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 author 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.

World o fWaste Infographic

Humes’ popular novel, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash 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 he sheds light on is that 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 he says, 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 possible 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.
In many ways, Garbology makes me feel rather guilty about my life choices, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Humes’ writing opened my eyes to the tremendous amounts of trash human society produces and helped me identify areas in my life where I could be less wasteful. While I doubt I’ll be going zero-waste anytime soon, I’ve already decided to make a few changes. For example, I am now more careful when throwing items away and make sure that the correct things make it into the recycling bins.
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.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.

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