soon, I've already decided to make a few changes. For years I've taken reusable shopping bags on trips to the grocery store or farmers market. But the bulk foods area at Whole Foods has always been my weak spot -- because I've found myself grabbing thin plastic bags and filling them up with rice, oatmeal, quinoa, and other grains on nearly every trip. 

These bags are meant to be used once for the few minutes it takes to get the food home, but they'll survive in landfills for thousands of years. 

So this week I ordered a half dozen reusable bulk food/produce bags

I also learned recently that Whole Foods (and some other grocery stores) will let you fill up your own mason jars at the store. You just need to visit the customer service area first to find out the weight of your empty jars so you can have that weight subtracted when you check out. This feels a little more stressful to me than using the reusable nylon bags, which are so light that you don't really need to bother weighing them at all. But I might work my way up to the mason jar solution in the future.

It was a throwaway example in the book, but Humes also pointed out that potato chip bags will last for thousands of years in landfills. The same is probably true of candy bar wrappers, pretzel bags, and thousands of other items we throw away -- but that one little example inspired me to do something I've been meaning to do ever since I figured out how easy it is to make french fries at home by slicing whole potatoes and baking them in a little oil. 

I picked up a cheap mandolin slicer for $14.99 and started making my own potato chips from scratch. All you have to do is take thinly sliced pieces of potato, dip both sides in oil, arrange them on a baking sheet, and cook at about 375 degrees for 20 minutes.

The resulting chips taste better than almost anything I've ever fished out of a bag, there's less waste associated, and most of the potatoes in our house didn't travel very far to get here. We pick them up from the local farmers market when they're in season. 

And there's no bag to throw away.

Reducing plastic bags and potato chip bags won't save the world from trash. But if everyone thought a little more about the packaging that comes with the products they bought maybe there wouldn't be so many items (like plastic shopping bags) manufactured to be used just once and then thrown away. 


Fazal Majid said...

You can do chips in the microwave in a fraction of the time. Spray parchment paper with oil, slice the potatoes and pat them dry, lay them on the sheet and it shoul take between 30 seconds to 2 minutes, depending on your microwave and how brown you like them.

Brad Linder said...

The parchment paper would kind of defeat the purpose of generating less waste. I tried the microwave once just using a normal plate, but as you'd expect the chips got stuck to the plate and were pretty difficult to pry off.

Plus our microwave is pretty small so we can do far more chips at once in the oven.

CyberGusa said...

Many stores use bio-degradeable bags now, maybe check with yours to see if they are using those?

Alternatively, there are also plastic bag recycling centers and you can see if any of the drop off locations are near you?

Brad Linder said...

Those are among the items that get dumped into landfills and stick around for centuries, locked between layers of other trash.

Recycling is an imperfect solution too, because many items you throw in the bin actually don't get recycled for one reason or another, or can only be recycled a few times.

Re-using products is better (which is why I don't feel guilty about listing so many refurbished items in liliputing deal posts), but it's actually not that hard to simply reduce trash by using your own bags and giving preference to items with little or no packaging.

I'd have a hard time going zero waste, but *less* waste doesn't seem that daunting. I just wish I had started sooner.

CyberGusa said...

Actually, so long as you're using Real biodegradable plastic and not just the kind that breaks down quickly then it should just be sent to a commercial composting
facility, where it will spend its final days being eaten by microbes.

Conventional landfills are the main problem, along with the type of materials being dumped, but there are a growing number of solutions.

Like some places even use composting facility to generate electricity and helps pay for itself. Along with better dealing with green house gas emissions like methane from the decomposing materials.

Sustainability Jrnl said...

Also see “Talking Trash in America. Book Review” from SSPP Blog

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