Total Garbage: How We Can Fix Our Waste and Heal Our World

By Edward Humes

What happens to our trash? Why are our oceans filling with plastic? Do we really waste 40 percent of our food 65 percent of our energy? Waste is truly our biggest problem, and solving our inherent trashiness can fix our economy, our energy costs, our traffic jams, and help slow climate change—all while making us healthier, happier and more prosperous.     This story-driven and in-depth exploration of the pervasive yet hard-to-see wastefulness that permeates our daily lives illuminates the ways in which we’ve been duped into accepting absolutely insane levels of waste as normal. Total Garbage also tells the story of individuals and communities who are finding the way back from waste, and showing us that our choices truly matter and make a difference.

Our big environmental challenges – climate, energy, plastic pollution, deforestation, toxic emissions—are often framed as problems too big for any one person to solve. Too big even for hope. But when viewed as symptoms of a single greater problem—the epic levels of trash and waste we produce daily–the way forward is clear. Waste is the one problem individuals can positively impact—and not just on the planet, but also on our wallets, our health, and national and energy security. The challenge is seeing our epic wastefulness clearly.

Total Garbage will shine a light on the absurdity of the systems that all of us use daily and take for granted—and it will help both individuals and communities make meaningful changes toward better lives and a cleaner, greener world.

Chemicals are a central aspect of the plastics issue. Although there is a wealth of scientific information on plastic chemicals and polymers to inform policymakers, implementing this evidence is challenging because information is scattered and not easily accessible. The PlastChem report and database address this issue by comprehensively and consistently synthesizing the state of the science on plastic chemicals, including their hazard properties, and their presence in polymers. The state-of-the-science report provides the publicly available evidence to inform policy development that protects public health and the environment.

The PlastChem project aims to address the fragmented understanding of the chemicals in plastics and their impact on health and the environment. This initiative has created a high-quality, comprehensive state-of-the-science report synthesizing the evidence about chemicals in plastics to inform an evidence-based policy development for better protecting public health and the environment.

Everyone is talking about reuse. It’s a promising approach to drastically reduce packaging waste, but scaling it up responsibly calls for some careful considerations. Check out Food Packaging Forum’s fact sheet for a quick introduction!

Plastic pollution experts make a case for addressing toxic additives, unintentionally added substances, and contaminants in plastics. They point out that current regulations fail to require plastic producers to track or make available information on harmful chemicals in plastics. For these reasons, the experts say that before recycling can be considered as part of the approach to end plastic pollution, especially if it becomes part of the UN Plastics Treaty, plastic’ chemicals must be simplified through a major reduction of the expansive amount of chemicals used in plastics production.

GAIA has created a white paper debunking the concepts of “plastics circularity” and “circular economy of plastics.” Learn why plastics were not, and cannot be, made to be circular. And learn what kinds of real solutions do work to end plastic pollution.

The paper features an updated waste hierarchy that identifies harmful methods of waste management that should be avoided.

Studies of communities’ recycling programs, rates, and behaviors in North Carolina show that household waste generation increases 6-10% when people have access to curbside recycling. These results suggest that any efforts to increase recycling rates should be coupled with efforts to reduce consumption of “disposable” consumer goods in the first place.

Abstract: The environmental benefits of recycling depend on the extent to which it reduces virgin material consumption, yet there currently is a lack of empirical research on this relationship. This study addresses this gap by leveraging data on variation in the regional adoption of curbside recycling programs in North Carolina between 1999 and 2019. It uses difference-in-differences regression methods with two-way fixed effects to compare solid waste generation between similar communities with and without recycling programs. The study finds that during the study period solid waste generation in North Carolina increased by 6–10 % in the presence of curbside recycling, providing empirical evidence of circular economy rebound on the household level. This result suggests that the current focus of recycling programs and other circular economy activities, which is to increase the availability of secondary resources through collection and recycling, should be complemented by efforts to reduce the consumption of primary resources.