Your Garbage Questions, Answered

(Photo: David Bayles)

Last week, we solicited your questions for journalist Edward Humes, who seems to love trash as much as we do. His new book is Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash. 

Below are his answers to some of your questions. He writes about New York City’s cleanup, the facts about burning trash and recycling, how incentives work (or fail) when it comes to trash, and, of course, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Thanks to Humes for answering so many questions, and to all of you for your good questions (and candor).

Q. It seems to me that much of the discussion about garbage is hype; we aren’t running out of landfill space, and a lot of efforts to reduce trash — like eliminating plastic grocery bags or using compostable utensils — don’t save energy or help the environment. Am I wrong? If so, why? If I’m not, which waste issues aren’t a waste of time? -Robert Rounthwaite

A. American communities spend more on waste management than on fire protection, parks and recreation, libraries, or schoolbooks. Los Angeles has opted to construct a garbage mountain 500 feet high, taller than most of the city’s high rises. This is Puente Hills Landfill, trash as geologic feature, so full of decomposing garbage dating back 60 years that it will be emitting methane for decades after it closes. No, we’re not running out of holes in the ground to fill with trash, and sure, we can always dig another one when the last one’s full. But they are terrible solutions with dire environmental and economic consequences. 

Landfills are a waste of valuable resources. The single largest component of trash going into landfills today is packaging and containers — instant trash that could be recycled, but isn’t. Making energy out of trash is a far less wasteful alternative — which is why Germany, for example, recycles 66 percent of its trash, makes energy out of the rest, and landfills virtually none. By contrast, America sends 69 percent to landfills,  25 percent to recycling, and the little left over to energy plants. We lag far behind the rest of the developed world on this score.

The average American is making twice as much trash today as in 1960. Has all that landfilling made us more prosperous? Thriftier? More secure?  Created more jobs? Being less wasteful, on the other hand, is both a great economic and environmental strategy. Wal-Mart has cut its landfilling 80 percent, and between recycling, composting, and systematic reduction in packaging, the company has turned trash into revenue stream instead of a cost.

Q. What are the chances, in the not-so-distant future, that landfills will become mines? Many of our cast-offs last a long time. When will it be cost effective to go back in, open these things up and bring out the good stuff ? I have worked in mines and I can tell you that miners can do about anything. -Tom Summers

A. In the early sixties, journalist Vance Packard, author of  The Wastemakers, prophesied that one day future scarcity of resources would force us to mine our landfills to reclaim needlessly squandered materials. Makes me think of the scroungers and scavengers in the Mad Max/Road Warrior fictional universe. But apart from such Armageddon-level desperation, mining landfills today would be an expensive and inefficient proposition. One big reason that we put so many recyclable in our landfills in the first place is the lack of cost-effective technologies and markets for the materials we can reclaim. Plastic grocery bags are a prime example: They are 100 percent recyclable with the right equipment, but the cost of doing so exceeds the price anyone is willing to pay for the reclaimed polymers; only about 5 percent actually get recycled.

Instead of thinking about mining landfills, the better strategy is to divert materials before they get to landfills, either by recycling where cost-effective or as fuel in waste to energy plants where it’s not. Even better is to create market incentives, tax credits, and regulatory barriers aimed at reducing garbage, trash and waste. Removing incentives and subsidies for waste is essential, too: Right now, 85 billion pieces of taxpayer-subsidized junk mail are clogging our mailboxes every year — representing one out of every 100 pounds of trash Americans send to the landfill. That’s crazy. But it’s those kinds of perverse incentives for waste that cause the average American to produce 7.1 pounds of garbage a day while the average Japanese citizen weighs in at around 2.5 pounds a day.

Q. My understanding is that it can be harmful to burn plastics. However, is it environmentally sensible to burn papers? It seems to make sense for people using solid fuel stoves to burn their paper waste, producing heat for their homes, but I don’t know if there are negative environmental consequences or not. -Shane L

A. Low-tech trash combustion in general, and backyard incinerators and burn piles in particular, are terrible polluters. However, modern waste-to-energy plants are comparatively efficient, and they’ve dealt with the toxic emissions long associated with trash-burning. According to the EPA, such plants also have a lower greenhouse gas footprint than landfills.

