In his latest book, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Edward Humes attempts the difficult task of bringing garbage back from the landfill and into the popular consciousness.
In recent decades, major world cities, from New York to Hong Kong, have experienced so-called garbage crises, where the sheer amount of solid waste produced by a city’s occupants outstrips the municipal government’s capacity to process and store it. Such crises are poised to become more common. A World Bank report released in early June estimated that city dwellers will generate 2.2 billion tons of waste a year by 2025, up 70 percent from the 1.3 billion tons they generate today. Despite these alarming numbers, the vast majority of the world’s affluent urban dwellers almost never think about garbage. For a modest fee, trash is whisked out of sight and out of mind.
Early on in his book Humes points out that the average American takes up little more that a modest cemetery plot or small urn after death, but during their lifetime they generate 102 tons of garbage that take up an exponentially larger space in a dump. This means that for most of us, garbage is our most substantial physical legacy.
While Garbology contains a history of garbage collection and how the landfill system developed in the United States, it is really when Humes begins describing the inefficiencies of our current system that the book comes into its own. Other books on the subject have devolved into screeds about the unsustainable nature of our approach to garbage disposal, however Humes is able to highlight people who challenge the current model of waste disposal and in doing so provide solutions. Humes also takes a relatively irony-free look at the immense amount waste associated with waste. Not only does he examine ideas that could change our relationship with trash, he also speculates that there are ample investment opportunities in reducing such costs.
Of course, turning rubbish into electricity has long been one of the Holy Grails of the energy industry, and Humes notes that the Waste-to-energy Research and Technology Council estimates that Americans bury the equivalent of a billion barrels of oil in landfills each year. Even more intriguing is the idea that the global economy would be healthier if we all generated less waste in the first place. While waste disposal companies spent the latter half of the 20th century making money by finding new places to put all the trash generated in the developed world, the killer app in the 21st century, at least according to Humes, will be one that makes money by reducing the amount of garbage generated in the first place.