'Garbology' Students Share Their Trashy Tips

I’m getting ready to visit the College of Wooster, where the freshmen class is reading Garbology. I’m already so inspired by the ways students there are challenging themselves to be less trashy. Check out this great video, where a Wooster student named MacKenzie explains how she made her love of coffee less wasteful with reusable mugs and a reusable capsule for her single-cup coffee maker. This even saves her money!

“I’m still getting my morning coffee,” she says, “and I’m creating a lot less waste.”

Robert, meanwhile, says he is avoiding all food packaged in plastic. Emma has ended her addiction to plastic water bottles. I can’t wait to see what other ideas and questions the Wooster students come up with when I visit their Ohio campus on September 26-27.

I love it when Garbology readers reach out to share ways they are being less wasteful — everything from participating in beach cleanups, to composting table scraps, to buying used things whenever possible. One Purdue University Northwest student told me how she created a Bag Monster costume out of hundreds of plastic bags. She it wears it on campus and at community events to raise awareness about the dire effect plastic waste is having on the world’s oceans.

So I’ve started keeping a list of great suggestions from readers who reuse, reduce, recycle, and refuse unwanted items. I’ll be posting the list on my site later this fall and I welcome your trashy suggestions and photos, too. Send me a message at and I’ll add your suggestions to the list!

Check one off the bucket list

The coolest thing I did this summer: During a family vacation in Hawaii,  daughter Gaby, son Eben and I saw the spectacular sunrise from the 10,000-foot-high crater rim of the Haleakala volcano, then bicycled 23 miles downhill. Nature's roller coaster, with a stop halfway down for macadamia pancakes!

Two of coolest things I'll be doing this fall: Meeting with students and talking trash in October with the freshman of Rowan University in New Jersey, just across the river from my hometown of Philadelphia, and at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Both schools have adopted Garbology as their freshmen reads.

5 Ways to Make Campus Reads Cool

I've been traveling this fall to speak at colleges where Garbology is this year's campus read or part of the freshmen "First Year Experience," and is being read in English, geography, anthropology, ecology, psychology, sociology, philosophy and sustainability classes. What an inspiration to find my book used as a catalyst for discussions about waste, recycling, and the economic and environmental opportunities inside an empty trash can.

Here are five cool things schools are doing to craft successful campus reads, bringing Garbology alive for students and engaging them in conversations about waste:

     1. Sponsor a trash art contest like the University of New Mexico.

2.  Challenge Students to "Change One Thing" like Washington State University.

3. Have students carry all their trash for a week on their backs, then weigh in for the winner. Marymount California University made this a class project. The school also put the kibosh on disposable plastic water bottles and foam takeout containers as part of a campus-wide sustainability push.

4. Create cool lending library displays  — another great UNM idea.

5. Have students do a Dumpster Dive trash audit. Portland State University students were horrified by the legion of unrecycled coffee cups behind the science building. 

P.S. — 

Penguin Books has published an amazing Garbology Teachers Guide and resource compendium for classroom use and campus reads.

The Garbology Response

The response to Garbology has been overwhelming. Communities and campuses are using the book for discussion, debate and all manner of digging into our dirty love affair with trash. Best of all, people are going beyond the printed (or digital) page to hunt down senseless waste in their own daily lives, to create fantastic trashy events and web resources, and to come up with their own unique solutions to our 102-ton legacy.

BTW, 102 tons is the average amount of trash each American is on track to make in his or her lifetime. That means if you piled all your trash on the front lawn, you'd find that each person in the average American household generates 1.3 tons of trash a year. That's twice what the average person threw out in 1960, which makes today's Americans the most wasteful people on the planet, with grave consequences for nature and the economy.

It is not a pretty picture, but my goal in writing Garbology was not merely to throw light on the often invisible waste embedded in our consumer society, but also to show the individuals, cities and businesses that are finding a way back from our disposable economy, and who are discovering that waste is the one big social and environmental problem that everyone can do something about. That's exactly what the communities embracing Garbology are doing in a big way right now.

Here's a sampling: Palos Verdes and the One Book, One Peninsula program in Los Angles County are sponsoring a series of events, contests, displays, fairs and discussions about trash, recycling and the reuse economy. A trash art piece, Gar-Bal, has been making the rounds to get the discussions rolling, most recently at the the Rolling Hills Estates branch of the Malaga Bank. The Book Frog Book Store is also joining in.

Marymount University, meanwhile, is making Garbology its campus read, is staging an event around the theme of Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and has come up with its own readers guide and discussion points. Cal State Northridge has also made Garbology is freshman read and making waste its convocation theme in September and its Sustainability Day in October.