Q. For a developing country, like say India, massive cities like Mumbai, Chennai, or Kolkata are very dirty with litter scattered all around. 1) What is a good strategy to “clean up” a city of litter? I mean, should there be a volunteer clean-up drives or people should be hired by government? -Jack Sparrow

A. I looked at the history of modern waste management in Garbology, particularly the story of New York City in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the Big Apple was said to be the filthiest major city on the planet, knee deep in refuse, horse manure, and garbage. The city hired Col. George Waring to clean up the town (after Teddy Roosevelt turned down the job), and he hired a paramilitary force of street cleaners clad in white and armed with brooms and trash wagons. They literally swept through the city. Waring then organized curbside collection and printed instruction cards for how New Yorkers should sort various recyclables into different bins, the first such program of its kind.

It worked: the city became clean (or at least cleaner), jobs were created, and a recycling industry arose. The key to civic cooperation, according to Waring, was that his army of street cleaners treated poor and wealthy neighborhoods equally.

Q. Would it make more sense for those with very little garbage (who recycle practically everything) to just burn their trash instead of paying to send it to a landfill? - Jill

A. No, trash burning is a terrible idea, producing toxic emissions and greenhouse gases. It’s great that you recycle. Food and yard waste can be composted to further lower your trash can’s contents. Choosing fresh over processed foods where possible radically reduces packaging waste in the home, with the added benefit of more health and less obesity. If you’re doing all that, your trash can is probably mostly empty at the end of the week and what’s left in it (cat litter and dog poop in my house are major components) is best sent to the landfill. Some communities are shifting to commonsense waste collection billing based on how much trash a household makes, charging less for those who make less — which is not only fair, but a great incentive for everyone to go on a waste diet.  This is a great idea to promote in your own community.

Q. I am a modern day Neanderthal in that I just do not care about the environment (gasp! he said what?!?). My city has recycling pick-up, but since I pay the same trash rate regardless, I choose not to recycle. Other than trying to shame me or force me (good luck on both), as a city manager how would you entice me to either recycle or use less trash? Spoiler alert: it’s going to take more than $10 a month in incentives. -caleb b

A. Refreshing honesty, Caleb, though I think you’re giving the poor, extinct Neanderthals a bad name. More and more communities are charging higher rates for the trashiest residents among their populations, lower bills for the less wasteful (no extra charge for stuff in the recycling bin, though). Perhaps that would provide you with the right incentives? Some of those same communities have ordinances on the books authorizing fines for recycling scofflaws, though they have rarely been used. But there are always exceptions. How many $100 tickets would it take for you to reconsider?

Q. In your book, do you address the giant trash island in the Pacific? What can we do at this point to get rid of such a disgusting 8th Wonder of the World? -Sarah C

A. I do discuss the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and follow a number of scientists exploring this area of the ocean. The amount of disposable plastics that find their way into the world’s oceans is approximately 4 million tons every year. That’s the equivalent of 40 Nimitz Class super aircraft carriers lost at sea every year. Parts of the ocean now have more plastic than plankton. 

But no, there’s not a literal garbage “patch” out there in the sense of a floating landfill of bottles and bags — that’s a popular misnomer that, ironically, minimizes the problem of plastic pollution. It’s actually much worse than that, according to researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography: We are turning the oceans into plastic chowder, where the fish we eat are ingesting increasing amount of tiny but potentially toxic plastic particles swirling in the waves. Next time you go to the beach anywhere in the world, take a look at those pretty little particles of blue and pink and orange and white mixed in with the sand, the ones you might glance at and think are bits of broken shells. Look closer: Many of them will be plastic, and they’re everywhere.

