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Garbology (a book review)

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6172secGHML._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Just finished reading Edward Humes’ Garbology – it’s a little gem. It isn’t an exhaustive essay on garbage ; rather, it’s a selection of a few choice topics that really throw a spotlight on some aspects of our waste that we don’t often think about.

There is a fascinating chapter on marine plastics and their impacts in the so-called Great Garbage Patch; and while some proposed solutions are outlined the magnitude of the problem is made clear by material that contribute to the problem by their very nature, such as the synthetic fabrics that release small fibers into our waters every time they are washed, or – worse – the cleanser and toothpaste formulations that include plastic microbeads (recently banned by Illinois). There are also chapters on garbage archeology, or on how fine arts use or focus on garbage, including the Artist-in-Residence project of the San Francisco landfill.

But possibly the best parts are found where Humes takes pleasure in skewering opponents of incinerators for their irrational, short-sighted views.
For instance, in the 80’s Los Angeles, the proposal for a Waste-To-Energy facility at Puente Hills that would have been the world’s biggest was rejected after local protests, leading to a landfill instead. Writes Humes:

Puente Hills would have been the site of the largest waste-to-energy plant in the world, capable of swallowing up to 10,000 tons of trash a day…the smokestack would have reached up to 450 feet high in order to make sure emissions blew up and away from the neighbourhoods below…as tall as three Statues of Liberty. That image was enough to alarm the locals…they imagined a towering spire despoiling the foothills and the low-slung suburban skyline. They didn’t know in the early 1980s that Garbage Mountain would eventually rise up higher than any smokestack would have, blotting out a much bigger piece of the skyline without a trash-burning energy plant there to suck up the waste and give them power in return.
The neighbours of Puente Hills thought they had scored a victory, but they only traded a power plant for an even bigger trash mountain…Sanitation officials couldn’t resist a bit of schadenfreude at that, for the neighbourhood opposition to the power plant had left the county with no options but to ramp up trash burial at Puente Hills.

Further in the book, Humes quotes at length from Nickolas Themelis of Columbia University, with respect to WTE:

They [Denmark] are so far ahead of us; our behaviour in the US in this area is really quite irrational.
Recycling’s energy advantage is real and that is often the better alternative, but not always…recycling plastic grocery bags, for example, costs four to five times what the raw materiala are worth. Transportation costs, manpower for sorting recyclables from garbage and contamination problems make recycling a lot of common items of trash too costly or too difficult or both, despite the energy savings…[that’s] why even America’s recycling leader, San Francisco, still sends trash to the landfill in which two thirds of the material is still theoretically recyclable.
The final argument against WTE – that it will reverse gains in recycling – is belied by the history of the technology. (Japan, Denmark, Germany, all countries that rely on WTE have a recycling rate rate better than the US.)
The current practice of burying waste in landfills amounts to burying a billion barrels of oil a year that could be used for much needed energy…the same arguments against WTE used in the eighties are still being used to limit the technology in the US, even though emission controls have advanced…[and] a 2009 study concluded that harmful emissions from landfills were greater than those from modern WTE plants.

And finally, while contrasting public attitudes in Copenhagen with North American attitudes, Humes add:

The output of the most harmful products of incineration, including the main environmental show stopper in the US, dioxins, has been reduced to levels that represent a mere fraction of what the average home fireplace or backyard barbecue puts out.

Humes, Edward 2012. Garbology: our dirty love affair with trash. New York: Avery.


Written by enviropaul

August 21, 2014 at 9:40 pm

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