Thursday, November 12, 2009

Curbing your appetite

The Green Phone Booth welcomes Boston writer Karen Moser-Booth for a bit of trash talk today.

Every Thursday morning as I meander down my block towards the bus stop, I check out my neighbors' trash. Big black plastic sacks ooze remnants from the week gone by and twice a month, bright blue recycling bins overflow with evidence of just how much plastic the average American household goes through. I count the number of ugly brown trash cans each neighbor needs to contain their week's waste. I make note of those who stuff leaves into bags for their curbside pick-up and those who do not. Mostly, I examine my neighbors' lives like an archaeologist examines a culture's remains--I draw conclusions about their habits based on what they throw away. Yep: I like trash.

Having recently polished off the wonderful tome Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte, my Thursday mornings have taken on a different meaning lately. More than a voyeuristic glimpse at someone's private life--it's like the gossip section of a magazine without buying a magazine!--or a somewhat self-righteous assessment of others' ecological footprints, my walk now conjures up statistics of biosolids, stories behind Fresh Kills, the nasty PR campaign surrounding triangular recycling symbols, and musings about how long leachate containment systems will hold up. To share this new awakening with you dear Boothers without subjecting you to another book review, I grabbed my camera for my curbside stroll, nabbing pictures (and pretending not to mind neighbors' inquisitive eyes) and scribbling notes as I went.

Ahh, trash. Good ole American trash. We throw out 4.3 pounds of you per person per day, nearly double the daily amount produced per American citizen in 1960. Life Less Plastic blogs about the EPA's 2005 report on municipal waste, saying the amount of trash sent to landfills has actually decreased slightly this decade. Some theorize that deposit bills mean we're throwing out more but it weighs less. Five cents for that plastic Coke bottle is an incentive after all. According to the State of Garbage in America report cited in Royte's book, 65.6% of our trash goes to a landfill. The rest is composted, recycled, or burned. Essentially, we are producing more waste, but recycling a bit more too. Sounds to me like the third R--recycle--was heard more clearly by the American public than the first and most important--reduce.

Where does it all go? After the sanitation workers pick up your trash and whisk it away, it usually heads for a transfer station nearby (and often, this means a lower-class neighborhood), where the supercompressed garbage is dumped. From there, your trash travels on a tractor-trailer to an incinerator or landfill, which is more and more often in another state and almost always in another economically depressed town. There, your trash produces contaminated moisture, or leachate, and toxic landfill gases--including 32% of our nation's methane emissions--for thousands of years. "If you produce pollution, someone's going to get it," Majora Carter called out at a lecture last year in Boston. She deemed poverty a byproduct of overconsumption, and assured us that "there are smarter ways to deal with waste."

What used to happen to trash? One hundred and fifty years ago, a peddler would have come to your house and taken your old clothes, ashes, metal, bones, and rubber, which in turn would be sold back to you in the form of soap, tins, boots, and buttons. Cooking grease would become candles or soap. Every bit of an animal's carcass from the kitchen would turn into something else: knife handles, lighting, glue, fertilizer. The waste system was more of a closed-loop one than we have now, and paper was so precious that it wasn't thrown away at all. I envy this circular system and I've added Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash by Susan Strasser to my to-read list. Eventually, though, as population bloomed and cities proliferated, the trash piled up so high that the government had to step in and create a disposal system.

"Virgin papermaking is one of the most environmentally harmful industries on earth," Royte writes. The Natural Resources Defense Council puts the papermaking industry at the third spot on its list of the largest source of greenhouse gases in the U.S. Paper, along with glass, is easy to recycle, and essential, seeing how it is the #1 household item thrown away (food is #2).

Composting confession at the Booth: I never really got composting. My thinking was something along the lines of, well if food's easily biodegradable, why would I go through the trouble of composting? As an urban dweller, I had no need for garden dirt. But food doesn't easily biodegrade in a landfill. In fact, the majority of objects in a landfill never touch soil. Now I've learned that worms are the best pets. Every piece I don't throw out is more land for the future.

I always shake my head at bags of leaves. Why do we interrupt nature's cycles? Leaves are not waste. Once, a harried neighbor was raking her leaves into a bag and trying to watch her two children near the street when I happened by. "I can only get one bag done today," she confessed. "Why bother?" I asked, gesturing to her children. "You have more important things to do." She paused to position her rake better. "Because everyone else rakes them up around here, so we probably should, too," she explained.

What about the people? Recycling employs ten times more people than landfilling or incineration. It also creates havoc in developing countries when plastic and toxic e-waste is just dumped. According to the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers cited in Royte's book, 35% of PET bottles collected in the U.S. in 2003 were exported, usually to China.

