A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter says we make way too much trash - and he wants readers to help him do something about it.
Edward Humes' "Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash" (Avery, 277 pages, $27) is a book about consumption and trash, and it contains one of the most flabbergasting statistics you will ever read. "Americans," writes Humes, "make more trash than anyone else on the planet, throwing away about 7.1 pounds per person per day, 365 days a year."
I don't feel like I toss anywhere near that much stuff, and I'm guessing most readers of this newspaper don't, either. But according to the Columbia University study on which this number is based, in 2008 the country's 300 million citizens discarded almost 390 tons of trash, Humes reports, or just over seven pounds a day. "Across a lifetime," he adds, "that rate means, on average, we are each on track to generate 102 tons of trash." That's "50 percent more garbage per person than other Western economies with similar standards of living," he writes.
Like those yielded by any study involving estimates of such great quantity, Columbia's findings can be debated. Yet even the Environmental Protection Agency's report states that we chucked more than 250 tons of trash in '08, Humes notes, meaning a "daily trash footprint of 4.5 pounds a person."
Any way you look at it, we're creating an absurd amount of trash. But for Humes, statistics are only a starting point. In "Garbology," his 12th book, the Pulitzer Prize winner sets out to see for himself what our habits are doing to the country's land and waterways.
In Southern California, Humes visits the Puente Hills landfill, where the heaps of rubbish, he writes, cover "a plot about the size of New York City's Central Park," and "by 2011 had reached heights greater than five hundred feet above the original ground level." His reporting on the amount of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean is even more startling. According to one study, "the fish responsible for maintaining a significant part of the global food supply were eating potentially toxic plastic at an alarming rate -- 24,000 tons a year in the North Pacific alone."
He devotes ample space to examining how this happened -- he cites everything from advertising to the proliferation of plastic containers and bags -- before ending his book with a useful list of hints aimed at readers who want to cut back on their trash output. Among them: buy used (electronics, automobiles) rather than new and "stop buying bottled water." Americans, he writes, toss almost 700 plastic water bottles per second.
Humes says he wants readers to cite their own trash-cutting habits and tips. His Twitter account is @EdwardHumes, and there, he says, "we'll start a conversation about figuring out the best strategy for making America less trashy."
Kevin Canfield is a writer and book critic in New York.