Q. What’s up with people who litter? Is littering universal? Cultural? Who wins for litteriest city vs. cleanest city? What are the best public policies to minimize litter? -frankenduf

A. I would argue that there has been huge progress in the U.S. on reducing litter since the 1960s, primarily through public education campaigns (Keep America Beautiful and the famous tearful Indian commercial) that changed our behavior and attitudes about being a “litterbug.” Unfortunately, reducing our litter habit didn’t make us less wasteful — just more diligent about rolling it to the curb instead of tossing it in the gutter.

Q. Waste incineration is economically viable for large population centers with stable economies. Does literature exist to analyze if your smaller boom and bust community is a good fit for waste incineration? Harrisonburg, Pa., is a cautionary tale. -Candace

A. A number of small towns in Massachusetts succeeded in joining forces to create a regional waste-to-energy plant; Denmark has built an entire system of small, community based waste-to-energy plants rather than relying on huge, utility scale behemoths. Harrisburg’s experience with waste-to-energy is a cautionary tale of mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility rather than an indictment of the underlying technology.

Q. In your opinion, what (if anything) do we recycle now that after all the costs and benefits are weighed we would be better off just putting in a landfill and being done with? -Gene Hayward

A. Your question turns reality on its head. We don’t recycle anything where the costs outweigh the immediate profitability of the reclaimed material — that’s the problem! The manufacturers of wasteful products get a free ride — the cost of the waste they create is born by taxpayers and consumers (junk mailers are the obvious example here, subsidized at every turn, yet freed of having to deal with the tidal wave of waste they create). If the makers of wasteful products had to share in the costs of cleaning and recycling the waste they create, they would begin to make less wasteful products, and the economics of recycling would shift in a more favorable direction.

Meanwhile, I would argue that we are putting things in landfills that should not be there, such as:

  • Items that are still useful, such as furniture, construction materials, clothing, all sorts of durable and still useful intact products. You’d be shocked if you spent time at a landfill, as I did to write Garbology, or see the masterpieces produced by the artists in residence at San Francisco’s dump, who find treasures every day in the trash.
  • Immense amounts of edible food that could have gone to food banks, and food scraps that could be composted
  • Plastics and paper that could be recycled or used as fuel in waste-to-energy plants.

Q. Beyond composting, what is the single most effective lifestyle change or habit we can change to reduce our personal landfill contribution? -Geoffrey Bard

A.  Refuse wasteful things by choosing reusable over disposable, fresh over packaged, durable and long-lasting over cheap and quick to break, repairable over replaceable. The opposite of wastefulness is thriftiness. Be thrifty!

Q. Any research out there on container deposits? Do they actually reduce littering? Increase recycling? Is 5 cents an insignificant amount of money? -Clancy

A. California has the most robust container deposit law in the country. It also has the highest recycling rate. Also, my son doubles his allowance by being in charge of returning bottles for the household.

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  1. Bart says:

    I like this data about our US Postal Service – especially on the heels of news that they are incentivizing businesses to mail even more junk mail in an effort to enhance revenues – “Right now, 85 billion pieces of taxpayer-subsidized junk mail are clogging our mailboxes every year — representing one out of every 100 pounds of trash Americans send to the landfill. That’s crazy.”

    It also begs the question – Is our government really trying to go green? Doesn’t look like it to me with a garbage bag full of shredded junk mail every week.

    Even though we opt out from everything we can crap still comes in the mail. Last year we saved all of the catalogs we got in the mail for the Christmas season just to see how many there were. We got the equivalent of three large shopping bags – the big Macy’s kind with the handles on them – and we use the internet to do our research. All of these catalogs are online. And while I have issues with technology taking over it does serve its place in reducing wastes…that is if we opt not to have both paper AND e-waste.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0
    • Enter your name... says:

      I’m curious about his “taxpayer-subsidized” claim. Last I heard, junk mail paid its own way, and had for years. (Once upon a time, it paid more than its fair share, and the profits were used to reduce the postage for first-class mail. I’d like to get back to that point.)

