One of the few advantages of being stuck at home in bed has been the opportunity to do massive amounts of reading. Sometimes it’s hopeless, because when I’m really doped up even trashy movies go above my head. But I’m getting a little more coherent and have been reading more interesting material, thanks to the San Francisco Public Library’s extensive collection and generous hold policy, and Matt’s willingness to stop by and pick up whatever I’ve ordered. He suggested I write about some of these books and call it Bad Hit Lit Crit. For the name alone I thought it was worth it.
Garbology (Edward Humes)
Picking up (Robin Nagle)
Rubbish! (William Rathje and Cullen Murphy)
So this year has turned out to be less about bikes and more about waste. That’s primarily because I won’t be riding a bike for a few months while I’m recovering from the broken leg. However even while stuck at home I can try to minimize our garbage. It’s harder—every time the physical therapist comes over we end up with a pile of medical waste that goes to the landfill, and the post-injury reliance on takeout dinners isn’t helping matters either—but it’s certainly possible.
Something that has struck me ever since I joined the university zero waste committee is that everyone supports reducing garbage. When I mention my zero waste assignment people immediately tell me that they recycle a lot. That’s only a small part of what I think about when I think about waste reduction but the response is interesting. When I mention that we bike with our kids there’s about a 50-50 chance people will be concerned rather than supportive. But waste reduction is a totally non-controversial idea, even among people who fill up an extra-large garbage bin every week. It’s not obvious to me why. The US is a huge country with a lot of middle-of-nowhere: objectively speaking, it’s not likely we’ll ever run out of room for landfills, and judging by our actions, we have a lot of stuff that we’d like to throw away. However nobody really seems happy about that.
Garbology, Picking Up, and Rubbish! approach the issue of waste from different perspectives. Garbology discusses the immense volume of waste produced by Americans and attempts to come to grips with how it’s handled. Picking Up follows one woman’s investigation of sanitation in New York City, which ends with her taking a job picking up trash in the city. And Rubbish! reviews the studies of the University of Arizona’s Garbage Project, which sorts through household waste and takes samples of the contents of various landfills. All of these books are fascinating.
There is an urban myth that dealing with garbage is a modern problem, which all of these books make clear is not the case. Despite the former existence of “rag and bone men” and other professions that recycled certain kinds of waste, there is ample anthropological and photographic evidence that waste was a massive and disgusting problem nearly everywhere until well into the 20th century. Garbage filled the streets and gutters of New York over a foot deep, and rubbish dumped into waterways was a persistent problem in multiple municipalities. Landfills are the source of most information about pre-literate societies. Until very recently, the idea of zero waste would have drawn blank stares.
An unnerving point made by all of these books is that despite the invisible nature of garbage collection, most households and businesses would collapse without regular pickup. Municipal sanitation strikes make this point fairly quickly (Picking Up). On average, Americans produce over 7 pounds of garbage per person every day of the year (Garbology). With our recent zero waste efforts our household could last for months if we had our own compost heap, but because we use municipal composting our situation would get ugly quickly without weekly pickup. (When we move, for this reason and others, it will be to a place with a yard.) Without weekly pickup, virtually every home in the US could serve as a case study of hoarders.
The things people throw away can be counter-intuitive. In the face of food shortages, people waste more food, presumably because people stock up more of scarce foods than they can really use (Rubbish!). People who eat repetitive diets waste less food. People throw away empty candy wrappers after Halloween and uneaten candy (still in the wrappers) after Valentine’s Day. Everyone grossly underestimates how much food they throw away, while simultaneously under-reporting their consumption of processed foods and over-reporting their consumption of produce. Hazardous waste, in the form of personal care products (nail polish), auto care products (oil) and lawn care products (weed killer) makes up a startling large share of ordinary household waste despite efforts to separate it. And very little degrades in a landfill; 50-year-old guacamole will not brown and newspapers remain legible after decades. Waste placed in a landfill is forever.
When I think about what bothers me about waste I realize it is two things: finality and a lack of respect. It takes time, effort and raw materials to create the things we purchase and use. Bringing something home and then throwing it away is disrespectful of the resources used to create it. I find this increasingly distressing when thinking about disposable packaging, which has only one purpose—to carry something from one place to another—and which lasts forever, particularly plastic packaging. Even worse, reusable packaging can easily replace its disposable counterpart. Food waste is even more disturbing; there are hungry people everywhere, and there is no reason to buy more food than we can or should consume.
The lack of respect we show to the things we throw away is equaled by the lack of respect shown to sanitation workers. Despite their enormous contributions to public health, they are often invisible. People prefer not to see them or speak to them. (One exception to that general rule is parents with young children; ever since our son was six months old we have been on a first-name basis with the people who pick up our bins thanks to his fascination with trucks.)
The more I learn about garbage the clearer it becomes that nothing really disappears. Things are stored in landfills instead of being stored in our homes but they are still there. It is difficult for me to look at a full garbage can the same way after realizing that everything in it will be around virtually forever, even if I can no longer see it. And given the quantity of things we throw away, by volume, waste is probably the greatest product of our society.
Waste is rarely something that we’re charged for directly, but it is not costless. There are still places where stores provide “free” bags although San Francisco is no longer one of them. Once I started shopping with reusable bags, the costs of packaging became evident: I could buy a pound of salad greens in bulk for $6 or a quarter-pound of salad greens in a plastic clamshell for $5. The first time I bought soap in bulk I realized that I’d been rooked for years: 20 ounces of organic dish soap in an old repurposed vinegar bottle cost me $1.52, while a new plastic bottle of the same soap cost $5 for 12 ounces. Our zero waste efforts reduced our costs because there was less to buy (goodbye, processed food) and because the things we could buy were closer to their original state (and thus cheaper) and because we weren’t paying the invisible costs of packaging. If we were responsible for our own garbage pickup costs (it is illegal for San Francisco landlords to pass garbage costs on to renters) we could save even more by switching to the smallest possible garbage can. Packaging costs invisible money at purchase and visible money in weekly garbage pickup costs. Avoiding packaging saves not only those costs, but the costs of buying things spontaneously that we have no need for and would ultimately throw away.
More important than the financial savings for me, however, is the greater sense of peace with how we are living. Although I can’t necessarily pinpoint why, throwing things away feels uncomfortable and somehow wrong. Now we rarely fill up the small garbage can under the kitchen sink in a week, even with our recent reliance on takeout. Some weeks we’re equally unlikely to fill the even smaller recycling bin. Those are good weeks. Now that I understand that away is not gone, generating less waste feels important. The things we have left in our wake have historically been things I would not want to be remembered by—crumpled plastic bags are an ugly legacy. Nevertheless, in the long term, both people and societies are known primarily by what they place in landfills. When I think about that, I want what we leave behind to have both meaning and purpose.