Saturday, April 28, 2012

Edward Humes's "Garbology"

Edward Humes is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 12 nonfiction books, including a trilogy of environmental works: Eco Barons, Force of Nature, and his latest, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to Garbology and reported the following:
On the south end of the Los Angeles Basin, with gorgeous views in all directions (smog permitting), stands a windswept mountain 500 feet tall, towering above most high-rises in L.A. and capped by a dusty plateau that could easily accommodate all of Dodger Stadium and its vast parking lot. This mountain is an immense but artificial creation, the biggest man-made structure in California -- and it is made of garbage. It contains so much trash that its inner putrescence generates enough climate-killing methane to provide power to 70,000 homes, 365 days year -- for the next 20 years.

Garbology is the story of America's collective garbage mountain and the waste-addled disposable economy that creates it. Trash has become our number one export. American communities spend more on waste management than parks and recreation, libraries, fire protection and schoolbooks. But it's not all bad news, because waste is the one big social and environmental problem anyone can do something about. Garbology is also the story of families, businesses and communities finding the way back from waste. I write about the artists in residence at San Francisco's dump (puppets built from trash reenacting The Inferno, anyone?). There's the family of four who reduced a year's worth of their non-recyclable trash to the size of a mason jar -- and cut their household expenses 40% (cool vacations, hybrid car and generous college funds, anyone?). And I write about the re-usable bag maker who says plastic grocery bags are the gateway drug to our garbage "addiction" (the average American uses 500 such bags a year, and almost none get recycled).

Page 99 of Garbology is about the trash that gets away -- the estimated 4 million tons of plastic refuse a year that never makes it to recycling or landfills and instead ends up in the ocean. In this passage, I follow the work of Project Kaisei and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography as their scientists try to figure out what impact increasingly ubiquitous bits of plastic are having on marine life, including the fish we eat.

Page 99 excerpt:
The worst part, though, the part that left her fearing for the future of pretty much everything, came during the night trawls from a sister ship on this expedition, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s New Horizon research vessel. That’s when the nets were set for lantern fish, those small, luminescent plankton eaters that come up from six hundred feet or even deeper waters to feed on the surface at night. These globally ubiquitous, finger-sized fish are a critical part of the food chain, with a host of variations and species that together represent an estimated 65 percent of the biomass in the ocean. Larger fish feed on the lantern fish, and bigger fish prey on them, as well as seabirds and marine mammals, and on up the food chain, right up to the fish that people eat, that civilization has harvested and relied on since there’s been something called civilization, and before that as well. That protein, that nourishment, that vast marine ecosystem—all of it depends on many trillions of healthy little lantern fish feeding on even greater numbers of tiny zooplankton.

Two Scripps scientists on the expedition team collected and dissected those fish to see what, if any, impact all that trash confetti has on them, given that some of the plastic bits are roughly the same size and shape as plankton. The researchers found more than 9 percent—nearly one in ten—of the fish had plastic in their digestive tracts. The plastic was floating right there with the plankton, and down the hatch it went.

This is bad news, but it’s unclear just how bad. It’s one thing for a percentage of fish to die from ingesting inert plastic. The problem is, the ocean receives all sorts of toxic pollutants, heavy metals and hazardous chemicals—from storm runoff, illegal dumping, sewage, ships, oil rigs and many other sources. Brittle old plastic particles can act like sponges for these toxins, becoming floating pockets of concentrated nasties.
Learn more about the book and author at Edward Humes's website.

--Marshal Zeringue