Following Garbage's Long Journey Around The Earth Americans generate more trash than anyone else on the planet: more than 7 pounds per person each day. Journalist Edward Humes explores how that happened in his new book Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash.
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Following Garbage's Long Journey Around The Earth

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Following Garbage's Long Journey Around The Earth

Following Garbage's Long Journey Around The Earth

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Congratulations to us, Americans: We've won the trash race. We make more trash per person than any other Western country with a similar standard of living. We each throw out our trash, and where does most of it go? It gets dumped into mountain-sized landfills, it gets trapped in huge garbage patches in the oceans, and a lot of it is being exported to China.

The afterlife of our garbage is explained in the new book "Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash" by my guest Edward Humes. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has written more than 10 books, including "Mississippi Mud" and "The Ecobarons: The New Heroes of Environmental Activism."

Edward Humes, welcome to FRESH AIR. So Americans make more trash than anyone else on the planet. How much exactly?

EDWARD HUMES: Well, it's now just over seven pounds per person per day.

GROSS: Which comes out to...?

HUMES: Which is a lot more than the official statistics suggest they should be.

GROSS: Why is it more than that? What do you know that the official statistics don't?


HUMES: Well, actually it's what Columbia University and a trade journal called Biocycle knows. And what they do is they actually gather data from the nation's landfills and figure out how much we're throwing away because we know how much. Every landfill weighs the stuff that comes in. It's their business model. It's how they make money.

The EPA doesn't do that. They purport to measure trash and issue this official trash bible every year, but it's an indirect method. They calculate how much stuff we manufacture in the U.S. and what its life expectancy is, and they crunch these numbers, and then they sort of predict how much trash should be thrown away.

And unfortunately, it vastly underestimates the trash that we make. And now that we know the real numbers - I had to change, actually the working title of my book was "64 Tons." That was the amount of trash I estimated, based on the EPA, that the average American will make in an average lifetime. Now I realize it's actually 102 tons. So I had to, like, correct my entire manuscript when I found out the truth.

GROSS: So you've been studying our trash. What's in it? Like, what are the predominate things in America's trash?

HUMES: Well, let's talk about what goes into landfills, because we do separate out some of it, and then we bury the rest. About 69 percent of it gets buried in landfills. So that's the biggest chunk. And the biggest chunk of that is containers and packaging, almost all of which should be recycled, and yet 25 percent of what we put into landfills is containers and packaging, instant trash.

We pay for this stuff, and it goes right into the waste bin.

GROSS: And it doesn't get recycled once it gets to the landfill.

HUMES: No, it kind of just sits there, and what decomposes does, and produces methane - which is another big problem because it turns out that landfill trash creates more greenhouse gases than if we were burning them in modern incinerators and trash burners - which is exactly the opposite of what you'd expect. But methane is the product of decomposition.

And it's so powerful, it has a greatest footprint in terms of greenhouse gases than actually burning the stuff.

GROSS: Wow, really?

HUMES: Yeah, go figure.

GROSS: You know, it's like I really enjoy throwing things out because it creates space in my very crowded home and office.


GROSS: And so I really get pleasure throwing things away. And I figure good, it's done, it's like it's out of my office, it's out of my home, I have more space. And reading your book, it's like yet another thing that's forcing me to think: But what happens to that trash after I throw it out? Because once I put it down the chute or put it in the trash bin, it's invisible to me.

So what do I need to be worrying about, about the afterlife of my trash?

HUMES: Well, let me give an example. There is - the largest active landfill in the country is in the Los Angeles area, it's Puente Hills. It's called - I call it Garbage Mountain, a lot of people call it that because it is a literal mountain of garbage.

So it's been accumulating there, now, for 60-some years. It's 500 feet tall. It's actually filled a valley that used to be a dairy farm and is now a mountain built of trash. And it's a - it's a literal geologic feature. So that is - and there's a lot of these around the country, by the way. Flushing Meadows in New York, where the Mets play baseball, and the national - you know, U.S. Open happens at National Tennis Center, that's built on a landfill. There's all these hidden landscapes beneath landscapes we think we know, that are actually built out of trash.

So that's a big part of the afterlife. You know, like ancient civilizations before us were building on top our trash. Wall Street is on top of a landfill, which is kind of apt, I think, in some ways, but...


GROSS: So what's so terrible if we're building on it? What's the problem?

HUMES: Well, what's terrible isn't so much what happens to it in the ground, because in some ways it's sequestered, and if a landfill is maintained correctly, and the water table is protected, a lot of the environmental impact of past dumps is eliminated. But what's terrible is it's just a really bad solution to waste. It's - just the very act - disappearing act sort of enables us to be wasteful because you don't see the consequences of our wastefulness.