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      • Bart says:

        If you think about the ‘taxpayer’ subsidized claim for junk mail it is true in that we, the taxpayers, are supporting a government entity – the Post Office – that is losing money. It would be nice to know whether junk mail really is paying it’s own way, but if the bulk of the mail is junk then I don’t think it is. As a rough estimate, fully 2/3 of the mail that comes to my house is unwanted junk. The balance is unwanted bills…

        Now we get into the conversation about what services the USPS should offer and when it should be offered. Personally I don’t care if we get mail but 3X a week, but let’s for the sake of argument cut it to 5 days a week again. I say we drop Mondays. Mondays suck to begin with and getting bills on Mondays – just – plain – hurts. Or Tuesday, or Saturdays. But do we really need mail every day of the week? Especially considering what’s in the balance?

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      • frankenduf says:

        i believe his point was that junk mail creates an externality- the cost of recycling the mailstuffs- which is paid by the taxpayers, not the companies that create the cost

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      • James says:

        Whether or not the cost of junk mail postage covers the cost of delivery, we all indirectly subsidize it with our daily labor of going to the mailbox, picking up the junk, sorting through it in case there’s an actual piece of real mail (which for me happens about once or twice a month), and depositing the rest in the recycling bin. Say my time’s worth $60/hr, and the junk mail sort takes 5 minutes a day: that’s a $5 subsidy, 6 days a week.

        As for bills &c, don’t we all do this on-line? Offhand, the only thing I can’t yet pay on-line is my estimated tax bill.

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      • Edward Humes says:

        Junk mail is subsidized in two ways: First, the actual mailing cost charged to junk mailers is far less than first class postage (half or less). That low cost is subsidized by the first-class postage payers and the additional tax dollars expended to support the post office beyond its own revenues.

        The second subsidy is the failure to hold junk mailers liable for the externals costs of junk mail — the cleanup and disposal, again born by consumers and taxpayers at the municipal level (or ratepayers for those who trash collection is handled by the private sector).

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      • Kazzy says:

        Bulk-rate mail is indeed charged a reduced rate… But it still covers its own costs AND keeps the USPS afloat (or at least as afloat as it is). The bulk-rate still covers the cost of delivering each piece. The USPS charges a reduced rate in order to greater volume, leading to ultimately more profit. If bulk-rate mailers were charged the first-class rate, they’d send significantly less mail. The only scenario under which bulk-rate mail is “costing us” is if the reduced volume allowed for less frequent delivery, thus lower costs for employees. And while *that* may indeed be a better option, many folsks are opposed to reduced services on bth practical and ideiological grounds.

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  2. Dave says:

    “It worked: the city became clean (or at least cleaner)”

    Isn’t this discussed in Super Freakonomics? The city didn’t become cleaner because of some “paramilitary force of street cleaners” but because of the invention of the automobile.

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  3. Dave says:

    Great research: “California has the most robust container deposit law in the country. It also has the highest recycling rate. Also, my son doubles his allowance by being in charge of returning bottles for the household.” Bleck!

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  4. Steve says:

    A disappointing interview. It appears that for every question, when asked for a statistic, Humes either offers instead and anecdote, or an example, or a value judgement, or, at best a stat that is off-point or irrelevant.

    e.g., 4 million tons of plastic/weight of the worlds oceans would be a vanishingly small percentage, so he offers instead the pointless “more than 40 aircraft carriers” and “more plastic than plankton” stats.

    I would be really interested in seeing a real economic cost/benefit analysis on recycling. For example, one that includes the hidden costs of having everyone in the country expend time on sorting their recyclables, managing separate bins, carrying the bins in and out, etc. Oh, and picking up my neighbor’s ‘recycled ‘ papers and plastics that have blown out of the bins and into my yard every Thursday.

    What if, instead of having ‘free’ but inefficient labor pre-sort everything at each household or small business, undifferentiated trash was sorted by paid labor at the dump site? What would that cost?

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    • Jen says:

      Our recycling here is sorted after pick-up — that is, I can put junk mail in with aluminum cans along with certain plastics and paperboard.

      I have to admit that I don’t think that anyone’s time is so valuable that a moment’s pause over the garbage and recycling bins is a real problem.

