In his new book, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Humes unearths a slew of startling facts about trash in the United States, including this one: The average American is on track to waste 102 tons of trash during his or her lifetime. That’s 7.1 lbs. of trash per person every day, nearly double the waste generated by the average American in 1960, and 50 percent more than Western countries with similar standards of living, including Denmark and Germany.
Yet despite our mountains of trash, America is “in an official state of garbage denial,” Humes writes in Garbology. Statistics released annually by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he reports, “scandalously” underestimate the volume of municipal waste by relying on simulations and equations rather than measuring the actual trash. (The problems with measuring waste extend to the meetings industry as well. See “A Phantom Fact,” p. 90.(LINK)) Trash is a serious concern, our biggest export, the strongest drain on our economy, and one of the leading sources of greenhouse gases, Humes told Convene in a recent phone interview. The list of negative effects of the U.S. addiction to trash is “mind-boggling,” he said. “Yet it is invisible to most of us.”
Here is more from Convene’s conversation with Humes about the scope of the problem and what individuals, organizations, and communities are doing about it.
I’m curious about how you came to be interested in the topic of garbage.
[Laughs.] Yes. Well, it really started with two of my previous books, Eco Barons and Force of Nature. The first one was about environmental visionaries and philanthropists, activists – people who are pushing the envelope on all matters green, … people who have had a big impact and maybe suggest a direction for the rest of us. The second one was more about business sustainability. It revolves around the story of a river guide who became a sustainability consultant. His first client was Walmart. He was the architect of their efforts to include sustainability in their business.
With that background, the thing that kept coming up throughout all this work was that the big, underlying challenge and problem to a lot of our climate and environmental and resource concerns revolved around waste of all kinds, but particularly the profligate way we do business, live, expend energy, and use, and misuse, our materials.
There is a real push in business to be more sustainable. Do you expect that that is going to become the norm, that companies will follow Walmart’s example?
First of all, Walmart is following the examples of people and companies that have done more and much earlier. But yes, I think it is inevitable. It is kind of funny, really, that the business sector, [which] long was the laggard on the environmental front, should now be really ahead of other sectors.
But I think a lot of businesses, even big ones that are not normally associated with social good, like major retail chains like Walmart, have really recognized the business case of becoming more sustainable in certain things, meaning it is not across the board. Any company that has imported immense amounts of goods from China and [is] doing it in a very carbon-intensive way is never going to be sustainable. But within their business model, they could be using less energy and making less waste and finding an economic case for doing all that. That has value, and it sets an example that is important.
One of the points that you make in the book is that waste can be both a noun and a verb. It refers to the stuff you cart away and the act of squandering a resource. What do you think about the terms “green” and “sustainable”? Do you think that there is a way to describe sustainability that is more motivating?
I think those words have kind of been sapped of their power, particularly the idea of green, which can mean anything to anyone and is used on so many labels. I found that most people respond to the idea of waste as a verb, or as the physical manifestation of a wasteful mess. From our grandmas or their equivalent, you learn that [waste] is just not good. It is kind of a social sin. Wasting is bad. Thriftiness is good.
The reason that those values exist is because they were survival skills, both economically and in terms of resources and preserving food. My grandparents survived the Great Depression, and they did so with very little money and very little waste. And I guarantee you that 30 percent of their food was not thrown away. They used everything they had until it could not possibly be used or repurposed. I have tools in my toolbox that were my grandfather’s. He would never dream of throwing them away or not trying to repair them.
Somewhere in the last 40 or 50 years, we have shifted from those being accepted values [about] how our economy should be structured, and how products that we spend our hard-earned money on should behave and perform. We have shifted into this single-use, disposable economy and mindset and culture, where somehow it has become acceptable to expend our hard-earned wages on things that are almost immediately thrown away. And for which we have no good strategy for dealing with, products and packaging that have a useful life that you measure in minutes or hours, but which are made of materials that can last for centuries. I do not think that our current lifestyle would be viewed as very sensible by previous generations who lived very different lives and consequently had very different kinds of waste.
You suggest that people who want to become less wasteful should start by refusing stuff. One of the things that happens at meetings is that there are a lot of giveaways.
That is a great example. You know you do not need that stuff. How many times have you brought that stuff home and it just sits somewhere until it gets thrown away or sits collecting dust in a drawer?
Of course, I’ve gotten some good green conference giveaways, like reusable bottles, that our family fights over. [But there] is stuff that we really could just say no to and be happier without. Say no to it, and if we all do, then people will stop making it or make things that you will not say no to.
What do you notice now when you attend conferences?
I went to my alma mater last year at Hampshire College, to a sustainability conference. And everybody was giving out bottled water right and left. So the first thing you look for is the obvious disposable items like that and plastic utensils and so forth … People are much more conscious of that sort of thing now than they have been in the past.
In the meetings industry, there is a very wide variance in how important it is to people who organize events to not have bottled water, for instance, and to recycle paper and to meet in convention centers where the carpeting that is used for exhibits is not going to be thrown away. Do you have any ideas about how individuals can create change in a system?
I have been thinking more of it as a community kind of issue. I think that where individuals have joined with a common goal of whatever it is, we are increasing recycling or composting or reducing waste,the big success stories have been at the community level.
