Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash

Review by Neil Seldman

Neil Seldman

Neil Seldman

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Edward Humes covers the story of garbage in his 2012 book, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash (Penguin Group, NY, NY). It contains an excellent concise history of the U.S.’s addiction to garbage, and details today’s trash-related socioeconomic and environmental dilemmas. Humes introduces us to activists and entrepreneurs in the field, and, with less success, addresses corporate bigness and incineration.

Proper Setting But Improper Analysis

Humes presents garbage as “the lens on our lives, our priorities, our failings, our secrets and our hubris,” informing the reader that each person in the U.S. generates 102 tons of garbage over the course of his or her life. He then uses this fact to epitomize the garbage crisis and the opportunity to turn the waste stream into a raw materials stream.

The book is set during the final days of the Puente Hills landfill in Los Angeles County. Set to close in October 2013, this initially temporary facility stayed open for decades after citizens and small businesses blocked a planned network of incinerators. Frustrated incinerator deals have impacted many other major urban areas. Humes concludes that European-style garbage incineration is still the only realistic solution. Yet European systems are virtually impossible to replicate in the U.S. The conditions that defeated 300 planned garbage incinerators in the late 20th century have become more pronounced than ever. In 2013, antiincineration efforts defeated or stalled all but one proposed facility.

Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash

Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash, by Edward Humes

Humes’ research and analysis are flawed: he praises Waste Management, Inc. (WMI) CEO David Steiner for his insight that WMI handles millions of tons of garbage worth billions of dollars: this fact has been recognized for over 40 years. He does not point out that: 1) WMI makes more money from landfilling than recycling; 2) Citizens forced its recycling program upon it; and 3) The key to WMI’s success was building landfills that cities and smaller companies couldn’t afford.

Humes presents unreliable data on incineration costs and environmental and economic impact. He fails to illustrate citizens’ and small businesses’ anger toward proposed incinerators: this rage propels the antiincineration and prorecycling movement. Finally, his discussion of European garbage incineration omits the fact that recyclable plastic and paper are burned because of overbuilt incineration capacity and Extended Producer Responsibility programs.

Humes emphasizes the high cost of recycling some materials, but does not compare it to the multibillion dollar cost of incineration, which includes capital, bond debt, and high operating costs. Readers of Garbology need to balance Humes’ caricature of garbage incineration with accurate information from people like Bradley Angel (GreenAction for Health and the Environment), Mike Ewall (Energy Justice Network), Dr. Paul Connett (retired professor of chemistry at St. Lawrence College), Caroline Eader (No Incineration, Frederick County, MD), and Jean Marc Simon (Global Anti Incineration Alliance/Europe).

The Political Economy of Garbage In The U.S.

The book’s history of the U.S. garbage generation is solid, but Humes overlooks two early social critics. Thorstein Veblen first alerted Americans to the crisis of overconsumption in The Theory of the Leisure Class and The Theory of the Business Class. William Leiss focuses on the psychological impact of wealth in The Domination of Nature (1972) and Limits to Satisfaction (1976). Humes could also broaden the economic context of his discussion by considering economist Kenneth Boulding, who described the U.S. as a “cowboy economy.”

In 1947, marketing and design genius Gordon Lippincott described the “super consumer” — one who is ready to consume unneeded products, and willing to part with something before it is worn out — which is a phenomenon of no other society in history. This willingness “must be further nurtured,” Lippincott wrote, “even though it runs contrary to one of the oldest inbred laws of humanity, the law of thrift.” The instinct to save became the enemy, Humes writes, and this message was carried to the highest levels of mass communication.

Humes describes companies and products that epitomized the new “Throw-Away Society,” including Coca-Cola, TV dinners, and Styrofoam. Relevant financial, cultural and technological changes included plastic bags, credit cards, compaction garbage trucks and the Golden Age of TV, which portrayed consumption as natural and inevitable. As a result of this rise in consumption and waste, individual savings hit a historic low in the U.S.

In his 1960 book The Waste Makers, Vance Packard noted, “The people…are becoming a tiger…They are taught to consume more and more…or their magnificent machine may turn and devour them…Their ever-expanding economy demands it.” Garbology provides an excellent social history of consumerism.

The Wrong Direction

Next, Humes profiles individual citizens who have opted to live without “stuff,” and lists practical steps individuals can take to reduce waste. Unfortunately, the garbage crisis will not be solved by individual heroics. The combined effort of citizens and small businesses is the only strategy that can challenge the onslaught of stuff. This is how the “burn and bury” paradigm has become the “recycling and economic development” paradigm over the last 40 years. By focusing on the individual, Humes shows his unfamiliarity with the history of the recycling movement.

Because of Garbology’s uneven treatment of its subject, the book will likely remain a curiosity to veteran recyclers and solid waste planners. For those new to the fascinating world of garbage, many sections of the book are often simultaneously good, bad and naïve. For a balanced view of the garbage issue, novice readers will need to consult other works.

Neil Seldman is president and cofounder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He works with cities, businesses and community organizations to start and expand recycling, reuse and composting businesses and implement policies that nurture a homegrown economy. Seldman also assists communities in implementing alternatives to garbage incineration and landfill. His book and movie reviews appear in BioCycle Magazine, Greenyes Listserve and ILSR’s Waste to Wealth web page.

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