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Drowning in Garbage (washingtonpost.com)
54 points by aagha 11 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 44 comments

For anybody interested in the totality of their garbage output, I can't recommend this book enough:


I had my book club read this book, and so many times, for so many other books this books came up in conversation.

Interesting facts:

* Glass is recycled in order to grind it up and spread it over landfills to keep down dust. In this way the glass is counted as recycled and not garbage despite it ended up being in the dump.

* Roman era landfills are still leaking effluant.

* Plastics might be marked and marketed as recyclable but many plastics are better off as garbage. Better yet, never created and used in the first place.

* Whenever a natural compost toilet has a problem, more sawdust is almost always the answer to fixing whatever ails it. (Not really in the book, one of our bookclub members had hippie parents).

I would follow up this book with another set in Mumbai:


Somehow we need to do a better job at reducing poverty and imroving consumer recycling habits. No miracle solutions in this book. Just griding, abject poverty, living in the garbage of Mumbai.

> Is this just garbage, or is it a resource?

About 10 years ago I looked at using engineered extremophile bacteria to mine metals from dumps. The tech was complex but doable even then and there were other things we could have done too in terms of remediation.

What killed it? Local government. They pay to manage and maintain dumps. I offered to take over their “brownfield” sites and change their cost center into a revenue stream. Everyone I talked to thought it would be a great idea...but wanted so much in royalties that it would not be worth doing. They’d rather strangle the goose.

Could you give us an idea of how that could work? I can't even begin to imagine how that could be done.


1: grind up the middens (sorry archeologists!)

2: put the resulting slurry in a bioreactor (an open tank would work) with your bacteria and stir for a while

3: rinse and drain tank. Spin down the rinsate.

4. Profit!

Why not buy out a local dump and run it "cheaper" then, under the existing contracts?

Good question. To start with we only wanted "full" dumps (ones that had been closed) rather than having to deal with the operation of a dump as well. There are numerous landfill sites that have been covered with dirt and now have to be looked after.

Also there's a higher level of valuable waste in the old dumps, though that wasn't a major factor.

In our moral crusade against impending environmental disaster, it astounds me that packaging is still given little thought beyond what we should do with it once we already have it. I think it would be a good idea to place some kind of rating on packaging to encourage purchasers to be more cognisant of what they are actually taking responsibility for beyond just the contents.

I can't help but feel like we are going backwards here - especially when I see things like individual bananas being sold on trays[1].

[1] http://i.imgur.com/WPaVBTv.jpg

In Germany consumers are legally allowed to unpackage items directly in the store and the store is required to handle the leftover packaging.

Very few people do that, though. Certainly not enough for the stores to do anything about packaging.

AI can help us here. This is an example of automated trash sorting (optical sorting) from 4 years ago. I expect today we can sort trash even more efficienty: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIVKmwzWSuc

Another idea would be an army of cleaning bots that can be let loose in a forest, on a beach or on roadside to methodically collect all trash. Even underwater drones could be used to clean up beaches. I think cleaning bots is the way forward.

I really appreciate the authors of this post for their effort in raising awareness but I think it will fall on deaf ears.

A few things that they mentioned that they didn't go into crazy depth are origination of plastic(s), transportation costs of waste, and taxation as a policy to reduce waste.

Did you know that glass is reusable, unfortunately it's so heavy that it's worth nothing to recycle.

The other problem is where the funding for recycling goes.

In the New York City metro area, a bottle deposit tax is used towards education. If everyone recycles, where/how is the government going to plug that hole, however small it may be?

The better question that the author should be asking is what type of policy(s) should be implemented in order to make it so that people want to or are forced to reuse verses to not even think about throwing things out.

The only conclusion that I see is a super high tax.

Unfortunately,most people don't really care unless it hits them in the wallet.

You would be suprised. You could make the fines incredibly high or jail people like they do in Singapore.

If Singapore can do it, why can't New York City?

I think the failure to reuse glass is a failure of imagination.

Why not have consumers refill product? Get your shampoo refilled at a machine in the aisle. Tax the plastic bottle.

You would have to make it punitively expensive for that to sway me. I pay $10 for a giant bottle of shampoo from Costco, if it suddenly became $10 + $5 plastic bottle tax I'd probably still just pay the $15 rather than refill the bottle.

