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Book Review: Garbology by Edward Humes

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Just in time for the 42nd annual Earth Day, author Edward Humes has published Garbology. It is an eye-opening study of just how bad things have gotten in our disposable society. Now before writing this off as just some tree-hugging liberal activist claptrap, it would help to consider the facts. First of all, the average American creates more trash than anyone else on the planet. This really does not come as a surprise, considering our affluence. The sheer numbers involved may give one pause however.

I find it a little hard to believe, but Humes reports that we as a nation throw away an average of 7.1 pounds of trash per day. Okay, nobody I know throws out anyway near that much. But when we consider the country as a whole (including manufacturing and other sectors), and divide using the current census figures, that is the number we are left with.

If the entire point of Garbology was to chastise us for the way our society uses and discards items, I would not be writing this review. Not even the most hard-hearted among us could believe that this type of waste is a good thing. One of the things that make Garbology worth your reading time are some of the simple, common-sense solutions Humes offers. The most obvious of these is recycling, in a way that really forces the issue.

For example, in my suburban Seattle town of Renton, WA, we have very little choice but to seriously recycle. In this former industrial armpit (the birthplace of Boeing), the city fathers have put into place what felt like draconian measures a couple of years ago. To cut costs and basically force recycling upon us, the city issued new trash bins. The one for household garbage that could not be recycled is tiny, smaller than the common metal or plastic ones of old. The recycle bin is more than twice that size. They also cut the pick-ups from once a week to once every two weeks. It has been so successful that Seattle is finally looking at instituting the same policy, amid much hue and cry. When it finally does happen though, I’ll bet that the policy catches on nationally, eventually, at least.

There are a couple of other very strong points that Humes makes as well. One is to remind us of the way we as a nation once treated items that we purchased. During the Great Depression, people did not throw things away. Items were used and repaired until they could be used no longer, and even then the individual parts were salvaged for other purposes.

The more insidious problem we face is the encouragement from the very top to consume, consume, consume. Anyone remember George W. Bush’s idea to improve the national mood after 9/11, and later to get us out of the recession? Go out and spend. Obama has said much the same thing about the financial problems the country is facing today.

Humes also talks about the big profits, and government encouragement for the common, yet obviously un-sustainable policy of just burying our trash in landfills. Seriously, how long does anyone think that can go on? He talks about methods of converting much of what is thrown out into fuels, but various interests have blocked this type of sensible alternative for their own reasons.

There is a case study of a family who are so serious about reducing their trash that they have found other uses for practically all of it. By recycling, repurposing, given things away, or composting, their yearly output fits in a single mason jar. I’m not sure the rest of us are capable of going that far, but it makes for a hell of a benchmark to work towards.

Garbology is a well-written look at the very real problems we face in disposing of our waste. The misguided policies and basic avoidance of the problem do not make the situation go away. This is a book with some very valuable alternatives for us to consider in (at least) reducing the amount of trash we dispose of. Even in a consumption-based society, creating as much garbage as possible is not our patriotic duty. If every parent truly wants to leave a better world for their children, we are not doing a very good job of it.

If my words sound condescending, I apologize. It is hard for me not to get on my high horse with this subject. Thankfully, Edward Humes never falls into this all too common trap. In Garbology, the author takes a sober look at a very serious threat to our world, but he does so in an extremely inviting style. Celebrate Earth Day with the purchase of his book, then pass it along to a friend. His publisher may not appreciate this little piece of advice, but I have a feeling Humes would.

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About Greg Barbrick