One of the green, rolling hills in the Palouse isn’t quite like the others.
Aside from a PVC pipe sticking out of its ridge, it looks—and smells—no different than any other mound. But instead of having a loamy center riddled with earthworms, it’s made of garbage. Tens of thousands of tons of it, though no one really knows how much.
The trash was collected throughout Whitman County over about 30 years until 1993, when the county sealed the landfill, built a transfer station next to it, and began shipping garbage elsewhere. Since then, four to six 18-wheelers leave the transfer station just north of Pullman every day to drive all that garbage to Spokane, where the trailers are loaded on to a train and hauled to the regional landfill in Roosevelt, Washington, 210 miles away.
Our relationship with waste is anything but simple, as one WSU sociologist is finding as he investigates some of the country’s industrial waste sites, and as many WSU students will discover when they read Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Garbage, this year’s Common Reading Program selection. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes makes no bones about it: Americans create more trash than anyone else on Earth. On average, each of us is responsible for 7.1 pounds of trash every day—from the day we’re born to the day we die.
“Each of our bodies may occupy only one cemetery plot when we’re done with this world,” he writes, “but a single person’s 102-ton trash legacy will require the equivalent of 1,100 graves.”
Humes takes us to Puente Hills, the mountain of decades’ worth of Los Angeles trash. We sail to the Pacific Garbage Patch, where bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, and other plastic fragments so densely infiltrate hundreds of miles of ocean, visitors say it’s like a sea of plastic chowder. We learn how pigs were fed municipal waste until as recently as 1970, and many cities still burn trash and turn it into energy.
The thought of it all is staggering. At the landfill, David Nails, Whitman County’s solid waste operations manager, points out the different piles of waste. A small hill of crushed glass that will be used in local road building. A garage filled with hazardous household waste like brake fluid, aerosols, and pesticides. A pallet piled with car batteries.
In one of the many 1,000-pound bales of crushed aluminum cans, a plastic Mountain Dew bottle peeks out. Nails tries to tug it loose. “Won’t budge,” he says. He knew it wouldn’t, and while he’s very supportive of reusing our trash, his action highlights the inefficient ways we deal with garbage.
In Garbology, Humes tells the story of the “trash trackers,” who planted GPS transmitters in random pieces of Seattle garbage and watched where they went. A shoe traveled 337 miles to the Columbia Ridge Landfill in Arlington, Oregon, which also took in Pullman’s garbage from 1993 to 2012. A cardboard box made it only 3.3 miles to a recycling center. Unbelievably, a printer ink cartridge first went to Chicago before coming back west to be recycled in California—a journey of 4,000 miles.
Recycling has long been “a way of making it okay to waste” because we’re reusing everything, writes Humes. But the “meandering, inefficient and sometimes purposeless paths for our garbage” shows this isn’t true. The journey of the ink cartridge “creates a footprint that’s more environmental disaster than savior.”
While Humes focusses on individual waste, WSU sociologist Scott Frickel and a colleague at the University of Oregon specialize in industrial waste. They have devised a way of documenting potential “relict industrial waste” sites, often called brownfields. These former industrial or commercial sites have been buried, forgotten, and redeveloped. The infamous Love Canal, a New York subdivision built on 22,000 tons of toxic waste in the mid-1970s, led to the Superfund act, which helps identify, manage, and clean up hazardous sites nationwide. Currently, the government has identified more than 100,000 hazardous sites. Of those, the most egregious 1,300 are on the Superfund list, including eight in the Spokane area and dozens in and around Puget Sound.
Frickel’s research shows the vast majority of former industrial sites are not listed or even known about, simply because they closed before any environmental regulation existed. To conduct their study, Frickel and his Oregon coauthor, James Elliott, focused on Portland, Oregon, and New Orleans. Sifting through the earliest available government data of industrial sites and state manufacturing directories, and visiting potential waste sites, they uncovered 215 historic sites of hazardous manufacturing in New Orleans, and 716 in Portland.
Their results are particularly surprising for Portland. The city is smaller in size, meaning the density of these waste sites is six times greater than in New Orleans. In a place that prides itself on being “green,” 81 percent of the sites they identified were converted to some other use by 2006, most commonly as bars, night clubs, restaurants, grocery stores, and professional offices. Think about that next time you’re sipping a beer in some hip, new Portland pub.
But it’s probably better to think about throwing away less, which is Humes’ concluding argument. Composting more, reusing more, bringing our own bags to the grocery store, are among many small actions that may help. All of this, however, does little to impact the vast amount of waste we produce, as Humes bluntly illustrates. The only way we can truly lessen our waste, he says, is simple. We just have to buy less stuff.