For every 100 pounds of consumer products, 3,200 pounds of waste is created. -Paul Hawken

"Perhaps one of the most important things I'd learned in the past year," Royte writes, "was the names of the people who took away my trash." Tape the sharp ends together. Uncover your cans, but put the lid on if it rains. Tie up your cardboard. Put your garbage cans in an easily accessible spot (which is to say, not behind a parked car). Say hello and wave. These small steps make sanitation workers' lives easier.

Plastic. Artists are drawing attention to our habits, using pieces drifting in the ocean, photographing albatross chicks, and drawing attention to Styrofoam. Plastic bottle caps are the new six-rings. "[Plastic recycling] is not recycling at all," Ann Leonard of the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance told Royte. "We're just delaying its eventual dumping." Plastic never biodegrades--it photodegrades, which means it gets smaller and smaller until we can't see it. But it's still there, and when marine researcher Charles Moore surveyed 500 square miles in the North Pacific in 2002, he found 10 pounds of plastic for each pound of zooplankton. "Plastic is toxic both to make and to dispose of," Royte writes: five of the top six chemicals whose production generates the most hazardous waste are commonly used by the plastics industry, according to the EPA.

What can you recycle? As Royte toured paper recycling mills and observed the process of making "primordial paper soup," she realized through the slurry that "putting waxed-paper bags in my recycling pile wasn't the worst thing in the world, that I didn't need to tear out glassine windows from pasta boxes or get every last popcorn kernel from the microwave. Chris Lovett would do it for me." What a relief! I always wondered just how much I had to rinse those peanut butter jars.

While I'm not quite ready to be pegged a zero-waste zealot, my latest project is using less plastic. Like EnviRambo, I'm asking why. I'm refocusing my efforts on reducing and reusing so my child will be left with land, not landfills. And while I acknowledge that solid municipal waste--all 232,000,000 tons of it each year--accounts for a mere 2% of the total U.S. waste, I still see value in being an ecological citizen.

If you don't have time to read Garbage Land or pick up Royte's newest, Bottlemania, her blog is chocked full of resources and short bits of info that can be digested quickly.


Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

I loved Garbageland! It's a tribute to Royte's writing that she could write a whole book about trash and it still be really, really good.

The main thing that struck me when I read Garbageland was the chapter on sewage. What a messed up system we're using!

Green Bean said...

Trash kills me. It really really does. In my experience, it is by far the easiest category to reduce one's impact. Buy less stuff and there is less to throw out. When you do purge, give it to friends, charity or give it away on Freecycle/the free section of Craigslist.

That photo of the dresser! We see that all the time but really? Isn't there someone who can use that? And those people who go out and buy new all the time, can't we rethink and buy used at thrift stores or get from freecycle or the curb (which is where we got my oldest's desk a few weeks ago)? Things can be repainted. New knobs put on. Honestly, these things are NOT trash.

As to compost, we were composting in our back yard until rallying our city to start a city-wide composting of organics (pizza boxes, food waste, paper towels, and so on). More and more cities are doing it.

One last thing. Yesterday was trash day. I asked my husband to take out the trash cans (ours and our elderly neighbor). Then I looked into ours. It was completely empty save a bag of some passerby's dog poop. Never mind, I called up to my husband. Just the neighbor's. Ours is good.

Great post. :)

Alison said...

Our city implemented the single stream, plus composting, plus trash pick up last year. You are charged by the size of your trash can. We thus logically, got the biggest compost can and smallest trash can (everyone gets a big recycling can). I am perpetually amazed when I walk the hood and see folks with no compost bin out on trash day, but an overflowing, extra large trash bin. Crazy! And they just did a survey, apparently about 45% of the city would prefer our old, compost-less, recycling program! Is this 2009 or 1989?

Anyhow -- the beginning of your post inspired me to make a bacon tallow candle. If it works I'll let you know, but given that we are begans (almost vegans that eat bacon every few weeks :) sacrilegious, I know), I have a full ball jar of bacon grease that needs a purpose!

June said...

Great post!

As our family has worked to reduce our waste stream, we've moved the kitchen waste bin out of the kitchen -- and into a corner of the pantry/mud room. Sometimes friends are baffled and wander around looking for the bin, and it's not under the sink or in a corner, and then they have to go to a whole other room. We all laugh about it. But we've become so conscious of reducing, reusing, recycling that the waste bin has become a last resort.

Anonymous said...

