As a follow up to my blog Recycling: Does it Make a Difference, I decided to take a look at Elizabeth Royte's book Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash. I wanted to get a broad picture of what our garbage is and what happens to it. Royte offers an adventure (albeit somewhat sensationalized) of tracking all forms of waste from her household to the collection trucks, the various sorting facilities, and eventually to the dump.
Tracking the Garbage
Royte embarks on a mission to sort, categorize, and weigh all of the trash that her household (her husband and one child) for an entire year. In the process, she follows her recyclables, compost-able materials, hazardous materials (e.g. TV's and computers), sewage, and her garbage to the places where they are either turned into new products or landfilled.
She visits any site where she is allowed access (and to some that don't) to document a process that starts at the household. Most Americans don't give a thought to their garbage besides when the day it is picked up and making sure that they don't miss it. However, Royte seeks to describe how various waste streams make their way around the world.
She does a thorough job at covering the major waste streams in a Western society and looks at the economics and environmental impacts of each often uncovering the good and bad of waste and even something as seemingly innocuous as recycling.
The Ugly Side of Recycling
Recycling has become pretty synonymous with being a liberal environmentalist trying to save the world. However, to the surprise of many, recycling may not be as benign as one may think. We see nice happy stories like Nike creating basketball courts from used shoes and we get to buy post-consumer recycled paper. Recycling only extends the life span on these products but they are only making a brief pit stop before eventually heading to the landfill.
The most insidious "recycling" is probably that of e-waste. Electronics have many precious metals like gold and copper in the circuit boards. But environmental regulations and the high cost of labor in America makes it uneconomical to extract these metals (it is cheaper to just buy virgin materials from mines).
Thus, the electronics get shipped on container ships from the United States to China (which would otherwise be empty because of the tremendous import/export imbalance). It is economical because the cost of labor and environmental regulations in China are significantly lower than in the United States
In China, villagers will use chemicals such as cyanide to leach gold from the electronics and are exposed to many other chemicals such as mercury from monitors and lead solder. We think that we are helping othe world by recycling our electronic goods, but in reality we are pushing the environmental and health costs to third world nations willing to recover these materials. See the Basel Action Network (BAN) Photogallery and Digital Dump Trailer for more information.
In the last few chapters Royte discusses the possibility of a world with "Zero Waste". Despite her recycling habits and her attempt to reduce as much waste as possible, she still ended up disposing of approximately 4.65 pounds of trash per week (which is 19.5 times lower per person than the national average according to an EPA statistic).
The fundamental problem is that we have externalized the costs of waste and pollution and therefore the costs to dispose of items costs much less than the damage that is done to the environment (this is measured by the amount it would cost to replace or restore the natural function that an environment previously had). The only real solution towards creating a truly sustainable society is to design the goods we used to not produce any waste.
Virtually all products sold today are designed with a Cradle to Grave philosophy: it will eventually find its way into a landfill. However, William McDonough proposes in his book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, that we need to design our products such that the "waste" products will be the "nutrients" for another system, whether that is natural or created by man. Only then will we be able to live with "Zero Waste".
Garbage Land is a great primer for people who are unfamiliar with the recycling and garbage industry. My main criticism is that it feels more of an adventure rather than a scientific paper with strong supported facts and evidence. At one point she said the methane "smelled like rotten eggs". Methane gas is actually odorless and is the main component in natural gas. However, mercaptans (sulfur based molecule) are added to natural gas to give it the "rotten egg" smell. I was upset that she couldlet a fairly well known fact slip through.
After reading this book I was reminded at a slogan that was on a paper towel dispenser in a bathroom at my office which simply has the words:
I think that this sentence pretty much sums up sustainability and the conclusions reached in Garbage Land. It isn't about buying a green product just because it is available. It means reducing your consumption, and if no other options are available, then try your best to buy an eco-friendly product. We need to reduce our consumption of products, especially those that are designed to be disposable.
Although the amount of waste produced from municipalities seems tremendous, it does not clearly convey the amount of waste that was generated to make the products that eventually end up in landfills. According to Paul Hawken, author of Natural Capitalism and the The Ecology of Commerce, for every 100 pounds of product that is sold, at least 3,200 pounds of waste was created. McDonough also has a similar statistic that municapial waste is only 5% of the total waste that gets created to produce and deliver your product.
The easiest way to decrease your environmental and save money in the process is to consume less. This way you can get more satisfaction out of the things that you do have and also enjoy some of the simple joys in life.