Q & A with Garbology Author Ed Humes
Sierra magazine recently sat down with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Humes to talk about his new book, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash (Avery, 2012).
SIERRA: Is there a way that we can change today's convenience mindset of disposable everything and come back to a society with less waste?
Edward Humes: J. Gordon Lippencott, the father of corporate branding, gave us the philosophical statement of what the economy would look like after WWII. It was based on getting people to violate their most basic instinct of survival — to be thrifty — and [embrace the idea] that it was a good thing to get rid of perfectly good usable products and replace them with something new. That was the core of this new economy of abundance. It’s an illusion that things will never run out. We are an experiment on waste as the driver of prosperity.
Well, we do all seem to want to have the most up-to-date technologies. How can we change that?
With the up-to-date technology of days gone by, you could go to the store and buy a television set and bring it home and you could be assured that if something in it failed or some component was developed that was superior, it could be upgraded. There was a built-in longevity to a lot of our products that has gone away. We’ve accepted this idea that durable goods are no longer durable.
What is the most shocking thing that you discovered?
The whole idea that waste has become such a big part of our economy — that it is our top export. Scrap paper and scrap metal are our highest volume exports. We send more of that to China than anything else. They make stuff out of it and sell it back to us. That casts us in the role of China’s trash compacter.
To the extent that we can persuade through legislation or through tax incentives to make manufacturers responsible for the waste they create, that would be fantastic, because it would instantly lead to less packaging and less wasteful products. A quarter of the waste in our landfills is containers and packaging. It’s instant trash that lasts forever; even though it’s kind of universally recyclable, it’s not being recycled.
What is one of the worst consumer products that creates trash?
The most irrational consumer product on the face of the Earth — in America at least — is bottled water. It’s basically tap water from the municipal water supply that’s being resold in plastic containers with a price that exceeds that of gasoline. It’s a 20 billion dollar industry. It’s an embrace of waste on an epic scale and the triumph of marketing over common sense. And that’s something where consumers need to say, “Hey, this is ridiculous,” and cut it out.
Is it possible for us to pass legislation to reduce some of our trash?
You have a government that’s willing to subsidize junk mail — 85 billion pieces in 2011. Over 50 percent of U.S. mail is junk mail. We’re paying for that junk mail that we don’t even want and the kicker of it is, most of it doesn’t even get recycled; it goes to landfill. They will even charge you to get taken off the list; it’s just an outrage, so that’s certainly an area where legislation is necessary. This is a dead industry and it's a crazy irrational part of our wasteful ways.
Do you think that the waste-to-energy power plant is a viable clean option here in the U.S.?
Both Los Angeles and New York have been asked to study proposals for new plants in their area, but I don’t know if that’s going to eventually lead to advancing that technology or not. There are a lot of political hurdles. It’s still not a very efficient way to make energy. Do we want all this new technology or do we want to focus on conservation and reducing the amount of materials that go into the waste stream to begin with?
Is our planet absorbing all the plastic that has found its way into the ocean?
To help people picture it, it’s the equivalent of losing 40 super aircraft carriers each year at sea. That’s how much plastic is being lost at sea every year. There’s some science that suggests that plastic particles absorb toxic elements that aren’t water-soluble. The big problem with plastic is the particles that are the size of plankton because the small fish eat it. So these toxic chemicals stick to the plastic and then are consumed by lantern fish, (30 percent of the biological mass in the ocean.) Of course then the toxicity is concentrated and continues up the food chain.
--Interview by Cyndy Patrick / photo by David Bayles
Cyndy Patrick is a life-long animal-lover who opened her own pet salon and commenced to giving doggie hairdos (and bathing some pretty unhappy cats). She hung up her clippers to pursue a career as an environmental journalist and photographer. She is a student at San Jose State, loves to swim in the ocean and sleep under the stars.
This article has been corrected. "Jacob Lippencot" has been changed to "J. Gordon Lippencott"; "corporate America" has been changed to "corporate branding"; "10 million" has been changed to "20 billion"; and "a billion in 2008" has been changed to "85 billion pieces in 2011."