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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 h
ome, 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:

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.