Why write about garbage?
I’ve always wondered whether it was better, environmentally speaking, to throw a used tissue in the toilet or in the trash. And like a lot of people, I wondered where things went, and what became of them, after I threw them “away.” So I started keeping track of my trash, quantifying it—to learn exactly what I was rejecting. Then I began traveling with my trash. As I learned how far my garbage footprint spread, I tried my utmost to leave a smaller human stain. The tissue, by the way, should go in the toilet. But don’t flush till you must!
What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching the book?
That municipal solid waste – the stuff that comes from you and me, plus the stuff that comes from institutions and businesses – makes up only two percent of the total U.S. waste stream. The remainder, some 12 billion tons a year, is mostly nonhazardous industrial waste, plus mining, agricultural, and hazardous waste.
What were some of the most difficult roadblocks to researching Garbage Land?
It was hard getting just about anyone to answer my phone calls, let alone show me around their landfill. The waste world is insular, and it seems to be particularly suspicious of freelance writers.
What changes can we make in our personal buying habits to cut down on the amount of garbage that we’re accumulating?
Buy less new stuff. When you do buy, consider what kind of trash something will eventually make: is the product and its packaging reusable or recyclable? Will it soon break or become obsolete? Can you repair it? Is it toxic? If you’re talking about food or household products, can you buy them in larger sizes to reduce the amount of packaging per use?
Is recycling worth it?
Making goods from recycled materials, instead of virgin, saves energy, creates less pollution, and cuts down on the extraction of trees, minerals, and fossil fuels. But individual recycling isn’t going to turn things around until more manufacturers use recycled materials, more consumers buy recycled goods, and designers make products that can be more easily recycled. Producers must take environmental and social responsibility for their goods both before they reach consumers, and after.
Paper or Plastic?
If your grocery store takes back plastic bags and actually recycles them into a useful product, go with plastic – it’s lighter to transport. If you recycle paper, go with that. But don’t sweat it: the bags come out nearly equal in lifecycle analyses. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which makes exhaustive studies of consumers’ environmental impacts, the issues that have the biggest impact on planetary health are transportation, housing, and meat eating.