• KIM VAETH is a poet who teaches writing at MIT.
Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash
by Edward Humes (Penguin Group, 2012)
1. Why a book on garbage? What drew you to the subject matter?
The question of waste is pivotal and seemed to be at the heart of a lot of our environmental and energy woes. So it seemed natural to look at this oddly invisible world of waste. People do not know how much they throw away and how that waste has many more lives. That’s our real opportunity.
2. You dedicate the book to your grandmother, Maggie. Can you talk about what she taught you about waste and garbage?
I grew up in the 60s with its culture of abundance – we wasted things. For her, waste was a mortal sin and she tried to encourage me to understand the value of things. She had the coolest house filled with things that continued to have a useful life for her – it was like being in a museum. If a tool or device was broken, she saw things in it that might be useful down the line. It was a different way of being, forged by the Great Depression.
3. Tell us about Mary Crowley.
Mary is a sailor who loves the sea. Her’s is one of the lone voices out there talking about cleaning up the mess of the marine plastic cataclysm we are creating for ourselves. Fish are ingesting plastic rather than plankton – the effect of this toxic material in the food chain can become quite serious.
4. What are the really great technologies – the best technologies for waste management that you are seeing out there?
Our whole way of thinking about what we call waste is totally wrong. I’m convinced that relying on any one technology for waste disposal is our downfall. No one technology focuses on reducing the waste stream or on finding solutions for replacing the disposable economy with one that is reusable.
The landfill option – even recycling one hundred percent – cannot be our only useful alternative and until we start creating incentives for less waste, none of these individual solutions are going to lead us to where we want to be. I like the attempts some governments are making to create producer responsibility for the waste they manufacture.
5. You dedicate a whole chapter to our disposable economy, i.e. our consumer culture. Why is that?
Because of the absurdity of our consumer economies. By persuading people to buy new stuff, we have overturned the basic instinct to be thrifty. Throwing good stuff away only works if you cannot run out of things. Wastefulness and thrift are polar opposites. We are way out of whack. None of these high-tech or low-tech initiatives is the final solution until we focus our efforts on reducing the waste stream and then figure out what to do with what’s left. Tackling waste in the first place is the ideal. We can’t say “let’s get rid of it” unless we try to figure out where to put it.
This post is an article from Paper Radio Issue #2: Trash. Paper Radio is CoLab’s print publication.