I'd wager the same would not be true if that $5 saved after income tax represented 30 minutes or more of work on the job. Sure you might not refill the bottle but empty reusable bottle sowed become more common/affordable everywhere, and plenty of poorer people would definitely recycle. You're just a single person, if you're talking about policy you need to look at the total impact

The evidence is overwhelmingly against you[1], given how the plastic bag tax in Ireland and now the UK has shown it does significantly increase reuse, even for nominal amounts like a 5p charge per bag.

You might not want to save money, but most consumers do.

You're falling into the trap of "everyone is exactly like me", where you're in fact the exception, not the norm.


I think bags are quite different: the hassle of reusable bags is really low, they weigh almost nothing, and they have other real advantages over the plastic bags (they don't break).

Many US states have bottle deposits for a similar "nominal" amount per bottle and the majority of people don't do it: when I was a broke college student some friends and I did it for a little while but the math really didn't work out even then.

My Aunt & Uncle and in Holland did it all the time and as far as I could tell everyone did it (I'm from UK, we don't have a scheme like that).

In this article after a very quick google they report a 90% return rate in Holland (I'm not going to spend time digging into where the 90% comes from):


So it might be a cultural thing or it may be the deposit figure is too low. As far as I remember in Holland it was 10 cents when I was a kid in the 90s, which would be about a dime per bottle.

It certainly is cultural: in Switzerland the rate of recycling is extremely high without and deposit.

To clarify, in my experience what happens in the US is most people recycle bottles at curbside pickup, rather than drive somewhere to get 5 cents per can. In cities homeless tend to go around and collect all of the cans from the curb and redeem them.

This is not only cultural and has nothing to do with the Swiss being more ethical or better people.

As always, in Switzerland the system is very smart: The main reason for the high recycling rate in Switzerland is that a 35 liter trash bag costs around 80 cents. The cost for the garbagemen etc. is included in the purchase price of the trash-bag. (Also, the trash-bag is of high-quality and never rips, so garbagemen who get a >4000 CHF monthly salary, almost never waste time picking up trash from ripped trash-bags.)

This is unbelievably smart because this nudges people recycle everything: Paper, carton, glas, metal, and plastic bottles are all thrown away in extra containers that are distributed conveniently within the neighbourhoods. People really fill the expensive, high-quality trash-bags mostly with non-recyclable stuff. If you put in recyclable stuff there is no punishment or anything, you just have to buy more bags, which hurts your pocket.

Compare that to Germany where they rolled out a machinary of expensive plastic-bottle-bar-code reading robots in each and every supermarket that had to be engineered, maintained and protected against tampering/hacking/fraud with false bottles (from Eastern Europe).

Bottle deposits are very effective. Aluminum soda cans have a 60% recycling rate vs 30% for most other materials.

Where there is a bottle tax poor people collecting and returning the bottles soon emerge. As long as you leave it somewhere accessible, someone will come and return it, especially for $5.

The giant bottles require less packaging material per unit of volume, so you’re already making a better choice.

Because your health is generally safer when we don't.

Got MSRA on your throwaway plastic bottle, no problem it's going to the dump.

Got MSRA on your refillable bottle? Better steam clean it first or peoples heads might start falling off.

Lack of creativity, and often bad reasons, inevitably result in taxation as a way to get people to behave how you'd like. Punish, punish, punish and maybe they'll learn something.

A high tax on garbage will only incent illegal disposal. Dumping stuff in ravines, on other people's property, etc.

Not necessarily, you could tax the production/sale of goods that usually contribute to garbage.

For example in Germany, it's mostly the producers of goods who have to pay for disposal of corresponding (packaging) waste, thereby creating an incentive to reduce packaging or rely on reusable bins etc.


I agree. Placing a greater burden on the side of the producers to deal with the trash they produce seems like the most logical approach to me. If X company wants to make something with a bunch of plastic packaging they will have to pay for the impact that will have. If they want that to eat into their profits, fine, but I think the more likely scenario is that that they will pass as much of that cost on to consumers as they can, ideally also driving down demand for those products.

