The book titled GONE TOMORROW The Hidden Life of Garbage by Heather Rogers was a very informative read. This book is a follow up to the 2002 documentary, also titled Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage. Heather is a journalist and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York.
The United States is the world’s number one producer of garbage: we consume 30 percent of the planet’s resources and produce 30 percent of all its wastes, but we are just 4 percent of the global population. These are staggering numbers which I personally find incomprehensible. I’m guessing that this is one of the reasons why more people do not get involved in this issue. We have implemented over 5,000 recycling programs throughout the country which are more of a means to helping us feel better about the massive amounts of garbage being created. There is no real global plan for stewarding the earth, which is one reason we created the company ENSO Bottles, to address the plastic bottle pollution on the planet.
Chapter 2 of the book, titled “Rubbish Past” was an eye opener for me. I was born in the 1960’s; my first encounter of the garbage problem was during the 1980’s when the major concern at that time was the filling up of our landfills. It was believed that our cities would soon be buried in huge mountains of garbage. What I didn’t know was that most of the methods for disposing our garbage was unregulated at the time which resulted in massive pollution of the environment.
There is a lot of concern about ocean pollution and there are a number of organizations taking a stand to address this issue. I’ve heard and read stories about the pacific gyre and what is called the “great pacific garbage patch”, which is a floating island of garbage about the size of Texas located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I never understood how so much garbage could end up in the oceans until I read that many states such as California and New York practiced ocean dumping of their garbage for many years. This has no doubt contributed to the ocean pollution problem we face today.
Although some may believe that processing garbage is a relatively new thing, a point I took away from the book is that we have always had a problem with dealing with our garbage. Even in the late 1800’s there were issues of polluting rivers and city streets with garbage, manure and animal carcasses. There were major outbreaks of disease in the late 1800’s which resulted in millions of people dying and was a direct result of filth and pollution from garbage. It is true that those in our past did not have the abundance of commodity products (and associated packaging) available to purchase however, they still dealt with and had to get rid of garbage and waste. Archeologists have found garbage and waste processing systems from civilizations from hundreds and thousands of years ago.
The United States first sanitary landfill was constructed in 1934 on the outskirts of Fresno, California. This marked the end to scavenging and the incineration of garbage and is the method practiced in many landfills today. It is amazing to think that only in the last five years have we developed techniques that will allow us to process our garbage with better environmental outcomes. Such as collecting the methane gasses which is the result of naturally occurring microbial digestion and using that gas as a source of clean and inexpensive energy. An energy source that is not only green but is the least costly of the green energy we can produce today (solar, wind, hydro).
So what about recycling? In the book, the author quotes a study which shows that 87% of garbage can be recycled with only 13% needing to be disposed of. It is estimated that the energy conserved through recycling is about five times as valuable as the average cost of disposing. As of 2000, U.S. recycling rates were surprisingly low: 54% for aluminum, 26% for glass, 40% for paper, and 5% for plastics. Bottle bills have been shown to be a method for improving the recycling rates for plastics. For example, the state of California claims a recycle rate for plastics of 65%. This rate sounds really good, which it is, when it comes to beverage bottles only. It is an example of how bottles bills can improve recycling. However, this number does not include the hundreds of millions of plastic bottles which are used for non-beverage items such as shampoos, oils, food items, etc. If we are truly looking at environmental solutions we would require the recycling of ALL materials that can be recycled.
Another interesting fact that I learned from Gone Tomorrow is that the United States has become the world’s largest exporter of garbage. With the large volume of container ships coming to America to bring us our inexpensive commodities from China, India and other parts of the world where there is inexpensive labor, the ships unload their cargo and returning to their ports empty. To fill this void, an opportunity was created to ship back our garbage (and recycled materials) very inexpensively. So now our garbage is becoming someone else’s problem, which I’m only guessing will become our problem again sometime in the future.
One last point that was covered in the final chapter of the book is the misguided thought of creating plastics and packaging from food sources such as corn, soy and hemp. These plastics are also called bioplastics and are being push today by the large agriculture companies such as Dow and Monsanto. The author points out the problems with bioplastics; “they are also likely to promote monocropping and increased use of chemical fertilizers to ensure a uniform and reliable feedstock. This would also wipe out biodiversity and pollute water and soil. Additionally, increased demand and higher prices for crops to feed the plastics sector could impact the food supply, since those with the strongest purchasing power get the goods.”
Journalist George Monbiot argues: “Those who worry about the scale and intensity of today’s agriculture should consider what farming will look like when it is run by the oil industry.”
I recommend this book for anyone wanting to learn about the history of our garbage problem.
By Danny Clark