"No, I heard the author on NPR," I said. "He made some great points and sounded really factual. It'll be fine."
"I think you're crazy," my husband answered.
He had a point. I've had more than one meltdown over green guilt in the 4 1/2 years that we've lived in the Bay Area, where going green sometimes feels like a competitive sport. My anxiety about doing the right thing hit an extended high beginning in February 2010, when I discovered The Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson. Johnson's family of four produces about a quart of trash annually, and I tried to eat the elephant by jumping in where she was rather than where I am in the whole zero waste householding business. It made me an exhausted, emotional, self-hating wreck.
I have since scaled back my efforts quite a lot, and our family of five now makes about one kitchen-sized bag of trash per week (but lots of recyclables). I'm pleased with our progress, but before I determined what our next steps ought to be, I wanted to be better informed about what changes would have the greatest positive impact. Which is why the NPR interview of Edward Humes, author of Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash caught my attention.
In the interview, Humes was talking about Bakelite, an early plastic that was used for billiard balls, piano keys, and telephones -- things that were meant to be durable, and have long, even heirloom-length, lives. He was calm and reasoned, not casting blame but describing a shift in the way materials are used as being problematic. It was impersonal, informative, and assumed intelligence from the audience.
Still feeling cautious, I downloaded a sample onto my Kindle. Humes opens the book with an anecdote of elderly hoarders, Jesse & Thelma Gaston, who had been trapped in their own home, by their own trash, for three weeks. He moves further into the story of trash by describing other hoarders, the condition of hoarding, and the media attention it has received in the last few years. His punchline is startling:
But little if any thought is given to the refuse itself, or to the rather scarier question of how any person, hoarder or not, can possibly generate so much trash so quickly.
Of course, there's a reason for this blind spot: namely, the amount of junk, trash, and waste that hoarders generate is perfectly, horrifyingly normal. It's just that most of us hoard it in landfills instead of living rooms, so we never see the truly epic quantities of stuff that we all discard. But make no mistake: The two or three years it took the Gastons to fill their house with five to six tons of trash is typical for an American couple. (page 3/location 106)He follows this assertion with a discussion of how much trash the average American generates daily, coming up with an average lifetime production of 102 tons of trash. There is a reasonably detailed discussion of how one estimates that amount, and multiple illustrations for how much 102 tons really is. Aircraft carriers are involved. Which is kind of scary, when you are talking about one person's trash.
Humes then poses three questions: What is the nature and cost of that 102-ton monument of waste? How is it possible for people to create so much waste without intending to do so, or even realize they are doing it? Is there a way back from the 102-ton legacy, and what would that do for us... or to us? (pages 11-12) These three questions form the organizing principles of the book.
Part 1: The Biggest Thing We Make describes how America deals with trash, how it has been dealt with in the past, and some "paths not taken" in the history of American waste management. He talks about the concept of waste and wastefulness, how our natural sense of thrift was overcome by early mid-century advertisers (fans of Mad Men might find this familiar territory), and how the political climate defeats promising policies. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is discussed in (rather depressing) detail. Humes corrected my misconception, a common one, he asserts, that the Garbage Patch (not to mention the other gyres collecting plastic trash in the other oceans) is not an "island" of trash, but a chowder of plastic bits with floating detergent bottles and milk cartons and old toys floating around what ought to be a pristine blue surface thousands of miles from anywhere.
Part 2: The Trash Detectives was perhaps the most depressing section of the book. It's the shortest, because it's the area involving the greatest number of unknowns. It goes against what we might assume, that "someone out there" knows what happens to the cans we put in the recycling, or the printer cartridges that we drop off at Office Depot, but in fact there is not really a clear, readily followable chain for where stuff goes when we're done with it (except the landfill) as there is for how to get it into our hands. Humes does a great job of detailing exactly what is and is not known about trash after its useful life, and although the information itself is depressing, his prose never is. It's informative and occasionally incredulous, but always readable and factual; he is one of us, which is to say, he doesn't exempt himself from the problem.
Part 3: The Way Back was... maybe not so much empowering, given how thoroughly Humes detailed the scope of the problems our trash poses, but certainly hopeful. "Pick of the Litter" details a San Francisco dump and artist-in-residence program that talks about how much is found in the dump, but also how much potential there is for the stuff in there as actual materials. "Chico and the Man" recounts the efforts of a small entrepreneur to create a new kind of reusable shopping bag, and to educate people on the environmental benefits of avoiding plastic shopping bags -- and the gigantic lawsuit that was mounted against him by the plastic bag industry -- and how it was defeated. The remainder of the section talks about the efforts communities around the world and one Marin County, California family of four (Bea Johnson's family) has been working to reduce their waste, one innovative idea at a time.
If you're interested in treading lightly on the Earth, this book will be interesting and informative. If you've never thought about it before, it's a reasonable place to start; Humes makes a very good case for remaking ourselves into a less wasteful culture as being good for us personally, as well: with less stuff, and better stuff, we can do more, save more, be financially more secure and nationally more secure. The materials we have in our landfills are resources we've paid for and then discarded as though they are valueless. Humes makes a powerfully readable case for the value of our resources, and for renewing our natural tendency to thrift.