Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Rubbish: A second opinion

It's interesting how two people can read exactly the same book and have totally different impressions of it. After reading Arduous's review of "Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage," I just had to read it for myself. Consider this a "second opinion" on the book.

Several summers ago, my husband and I took a camping trip to the northern coast of Oregon. We visited Fort Clatsop where explorers Lewis and Clark spent a winter. The original fort is gone, but while we were there we saw actual archaeological digs at the site. My personal impression of archeology is that it is a monstrous amount of tedium punctuated with rare exciting discoveries (kind of like fishing, but that’s a different post). The media reports the exciting discoveries but, naturally, not the tedium. At Fort Clatsop I watched archaeologists painstakingly sort through dust for maybe 15 minutes before I was eager to move on to other sights. An archaeologist I am not.

"Rubbish!" by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy is a book on archeology, only instead of sorting through dust, the archaeologists sort through garbage. One of the main premises of the book is that people are unreliable when reporting their own behavior, while the garbage they produce tells the real story. Members of the "Garbage Project" have spent decades sorting through both fresh garbage right off the truck and old garbage excavated from landfills. Their work has yielded some very interesting, and in many cases counter-intuitive, observations about human behavior.

Reading "Rubbish" made me feel like an archaeologist myself. Pages and pages and pages detailed the painstaking methods that were used to sort through garbage. Chapters and chapters and chapters were filled with more details. Occasionally, I came across one of the fascinating discoveries. Then, more pages of tedium. I fell asleep reading. Twice. I read the 1992 edition, so maybe the later edition is better.

The other beef I had with the book involved some of the conclusions that were drawn from the facts. For example, digs in Mexico City and the US revealed that people who primarily prepare their food from whole foods create more garbage than people who primarily eat pre-packaged foods. It makes sense when you consider that pre-packaged food has been prepared off-site and the inevitable waste has already been dealt with. Many processing plants have secondary uses for food waste as animal feed. When you prepare food yourself, you have to deal with the waste yourself, and the food spoils sooner since there are no preservatives. If people throw the food and waste in the trash, it will take up room in the landfill. The study showed that the wasted pre-processed food plus its packaging took up less space than the wasted whole food plus its packaging. Therefore, the author concluded that the packaging of processed food is not a problem. I, on the other hand, concluded that people need to be taught how to compost.

Another example is disposable diapers. The author argues that they take up "only" 1-2% of the space in the landfill, the energy invested in the diapers an infant wears for a year is equivalent to "only" 53 gallons of gasoline, and the pathogens don't survive, so therefore they are not a problem. Modern landfills are a good way to dispose of garbage and we have plenty of room in the United States to build more landfills. Now I use disposables for my son, but after reading the author's "defense" of disposables, I felt even worse about it! I also question if the percentage of space in the landfill is still accurate because when the study was done, people were still putting most yard debris and recyclable paper into the landfill, but now in communities like mine these are mostly composted or recycled. I expect the percentage has gone up. Besides that, even though landfills are probably necessary, I have no desire to see more of them!

Although the author makes many valid points, there were plenty of other conclusions with which I also disagreed, and I found the details of how they conducted their research to be worthy of an editor’s red pair of scissors. The facts, though, were fascinating. If ever a book would benefit by being made into Cliff Notes, this is it. Rating: 1.5 stars out of 5. Readers: not recommended unless you really dig archeology.

Postnote on a related topic: Since we recycle and compost, my family and I have gotten used to producing very little garbage except for diapers (sigh). This past weekend, though, we went camping with extended family and I was absolutely shocked at how much garbage we generated. This time I was not in charge of the meals, but in the past I've had the same problem myself because of the use of more processed foods and lack of a means of composting. Anybody have any tips on how not to create a lot of trash while camping in the great outdoors?


Unknown said...

I haven't read this book yet, but between the two reviews, it makes me curious. Our library doesn't have the book, so I'm having to request an interlibrary loan and it's going to be several more weeks before I get it ... sigh ...

