What is Garbology?

Did you know the average American produces 102 tons of garbage in a lifetime!  This mind-blowing stat is from author Edward Humes. Check out his new book, “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash”   He was interviewed recently in a story entitled Talking Trash - Republished from Real Change News,  Seattle WA.

In your book “Garbology,” you mention how the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] has underestimated the amount of trash that Americans produce. Some 140 million tons go unaccounted for in their calculations. Why do you think this is, and where did you find more accurate statistics?

E. H.: The reason for the underestimation is the method the epa uses to generate a figure for our municipal waste in the United States. It’s not by actually measuring the amount of trash coming in. It’s a more indirect method called “indirect flow analysis.” They get data from manufacturers about how much material they’re making that goes out to consumers. Then, through various byzantine calculations, they come up with a figure of how much trash is theoretically being made.

They came up with this method decades ago, when there were many more dumps (legal and illegal) and no one was measuring how much was going into them. The current method was the best they could come up with, and they’ve stuck with it ever since. The problem is, we have far fewer dumps now, and these dumps are meticulous about measuring how much garbage they take in. Their business model requires that they charge by the ton. There are scales when the trucks enter and leave, and they compare the weight of the full and empty trucks so they know exactly how much has been dumped. Because of this we have very good data.

Columbia University recently partnered with a trade journal called “BioCycle,” and they started doing these biannual “State of Garbage in America” reports that actually uses the real data. They found the missing trash! We’re throwing away a lot more than the epa estimates. We’re also recycling much less. We’re sending about twice as much garbage to the dump as the epa suggests.

In centuries past, methods such as piggeries (in which trash was fed to pigs) and incineration were common methods of waste disposal. When and why did landfills become the way to dispose of trash?

E.H.: The first landfill and anti-litter campaign was in ancient Greece about 2,500 years ago. It’s not a new idea. Shortly before World War II, some refinements were added. Specifically, the idea of a “sanitary landfill,” where you cover the waste with dirt every day to suppress the odor and vermin. It’s been further refined since the 1980s and early 90s by placing plastic liners underneath to prevent the seepage of toxic waste into groundwater supplies.

Of course, this was a big improvement over throwing garbage just anywhere. Cities were a mess for centuries. People would just hurl trash out their windows into the street or alleys. New York City was notorious at the turn of the last century for being such a sty, and that’s why some of these advancements such as recycling and the municipal dump were pioneered.

We like landfills in the U.S. more than in other countries because we have so much space. There’s always another hole to throw your garbage into. Perversely, that encourages us to be more wasteful. It doesn’t make it a good model, but it’s become our model because we have the space to do it. Japan doesn’t have landfills because they’re on an island, and they don’t have the space.

Cities like Copenhagen, Denmark, use almost 100 percent of their trash as a renewable energy source (through incineration). Do you think that something like this could catch on in the States?

E.H.: There’s a lot of potential for using our trash for energy (when it can’t be recycled or repurposed in some way). Denmark succeeds on this score because they decided that their waste is a local issue. They built relatively small, low-cost facilities, and they produce the heat and energy in the communities that produce the trash. They’ve chosen a more community-based model. They don’t have these huge utility-scale power plants that leave such a big footprint and have such a high cost.

It’s been a big challenge for American communities to pursue the waste-to-energy model as a solution. One successful example, though, is in Massachusetts in the Cape Cod area.  A series of small communities have banded together to enact this model.

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For a fun and easy way to gauge your own “Garbology” wisdom, check out this cool interactive site – My Garbology via NatureBridge.

EcoApprentice offers offers a great option to figure out what to do with garbage! Post your question as an EcoChallenge and get answers from our community. Becoming a member is fast and free!

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