We have sort of built waste into our entire consumer culture to the point where we don't notice it anymore, because of these conveniences we've created for hiding our garbage. But the hidden costs are pretty enormous. It only makes sense to be as wasteful as Americans are, and we are absolutely the most wasteful people on the planet, it only makes sense if you have unlimited resources. Otherwise, waste is a pretty bad strategy. It's why businesses go out of business when they waste their resources. It's just not an advisable way to do things.

Well, that applies to how we're doing with our trash, as well.

GROSS: So as part of your research for your book "Garbology," you went to the largest active municipal landfill, which is Puente Hills in Los Angeles, which you describe as a garbage mountain, as many people do. Would you just describe how it looks and how it smells?

HUMES: Well, Puente Hills is a literal garbage mountain. It's 500 feet tall. So when you stand atop it, you're standing on the biggest structure in California - man-made structure. And it is a plateau of garbage. The smell varies from - one day I was up there, and it smelled like Christmas trees because they were mulching pine trees up there.

And other times, it is the most noxious, rotting, sulphuric smell you can imagine, and literally, it burns the nostrils as you inhale it. But the smell is not nearly as impressive as the sheer scale of this place. I mean, it has 130 tons of garbage contained in this mountain. It is a high point in the south end of Los Angeles so that you can see the entire basin of Los Angeles by standing on a mountain of its trash.

And you're literally on eye level with the tallest buildings in Los Angeles. Plastic bags are blowing all over the place. They have entire crews that are trying to round up the blowing debris so that it doesn't escape into the surrounding communities. They have anti-seagull measures, ranging from wires that they string across to ward off the clouds of seagulls that are attracted by the garbage.

They have guys flying little remote-control planes, like drones, that buzz the seagulls and try and scare them off. They shoot off fireworks and noisemakers. It's a combination of construction site and, you know, Mardi Gras atmosphere with all the sound effects that are going on. It's really quite bizarre.

GROSS: So why do they want to scare the seagulls away?

HUMES: Oh because the seagulls pick up garbage, and then they battle over it in the air, and then it falls down in somebody's backyard, and they call up and complain. If you just let the seagulls go unchecked, you know, it would be raining garbage all over the surrounding neighborhoods because this is not in a remote area.

This Garbage Mountain is surrounded by various Los Angeles suburban communities that weren't there when Garbage Mountain was first put down, but, you know, it's Los Angeles, and it's built up over the years, and now you have this island of garbage in the middle of a very densely populated area.

GROSS: The Puente Hills landfill actually manufactures energy because trash makes a lot of methane, and two things here: Why does trash lead to methane? And how is the methane being used to produce electricity?

HUMES: Well, since the landfill has, you know, it contains plastic, which doesn't decompose, but it also contains paper and food waste and yard waste, which does decompose. And the process of burying material and allowing it to decompose in an oxygen-depleted environment causes the byproduct of methane to result during the decomposition process.

Now in an old-school dump or landfill, that methane would just escape into the atmosphere. It might catch fire. Places that were built on top of old landfills in fact did catch fire because of this. But the Puente Hills landfill is more sophisticated, has this conduit system. It was laid in trenches at different levels inside the landfill, and it sucks out the methane, which is then pumped to power generators.

And there's so much trash in this landfill and so much decomposition going on, that it generates enough electricity to power 70,000 homes.

GROSS: So how - why does the landfill give off methane, and how is that converted into electricity?

HUMES: Well, every landfill gives off methane, and it's a byproduct of decomposition in, you know, with a lot of - anaerobic decomposition I guess you'd call it, you know, no oxygen. And the organic material that's buried inside the landfill breaks down, and methane is the result. And of course it's a very efficient fuel. It's also a horrendous greenhouse gas.

So landfill operators have built this system into the garbage pile that - a system, a network of conduits that draw off the methane and pump it to a power station, and it's burned to produce electricity, just basically the trash gas fuels the generators.

GROSS: But that sounds like a good thing, doesn't it, like our waste is being used to create electricity? That sounds really efficient to me.

HUMES: It's a better option than allowing the methane to escape into the atmosphere because it's such a potent greenhouse gas. So you're basically taking the waste material of our waste and using it to make some energy. However, it is, in terms of using our resources efficiently, it's about the least efficient way you can make energy.


HUMES: But yes, since we have these landfills, we might as well put their emissions to work for us rather than just letting them destroy the environment. So that part of it is good. But a better choice would be to not bury it in a landfill at all, if energy is the goal, to take the combustible material that we're putting in the landfill and using it in a modern power plant today, we'd get two to three times as much energy out of the same amount of trash. So that would be a much more efficient choice.