> On average, Americans throw away their own body weight in trash every month. In Japan, meanwhile, the typical person produces only two-thirds as much

That surprised me with the quantity of garbage due to overpacking in Japan, I'd have expected more. For example, I just bought 2 salads to eat at home, each salad is in a plastic container with some ice sticked to it and enveloped separately in a plastic bag. Then those two salads are in a plastic bag. It's an amazing amount of waste for no real reason.

Japan seems to have an interesting relationship with waste though. Getting rid of waste while wandering the cities is really hard since there are no bins. Convenience stores have bins, but from the behaviour of my Japanese frieds you cannot just put your waste there unless you bought it at that store.

Contrast to Europe, where bins are ubiquitous and their use is encouraged. Maybe the difference is that Europeans will start littering more if not given the opportunity not to.

Plastic bags don't really weigh that much. Maybe Americans use a little less plastic bags (do they, though?) but throw away more other stuff, like plastic gadget crap.

Having personally dug hundreds, perhaps thousands of those evil little fuckers out of the sands of beaches all over the world, I would say that gram for gram these are one of the worst kinds of pollution man has created.

Plastic shopping bags are a real bitch when they get into the sand. They often fill up with sand and become like a 10kg buried beachball. One literally needs to dig completely under them to get them out without tearing them up and leaving part of the bag under the sand. All of those plastic bags basically glue together the beach so that the normal erosive action of the sand being moved around by tides and waves no longer grinds things up like it normally would. That means the whole beach gets stagnant and rotten like a swamp. Really nasty.

Oh sure, I despise the ubiquitous hand-outs of plastic bags as much as anyone, I was just making that comment to give a reason for the weight-difference in spite of the perceived over-usage of packaging in Japan. I make it a point to refuse plastic bags whenever possible (which is pretty much always). I find it incredible that they are still considered the standard mode for packaging your shit. If shops would only give them out when asked for it, the number of used plastic bags would surely plummet.

One anecdote I found amusing is when I was in Yosemite: I bought a couple of t-shirts and told the lady at the check-out she doesn't need to give me a plastic bag for them, since I have my backpack with me anyways. She was pleasantly surprised and thanked me. It's one of the most well-known national parks in the US, where they make it a point to educate people on taking care of your environment, yet they hand out plastic bags with every purchase in the souvenir shop.

The two major retailers in Switzerland started to charge ~ 5 cents for those small, crappy plastic baggies.

Usage went back by ~ 80%.

On the other hand there is still a lot of packaging per good in Switzerland: a lot more things are sold individually wrapped in plastic (cucumbers, peppers, etc) and things like baking soda are sold in much smaller packets.

Both, cucumbers and peppers are usually sold open. With the exception of organic produce.

That's so that the cashier is able to make the distinction, since prices for organics are usually higher.

Usually, because there are exceptions, like a three pack of peppers. Fennel also comes often pre-packed. Other veggies usually not.

That's not to say that not a lot more could be done.

What I tried to do with my comment is to pôint out that a tiny fee can really change behavior.

Bring a couple tupperware containers to the place where you want takeout. In my experience they are more than happy to fill your containers, since those portable containers do actually cost them money and are a logistical hassle. They might even give you a little extra food :)

> waste for no real reason

That's because Japanese want to be extra nice to customers. /s

When we moved to a house in an area with municipal composting, we were amazed by how much our trash volume was reduced by diverting compostable materials to the compost stream. Some of that is food waste, but a lot of it is things you'd never consume -- vegetable peels, eggshells, old coffee grounds, even food-soiled unwaxed corrugated cardboard (i.e. pizza boxes). On any given week, it's half or more by volume, and well over half by weight.

Unrelated but the scrolling on site is super weird. Clicking on Lagos takes to the top of the page.

Not really unrelated — if the article is hard to read it’s a problem. And what’s with the scrolling that sends small “fortune cookie” messages scrolling across the photos? That all simply distracts from the article and makes you have to find your place again. Sad.

we need to get more clever with this elephant in the room. some startup needs to come up with a Garbage > Energy solution. The rest can maybe go into making bricks for construction.

its a slow boil and we are not focused

Aren't those called incinerators? We have those.

Looking at the numbers, I just don't see a real problem here. Landfill is three dimensional, and can be built on top of; it would take quite a lot of orders of magnitude population growth before we started running low on places to put it.

Landfills emit gases and things collapse as the waste changes over time. They aren't perfect foundations for future construction.

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