Rubbish!

The Cornell Waste Management Institutue, in its most recent attempt to tell me where the bogus statistic they published came from, pointed me to William Rathje, an anthropologist/archeologist who’s excavated landfills and studied the waste disposal habits of Americans. He hasn’t responded to my email inquiries yet, but at this point, it’s not that important: I already have several sources that have told me the statistic “the US produces 50% of the world’s garbage” is impossible. And, call me elitist, but I think organizations like the Office of Technology Development, Worldwatch, and the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development are more authoritative than a 1986 New York State nutritional pamphlet.

I’m still terribly curious, though, so I got ahold of William Rathje’s 1992 book Rubbish: The Archeology of Garbage. It’s a fascinating book, filled with all sorts of interesting information. And of all the people the Cornell Waste Management Institute could have pointed their fingers at, he’s one of the least likely sources of hysterical statistics. In fact, in the opening of his book he writes: “The most critical part of the garbage problem in America is that our notions about the creation and disposal of garbage are often riddled with myth. There are few other subjects of public significance on which popular and official opinion is so consistently misinformed.”

The book goes on a number of subjects, but he never makes the point that the U.S. is the filthiest nation on earth, or the filthiest one in history. In fact, he writes about several ancient cultures which were more wasteful that contemporary Americans; the fact that Mexican households create more food waste, because they don’t buy their food processed (i.e. peeled, shucked, etc.); and that the whipping boy of the politically correct, McDonald’s, got crucified two ways when it tried to address environmentalist concerns about its fast food packaging.

A few years ago, the city of Sunnyvale considered banning disposable diapers; and currently, the city of San Francisco wants to ban plastic grocery bags, but according to Rathje, it’s more of psychological problem than a real one. Disposable diapers consisted of no more than 1.4 percent of the volume in the average landfill’s total solid waste contents deposited between 1980 and 1989, and weren’t toxic. The nail polish, make-up, old paint, and lawn fertilizers dumped were far more dangerous to the environment, but you’re not going to get people to stop using those any more than you can convince an exhausted new parent to switch to labor-intensive cloth diapers. The great boogeyman of garbage, plastic bottles, was less than 1% of the volume in landfills, and for the same reason, I assume plastic bags to be the same volume. Sure, plastic doesn’t decompose readily, but neither did most dumped items. Except in a boggy, environmentally unsound landfill like Fresh Kills, most of the garbage, including newspapers and hot dogs, were simply mummified.

He also supported Peter’s cynical view on recycling: in the early 1970s “buy-back” centers found they were receiving more recyclable material than anyone wanted to buy at a price that would support the centers. Rathje writes: “Some recyclers began paying to have their mounting paper and other commodities dumped in landfills, but secretly, so the public would not lose heart. A more recent episode of Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit” television show found the practice still to be true in modern municipal recycling programs. As Rathje ably says later: “Recycling gets done not because it is a good thing; it gets done if it is a profitable thing.” The human garbage heap scavengers in third world countries are far more efficient at finding the reusable items in discards than any municipal recycling program is.

Rathje concludes the book with down-to-earth”commandments” about dealing with garbage, which conclude with “Educate the next generation–without the myths.” If only the schools felt the same way….

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