Americans generate more trash than anyone else on the planet: more than 7 pounds per person each day.
About 69 percent of that trash goes immediately into landfills. And most landfill trash is made up of containers and packaging — almost all of which should be recycled, says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes,
“It’s instant trash,” he says. “We pay for this stuff, and it goes right into the waste bin, and we’re not capturing it the way our recycling programs are intending us to capture it. We’re just sticking it in the ground and building mountains out of it.”
Humes’ new book Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trashfollows the journey that trash takes as it makes its way from garbage containers through landfills, sanitation plants and scrap heaps. He tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that because much of our trash is immediately hidden from our daily lives, it’s easier for us to be wasteful.
“We don’t see the consequences of our wastefulness,” he says. “We have 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. … In a difficult economic environment, it’s just crazy to take all this material and just bury it in the ground.”
Some landfills, including Puente Hills near Los Angeles, manufacture energy from the methane gas that’s produced during trash’s decomposition process.
“There is so much trash in this landfill that it generates enough electricity to power 70,000 homes,” he says. “And a number of privately run landfills have adopted some of these methods and are either making fuel or generating power with [the methane from the trash production].”
Humes says capturing the methane gas to make energy is better than allowing it to escape into the atmosphere, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most efficient way to make energy.
“It’s still a losing proposition, but it’s better than nothing,” he says. “The real solution is just to stop putting so much stuff in giant burial mounds, but that’s a really tough nut to crack.”
Humes’ investigation into garbage’s journey around the Earth didn’t stop on land. He also met with scientists who study the 5 massive gyres of trash particles swirling around in the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Created by the convergence of ocean currents and wind, the gyres contain masses of litter that aren’t entirely visible by the human eye.
“What we’re actually seeing in the ocean is this kind of chowder of plastic — these tiny particles that are the size of plankton,” he says. “It’s plastic that has been weathered and broken down by the elements into these little bits, and it’s getting into the food chain.”
Humes says it’s estimated that the weight of plastic finding its way into the sea each year is equivalent to the weight of 40 aircraft carriers. Fish then eat the bits of corroded plastic, confusing it for plankton.
“We are eating the fish that are eating the plastic, but the scarier part is that these little bits of plastic become sponges for some potentially dangerous chemicals that are released into the marine environment, and we may be ingesting that, too,” he says. “Nobody knows for sure yet. We know that the plastic does attract these chemicals and that fish are eating it. How much it actually works its way into the food chain is still unknown but being researched now.”
The cost to clean up these plastic gyres is staggering, he says.
“So a lot of the efforts are being focused on trying to reduce the amount of plastic that gets into the ocean in the first place,” he says.