n his new book, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Edward Humes unearths a slew of startling facts about trash in the United
States, including this one: The average American is on track to waste 102 tons of trash during his or her lifetime. That’s 7.1 lbs. of trash per person every day, nearly double the waste generated by the average American in 1960, and 50 percent more than Western countries with similar standards of living, including Denmark and Germany. Yet despite our mountains of trash, America is “in an
official state of garbage denial,” Humes writes in Garbology. Statistics released annually by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he reports, “scandalously” underestimate the volume of municipal waste by relying on simulations and equations rather than measuring the actual trash. (The problems with measuring waste extend to the meetings industry as well. See “A Phantom Fact,” p. 90.) Trash is a serious concern — our biggest export, the strongest drain on our economy, and one of the leading sources of greenhouse gases, Humes told Convene in a recent phone interview. The list of negative effects of the U.S. addiction to trash is “mind- boggling,” he said. “Yet it is invisible to most of us.” Here is more from Convene’s conversation with Humes
about the scope of the problem and what individuals, organi- zations, and communities are doing about it.
I’m curious about how you came to be interested in the topic of garbage. [Laughs.] Yes. Well, it really started with two of my previous books, Eco Barons and Force of Nature. The first one was about environmental visionaries and philanthropists, activ- ists — people who are pushing the envelope on all matters green, … people who have had a big impact and maybe suggest a direction for the rest of us. The second one was more about business sustainability. It revolves around the story of a river guide who became a sustainability consultant. His first client was Walmart. He was the architect of their efforts to include sustainability in their business. With that background, the thing that kept coming up
throughout all this work was that the big, underlying chal- lenge and problem to a lot of our climate and environmental and resource concerns revolved around waste of all kinds, but particularly the profligate way we do business, live, expend energy, and use, and misuse, our materials.
There is a real push in business to be more sustainable. Do you expect that that is going to become the norm — that companies will follow Walmart’s example? First of all, Walmart is following the examples of people and companies that have done more and much earlier. But yes, I think it is inevitable. It is kind of funny, really, that the
88 PCMA CONVENE SEPTEMBER 2012
Talking Trash Edward Humes is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of 12 nonfiction books, three of which focus on sustainability issues.
business sector, [which] long was the laggard on the environ- mental front, should now be really ahead of other sectors. But I think a lot of businesses, even big ones that are not
normally associated with social good, like major retail chains like Walmart, have really recognized the business case of becoming more sustainable in certain things — meaning it is not across the board. Any company that has imported immense amounts of goods from China and [is] doing it in a very carbon- intensive way is never going to be sustainable. But within their business model, they could be using less energy and making less waste and finding an economic case for doing all that. That has value, and it sets an example that is important.
One of the points that you make in the book is that waste can be both a noun and a verb. It refers to the stuff you cart away and the act of squandering a resource. What do you think about the terms “green” and “sustainable”? Do you think that there is a way to describe sustainability that is more motivating? I think those words have kind of been sapped of their power,