Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Garbage Land

Author: Elizabeth Royte
Published: 2005

Something about books about garbage seems to inspire sub-titles. Or perhaps it is just a feature of non-fiction. This book uses "On The Secret Trail of Trash". With it, I seem to be mining, chronologically at least, a wealth of trashy information.

Royte uses (or perhaps better is recycles - did I use that joke already?) Rubbish!* and Waste and Want for sources, as well as the ever present EPA statistics. Better, she gets her hands dirty, following the path each of her waste/recycle streams take. Royte pals along with the san men (term used by the sanitation workers she meets), harrasses corporate waste flacks, visits various recycling companies, and even follows (above ground) the waste pipes to sludge treatment plants.

Just when all this information has me in a mixed state of fired-up-mad and deeply-depressed, Royte flips it all over by reminding readers that municipal solid waste (MSW) makes up only two percent of all trash generated in the United States. Add in a few notes about how recycling may only be making us feel good about all the consumption we do and I'm ready to throw in the towel, almost.

Perhaps the most enlightening fact! is that "... for every 100 pounds of product that's made -- product that hits the store shelves -- at least 3,200 hundred pounds of waste are generated. ... In other words, we throw out stuff just to make the stuff we throw out." p. 239

Kind of makes the whole issue of pounds per person per day (and the supposed increase thereof) rather moot. The book does add fuel to the fire on my opinion of the EPA. Sure, they try and protect the public, but they are also influenced by business. Emphasis is on recycling and reuse. The links on reduction are much more about source reduction of packaging. The only nod towards actually buying less is a link to an outside website, use-less-stuff.

What I took away from this:
- Reduction is much, much better than reuse and recycle.
- Plastic is evil.
- Don't sweat it if the occasional yogurt cup finds its way to the trash can. Or if the odd plastic bag is foisted on you.

*At one point, Royte mentions William Rathje's statistic on the leachate from the Fresh Kills landfill to NY's director of landfill engineering: "Instantly, Gleason turned apoplectic. 'What he did is ... he made it up! It's not a statistic. Rathje studies trash in Arizona!'" p. 95 I guess the book hit a nerve for some people.

! Most depressing was the curtain being lifted on the 'Crying Indian'. The famous commercial was burned into my brain in my youth in the 1970's. That was the spirit of the time, Keep America Beautiful (KAB), clean air and water, recycling, etc. However, KAB was created by beverage and packaging companies. The comercial is clever slight-of-hand to push responsibility from the creators of one-time-use products and and packaging materials onto the users of those products (i.e. those terrible litterbugs). And the Native American in the commercial was really a Sicilian American named Espera DeCorti.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Waste and Want

Author: Susan Strasser
Published: 1999

Long Winded Post. Hang on! :-)

The subtitle of the book is 'A Social History of Trash'. It is very well researched (hundreds of footnotes) and very academic. I can't take issue with most of the facts presented (well, maybe just one). The conclusions may be argued with.

The book covers several centuries of U.S. history with a focus on the late 19th, a time of post-industrial innovation and booming population. An age of innovation and cultural change that has only sped up over the past century. The theme is that our so called throw-away culture and our wants and desires are created and manipulated by corporate advertising (I'm simplifying here but bear with me). Our mounting garbage piles are due to these influences and our current wasteful culture.

I would counter there is evidence that our growing volume of garbage is due almost entirely to our growing population (and computer printers; paper makes up over 40 percent of what is in landfills). More people, more garbage. The problem is not that we make more of it per person than our recent forebears (human beings have always made more garbage than they could recycle and reuse), but that we've done such a poor job of managing it lately. Fortunately, that trend seems to be reversing thanks in part (irony here) to corporate waste management monopolies.

One data point that Strasser highlights at the end of the book is from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This states that the amount of garbage that Americans produce has increased steadily over the past forty years or so to a current level of 4.5 pounds per person per day. What the EPA uses to determine this data is called 'materials flow methodology' and can be found described in an EPA publication which is updated every two years or so.

The problem, I am convinced, is that this methodology is flawed. This was pointed out in the book Rubbish!. The problem is the EPA is estimating what is thrown away based on "... the average lifespan of different products." (pp.17-18 of '2005 Facts and Figures' PDF document). What the Garbage Project found, based on hundreds of samples excavated from landfills in different parts of the U.S., was that products are reused (e.g. garage sales, used goods stores, charity donations, hand-me-downs, refurbished and re-sold) or salvaged (primarily scrap metal) at a far higher rate than the EPA assumes. The Garbage Project had limited but convincing data that the amount of garbage finding its way to landfills in terms of pounds per person per day has been pretty steady and maybe even declined slightly over the past 50 years. The book doesn't state a number as a fact (they're scientists, they say the 'data suggests') but reading between the lines, I come away from 'Rubbish!' with a figure of about 2 pounds per person per day.

In short, I trust the scientists with their grubby hands in the actual garbage flow rather than the bureaucrats with their fancy calculations.

Friday, May 18, 2007


Author: Tobias Buckell
Published: 2007


Expectations can be a problem. The cover and write-ups of this book describe it as taking place in the same universe as Crystal Rain. That was a big, flashing, red signal to me that said 'Not A Sequel'.

And it wasn't, to begin with. New characters to get used to, a plot building and building to a grand crescendo at the middle. And then ...

It's a sequel. Threads are connected. I was a little disappointed in that some previous characters, likeable and well developed, are mentioned but don't appear. Then there are others that are never mentioned. The story of Crystal Rain centers on fighting off the invasion of the Azteca. This is completely undone in Ragamuffin, in a matter of pages.

Ragamuffin is a very good book, and I would guess very accessible to new readers. I'm not one of them. I'll read it again, later, without the baggage.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage

Author: William Rathje & Cullen Murphy
Published: 1992

The book details the work of the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Very interesting information about the history (U.S. and ancient) of trash, landfills, and the value for archeologists as well as sociologists.

Very glad I read this first (I have a growing list of research on the subject) as it dispels many myths about U.S. consumption, landfills, and their contents which I've run into already in the next book I'm reading. Some things such as:

  • Evidence of trash has accompanied all human activity going back to the dawn of mankind.
  • Contemporary Americans (20th century on) are not that much more wasteful historically than prior generations (and even slightly less wasteful than some under-developed countries).
  • Disposable diapers, the bogeything of trash, make up less than 2% of the contents of landfills.
  • The biggest item in landfills by weight and volume is paper, clocking in at over 40%, which has increased steadily since the advent of computers.