Bad hit lit crit: Garbage

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.


Filed under zero waste

11 responses to “Bad hit lit crit: Garbage

  1. Ken

    Well said! I agree with you entirely and I’m pleased that you are well enough to write for us. Doesn’t matter that it is not cycling, sustainability is close to most cyclists hearts.
    There is a youtube video following the life of a supermarket plastic bag that shows how we end up eating it; supermarkets are using biodegradeable ones now, but if they don’t get into the landfill they are still a danger to us. Could I also recommend finding Donnachadh McCarthy on Facebook – he is a guy who has been getting towards zero since the early 90’s and he can be quite an inspiration – by scavenging local skips and bins for waste wood to burn in his stove he has become a net importer of waste so has gone past zero and out the other side!!!
    Don’t worry about the bandages going to waste, you will be more than offsetting that waste if you just get one person to think differently about waste – just think of the exponential effect that your blog may have on getting to zero.

    • Thanks for the suggestion, I will definitely check it out. As long as we have kids at home we’ll never be net importers of waste like that guy, but it does indeed sound inspiring.

  2. What a brilliantly written post. Sadly, in Sydney, Australia, single use shopping bags are still free and prevalent. Though I can’t remember when I last needed/took one.

    Interestingly, I weigh only my non-recyclable waste (every Wed for my blog), and I’m no where near 7 pounds (or 3kg in my lexicon). However, what I miss is all the recyclables, the ‘compost’ – which I use Bokashi, (I live for the day my council does pick up like yours), and all the ‘eating out’ and eating at my bf’s/parents. I keep asking for my bread roll/snack to just be handed to me to eat immediately rather than a napkin and a paper bag – still getting weird looks!

    Sadly, bulk (in my experiences) here also means organic etc etc, which is more than ok, but it is making it NOT cost competitive, as I’m finding as I draft a post for next Monday comparing the co-op’s prices to my local grocery store. Thanks for the great post!

    • I have been reading about your weekly waste post, and it’s fascinating. Sometimes I get depressed about San Francisco but I realize that it really does handle waste very well. I forgot to post it on your blog (I have issues with my mobile app) but at least the municipal compost here takes butter wrappers, dryer lint, tissues (if you use them–we don’t but guests do), hair, and floor sweepings. I’m not sure if your Bokashi could handle it though.

      It’s disappointing to hear that bulk organic isn’t cost-competitive with packaged foods where you live. Maybe it makes a difference here because virtually everything is organic? Crazy Californians.

  3. I’m so fascinated by your zero waste efforts. I’m totally interested in reading about them, so keep blogging away!

    • Thanks! Not my finest month but it’s an imperfect world.

      • Geoff Ruth

        I’m so impressed that you’re able to blog and be productive when in such intense physical recovery. When I was laid up for a whole summer with a systemic MRSA infection, I was far less productive and far less positive than you seem.

        I’m curious what you all do about dairy. I’ve read that the petroleum involved in moving heavy refillable glass around and then sanitizing them is greater than the petroleum involved in throw-away (or questionably recyclable) plastic jugs. Have you read anything about this?

  4. Zan

    Great post! I love how you’re using your “down time”.

    I’ve been reading Bea Johnson’s blog “Zero Waste Home” for a long time and she’s just come out with a book with the same name, that is really informative and motivational. You probably already know about her, but some others might not. I highly recommend her free app called “Bulk” that is a crowd sourced tool for finding stores that offer bulk shopping.

    Ps. Every time I ride with my daughter, on our bakfeit cargo bike, to Rainbow Grocery, I think about you and hope you are up and riding soon.

    • Thanks! I love Zero Waste Home, and the bulk app is great–when I’m in Oakland next I want to check out all the refill wine shops that have apparently sprung up around Jack London Square. That is one area where we still haven’t found a bulk option that we like.

      Rainbow Grocery is obviously the best place to spot cargo bike families. I’ve been going there and using the electric cart every other Friday. I’m hard to miss on that cart but if we don’t see you before I’m recovered I hope we do when I am. I’ll look for the Bakfiets.

  5. Jo

    I have just started to read your blog, having had it recommended by sarahn above.. I am just starting on a zero(ish) waste journey, and trying to tow my family a bit closer to sustainability, and really intrigued to see how you have gone about it.
    I always said I would never get on a bike in this town that is all hills, but if you can do it in San Francisco… with children on the back..
    I am so sorry to read about your accident. My husband shattered a knee (coming off a penny farthing!) over a decade ago now, and I think your mind and body both stay in shock for weeks. Well done for reading and blogging in that state, and all the very best as you recover.
    Your ‘trip to the dump’ post really gave me so much extra determination to stay away from disposable plastic, so thanks for your insights.

  6. I came to your website to track down the name of a bike product you recommended to me (Roland add + bike) and learned of your crash. Like so many others, I have been a silent reader and admirer of your blog. Best wishes for a continued, albeit agonizingly slow, recovery. For topics, I am curious about whether the effort in producing zero waste means it is a luxury. I’m not a huge recycler, so perhaps I overestimate the effort. Perhaps the answer is no, since it sounds like it’s something you are still doing well despite your injury and the trash that produces (medical waste) and the indirect effects (more takeout, less energy, etc.). Again, best wishes for ongoing recovery.

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