[Book Review]: Garbology and Junk Planet

Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash by Edward Humes, 336 pp. 

Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade by Adam Minter, 304 pp. 

Many countries began to feel the impact of the waste crisis when China in 2018 decided to ban 24 types of solid waste imports, including unsorted paper, textiles and others. Media coverage went viral. Early this year, China banned all types of imported waste. 

It is hard not to ponder why countries produce so much waste. Why did China previously import such tremendous amounts of trash? 

Two books – Edward Humes’s Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, and Adam Minter’s Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade – focus on the waste-driven model of mass consumption and the recycling businesses.

 

Humes’s very cogent book argues that ‘the American Dream is inextricably linked to an endless, accelerating accumulation of trash.’ The rise of consumerism has been underway for years now, prompted primarily by President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Buy anything” solution during the recession of 1960-1961. Gordon Lippincott had a great marketing job to rebrand corporate products, encouraging purchases of new items instead of repairing the old ones. 

The disposable economy is based on the belief that throwing away more will boost production to enrich business and create more jobs. Americans dispose of on average 102 tons of trash across a lifetime. They generate 50% more garbage per person than other western countries with similar living standards, including Germany and Denmark. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the US accounts for almost 25% of the world’s waste. 

What is more, Garbology contends that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scandalously underestimates the volume of American generated trash. A joint study by Columbia University and the Journal “BioCycle” found that the US sends twice as much waste to landfill than the EPA’s statistics, and recycling figures are far less than the official stats suggest. 

Plastic production took over aluminium in volume as a raw material in the 1960s and outstripped steel in the 1970s. Humes effectively illustrates how plastics in the ocean affect sea creatures, including fish, whales, and others. As grimly estimated by the United Nations, a minimum of 7 million tons of trash is thrown into the ocean each year, 5.6 million tons of which is plastic. The project Kaisei (meaning “ocean planet” in Japanese) is trying to clean up the garbage floating on the waves.

As has been true throughout American history, the garbage crisis is not new. Such are the cases of the Virginia Garbage War of 1894 and the 1983 garbage crisis in Los Angeles. Trash also played a crucial role in the Black Death. Every time the US faces a ‘garbage crisis’, it asks: “Where are we going to put all the trash?” rather than “why do we have so much trash, and what might we do to make less of it?”

To improve waste management, some cities, in the 1960s, pursued the waste-to-swine strategy: feed pigs with wet garbage. Evidence showed that garbage-fed pigs were linked to the infection of the deadly parasitic disease trichinosis. 

The landfill is a great alternative. In the 1970s, Waste Management, Inc. (WMI) rapidly expanded, to become the waste and landfill leader, the world’s biggest trash company. During the expansion years, WMI was accused of illegal toxic dumping. Nevertheless, the organization rebranded itself as a company practising sustainable waste management, that is a waste-to-energy solution. However, it does nothing to reduce the volume of material going to landfills, as its entire business model depends on this process. Despite the economic and environmental cost of waste, landfills grow from year to year. 

Humes explores mainly the plastic bottle, wrappings and food waste, which is just one part of the story of the tons of waste generated by the developed countries, and thrown away in the landfills. In Junk Planet, Adam Minter explores other types of trash from cardboard, metal shavings, waste cable and wire, old computers, motors and cars. 

Some of this trash finds its way to other countries. Developing countries become the destination of global trash. Humes touches slightly on American waste export to China, citing the story of Zhang Yin, a billionaire in the trash industry. Yet, Minter digs more deeply into what happens with global recycling and the reuse trade in developing countries, such as India, Malaysia, and China. The book centres on the US-China scrap trade. 

Poverty is an important factor that causes people to recycle more. “No culture encourages a high recycling rate quite like the culture of poverty,” writes Minter. It is true that one consumes much less when one can afford very little. For instance, Indians consume 98.34 pounds of paper per capita per year, while Americans consume 653.62 pounds. 

Junk Planet sees that China imports large quantities of scrap copper, aluminium, steel, and other metals from the US because it needs raw materials to build subways and modernize society. For example, China in 2012 produced 5.6 million tons of copper, 2.75 million tons of which was made from scrap. In turn, processing factories are located on the southern coast of China, where they turn the trash into new products and export them back to the US. 

Cheap shipping costs, low wages, poor environmental regulations and the booming demand for raw materials have turned the recycling industry into a multi-million-dollar business in China. It is eye-popping that the scrap business is worth $500 billion a year, employing more people than any other industry in the world after agriculture. 

Minter’s investigative journalist narrative style takes the reader on tours of various scrapyards, where entrepreneurs have become millionaires. He travelled from Minneapolis and Indianapolis in the west to Bangalore, Guangzhou, and Wen’an in the east, in addition to many other places. 

The author then taps into abandoned motors and automobiles, from which workers extract copper, aluminium, and steel. For example, Taizhou receives millions of motors from developed countries, including the US, Australia and Europe. A motor that can be fixed will be sent to the second-hand markets, while those that cannot be repaired are broken apart to rip out the metals. The steel recycling companies like Shandong Yuxi Group have dismantled millions of cars. Of note, it is utterly absurd that in the 1960s, thousands of Americans abandoned their cars by dropping them off a 350-foot cliff and even dumped them in the ocean. 

This industry has trade-offs. On the one hand, there is increasing pollution, poor health and safety standards, while on the other, the option is to return to subsistence farming, where people cannot build a home back in the village or pay a child’s school fees. In Guiyu, a town in Guangdong, for example, many children are vulnerable to lead poisoning caused by primitive e-waste recycling activities. 

Both Humes and Minter contend that public perception emphasizes the recycling effort, downplaying the importance of reducing consumption. Most importantly, many things that people think are recyclable are not because the more materials added to form a product, the harder it is to recycle. “If the goal is conservation, then boosting the recycling rate is far less important than reducing the overall volume of waste generated – recyclable or otherwise,” Minter writes. 

The logic is we recycle because we consume, and we consume because we think it is recyclable. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology revealed a troubling result that people are more likely to use more resources when they have a recycling option (Chapter 14). The main actor behind the recycling ads and recycling projects is the plastic industry. Since the 1980s, they have promoted recycling activities, spending tens of millions of dollars to keep plastic bans at bay. 

Accumulation of trash and recycling efforts are themes that run throughout these two books to spotlight two main strategies to deal with waste. The landfill is one option; export is another. Although there are no comprehensive recommendations on how to deal with waste, Garbology and Junk Planet present readers with a compelling problem confronting the take-make-waste society. 

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