Bring Your Questions for Edward Humes, author of Garbology

We are quite fond of talking trash, literally: see our “Economics of Trash” podcast, and our “Weird Recycling” episode, and even the “Power of Poop.”

The journalist Edward Humes is also fascinated with trash. His new book Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash is about the 102 tons of garbage the average American produces in a lifetime. Humes writes about what’s in our trash, how different communities deal with it, and how we might could think about trash differently: “Waste is the one environmental and economic harm that ordinary working Americans have the power to change — and prosper in the process.” 

Humes has agreed to field your trash questions, so ask away in the comments section and, as always, we’ll post his answers in short order. To get you started, here’s the table of contents from Garbology:

Introduction: 102 Tons
(or: Becoming China’s Trash Compactor)

1. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
2. Piggeries and Burn Piles: An American Trash Genesis
3. From Trash TV to Landfill Rodeos
4. The Last and Future Kingdom
5. Down to the Sea in Chips
6. Nerds vs. Nurdles

7. The Trash Trackers
8. Decadence Now

9. Pick of the Litter
10. Chico and the Man
11. Green Cities and Garbage Death Rays
12. Put-Downs, Pickups and the Power of No

Epilogue: Garbage In, Garbage Out  

This post is no longer accepting comments. The answers to the Q&A can be found here.

AJ Weberman

How come Humes does not give me credit for inventing the word garbology?


Notes your claim....points out the word was in use in Australia before that. As I grew up in that time and remember people using the term, I am inclined to side with the Oxford dictionary in this fight.


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


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


Back in 2002, Mayor Bloomberg realized the cost of recycling outweighed the benefits and halted the cities' (non-paper) recycling). Eventually, the pros outweighed the cons, and nyc recycled again. Should cities be thinking in these terms? What do you think of Bloomber's 2002 decision?


What is the item that is thrown out most frequently and/or has the most share in our garbage?
To what extent does trash reveal the consumption preferences of the average American household (and what are they)?

Gene Hayward

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 it in a landfill and be done with it?


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


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?- thanx garbage guy :)- ru related to Dave?

caleb b

I vote for Shreveport, LA as the most littered city. There's garbage everywhere in that town.

Sarah C

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?


Can we throw our trash into volcanoes? Thanks!

Zach Brubaker

Just wanted to say that I love your guys' books and now your blog. I recently started my own blog would love anyone's input. Stay freaky

caleb b

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 incentive.

Robert Rounthwaite

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?


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?

Jack Sparrow

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?

2) What is the time horizon over which city officials should plan garbage disposal and landfill facilities and how should they begin such operations when there is no existing governmental procedure in place (for example in rural towns in India or countries like Rwanda or Somalia where there is a lot of instability, but we can assume that the government stability has been achieved) ?

Shane L

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. Thanks!

Tom Summers

What are the chances, in the not so distant future, that land fills 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.


Not sure if this is up your alley or not...

I started a recycling company in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. We have 50 employees and pay thousands of people to pick up recyclable materials in their neighborhoods. (This in a country with over 70% unemployment). We pick up the materials around the country, bale them, and export them to various destinations around the world (mainly China).

When we started this company, the international market price was around 28 cents/lb for PET. Then it went down to 18 cents over the winter. Then back up to 23 cents in the spring. Now it's back down again to 18 cents again in the summer. It really affects us and our company because of what it costs us to collect the materials and export them. Once it's down to 18 cents we can barely scrape by and it makes planning and budgeting for the long-term very difficult.

I've gotten various answers and explanations for why this is occurring but none of them seem to really explain the huge swings in prices. And it affects lots of recyclers--from municipal waste companies to redemption centers to people like me who all sell their materials on the international market.