I really liked this post. I caught myself eye-balling my neighbors' trash on my way home last night from a meeting, looking for anything that could be reused. Unfortunately, the garbage truck has already been by this morning. We moved here a couple of years ago and it seems, for the most part, my neighbors put free signs on exercise equipment, large furniture, dog houses, etc. instead of putting it out with their trash. Our old neighborhood was not that way so we would get in our car at dark and cruise the neighborhood. :)

This post has inspired me to take a look at what our trash service offers in the way of a compost container. I would like to do a worm bin sometime soon. Another local municipality that does not serve our unincorporated part of the county does offer the composting of food waste.

Lisa Sharp said...

Great post. My town has a dump just outside of town but it's almost full. We will soon have to build another dump (unlikely) or ship our trash to another town. Both will raise costs so I keep pointing that out to people to hopefully get people to recycle more. We don't have curbside recycling so it's hard to get people to do it.

Plus our recycling is a mess because it's hard to sell plastic right now.

Kirsten@Nexyoo said...

Garbageland sounds like a great book. I'm hoping that more cities will start to offer municipal composting, since food waste contributes to global warming. It's amazing that some cities, like San Francisco, are aiming for zero waste fairly soon (2020 in their case). I hope we can all get there.

kale for sale said...

What a great post. Thank you. It seems like only after good recycling habits are in place does the next step of reducing what needs to be recycled in the first place come into play. Which gives me hope. Here's a link to a talk by Anne Leonard I heard recently. It's similar to your post in that she looks at everything for the eventual waste it will someday be. "I can't help it," she says. It's a good talk but does require a pocketful of time.
(And thanks for the worm link. They are such well minded pets.)

The 4 Bushel Farmgal said...

You've covered quite a lot of information in this post. Thank you! I'll be picking up GarbageLand very soon.

Unfortunatley, my city limits their recycling. Only newspapers and narrow-neck plastics and glass. Nothing else.

The worst part about leaf collection is that people around here use those blowers to get them into piles or bags. They waste energy just to get rid of them, when a rake and exercise....well, you know the rest.

utahlawyer said...

While I was in college, I spent a summer in Germany. Over there, companies are required to use the least amount of product packaging possible. Also, government regulations require that trash is sorted between recyclable, compostable, and garbage. Any glass or plastic beverage bottles were returned for a refund. After they are returned, they are sent to the bottler, wasted, refilled, relabled, and redistributed.

Inspite of having a roommate who was anti-environmental, I was amazed at how little trash we produced. It took four of us two weeks to fill an under the sink garbage can and recycle bin.

I was also impressed restaurants were not allowed to use disposables. I ate off of real dishes and silverware at even fast food places (with the exception of McDonalds, they use rice paper to dodge the regulation).

I think that most of our trash comes from product packaging (mostly food) that is intended to be brought home and tossed. After living in Germany, I realized how much of the packaging is completely unnecessary. I think this country needs to follow Germany's example and minimize product packaging.

Daisy said...

Composting has made a huge dent in the amount of trash produced by our family. That's backyard composting, not farm-style or country living. I invested in a second bin this year and placed it nearer the house so I can fill it all winter long.

Elizabeth Royte said...

Thanks for your review, Karen - it's great to hear people are paying attention to these issues. For better or worse, once you start noticing waste, you can't stop.

boriskat said...

I'll give you a really great reason to rake up leaves, in my world. The tree in my back yard produces leaves approximately the same size and shape as dog poo (from a distance), and since I already have dog poo in my back yard, that makes for a very messy couple of weeks while the tree sheds. Also, we have curbside composting, so I don't feel badly putting it out at the curb.

Karen Moser-Booth said...

@Erin: My sentiments exactly! Wow, I think we're twins now. The section on sewage was fascinating, but I didn't think readers would want to look at pictures of it. ;0)

@Green Bean: I think we'll see a renaissance in city-wide composting simply because of economics. Thank you.

@Alison: Yay for tallow candles!

Karen Moser-Booth said...

@June: Good idea!

@Monica: It's interesting to note which neighborhoods do the "free" signs and which ones just pile it up. I really encourage you to try a worm bin. It's easier than taking care of a gerbil and it's wonderful to watch your waste nurture life.

@Lisa: I think it is communities like yours that we need to be focusing on. It's not only about what effect our consumption and therefore trash habits have on our environment, but about the people--and ultimately ourselves, too--affected.

@Kirsten: It *is* a great book!

@Kale: Thank you! And thank you for the link--I'm going to check it out now.

@Farmgal: Glad to hear it! This book really is worth the time and money.

@Utahlawyer: Exactly. Cradle-to-cradle, closed-loop product design is essential. And I think we will need the help of US government to get corporations on board.

@Daisy: You've just reminded me how much I love my worms!

@Elizabeth: You're welcome. Thank you for writing Garbageland and getting me to think harder.

@boriskat: LOL. And I envy you the curbside composting service!


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