Trash: A Haunting Past, Present, and Future
Edward Humes, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash (Penguin Random House 2012)
As someone attuned to environmental issues, I knew trash was a problem. But Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes’ Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash conveys the details and damages of the massive trash epidemic in the United States. Humes opens with countless telling trash statistics: Only the Great Wall of China and a giant landfill on Staten Island can be seen from space; each of us will leave behind 102 tons of trash at the end of our lives; the United States discards enough wood every year to heat 50 million homes for 20 years. Such shocking statements more than piqued my interest.
But mounds of facts and garbage beg the question: how did we get to this point? Waste, Humes contends, is an essential by-product of the American principles of capitalism, competition, and consumption. The United States, most notably in recent decades, has espoused the principle of “spending rather than saving our way to prosperity.” Our economy and way of life rely on constant growth. To grow, we need to dispose and consume in a tireless cycle. In the United States, the amount of waste produced is an indicator of economic vitality; more trash produced indicates a stronger economy. Yet, economically comparable countries do not have this affinity for waste; most other Western countries produce half as much waste per person, signaling that waste does not have to be inherent to capitalism.
Another big problem with our trash is its lack of visibility or any transparency concerning its effects. When we haul our trash bins to the street, we forget about those bulging plastic bags full of waste. But curious about the life of our waste after being tossed out, researchers from MIT launched a study, TrashTrack, to follow its journey. Conclusion? The disposal process is long, energy intensive, and laborious. Many other groups of researchers, students, and environmentalists have studied the dynamic life of landfills: the species living in our trash, the sprawl of our waste, and the environmental impact of huge heaps of garbage. In the largest landfills, trees, animals, and microscopic organisms thrive. The communities next to them, however, suffer from extreme adverse health effects from released chemicals, pollution, and toxins.
The final section of Garbology outlines myriad solutions for our trash – technologies, packaging materials, consumption changes, waste. Because Garbology was written in 2012, I investigated the latest, most relevant, innovations in waste now. Recent developments in Artificial Intelligence have shown promise in advancing waste management systems by mitigating errors and optimizing recycling. In recent years, the market for a circular economy has skyrocketed. A circular economy finds purpose for every item and allows products to have many life cycles.
Overall, I took away the lesson that waste is a choice by individuals, businesses, and our government. The economically savvy and environmentally responsible path is to reduce waste before it is heaved out, through policies, businesses practices, and individual consumption patterns. While all of these solutions can be effective, the easiest may be the most effective – don’t be wasteful, be a conscientious consumer.
RCC Stanback Environmental Health Fellow – Francesca Cetta
Francesca Cetta is a junior at Duke University majoring in Economics and Public Policy. Born and raised just outside of Washington, DC, Francesca is acutely aware of the potential that effective policy has to save our Earth. She is passionate about working to end climate injustice through collaboration, research, and evidence-based policies.