Joyce said...

Donna, if you haven't read "Garbage Land", you might give that a try. I really enjoyed Elizabeth Royte's writing. It's personal and humorous.

Green Bean said...

Donna, thank you for a different perspective. That is what is so great about this blog - there is a true diversity of thought here. You make a great point about the waste from processed food. I just finished Garbage Land - which is a fun read and will post my review on that later this month. That book emphasized all the waste that we cannot see. Residential waste only accounts for about 2% of all waste. Waste from processing plants, I'm assuming, not only exists but can be fairly substantial. I may skip Rubbish. I'm thinking maybe I've read enough trash for now.

ruchi said...

You know it's funny, Donna, because I'm almost done with "Deep Economy" and am gearing up to write my review, and I keep thinking about your review and how you were like "Who is Adam Smith?" whereas I am sitting here being like "Hmm, for a book called 'Deep Economy' this book is kinda econ-lite!!"

I found the methodology stuff about "Rubbish" FASCINATING, but I'm kind of a geek that way, and I have a little bit of a social science background (I was an econ minor in college) and I think that influences me more than I sometimes realize.

But this is kind of why I love the Blogging Bookworm. Because we all approach things and react to things in such different ways!

Donna said...

Jam: Thanks for all your valuable comments! I read Last Child and liked it more than you did, but I kind of agree with your assessment. :) You make the Green Guide sound pretty interesting, so I may have to check that one out! I'd like to talk to you about doing a guest review sometime. Would you email me at wormersblog at (Note to everybody: we don't regularly check this email -- it's just for special use.)

bobbi: I'll look forward to hearing what you think of the book once you get it.

Joyce: Thanks for the tip. It sounds like I might like that one better.

GB: That makes two votes for Garbage Land! Next time I want to read about trash I think I'll try that one!

Arduous: Well, you're the nicest blogger geek I know. :) Glad you enjoyed all that methodology stuff. Visit Fort Clatsop if you ever come to Oregon.

That's funny that "Deep Economy" was too heavy for me and you think it's too light! I had a feeling that a background in economics would have helped a lot with that book. I think you just confirmed it!

Green Bean said...

Arduous and Donna: Yet again, an example of why it is so useful for all of us to share our reviews and our ideas. We all come from different backgrounds and bring different viewpoints to the table. No movement has ever succeeded on a "monoculure of ideas" (I'm stealing Katrina's fantastic analogy).

BerryBird said...

This is great! I really like this second opinion feature. I haven't read the book, and still think it sounds interesting. However, I will likely read GarbageLand first, just because I enjoyed Elizabeth Royte's first book so much.

Sam said...

I enjoyed this review. I can see why you didn't like Rubbish. I loved it, and yes, like arduous, I am geeky in that I like my charts and my numbers and my specific details.

I agree that the numbers may have changed since the early 90s and I would love an update just to see the numbers.

Kale for Sale said...

The comparisons to archeology were quite entertaining and I learned something new this time - that the companies that make processed foods actually do something with their by-products instead of putting them in the landfills. That's good news. Right? It's the part of the glass half full. And I agree that individuals and communities benefit from composting whatever their diets consist of.

Thanks for the second review. Being mindful of how I use natural resources, which I've always taken for granted, is like learning a new language. It's helpful when I can hear and read information from various viewpoints over time. Eventually I have more understanding and can take in more information. Hopefully becoming articulate enough to join the conversation.

Donna said...

GB: There's a lot of varieties of apples, aren't there!

berrybird: I hope you enjoy the book when you eventually read it! That's great that you still want to read it after my critique. :)

beany: Years ago I worked in accounting, but I quit when I realized I'd never make it as a bean counter. I knew people who were, though, and I bet they'd enjoy this book, too. Thanks for your comments. I totally agree that it would be interesting to see updated stats.

kale: You understood correctly that by-products don't necessarily go into the landfill. Food processors are actually very efficient that way. The half-empty side is that some of the byproducts get drenched in molasses so cows will eat them...