Book Review: Garbology – Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash

Date: 16 Aug 2013 | posted in: agriculture | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

A Review of Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, by Edward Humes
Penguin Group, NYC, NY, 2012 

By Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Washington, DC 

Pulitzer Prize-wining writer, Edward Humes, has turned his attention to garbage. Most recently, in a Cato Institute publication, he wisely observes, recycling is America’s first line of defense against waste, when it should be the last. His book, Garbology, contains an excellent concise history of how the US became addicted to garbage and the socioeconomic and environmental dilemmas of today. It also introduces us to extraordinary individual activists and entrepreneurs attempting to solve problems, and provides useful summary charts and tables to further inform readers. Garbology also addresses key issues of corporate bigness and incineration with less success.

Proper Setting but Improper Analysis

In presenting garbage as “nothing less than the lens on our lives, our priorities, our failings, our secrets ands our hubris”, Humes uses the 102-ton-per-life generated by each of us in the USA as a metaphor for the garbage crisis and the opportunities to turn the waste stream into a raw materials stream.

The waning days of the vast Puente Hills landfill in Los Angeles County is the setting. This ‘temporary’ facility has stayed open for decades as the planned network of incinerators for Los Angeles city and county never materialized due to citizen and small business financial and environmental concerns. This pattern of frustrated incinerator deals has impacted New York, New Jersey and other major urban areas. Alas, Humes concludes that European style garbage incineration is the key to any realistic solution. Yet the conditions that make European systems appealing (use of steam for district heating, public ownership, small scale) are virtually impossible to replicate in the US. The conditions that defeated 300 planned garbage incinerators in the l970s, 1980s and 1990s have become stronger than ever before. In 2013 facing a new round of garbage incineration proposals, anti incineration efforts have defeated or stalled all but one proposed facility.

Humes unfortunately takes short cuts with his research and analysis of landfills and incinerators. He praises Waste Management, Inc. CEO David Steiner for the insight that the millions of tons the company handles is worth billions of dollars, an insight that has been recognized for over 40 years. He fails to point out that the company still makes more money from landfill than recycling, that its recycling program was forced upon WMI by new rules imposed by citizens, that the company is trying to repeal yard debris bans from landfills and incinerators, and that the key to WMI success was its ability to raise tons of capital to buy out competitors and build RCRA prescribed landfill systems that cities and smaller companies could not afford.

Misplaced admiration grows worse with Nickolas Themelis who heads a pro-incineration industry think tank at Columbia University. Data presented on incineration costs, environmental or economic impacts are unreliable. Nor does he present the depth of the justified anger against proposed incinerators by citizens and small businesses owners that propel the anti incineration and pro recycling movement. Finally, the discussion on European garbage incineration omits the fact that recyclable plastic and paper are burned because of overbuilt incineration capacity and industry dominated Extended Producer Responsibility programs. Western Europe incinerates an estimated 54 million tons of garbage annually, but has an estimated 64 million tons of incineration capacity. This explains the significant increase in international transport of garbage on the continent and the burning of recyclable and compostable materials. To remedy this, the European Parliament is developing a policy framework to phase out the destruction of these valuable materials by 2020. (See this report for more information)

Humes, provides plenty of data but fails to properly analyze it. He emphasizes the high cost of recycling some materials but does not compare this to the multi billion dollar cost of incineration; capital, bond debt, high operating costs.

Readers must balance Humes’ caricature of garbage incineration with accurate information, analysis and context from Bradley Angel, GreenAction for Health and the Environment, Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network, Paul Connett, professor of chemistry (ret), Caroline Eader, No Incineration Frederick County, MD and Jean Marc Simon, Global Anti Incineration Alliance/Europe. In Carroll County, MD, conservative county commissioners refused to move forward on garbage incineration after citizens showed them that the plant would have to be subsidized through a new System Benefit Charge on their homeowner tax bill.

