Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash (Photos)

In ‘Garbology,’ Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes looks at the consequences of discarding 102 tons of junk over a lifetime.

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The town dump has been our go-to garbage solution since the days of Ancient Greece. Now Americans send 740,000 tons of it a day to landfills, creating literal mountains of trash by burying $50 billion in raw materials every year. Other countries are powering whole cities with trash energy plants that pollute less than the archaic practice of landfilling.

—Edward Humes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His new book is Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash.



The amount of junk, trash and waste that hoarders generate may seem aberrant, but the quantity is perfectly, horrifying normal. It's just that most of us put our hoards in landfills, rolling 7.1 pounds a day to the curb—twice the amount of waste the average American created in 1960.

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Not only are Americans recycling far less than other developed nations—a mere 24 percent, versus 69 percent to landfills—but a group of high-tech trash trackers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found a system riddled with mindless inefficiencies and waste. They tracked one used printer cartridge that crossed the country twice before reaching a recycling plant, accumulating an enormous energy and carbon footprint during its travels.

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Micro-plastic bits are an epidemic in the world's oceans and beaches, displacing plankton, ending up in fish bellies, and found on every beach in the world. An estimated four million tons of plastic a year elude landfills and recycling plants every year and end up in the marine environment—the equivalent of losing at sea a fleet of 40 super aircraft carriers every year.

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The Johnson Family in Marin County has given up disposable plastics, excess packaging, wasteful products (from bottled water to junk mail) and recreational shopping by focusing on the 4 Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle. Their non-recyclable, non-compostable trash can now fit in a Mason jar. This was not just a feel-good green exercise, says Bea Johnson. Their household budget was reduced by 40 percent—money they use for vacations, college funds and a hybrid car.

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The American economy is addicted to waste: 43 percent of mail is junk mail, 650 water bottles are thrown out every second, and the average American uses 500 disposable plastic grocery bags a year. All of this waste, and much more, is strictly voluntary. Trash is the one big social and environmental problem every citizen can do something about. Start easy and small: get a couple of reusable shopping bags, opt out of catalogs, printed bills and other mailings you don't need, and just say no to wasteful bottled water (it's no better than tap water, and costs thousands of times more). Then build on those successes.

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If you think iPads or airliners are America's top exports, think again. Trash is the top product flowing from American ports: scrap paper and scrap metal, $8 billion worth, most headed to China. America's largest volume exporter is scrap master America Chung Nam, which shipped more than 300,000 containers of waste paper to China in 2010. America, the country that once made things for the world, is now China's trash compactor.

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While the U.S. landfills 69 percent of its trash, countries such as Germany, Austria, and Denmark are sending less than 4 percent to landfills, recycling at far higher rates and burning the rest in modern, low emissions trash-to-energy plants. Instead of giant plants shunned by neighborhoods—the model pursued, often unsuccessfully, in the U.S.—the European approach emphasizes smaller plants that garner local support and even community pride. One such plan being built in Denmark is hidden beneath a community ski park. The artistic Spittleau plant in Vienna is a tourist attraction.


The average American is currently on track to create 102 tons of trash in a lifetime. How would you put that garbage legacy on a diet? Visit the Garbology Facebook page or post on Twitter to @EdwardHumes, and let's start crowd-sourcing the disposable economy into submission.