Edward Humes


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Garbology Summary

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Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash is a non-fiction book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes, which tells the story of American consumption and trash production, through a series of mind-boggling statistics and the stories of lives impacted daily by an accumulation of trash. Humes’s central argument is that the American Dream has come at the cost of constantly accelerating trash production, which most of us use our privilege to disregard. Humes looks at personal consumption, corporate greed, and cost-cutting that leads to the use of disposable rather than reusable packaging, and other factors that influence America’s enormous trash production. His overall goal is to bring awareness of American wastefulness and to propose strategies to reduce waste on a personal level in order to help save the environment and the oceans from further pollution.

Humes organizes the book into three sections. The first focuses on an analysis of the American trash problem, including statistics and charts that highlight our waste. In the second, Humes takes to the field to meet people surrounded by or concerned with our garbage, playing the role of social anthropologist as he picks through piles of our trash. In the final section, Humes ends on a more positive note, suggesting alternatives to our wastefulness that are easy to adopt and asking individual readers to consider working to change policies that will help save the environment.

First, Humes examines the cause of our trash problem. He points out that Americans produce about 7.2 pounds of trash a day, more than 102 tons in our lifetime, which is significantly more than any other nation with a similar quality of life. According to the EPA, from 1998 to 2000, the average American produced a third more trash than they had in subsequent periods. According to Humes’s math, one in every six large trucks in America – semis, maintenance trucks, etc. – is a garbage truck.

There are many reasons for this enormous amount of waste production. First and foremost, American companies are producing more packaging, which is made primarily of plastic and rapidly fills landfills and oceans. In 1966, companies like Coca-Cola switched from reusable glass to recyclable plastic bottles, causing significantly more waste worldwide. This is common among most large companies, and Humes points out that American materialism contributes to the problem. Most of the products that we buy come in packaging that we throw out, then those products break within a few years, and we throw those out too. All of those things contribute to our enormous waste production.

Humes doesn’t just rely on statistics, however. He focuses on many human stories of garbage, opening with a startling story about a couple living in Chicago, who are hoarders living in piles of their own trash. Though their mental health problem is obvious, Humes makes a point that these people are not producing more trash than other Americans – their trash is just harder for them to ignore. Unlike the rest of us, who choose to ignore how much trash we produce, this couple is aware every day of what they throw away.

Humes also spends time interviewing Big Mike, who drives the bulldozer at the Puente Hills landfill in Los Angeles, where nearly all of Los Angeles County’s trash finds its home. Similarly, Humes spends a lot of time talking to Bill Rathje, the first “garbologist,” who was hired by the University of Arizona’s Garbage Project to use his archaeological skills to dig through our waste to find out what it says about our civilization as a whole. Rathje has been doing his job since the 1970s.

In the last section of Humes’s book, he talks about alternatives to wastefulness. He interviews a family in Northern California that limits its non-recyclable trash to one mason jar per year. However, Humes makes it clear that though this kind of wastelessness is invaluable and helpful, there are small steps that can be taken to contribute to lessening the overall problem. Avoiding bottled water, recycling, and voting for plastic bag bans are the first steps toward solving the problem of American waste.

Edward Humes is a journalist who received a Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting on the US Military in 1989. Since then, he has written thirteen non-fiction books, with subjects as far-reaching as evolution and education, pediatric doctors, juvenile court, and true crime. He is a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine, Sierra Magazine, and California Lawyer, among other publications. Highly acclaimed, Garbology has been frequently selected by college campuses as an all-campus reading book for incoming freshmen classes and first-year seminar programs.