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      • Steve says:

        It’s not any kind of a problem for me since I don’t recycle. My city is willing to pay me exactly nothing to recycle and to charge me nothing for not recycling. Give me a price but don’t expect me to do something for nothing.

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    • Edward Humes says:

      Hi Steve, not sure what you mean by 4 million tons of plastic a year being a “vanishingly small percentage” — percentage of what? The ocean? By that logic, nothing we dump in the ocean could cause any harm, because it would be vanishingly small.

      I responded to the question Sarah C asked, which was not about stats, but about the notion that there is a floating island of plastic in the Pacific. There is not. The problem of plastic pollution is primarily one of micro-plastics.

      However, since you ask, there is plenty of data available, which I discuss in Garbology, that puts this plastic “chowder” issue into perspective:
      Here’s a link reviewing data showing more than 9 percent of plankton-eating lantern fish captured in the garbage patch had ingested plastic.
      http://scrippsnews.ucsd.edu/Releases/?releaseID=1174
      Here’s a link to a review of 38 years of trawling data that shows a 100-fold increase in the amount of small plastic debris in the North Pacific gyre.
      http://www.earthtimes.org/pollution/great-pacific-garbage-patch-plastic-100-times/1972/
      The problem is not vanishingly small at all.

      The sorting facilities you propose can be found all over the country at both public and private waste management operations. They are called MRFs — Material Recovery Facilities. Here’s an example:
      http://www.lacsd.org/solidwaste/swfacilities/mrts/phmrf/phmrffactsheet.asp

      A cost-benefit analysis of how much time you spend sorting recyclables would be the very definition of waste.

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      • Steve says:

        First, let me say that upon re-reading the interview, and my post, I am sorry to have over-reacted. In retrospect, your answers were appropriate for the Q&A format, while I was reading them as though they were part of an editorial, along the lines of “The oceans are turning into plastic chowder; we have to act now!” Possibly that is (an exaggerated version of) what’s in your book; but I understand that it was not your purpose to make your best & final argument in this format.

        Second, I don’t know enough to take issue with any of the facts, as you’ve presented them, but that was not my point. I’m skeptical that there is a potential for logical base-stealing between an objective description of the current state and observed trends of, (in this example) the oceans, and any particular action (e.g., my being required to manage multiple recycling bins every Thursday for the rest of my life) I’m to be shamed or coerced into taking. I’m not confident that my local municipal utilities have my best interests, or those of the oceans, at heart; but I’m sure they’d love to shift as many of their costs as possible into my household.

        As to the stats, those in your reply were more probative than those in your interview, which I assume you tossed out more as “fun facts” than as a key points in an argument.

        But yeah, I do believe that the total weight of the oceans divided by the total weight of suspended plastics is exactly the figure I would need to evaluate whether “we are turning the oceans into plastic chowder”. Or, you could calculate it by volume; whatever the FDA standard for chowder is; but I’m pretty sure that if my chowder were that thin, I would certainly send it back!

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    • James says:

      How much extra labor is actually required to sort most recyclables? For me, and for most things, it’s just the very minimal energy required to fire the handful of neurons needed to choose which bin to toss a particular item into.

      The junk mail sorting I mentioned in an earlier comment is different, as I’m forced to take the time to look through it for the rare non-junk item.

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    • Rosa says:

      How is “more plastic than plankton” not meaningful? If you eat any seafood, you’re up the food chain from something that should is accidentally eating plastic.

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      • Steve says:

        “Parts of the ocean now have more plastic than plankton” doesn’t tell me anything useful. It doesn’t tell me whether there are a lot of such parts, relative to the ocean as a whole. It doesn’t tell me why it’s important that there be less, rather than more, plastic than plankton.

        I’m up the food chain from all kinds of things that eat, or are grown amidst, all kinds of other things. Most of them are not pleasant to dwell on, while eating; but I’m not kept up at night by the thought that the tuna in my sandwich might once have swallowed a bit of plastic.

        Yeah, let’s all not throw plastic in the ocean, or rivers, or streams. Agreed.

