Garbology Book Review

I recently finished Garbology by Edward Humes. Basically, it talks about some interesting stuff, but has problems staying on topic. The book jumps back and forth as if it forgot to add some important detail before. The different sections don’t connect well and don’t build on each other. The author never really reaches a conclusion (what are we supposed to do about this problem?).

Additionally, the author doesn’t use that many citations (certainly much fewer than I expected, considering how many claims he makes), and I saw one incorrect statistic which made me doubt the veracity of the others.

What the book did

The book starts off with the history of waste treatment, including especially landfilling and incineration. This was interesting, since it’s not common knowledge and isn’t discussed in many writings.

We move on to modern waste treatment, with the Puente Hills landfill in LA as the paragon of landfill technology. Puente Hills is revisited again and again (seemingly randomly…), but really ends up painting a not-so-bad picture of landfills. It captures a lot of methane, enough to power all its buildings and then some; it doesn’t smell (that bad); few, if any, rats live there; it makes enough money to have an extensive nature preserve (and a full-time ecologist!). It sounds like it would be good to visit, actually 🙂

For estimates of how much garbage the average American produces, the book cites a BioCycle garbage study, as opposed to the more commonly used EPA garbage model (I think it’s this one, but I don’t have the book anymore and the EPA has a lot of models…). This is a really interesting choice, since the EPA model is much more optimistic. For example, it says that the average American throws away half of what the BioCycle study says (~4 lb/day vs ~7 lb/day (!!)). The author claims that the BioCycle study is more accurate.

The author mentions that recycling and composting aren’t cures (they’re bandaids). I appreciate this. In fact, places that divert a lot of waste to recycling and compost, like Portland, tend to produce more waste per day per capita than other places. It’s as if recycling makes them think they don’t have to care.

What the book didn’t

I had hoped the author would spend more time on ways to prevent the problem of too much waste; however, he mostly discusses waste treatment options. Reduction is discussed very briefly, with Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home. Humes only stops to say that it would be difficult to achieve on a national/societal level.

Problems

I noticed one inaccurate fact: the author claims that the price of bottled water is 10 000x that of tap water, but it’s actually “only” a factor of ~1800. This is a pretty commonly discussed statistic, so the fact that it is misquoted was off-putting (and made me doubt how true other claims in the book were).

I’m going to nitpick on the author’s writing style. It reminded me of flowery journalism, where every article starts with an in-depth physical description of the interviewee (I don’t care that they have “sparkling blue-gray eyes”). The book opens like this, and almost put me off the entire thing. I’m not sure if it got better later on, or if I just got used to it :S

In the meat of the book, the author never says exactly why the BioCycle study is better than the EPA garbage model. His only argument is that the EPA model is “just” a model, while BioCycle actually collected and weighed garbage. (A much more complete argument is given in an extended footnote at the back of the book, where most people won’t read it…)

As someone who was trained as a scientist, this really feels like a cop-out. It’s like the argument that evolution is “just” a theory, not understanding that “theory” has a different meaning in science than in the vernacular. I’m not trying to say that the EPA’s models are perfect (far from it), but it’s not like their garbage model was conjured out of thin air. This was another thing that made me doubt the author’s reasoning skills.

In summary

Garbology has some interesting tidbits; I definitely learned a lot about landfilling and garbage. However, much of the book is badly constructed and badly argued. If you plan to read it, don’t be afraid to skim or completely skip sections.

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