GROSS: Why aren't we doing that then?

HUMES: Well, there's been a lot of opposition to trash incineration in the past in the U.S., and some cities - Los Angeles and New York - for instance, had huge pollution problems related to old-school incineration. There's now a new technology that's become quite popular in Europe and elsewhere in the world, but the image in America is so poor that it's really had a difficult time getting traction.

And in some places it has been attempted, it has been disastrous because of mismanagement. The entire city of Harrisburg is bankrupt now because of the way they managed or failed to manage their trash burners. So it's gotten a black eye in the U.S.

GROSS: So is the Puente Hills model, the waste-to-energy model where waste is, you know, the methane gas is captured from the waste, and the gas is used to create electricity to power homes, is that a model that other landfills around the United States are picking up on?

HUMES: Yeah, there's - a number of privately run landfills have adopted some of these methods and are either making fuel or generating power with it. And it's a way of - once you have this landfill, and it's pumping out this methane, it's a way of sort of recapturing some of the value of the material in it. It's just not a particularly - an efficient way to make energy.

It's still a losing proposition, but it's better than nothing kind of solution. The real solution is just to stop putting so much stuff in giant burial mounds, and - but that's a really tough nut to crack.

GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Edward Humes, and the author of the new book "Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash." Let's take a short break here; then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes. His new book is called "Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash."

We've been talking about landfill kind of trash. It's really awful to say here that the sea is filled with trash, too, and you write about the Pacific Garbage Patch, which is one of five gyres, like vortexes, in which trash is, kind of, sucked in, and it doesn't get out. Why don't you describe the Pacific Garbage Patch, its size and what's trapped in it.

HUMES: Well, it's really an immense swath of ocean, deep sea, and it's been depicted in some reports as this floating landfill. And I, you know, naturally picture big hunks of trash and bottles floating and, you know, the kind of debris we put in trash cans is I think how a lot of people have envisioned this garbage patch.

And there is some of that, but that's not really the real problem. That would actually be better if it was that because it would be potentially something we could clean up. What we're actually seeing in the ocean, and we're talking about many miles from land, is this kind of chowder of plastic, these tiny particles that are the size of plankton, plastic that has been weathered and broken down by the elements into these little bits, and it's getting into the food chain.

You know, fish feed on plankton, and other fish feed on those fish and then it moves on up the chain. And these scientists I write about from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography went out and did these trawls where they were taking in lantern fish, which is - they're very prevalent, small fish that eat plankton and are an important link in the food chain.

And they opened them up, and the found that something like 10 percent of the fish that they caught had lots of plastic inside there, in their digestive tracks. And that's...

GROSS: So they're eating the plastic as they eat the plankton, is that the problem?

HUMES: Yeah, or they think it's plankton. It looks like plankton. I mean, these are not, you know, brain-surgeon creatures. They're used to feeding on these particles, these organic particles near the surface of the ocean, and the plastics kind of looks like what they're used to eating, and down the hatch it goes.

The other problem is that there's a lot of toxics, chemicals, that find their way into the ocean, and many of these are not really water-soluble. So they're in the marine environment, but chemically they're always looking for something to latch onto. And this weathered plastic that's kind of been corroded and has a lot of rough edges and pocks from being in the ocean and being exposed to sun is - becomes like a sponge for these chemicals.

And so the fear is that along with ingesting plastic, these important fish in the food chain are also ingesting all these chemical substances, and the research that's going on now is trying to determine how much of that is working its way into the fish that we eat, that humans eat.

It's an unknown right now, but we do know that there's a lot of plastic produced that find its way into the ocean. I estimated, based upon the four million tons that it's estimated that we lose track of - in terms of the plastic we make versus what gets thrown away - it's like we were losing 40 aircraft carriers a year at sea, in terms of the weight of plastic that's being lost in the ocean.

GROSS: So these five gyres that have become a vortex of trash, these garbage patches, they're in the Indian Ocean, the South Atlantic, the North Atlantic, South Pacific and North Pacific. You say together they encompass about 40 percent of the global ocean surface, and that's more territory of the Earth than all the dry land put together. That's a huge amount of trash in the ocean.

HUMES: It's huge, it is.

GROSS: And you also write that a lot of - like some of the plastic is what's called nurdles. What are the nurdles?

HUMES: Nurdles are sort of proto-plastic. It's these pellets of plastic that are the building blocks of virtually every plastic product you could think of. And manufacturers like these nurdles because they're so tiny you can pour them almost like a fluid. And they go - you know, you pour them into rail cars or into tanker trucks, and they go from the nurdle manufacturer to other companies that make finished products out of plastic and melt them down...

