I've just finished reading two really trashy books. No, I'm not talking about a Danielle Steel novel or Fifty Shades of Grey; I'm talking about books on garbage. Because here's my confesssion of the day: I'm slightly obsessed with worrying about trash. My long-suffering in-laws know this fact all too well, as every time they innocently go to throw out an apple core or banana peel at our house, I'm snatching it away from them (or out of the trash can, if I haven't gotten to them quickly enough) to stick it in the compost bin. They lovingly call me "the Green Police." I know I'm insufferable in this regard, but I can't help myself when it comes to the stuff we're throwing away. The problem, as I see it, is this: When we throw things "away", where are they actually going? The two books I just finished reading answer this question in great detail, and are called Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte (2005, Little, Brown and Company) and Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Tooby Beth Terry (2012, Skyhorse Publishing).
Elizabeth Royte makes me look like a wanton litterbug. She painstakingly logged all of the contents of her trash for months on end (ugh, no thanks!), laying it out on her kitchen floor and writing down everything she tossed out. Then she tried to track where her trash actually ended up, riding with the NYC garbage men who collected her cans, visiting various landfills and recycling facilities. Although I wouldn't follow in her footsteps, I found out some fascinating things from her book:
- Until the early 1890s's, wild pigs--around 100,000 of them!--roamed the streets of NYC, feasting on the trash that was tossed out the windows and doors of homes--a very strange means of trash disposal indeed. An outbreak of cholera put an end to it, when every last pig was slaughtered.
- Garbage collectors are three times more likely to be killed on the job than police officers or firefighters. In addition to working in traffic and hauling hazardous materials like sharp metal, broken glass, poisons, and acids that can burst in the truck, each worker lifts about five to six tons per day, spread out in 75-lb. bags.
- A Granny Smith apple can biodegrade completely in two weeks or last several thousand years. It's dependent on sunlight and oxygen to biodegrade, and landfills bury trash in layers so thick, biodegradation isn't possible.
- The dumps of the Roman Empire are still leaching (leaking toxic fluids).
- Plastics were invented in the 1940's and marketed as disposable, sanitary, and convenient. Instead of the previous model of mending, trading, or reusing, throwing things away became the desired norm.
- More people recycle in America than vote.
That last fact might seem like good news on the environmental front, but the sad truth is that recycling also takes a lot of labor and resources. And it creates a bad global trade cycle: We ship most of our recyclable plastics overseas in huge containers to Asia, where they're turned into cheap goods (manufactured under terrible conditions for the workers and the environment) and then sold right back to us. (Look at the bottom of the first ten plastic things you see in your home and count how many of them say "Made in China." That's where your recycled plastic bottles have traveled--straight back into your home.)
One of Royte's main points is that when we recycle, it's a sort of penance for our consumerism and wastefulness. Instead of just not buying the product in the first place, we buy it and toss it out at the end of its "useful" life--because, after all, recycling is good! Trash is going somewhere else! Our house is clean again...and ready for more stuff!
Garbage Land deals with a lot of the inherent guilt of throwing things away--things we bought with our hard-earned money but no longer want or need--and Royte posits that if we had to throw things out in clear plastic bags instead of opaque ones, we would probably throw out a lot less stuff. (It reminded me of Michael Pollan writing in The Omnivore's Dilemma how there probably would be a lot less meat-eaters if slaughterhouses had glass walls.) Much of the time, we conveniently don't think about our garbage at all. She quotes one of the sanitation men: "People think there's a garbage fairy. You put your trash on the curb, and then pffft, it's gone."
Royte delves into some possible scenarios for the future of trash, such as trying to achieve Zero Waste by creating products that don't end up in the landfill; paying for your trash to be removed but having your recycling taken away for free (as in San Francisco); enacting laws for extended producer responsibility (EPR), which means manufacturers take back the product and packaging; resorting to landfill mining once our resources have sadly run out. Truth be told, this book was as depressing as it was fascinating.
Although Beth Terry also sifts through her trash and tallies it diligently (again, that's more than I'm willing to do), she also fills an entire book (impressively made without a plastic binding or cover) with suggestions of how to dramatically lessen the amount of things we throw away send to the landfill or overseas. First, she goes through the very good reasons why we should avoid plastic (it's made from fossil fuels; it contains toxic chemicals that can leach into your food and beverages; it pollutes the land, air, and oceans; it harms the workers who manufacture it...just to name a few). But the rest of the book is about switching out plastic for healthier, eco-friendlier options, and Terry includes many sources for them. Some suggestions are a lot easier to follow than others--for example, I'm going to start buying bar soap instead of liquid soap in plastic bottles, and no more of those little "microbeads" in products for scrubbing--they're just little plastic particles that end up in our waterways. Other suggestions take more effort, such as buying the foods you need from bulk bins and using your own containers for them. I'm definitely going to get some reusable produce bags (we go through a lot of fruits and veggies), and she gives several suggestions for them. The book's a keeper.
Terry is an inspiration--she even successfully lobbied Clorox to take back its Brita water filters from consumers. (Just thinking about her hard-fought campaign makes me tired.) Most of all, though, I appreciated her humor. In my favorite passage, she talks about falling off the plastic-free wagon when she went on a road trip with her dad: "What started out with one Cheeto snuck from one bag turned into an orgy of Flamin' Hot Cheeto madness. My dad would buy a new bag of them every time we stopped for gas, and I'd munch out, until finally, towards the end of a long exhausting trip, I found myself buying the Cheetos myself. We were on a Cheetos bender..." So you see, even hard-core environmentalists know how tough it is to be 100% green, 24/7. (As I said in my post entitled 10 Green "Gifts" That Won't Cost You a Dime, you can find Terry's informative and entertaining writing on her blog called MyPlasticFreeLife.com.)
Good luck on your own quest for less stuff, and therefore, less garbage!
Food for thought: Look into your kitchen garbage can. (You don't have to pick through it and tally it.) Is there anything in there that you could have recycled or composted? (By the way, I'm going to review composters in the spring.) What is at least one disposable plastic thing you can stop buying?
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