Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash by Edward Humes

I don’t recall where I first heard about Garbology, but it intrigued me enough that I popped it on my holds list at the Toronto Public Library, and then one day there it was waiting for me. And I didn’t really want to read it. Despite its colourful cover, reading a book about garbage would only be depressing, I thought. Thankfully I read it anyway.

And now I recommend it to everyone.

Edward Humes writes wonderfully, and Garbology is such a well-organized book (the editor side of my brain thought about that a lot while reading). He easily shifts from individuals’ stories — the guy who proudly works at the landfill stuck with me — to historical overviews of trash in America. From land to sea, past to future, personal to corporate, Garbology makes you look at all the bits of refuse that surround you in a very different way. It makes you want to reduce your 102 ton personal trash legacy. It made me realize how much I rely on the crutch of ‘oh it’s recyclable’ to not really reduce my waste. The book isn’t a doom-and-gloom party, not at all; there are solutions, ideas, strategies already in place outside of America. (The waste to energy plants are ingenious, IMHO.) A lot of the problem seems to come down to scale. On smaller community levels, or in countries less trash-producing than America, it’s easier to manage. Which means bringing that 102-ton legacy down matters. The first step on that road is to stop ignoring our trash and pretending it just magically disappears when the garbage man takes it away.

A couple of personal waste reduction strategies I’m trying out, none of which are new to you eco-minded folks, but mark changes of habit for this wannabe:

  • Coffee in a reusable mug. In the past, I’ve given myself a pass to be lazy about this (and congratulated myself on not using one of those cardboard sleeves), but I’m kicking my disposable cup habit.
  • Composting at the office! Jen has a beautiful garden and it needs our food lefties. So we’ve just introduced Compie the Vegan Composter, and she’s had her first week at ECW HQ. Next up: figure out my home composting situation. (Toronto’s green bin program isn’t in effect in my apt complex.)
  • No more takeout. How hard it is to walk across the street to the restaurant and just eat there, instead of needlessly filling some single-use containers only to pitch them in the trash half an hour later?
  • Even better: prepare my own food more often & smarter grocery shopping! Better food, lower cost, more control over what I’m ingesting. When I’m grocery shopping now, I’m looking for plastic-free containers, ignoring those plastic produce bags (you don’t need them, I swear), and when I can’t find good alternatives, dropping a note to the customer service dept. I’m lucky to live in a city with a lot of alternatives to the big-box grocery store and with an organic bottled milk option. (Try the chocolate milk. Ridiculously tasty.)
  • Find it, don’t buy it new. I feel like a scavenger hunt ninja when I successfully accomplish a find-it mission. I needed a measuring cup; Value Village had a used one for me. Spatula? Mum’s basement/kitchen supplies. Cheaper and keepin’ it out of the landfill. And this is a two-way street of convenience when we put our unwanted but perfectly good things somewhere other than the garbage can.  My mum’s basement is full of perfectly good old stuff, and what we personally don’t need will be making its way on to the Freecycle listings or to a donation centre like Goodwill.
  • Refuse refuse. I think this tip came from The Zero Waste Home: when someone tries to give you a magnet advertising their carpet cleaning business, or some other doo-dad that you really don’t want and will just end up in the bin, just say no. I kind of felt like a jerk the first few times, but I got over it pretty quickly. When a cashier goes to put a flyer or bookmark or something extra in with my purchase, I just hand it back to the person and say no thank you. One less piece of garbage.

The extra bonus of all this is that I feel like I’m doing something — however small my actions are, I think they are crucial. More important than keeping one magnet out of a landfill, there has been a shift in my way of thinking about waste, about its significance, and that’s something that will affect my purchasing decisions, my involvement in my community, my expectations of government, and my participation in this ‘movement.’

I think the last book I read that inspired me to (try to) change my habits like this was Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food.

Pick up Garbology; it’s a great read, and an important one.


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