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  5. Nanno says:

    I couldn’t find an English version of the websites but near the city of Rotterdam (the Netherlands) they have turned a dumpsite (for construction/destruction waste, used after WWII) into a recreational area, including a skislope.

    http://www.recreatiezuidholland.nl/content/gebieden_detail.asp?menu=0010000_000000_000040_000000
    http://www.outdoorski.nl/

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  6. caleb b says:

    Mr. Humes – I sincerely appreciate you addressing my question. As a follow up (which of course you might be too busy to answer), what has been the success rate of cities that have implemented higher rates for citizens that use more trash? Does it dramatically reduce overall trash levels, moderately reduce levels, or is there no significant change to overall levels?

    My decision to not care about the environment stems from a combination of laziness and logic. Laziness is obvious. The logic is that no action that I can possibly take will make any difference to the global environment, so I choose not to waste my time. Plus, for every aluminum can I recycle, there’s a factory in China spewing chemicals into the atmosphere on the other side of the world…..so essentially, it’s like I’m trying to empty the ocean with a thimble.

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    • Edward Humes says:

      Hello Caleb,

      You’re very welcome! And thanks for your follow-up,.

      There’s quite a bit of data on this “pay as you throw” system of waste collection. According to the EPA, communities that have adopted this approach have had overall trash reductions of 25 to 45 percent. See: http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/tools/payt/pdf/tlkpt.pdf

      And here’s an extensive bibliography on the subject: http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/tools/payt/research.htm

      Taking steps to be environmentally responsible, like voting or volunteering to help others during a natural disaster, are easy to dismiss as inconsequential, to say, “My single contribution can’t possibly make a difference.” The problem is, too many of us make the same calculation. Our individual actions matter when we join others and act together. Also, acting responsibly influences friends and families — a ripple effect that means your single actions can have a large impact.

      I would also argue that being less wasteful also keeps money in your pocket, an added incentive besides altruism. The choices that lead to less trash also happen to lead to smarter consumption and spending. It’s a double winner, planet and pocketbook!

      Finally, you mention aluminum cans as a concern. But in fact, they are an example of recycling at its very best. Aluminum is endlessly recoverable and reusable, unlike may forms of plastic, and using recycled aluminum in products requires 96 percent less energy than producing new aluminum from bauxite ore. There is a large domestic aluminum recycling industry in the U.S., and it produces about 30 percent of the total aluminum we consume every year.

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    • csdx says:

      I think at the individual level the bottle deposit idea tends to work well. Basically upon point of sale you’re force to pay an additional fee for the potential externality cost of just trashing it, but if you do recycle it you get that money back. So regardless of whether you disagree with recylcing or were just too lazy, the cost of your actions are already accounted for so you’re free to just toss it.

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      • aaron says:

        I recycle my cans in the bin. I usually do the same for bottles, but don’t trouble my self since it isn’t clear whether recycling plastic uses less energy or pollutes less than starting from scratch.

        I consider the deposit a donation to the state. They need the money.

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    • Kathryn says:

      My ‘logic’ about recycling has more to do with my moral code that what anyone else (this side of the world or next door) is doing. I was brought up to believe that it’s wrong to waste. You clean the food on your plate, you eat the leftovers, you compost the scraps, you use the back of the envelope for scrap paper, and if something can be used instead of discarded, then you use it. It’s is a matter of respect for all that exists (including yourself) not ‘saving the world’. What, in the end, is to prevent you from being discarded as carelessly as a tin can?

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  7. Alex says:

    At least you nodded towards producers of “wasteful products” to take some of the responsibility – but this is old news, the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive which requires a reduction in packaging waste and minimum requirements for recyclable content has been a part of EU law for nearly 20 years. And as I’m sure you’d guess, the EU states are choosing to place the onus of achieving these targets on the producers not the consumers.

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  8. aaron says:

    I’ve heard that when looking at energy and polluting chemicals, it’s better not to recycle plastics and paper. That it only makes economical sense to recycle metal and glass.

    What’s happened to change that?

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