GROSS: So like they melt these nurdles down and make, like, bottles out of them or whatever?

HUMES: Exactly, but they are very - I mean because they're so tiny, they tend to get away, you know? And there's spills, and they blow away, and they wash away. And so you can walk on almost any beach in the world and find nurdles. I went down to the beach here in Southern California, and you cannot walk around the sand and not find bits of plastic and these little nurdles. I never noticed it before.

You know, you see these little bits of color in the sand, and you think oh, pretty shells. And then you look closely, and it's not shells, it's plastic. And I challenge anyone who's listening to us to go to their nearest beach, and you will - if you look, you will find plastic. And if it's on the beach, it's there because it washed up on the beach, and that means it's in the water.

GROSS: Edward Humes will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Edward Hume, author of the new book "Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash." It's about the afterlife of our trash, what happens to our garbage after we throw it out.

So we've talked about problems with trash on the land, in landfills, and then there is like trading trash. Like trash as an export/import product now. And you write in your book about, tell me if I'm pronouncing her name correctly, Zhang Yin?

HUMES: Yes. Yeah.

GROSS: Who became China's first woman billionaire and America's biggest exporter to China. Her export is garbage. Exactly what American garbage does she export to China and how does she make a profit doing it?

HUMES: Well, scrap paper is her major export but she's certainly not the only one. Our largest export overall abroad now is our waste. And this is one of the shockers for me, primarily scrap metal and scrap paper is our top export, most of it to China. And Zhang became China's first woman billionaire because she also launched a paper company called Nine Dragons in China. So she's basically exporting America's waste paper to her company in China and making cardboard and other paper products and selling them back to us...


HUMES: quite a tidy profit. It's really wonderful for her business model but it's kind of sad that our, you know, one of our most coveted exports now is our trash. That shocked the heck out of me.

GROSS: So explain a little more why China wants our trash and what China does with it - like the paper trash.

HUMES: Well, they have enormous demand for paper goods of all kinds, but particularly for the boxes and packaging for products they sell to us and to the rest of the world. And that's primarily what she built her entire business model on. She started out, you know, driving around to landfills - including Puente Hills actually - here in the Los Angeles area and collecting wastepaper and began her own recycling business and gradually used that capital to build this entire industry in China. It's really a remarkable - she is the queen of trash.

GROSS: OK. So China is recycling our paper and they're paying us to get that paper. What's the problem? That sounds kind of good, like they're solving our problem.

HUMES: Well, I mean basically they are finding value in material that we aren't able to find value in and paying relatively little for it, shipping in immense distances a great with enormous environmental impact involved in that and using it to manufacture products that they're then shipping back to us and we're buying and basically turning into trash again. And then it's an endless cycle. There's some positives in there but it's an incredibly wasteful process. I mean you think of all these 12,000-mile journeys with giant cargo vessels shipping this material. The economy, the perverse economies of it work because of the nature of our consumer economy but it's incredibly wasteful process.

GROSS: You describe trash as one of the most accurate measures of prosperity. In what respect?

HUMES: Well, in the most basic form, you know, in good times we tend to make more trash and in difficult economic times because we're buying less we make less trash. You know, the guys who work at the landfills when the housing bubble burst really knew it before Wall Street did because all of a sudden all the construction materials stopped flowing in and the same is true of consumer goods. The stuff we buy is so heavily packaged and gets thrown out so quickly. Even stuff we call durable goods turns into trash pretty quickly, you know, those really inexpensive VCRs and so forth. I mean it's not like we get them repaired when they break, we just trash them and get something new. Those materials stop flowing in such great amounts when the economy tanks. And they've really seen that at the landfill here in Los Angeles that I write about because things are picking up again, they're getting more trash and sure enough, employment and spending is on the rise again. So it's a pretty close correlation.

GROSS: So can I ask a question that might strike a lot of people as kind of stupid, but I really want your answer to this? When I'm at the supermarket and they ask me paper or plastic, I sometime - I kind of don't know what to say because OK, paper, do I want to like cut down forests to take my groceries home, or plastic, do I want to burn gases to, you know, after it's dumped in the trash? I know the real answer is I should bring my bags with me and I'd really like to be a better person but I often don't have bags with me. So on those days when I'm not a good person - which is more days than I'd care to admit - what's the right answer to the paper or plastic question that does like less damage because they're both doing damage?

HUMES: Yeah. And that is an ongoing debate. In terms of the actual greenhouse gas impact the paper bag tends to be higher so, but...