And there are a lot of examples of that. Internationally, [there are] countries like Denmark, which defines waste as a local, community issue. They have a lot of community-based solutions, including waste-to-energy and district-heating plants. There is community pride in having those kinds of facilities for converting and recycling and making energy out of waste.
It is very different than the kinds of solutions we tend to focus on in the U.S., where it has always got to be these gigantic, utility-scale, regional, epic, many-hundred-million-dollar projects. Maybe your question tells us how we tend to think here, which is it is a system as opposed to a very individual and local phenomenon.
If you look at some of the positive things that are happening in the U.S., you have towns and cities that have collectively decided by voters and leaders that they want to rewrite the book on waste, communities like San Francisco and Portland, and, for that matter, Lee County, Fla., and other areas that are trying to redefine how we deal with waste.
Do you see any common denominators in what motivates people to change?
I see a lot of variation. I see businesses realizing how much it costs [to be wasteful] and that it gives them a competitive advantage to be less wasteful. That can manifest itself in sending less material to landfills, recycling more, putting their materials to use, instead of paying someone to haul away their trash or their food waste. Walmart is a good example, in composting its food waste and actually selling the compost. So they turn their waste cost to [an] actual source of revenue.
In the course of working on Garbology, I spoke with some people involved with running sports venues, and how they have really been working to divert their immense amounts of waste from their events from landfills, and to change the character of the waste so a higher percentage of it could be recycled or composted. There is a lot of variation between locations.
In Seattle, venues have really been leading the charge on this and are building renewable energy into their portfolio of how they power their stadiums. They see value both in terms of their operating costs and also in their branding. That seems it would be apropos to the meetings industry in general.
How do individuals come to that realization? I think that economic motivation can be one [way]. Certainly, look at communities that have instituted robust container-deposit rules, they have uniformly higher recycling rates. Why? Because it saves money…Or communities that, because of this legislation, have very convenient recycling programs. You see a huge change there, again primarily for economic reasons.
How could one person make a difference? Again, I think if you look a little beyond an individual household, you can see the magnetic force that a leading community can have on the rest of the world. Places like Portland or San Francisco or others really set the standard that many other communities have sought to emulate. You have Los Angeles [saying,] “Oh no, we want to be the green leader in California.” You have New York sort of shamed into ramping up their recycling program.
And other communities [are] following because they see that the outliers and the leaders who have taken these lower-waste paths are reaping benefits from it. Each of those communities have taken the lead, starting out with a much smaller number of individuals who made this a personal priority for them.
Book Excerpt From Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash
The EPA reports a third of our trash gets recycled or composted, but the real-world figures indicate that this diversion rate is less than a fourth of our total trash.
It’s tough to overcome an addiction when you can’t even admit how big a problem you’ve got.
That 102 tons [of waste per person over a lifetime] is just what Americans personally toss in the garbage can and haul to the curb, the trash in our direct control. Counting all the waste transported, extracted, burned, pumped, emitted, and flushed into the sewage system by and on behalf of each American man, woman, and child, as well as what’s tossed out by U.S. industry in order to make the products Americans consume, the total waste figure for the nation reaches 10 billion tons a year. This raises the per-capita garbage calculation considerably. By such an all-waste accounting, every person in America stands atop more than 35 tons of waste a year, or a staggering average lifetime legacy of 2,700 tons. No wonder America, with 5 percent of the world’s population, accounts for nearly 25 percent of the world’s waste.
Then there’s the wallet issue. Trash is such a big part of daily life that American communities spend more on waste management than on fire protection, parks and recreation, libraries, or schoolbooks. If it were a product, trash would surpass everything else we manufacture. And guess what? It has become a product, America’s leading export.
A few facts about the state of garbage in the United States, from Edward Humes’ research:
- America is home to 4 percent of the world’s children, but Americans buy and throw away 40 percent of the world’s toys.
- Americans throw 96 billion pounds of food in the trash each year. Just 5 percent of that food would feed 4 million people for a year.
- Americans throw away 25 billion nonrecyclable Styrofoam cups a year, enough to circle the Earth 436 times.
- Americans throw away 694 plastic water bottles every second.
Sidebar: A Phantom Fact
During our interview with Edward Humes, he expressed surprise when he heard the often-repeated assertion that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had ranked the meetings industry second only to the construction industry in terms of waste generation. (“I’m shocked” were Humes’ actual words.)
Given Humes’ expertise on the EPA’s accounting of waste, we weren’t going to take his skepticism lightly. And it turns out, although the claim can be found in meetings industry speeches and publications going back to 2004, the EPA appears to have never published a study supporting it, according to Tamara Kennedy-Hill, CMP, executive director of the Green Meeting Industry Council (GMIC). The agency reviewed materials including 54,000 of its own digitized reports, and couldn’t find the source of the quote, Kennedy-Hill told Convene. Apparently someone made an error that was picked up and repeated, the EPA concluded in an exchange with Kennedy-Hill.
That’s not to say that the meetings industry is not a significant generator of waste, Kennedy-Hill said, but this case underlines the need to find reliable ways to quantify the environmental impact of meetings.