Why Worry About Garbage

… when we have much bigger and more urgent things to worry about, like climate change?

None of the obvious reasons for studying and chronicling (or reading about) garbage hold water, as I soon discovered when I tried to think it through and capture it on paper. Despite periodic alarms that we are running out of space for garbage, there is in fact plenty of room left. As a retired hazardous waste engineer told me recently—and with a straight face—most of the state of Utah would be entirely suitable for the purpose. We can in fact keep going as we have for many centuries and hardly notice the difference. (Unless of course you live in Utah.)

Marsh Road Fill, Menlo Park, CATrue, landfills contribute methane to the atmosphere, and methane is thought to have an even stronger effect on our climate than carbon dioxide. Nevertheless, garbage is a much, much smaller problem than our reliance on fossil fuels. Compared to the burgeoning world population, still multiplying at break-neck speed, increasing global inequality, frightening reductions in biodiversity, and progressive regional destabilization, garbage doesn’t rank as a major issue.

What’s worse, my early attempts at explaining myself ran foul of the essential nature of my experience visiting garbage dumps and collecting garbage facts. Somehow, all my explanations gravitated to the ponderous and the edifying. Before I knew it, I’d be up to my ears in stern morality and finger-wagging, a flock of shoulds lurking at the end of every sentence. Here’s a snippet from my archives: “Garbage is a part, even if only a small one, in our environmental muddles. If we manage to head off catastrophic climate change, if we husband our natural resources carefully, we’ll eventually have to confront all the garbage we so meticulously store up for the future.”

Byxbee Park, Palo Alto, CAWell, yes, that’s true—we are preserving our garbage in pristine condition in our landfills—but that’s not why I like it. Here’s another attempt: “Our economy is driven not only by marketing but by swift and efficient trash collection. One creates the endless desire for ever more stuff, while the other reduces our guilt over the consequences. Stuff will continue its gay march through our households only as long as there’s a smooth way out the back door.”

It’s not that I don’t agree—I wrote it, after all—but what fun is that?

Besides, take a quick look online for books on consumerism and it’ll be instantly clear that you hardly need me to tell you that we buy too much stuff in too much packaging for reasons that, in the final analysis, have little to do with our own well-being.

So why then bother with garbage? Why do I write about it? And what on earth makes me think that you should read about it?

Fresh Kills, Staten Island, NYThe answer is simple and straightforward: garbage is delightful. I humbly offer it up, perhaps not as absolute truth, but certainly as my deeply considered opinion. It’s counterintuitive, but garbage improves upon acquaintance. I can personally vouch for the fact that the more you know about it, the more entertaining it becomes, provided you approach it in the proper spirit. Garbage is disgusting, sure, but it’s also funny, pathetic, fascinating, and infuriating—every bit as funny, pathetic, fascinating, and infuriating as we who produce it.

I love garbage because it is concrete, showing us very specifically what some of our contributions to the planet amount to. Because almost all of the garbage created in our lifetime has been buried and preserved, it is still as concrete as the day it went to earth. Though hidden, it is still visible if you seek it out. And it is permanent, carefully preserved in its many unassuming storage places to minimize its impact on those who hope to deny its presence. That is to say, if we’re not ready to think about it now, we’ll have a lot of opportunity to do so later.

I love garbage because it’s traceable. Given a date and a location, you can figure out where your garbage now reposes. I know, because I’ve done it. And, presumably, if we were to find it and dig it up, it would be recognizable as yours and mine. I suppose that could be depressing, but the comic potential is vast.

I love garbage because it gives me perspective, in two senses of the word. Garbage throws a compelling light on us. It doesn’t offer the whole truth, perhaps, but it’s certainly unvarnished. Archaeologists and paleo-anthropologists have long studied garbage, as it offers a rich source of information about ancient societies. Along those same lines, modern garbage is a rich source of information about ourselves—without the comforting stories and embellishments that surround us everywhere else.

At the same time, garbage puts things “in perspective.” It’s hard to stand on your dignity when your garbage heaves into view. In much the same way, I found it hard to be too despondent about our environmental challenges when contemplating the odd disjointures and weird implications of our garbage habits. The bathos inherent in our garbage—the incongruities of the desperately serious and the patently trivial and ridiculous—is potent medicine.

What’s more, whatever it takes to reduce the size of our garbage will also reduce our impact on the weather.


2 Responses to “Why Worry About Garbage”

  1. 1 dumpstertaoist
    June 10, 2008 at 7:11 am


    It’s nice to see someone else waxing poetic about garbage. Heck even Bill Rathje does sometimes. I wonder what it is about garbage that makes us trashies feel all cosmic about it. I chalk it up to the fact that it’s something that most people see as so mundane, and don’t want to think about it. Even repulsed by it.

    But there’s so much beauty in garbage, and it contains as many answers as it does questions. I love it too, it’s a never-ending source of cheap entertainment, and it’s always thought provoking. Keep up the great writing (though I’d like to see some snazzier, less-formal pictures perhaps).

  2. 2 dumpstertaoist
    June 10, 2008 at 2:48 pm


    I want to say to anyone who feels guilty about being part of our “consumer culture”: don’t blame yourself so much. This culture didn’t just happen on its own, it was created with much intent. Marijke, check out this great BBC documentary series “Century of the Self” if you haven’t seen it yet. It’s quite an eye-opener.



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