GROSS: The paper bag? I thought they'd be recycling that. I mean I recycle it.

HUMES: It does get recycled. That's the good part of it is more - that plastic bags are theoretically recyclable but it doesn't actually tend to happen and those types of bags are fairly long-lived and that some of the forms of plastic that find their way in the oceans are is the very plastic that is contained in grocery bags. So both of them have real negatives attached. So it's the correct answer, which you've already pointed out, is neither...


HUMES: ...if you really want to have the best solution. You know, one of the guys I write about in the book is the founder of a company called ChicoBags and he's one of the many reusable grocery bag manufacturers. He calls plastic bags the gateway drug to waste, and then if you can start small in your personal waste habits and just eliminate that part of it, it's the way to get started in being less wasteful. If you can use a reusable bag 11 times, its footprint will be lower than a plastic grocery bag. That's all it takes is using it 11 times. So he makes a pretty good case for the just sticking one of these in your pocket or your purse or whatever. Don't leave it in the car because it'll just stay in the car. You actually have to have it attached to you in some way.

GROSS: That's been my experience. Yeah.


GROSS: So OK, but like I say, on those days when I'm not a good person and I don't have my reusable bags with me, am I better off with plastic or paper or are they both just really bad choices?

HUMES: They're both really bad choices. Now here's the thing. If you get one of those bags but then reuse that that kind of ameliorates some of the problems. So if you find yourself with a drawer full of those bags, instead of throwing them away find, you know, find some other way to put them to use or take them back to the grocery store and use them again and then they're, you know, then you're - then you have a makeshift reusable bag and that's not such a bad solution.

GROSS: So you write that European countries hold manufacturers not taxpayers responsible for the cost of packaging waste - in the sense that like taxpayers in America pay for waste because we pay for the town dumps through our taxes. Compare like the European model of charging manufacturers and the American model of charging taxpayers for waste.

HUMES: Well, the idea, and it's one that it's starting to take hold here in America as well, of sort of this idea of product stewardship, where the person who creates the product ought to have some responsibility for its fate and that's a model that's been embraced to a greater degree in some European countries. And the effect of that is to have manufacturers of consumer products really look at packaging a little harder and reduce it to look at the recyclability versus the disposability of products more closely because they're going to, you know, have to bear the cost of a more wasteful product than they would if the product was less wasteful. So it's actually kind of a marshaling of market forces in a way to make the consumer economy less wasteful as opposed to having no incentive or not much of an incentive in our country to reduce some of the wasteful qualities of products because that's going to be paid for by the consumer or by taxpayers. And it's actually - it's a pretty cool idea.

And then there's, you know, the Patagonia Company, for instance has really sort of gotten on the bandwagon for this and because they make outdoor wear and other products and they're - Patagonia is telling its customers hey, when you're done with something you bought from us, and we don't care if it's worn out or you don't like it anymore or whatever, when you're done with it send it back to us and we'll make something else out of it. And that is really an interesting metamorphosis of the way we normally do business here which is, you know, the warrantee's lapsed, we don't want to hear about it which is, you know, more typical.

GROSS: You know, our trash situation has changed so much in the past few decades and that's in part because plastic didn't exist until pretty recently. Like you have a sidebar in your book that's like a history of the plastic bag, and I think it starts in what, 1950 or something?

HUMES: Yeah. With cleaner, cleaner bags, yeah.

GROSS: With dry cleaner bags?


GROSS: So, you know, it's just hard to remember that like in the history of trash, plastic is really pretty recent so our difficulties in dealing with it are pretty recent.

HUMES: Yeah. I mean it's - the funny thing is that it was going to be the great savior of the environment because look, we can make billiard balls out of and piano keys out of plastic instead of ivory and we're look, you know, this is going to be a great thing for nature. That was the original idea behind, you know, plastic being this miracle substance and it's had so many great uses. And, but those initial applications weren't for disposable stuff. It was for long-lasting products, things that would, you know, be heirlooms and still are. You know, some of the original plastic products were made out of this material called Bakelite, you know, these old phones and these beautiful old Art Deco radios, they're like, you know, wonderful antiques and works of art now. So plastic was originally a very different substance than what we have now, which is this idea of disposable products made out of plastic that once were made out of more durable materials. And that's where we're running into a problem because you're making very temporary, very ephemeral things out of a material that lasts forever.

GROSS: Edward Humes, thank you so much.

HUMES: It's been my pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Edward Humes is the author of the new book "Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash."

Coming up, a new collection of Howlin' Wolf's early Chess sessions gives our rock historian, Ed Ward, the chance to talk about why this bluesman is so important. This is FRESH AIR.


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