The Political Economy of Garbage in the US

The book’s history of the US garbage generation is well worth reading. While Humes overlooks two early social critics — Thorstein Veblen who first alerted Americans to the bourgeoning social, economic and moral crisis of over and conspicuous consumption (Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, 1899, Theory of the Business Class, 1904) and William Leiss focuses on the psychological impacts of the our society’s embarrassment of riches (The Domination of Nature, 1972, Limits to Satisfaction, 1976) — his narrative is highly educational. It makes us take a good look at ourselves for falling under the sway of what Stuart Ewen refers to the ‘captains of consciousness’ that is the base cause of consumption without responsible discard management. It would also have been good if Humes considered the work of economist Kenneth Boulding who described the US as a ‘cowboy economy’ to extend the waste discussion to a broader economic context.

Humes picks up the sordid tale in the late 1940’s with marketing and design genius Gordon Lippincott’s pivotal notions of the ‘super consumer’: one who is ready to consume unneeded products and discard and replace useful products to support the national prosperity. This American willingness to part with something before it is worn out is a phenomenon of no other society in history, he observed. Based on the economy of abundance, this willingness “must be further nurtured even though it runs contrary to one of the oldest inbred laws of humanity, the law of thrift,” Lippincott taught companies and their ad agencies. The failure to waste was the enemy, Hume writes, and the message has been carried to the highest levels of mass communication through Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan and Bush. Hume continues by aptly describing the companies and products that eased these unnatural habits of consumption (TV dinners, Styrofoam, Coca Cola’s one-way bottle and a river of other disposable products and packaging) that introduced the ‘Throw-Away Society’. Here too are presented the financial, cultural and technology changes that catered to the consumption fest: plastic bags, credit cards, compaction garbage trucks and the Golden Age of TV which made all of this seem so natural and inevitable. Along with mass consumption with no thought to disposable, Humes underscores, the idea of thrift was erased from consciousness, and the resulting historic low individual savings in the US.

Against the tidal wave of consumption, Vance Packard’s brilliant warning about the insidious use of subliminal advertising and general veneration of promoting consumption (The Hidden Persuaders, 1957, The Waste Makers, 1960), made no headway. By l960, Packard notes, “The people …are becoming a tiger….They are taught to consume more and more…or their magnificent machine may turn and devour them….Their ever-expanding economy demands it.” “Not even Packard imagined”, Humes writes, that Americans would achieve a 102-ton legacy.”

The Wrong Direction

In addition to this excellent social history, Hume describes the efforts of individual citizens who have opted to live without ‘stuff’. Others have joined efforts to document and halt the plasticization of the oceans. Still others were inspired to start businesses to serve a zero waste economy such as TerraCycle and Chico-Bag. Humes concludes with a compilation of practical steps that individuals can take to reduce the environmental impacts of their discards.

This is the wrong message. The garbage crisis will not be solved by individual heroics. Community organizing, anti incineration organizing and local political campaigning are the strategic tools to take against the war on waste. Cooperative and combined efforts by citizens and small businesses is the only strategy that can challenge the onslaught of stuff that makes our economy and environment unsustainable. These are in fact the ways and means that the ‘burn and bury’ paradigm has been transformed to the ‘recycling and economic development’ paradigm in the last 40 years. Humes does not see the critical nature of combined efforts, because he focuses on the individual. He does not know the history of the recycling movement.

Curiously, Humes does not address the issues of Extended Producer Responsibility or Bottle Bills, although these are hotly debated among professionals in the field and public at large.

Garbology will remain a curiosity to veteran recyclers and solid waste planners based on its uneven treatment of the field. For those new to the fascinating world of garbage, parts of the book will be very helpful in understanding the scale of garbage dilemma and the history of how the US got into the mess that we must clean up. For a more thorough analysis these readers will have to read on.


Neil Seldman is president and co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He works with cities, businesses and community organizations start and expand recycling, reuse and composting businesses and implementing policies that nurture a homegrown economy. Seldman also assists communities in implementing alternatives to garbage incineration and landfill. His book and movie reviews appear in Bicycle Magazine, Greenyes Listserve and ILSR’s Waste to Wealth web page.

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Neil Seldman

Neil Seldman, Ph.D, directs the Waste to Wealth Initiative. He specializes in helping cities and businesses recover increasing amounts of materials from the waste stream and add value to the local economy through new processing and manufacturing facilities. He is a co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.