How America’s Trash Became a Worldwide Problem: An Interview with Garbology Author Edward Humes

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Americans produce over seven pounds of trash per day, per person.

Did you know that America’s number one export is … garbage? Edward Humes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of twelve books (and a former Austinite), examines this and other disquieting facts about American trash culture—literal trash culture, not the other kind—in his new book, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash. Americans, while making up only five percent of the world’s population, produce almost a quarter of its garbage, much of which ends up in landfills and the ocean.

Humes took some time to talk to StateImpact Texas about why the United States produces so much waste, and why he thinks it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Q: So how much trash do Americans produce in a given day?

A: Well, it turns out that this is not an easy number to come by. In fact, the “national trash bible” – the publication that the EPA puts out to examine our municipal – is really badly outdated. Research done by Columbia University and a trade journal called BioCycle shows that we produce, per day, 7.1 pounds of trash for every man, woman, and child in the country. And that compares not-favorably with the rest of the world – the average Japanese person produces about 2.5 pounds of trash. But it doesn’t even compare favorably to where we were a few decades ago. It’s about twice as much per capita trash as we produced in 1960. Where is it all coming from? What more do we have now that we didn’t have then? Those are the interesting questions. Are we more prosperous now than we were in 1960? Do we feel more prosperous because we have all this crap we’re throwing away?

Q: Texas counties have, on average, over 40 years of landfill reserve capacity. We even have 3 landfills with over 2,000 years of space. So why aren’t landfills a sustainable option?

A: America has no shortage of space to dig another hole and throw our trash into. We’re a big country. But just because we have the space to throw stuff in yet another hole — for the next thousand years if we want to — doesn’t make it a sustainable option. It’s unproductive to take material that has value and bury it in the ground and make an environmental problem out of it. Even the best-run landfills are degrading our environment both through their potential to seep downward – liquids and toxins – and the emissions they put into the air. Principally methane, but also carbon dioxide, which actually makes them a greater greenhouse gas generator than a modern waste energy plant which was one of the surprising things I learned in the course of working on this book.

Q: Austin, Texas has recently voted to implement a plastic bag ban…

A: This idea is catching on like crazy. Los Angeles is among the largest cities to adopt one of these bag ordinances. It’s modeled after one that Los Angeles County does, which has been in effect now for over a year. The way it works is that plastic grocery bags are banned from major grocery retailers and convenient stores and such – but you can buy a paper bag for ten cents apiece. The idea is to encourage people to bring reusable bags. But the paper bag option is still available as kind of a compromise. What they’ve found in Los Angeles County after a year is that it’s pretty much a 90% adoption rate. People bring their own bags to the store now. One year has dramatically changed their behavior. It’s worked out pretty well here.

Q: Austin and Travis County in Texas have committed to a goal of zero waste. The goal is to reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills by 90 percent by the year 2040. What do you think of a zero-waste initiative? Is it a realistic goal?

A: Yay, Austin! I think this is a goal that is imminently doable. I think zero-waste is a goal that can never be fully achieved because there is always going to be some waste. But having that sort of goal is tremendously important. Walmart, in the space of four years, reduced their waste to landfills by 80%. If Walmart can do it, I’m quite sure Austin and Travis County can at least match that.

Walmart is taking stuff they used to throw away, they’re recycling it, they’re composting it, then they’re selling the compost in their stores. They are making buying decisions on the front end that have less packaging and therefore less waste. They have literally turned waste from a cost into a source of revenue for the entire company. And is there any reason why other large-scale enterprises like a city or a county aren’t doing the same thing? No. They should be doing the same thing. It’s the only fiscally responsible thing to do.

It’s a pocketbook issue. That’s what people haven’t fully grasped. That’s why I talk about waste and thrift. You could be the biggest climate skeptic, anti-green person, pro-fracking, you name it… and still get on board with the idea of as vigorous a waste-reduction program as possible. Because it makes economic sense to do so, because it will save us all money. And it does have the ancillary effect of also being an environmentally-friendly thing to do. But that doesn’t even have to be the main driving force. It’s one of the few environmental areas that doesn’t have to be a partisan thing.

Lily Primeaux is an intern with StateImpact Texas.

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