Garbology Reflections

Humes’ Garbology explored the American experience with trash. Aside from the jarring statistics reflecting our garbage production, Humes brought up important issues each of us likely contributes to everyday. Appropriately, he calls trash production an American addiction (and one we prefer to hide from ourselves).

The book traces the history of trash including some notable examples. It seems that although practices have changed over the years, people’s reactions to waste management has not much. In 1870/1880s New York, waste was very poorly managed. There were times when waste was dropped in the river or ocean, dead horses pulling buggies were left where they fell, there was manure everywhere, and pigs ran about eating waste in the streets. These conditions led to Colonel Waring’s overhaul of the waste management system, which was said to have “saved more lives in the crowded tenements than a squad of doctors.” Despite appreciation of his work, people still didn’t want to do all of the waste sorting his plan called for. Today, more than 100 years later, we still face that sort of response when encouraged to do separate recyclables.

Big cities in California were another area of focus in the novel. One part that was interesting to me was that of governmental and company efforts to begin new waste management facilities. As waste-to-energy plans were being made in California, people feared the release of dioxin to the surrounding areas. Just this week I went to hear Susan’s Schnall’s lecture, “Agent-Orange, GMOs, and Other Legacies of U.S. Intervention in Vietnam,” in which she discussed dioxin as a component of Agent Orange. The effects of dioxin used in that way are absolutely horrendous, so I can imagine I’d be seriously concerned if someone told me that a landfill pumping that stuff out would be anywhere near me.. But people also refuse to allow landfills near their homes because of the stench, the view, and the trash that can be carried off into their yards. So while I can say I probably wouldn’t live right next to a landfill if I were given the choice, I think this mentality is reflective of people’s unwillingness to admit to creating as much trash as we do. I don’t think that every person who refuses to live by a waste management facility is actively trying to change their habits to reduce their personal wastefulness.

In a Canadian landfill gull populations disturbing the waste were such a problem that a program was created to use falconry as a gull deterrent

In a Canadian landfill gull populations disturbing the waste were such a problem that a program was created to use falconry as a gull deterrent

I really enjoyed the information about the garbology (garbage/archaeology) study. I can make predictions about what my trash says about me.. although I’m not sure I’d like what it says very much. I read Colin Beaven’s No Impact Man and have seen the documentary by the same name before my first semester at OWU, and was profoundly impacted (lol) by Beaven’s efforts. I spent a substantial amount of time considering how I might change my life to reduce my own waste. It’s interesting now (2 ½ years later) to look back at the changes I made in my initial interest to see what changes have really stuck. As Humes mentions, saying “no” is important to reducing waste, and I’m a lot better at that now – especially when it comes to plastic bags. Most notably, I still use a straight razor instead of disposable to shave and I usually use a ceramic mug to hold coffee when I go to the bakery or Starbucks. I’ve gotten much more interested in buying used and refurbished things- thrifting is like a game I can win anytime I want to purchase anything. But, there are many more efforts I considered that have been much less successful, and I think those are interesting. I still use commercial shampoo, deodorant, and paper napkins, despite attempts to use alternatives. I’m not sure what it is about those habits that’s so hard to break, but I think it’s worth thinking about why we aren’t reducing our waste in some ways even when we really want to. I’m always happy to read things like Garbology that try to guide our thinking on those topics.


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