It is time we thrash the trash


A review of the book, ‘Garbology: Our dirty affair with nature’ by Edward Humes

The rise in purchasing power of the consumers is now a matter of concern.

The mounting garbage on this planet is a product of the consume-and-dispose society that does not realise the consequences of wastefulness.

In this book, Edward Humes, with his matter-of-fact narration, nudges us to wake up to the issue of garbage which we have been conveniently overseeing as just another part of the consumer culture.

Pic source: Google

Pic source: Google

Isn’t it horrifying how we buy all the materials and bury it in the ground without a thought of where it would all stagnate?

Garbology aims at inflating this scarring question until we come to a new consciousness of “You are what you throw away,” from the old one, which says, “You are what you eat.”

The book, which terms us ‘garbage addicts’, charts out the journey of garbage right from our kitchens to its ultimate destination, which might be a landfill, a pristine ocean or simply a street. In the process, it also answers the mind-boggling questions of why we make it and what alternatives might be there.

Through examining reports from the US government, independent researchers and businesses, it was found that an average American produces 102 tons of garbage in a lifetime.

“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?”

Humes dissects this amalgam of questions and addresses them each in the chapters.

Considering the garbage economy, United States is the biggest exporter of paper waste and scrap material to China where it is safely recycled.

The shipping of trash over 12000 miles in giant cargo vessels involves enormous environmental impact apart from the expenditure. The trash is then manufactured into products, shipped back to the US, where it is made into trash again. This is an ‘endless cycle, an incredibly wasteful process.’

In spite of the amount exported, America can shamefully boast of its largest active landfill, the Puente Hills which is 500m tall and has been the final resting place for the lion’s share of Los Angeles County’s ample daily flow of garbage for past 60 years.

It is “impressive. It’s also compelling, revelatory and horrifying all at the same time.”

How did these mountains of garbage come to be?

The problem of garbage disposal has been an issue for ages. While the Greeks, 2500 years ago, had created a municipal dump to reduce the amount thrown in the streets, the Romans washed it through their sewage system. There have been cases where cities have been constructed on elevated platforms over a pile of trash. Also, attempts have been made to get rid of it by burning, burying or simply shifting it to other cities.

Humes says that the concept of wastefulness was redefined in the 20th century. The sense of thrift was overcome by the advertisers and the government in power never adhered to the climate policies.

Now, Americans send 740000 tons of garbage a day to landfills, burying $50 billion in raw materials to create the heap of trash every year.

The incineration programmes planned to reduce the trash have been disastrous due to mismanagement.

Thus the building of Garbage Mountains continues in the name of sanitary landfills. While some of the materials decompose, a large amount of them take longer to decompose and in the meantime, fly away and end up in rivers, streams and ultimately in oceans where they are collected in ‘gyres’ formed by currents and winds.

This pollutes the habitat of various sea birds and other aquatic creatures.

The Great pacific patch stands as an unfortunate example of this accumulation of trash. It is chowder of plastic bits with floating detergent bottles, milk cartons floating around what ought to be a pristine blue surface thousands of miles from anywhere.

The plastic is weathered and broken down by the elements in the water to tiny bits, the size of phytoplanktons. These little bits of plastics get transformed into sponges, thereby releasing some dangerous chemicals into the marine environment. There are chances that the fish might consume these bits, mistaking it to be edible and thus these poisonous substances could become a part of our food chain.

This is a grave example of how our trash gets transformed to food.

Unfortunately, the mindset of the consumers is that once they get rid of garbage, they assume that there is someone out there who would keep a track of its flow. However, the fact is that once the use of the stuff is over, no one knows where it has gone.

This explains why our resources are polluted due to improper channelization of garbage, especially plastics.

The percentage of plastics as a waste has increased from 0.4% in 1960 to 11% in 2000. In 2011, New York city spent more than $300 million just transporting their trash.

Plastic industries have been prominent contributors to the economy. This explains why Chicobags have been targeted in legal battles by the Big Plastic Industry of America.

Ironically, the fight against plastic is at the highest ever peak now.

Humes, in his book,  talks about Bea Johnson’s family who live without the use of plastics. They seem to live a “lack of wastefulness lifestyle” following the motto: refuse rather than recycle whenever possible.

There are mentions of few other initiatives to fight the garbage problem.

“Pick of the litter”  is a program started by the artists in San Francisco to figure out the worth of the stuff in the dump as actual materials. “Chico and the Man” talks about the efforts of an entrepreneur to create a reusable shopping bag and to educate the people on the environmental benefits of avoiding the plastic bags. There is also a mention about the innovation led by MIT students to track garbage through cell phone tower triangulation.

There are a few cities which have been able to tackle the problem of garbage to some extent. Florida “recycles or composts half its trash, and burns the rest to make enough electricity to power thirty-six thousand homes”. Portland, Oregon efficiently uses 59% of its trash through recycling, composting and burning it for energy. Connecticticut residents make only about 5.5 pounds of trash each day.

Humes has conveyed with clarity, the need to inculcate wiser buying habits and slow down our trash production. After all, the materials in the landfills are those that we had paid for.

Re-use. Recycle. Reduce. And most importantly, Refuse.

Here is a Photostory on the issue of Rag pickers – A means of livelihood which encompasses the issues of dignity, caste, health and economy.