I'll be at Cal State Northridge on September 12. On September 27, I'll be joining the Garbology discussion at Palos Verdes High School, Peninsula High School and Marymount University, followed by a discussion at the Palos Verdes Public Library on September 28.

Communities Read Garbology

I love the One Book, One City phenomenon, which brings a town (or campus or other sort of group) together to read, enjoy and discuss a single book. It's a fantastic way to foster both literacy and a sense of community through the power of storytelling.

My first experience with the One Book world was through contributing my essay, "The Last Little Beach Town," to the My California project, for which 27 writers (among them Michael Chabon, Thomas Steinbeck, Carolyn See and Aimee Liu) wrote essays describing our most treasured California places and experiences. All proceeds from the book support literacy programs for students, and the combination of a good read and good works pushed My California onto the bestseller list. Such cities as Santa Barbara, Long Beach, Sacramento and Whittier selected My California as their One Book read, and our roving troupe of writers attended events and community discussions around the state, where readers shared with us their own stories and insights. It was an amazing experience.

Which is why I'm so pleased that Garbology has been selected as a One Book choice for every incoming freshman this fall at California State University Northridge. Students participating in the Marymount College One Campus, One Book program also will be reading Garbology, along with the residents of Palos Verdes, California, in their One Book, One Peninsula program. And just this past week I learned that my alma mater, Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, has chosen Garbology as its campus common reading at the start of the new school year.

I am looking forward to joining these One Book gatherings. It's always gratifying when people show interest in my books, of course, but more importantly, these are opportunities to start community-wide conversations about our nation's over-consumption, disposable economy, and incredibly wasteful ways. We Americans produce more trash per capita than any other people on the planet. Trash is the biggest thing we make and our number one export, with each American on track to produce a staggering 102 tons of garbage in a lifetime.

P.S. The updated paperback version of Garbology is out this spring, just in time for Earth Day.

Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash

The head of a plastic bag industry group, whose full-time job consists of battling local bans on disposable grocery sacks, made a provocative observation to me about trash recently: Don't be so quick to reject waste, he warned.

"Zero waste would mean a zero economy."

Equating green with economic ruin is a familiar refrain, of course, but this claim about waste is worth a hard look. Trash really is the biggest thing Americans make, and it tends to get bigger in good times while shrinking during recession. Does that mean, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, that garbage is good? Should the old saw about waste not, want not really be waste more, get more? Should Americans just chill out and revel in the fact that we are the most wasteful people on the planet, rolling to the curb 7.1 pounds of trash a day for every man, woman and child -- a personal lifetime legacy of 102 tons of garbage each? Doesn't that just show that we're buying lots of stuff and living large -- that we should throw ourselves into a dirty love affair with trash?

Just the opposite. After immersing in the world of Garbology for the last year and a half I’ve learned some shocking truths about the high costs of our garbage. Here are some numbers to consider:
Americans make twice as much waste per person as in 1960. Most of the increase is from "instant trash' -- packaging, wraps, containers and bags, the biggest component of our garbage these days.

Garbage is our No. 1 export. Not computers, cars or planes. Our biggest export is the scrap paper and metal that China turns into products and packaging, which they sell back to us. America has turned itself into China's trash compactor.

Many American communities pay more for waste management than for parks and recreation, fire protection or school textbooks. 

The average American makes 7.1 pounds of trash a day, according to the best available data (from a biannual surveys of American landfills by Columbia University and the journal BioCycle). That compares to 2.5 pounds per person in Japan. 

The U.S Mail is more than half junk mail, 85 billion pieces weighing 4 million tons last year (about one out of every 100 pounds sent to the landfill). We subsidize junk mail with an artificially low postal rate and by excusing the creators of this unwanted waste product from cleaning up their own mess. 

America sends 69% of its municipal solid waste to landfills. By comparison, the Netherlands and Austria landfill 1% of their trash, Sweden, 2%, Belgium and Denmark, 4%. Germany claims zero landfilling. Those countries recycle at two to three times the rate of the U.S., and make energy with the rest of the refuse. We, on the other hand, make geographic features out of our trash.
Waste is a cost, not an economic engine. Businesses understand this -- Wal-Mart has reduced its landfilling in California by 80% and ramping up recycling and reusing to the point that waste is not a profit center instead of a cost. Families know it too: Artist Bea Johnson of Marin County has presided over her family's commitment to buying unpackaged bulk goods, refusing plastic and disposable products, selecting used and refurbished items, and buying more wisely, with a focus on durability and need rather than disposability and impulse purchases. It's not enough to reuse and recycle, Johnson says. "You have to refuse!"

The Johnsons' household expenses have dropped by 40%, making college funds, a hybrid car and cool vacations possible. Their non-recycled, non-compostable trash fits in a mason jar -- for the year.

 Zero waste doesn't mean zero economy. It means a different economy, with different winners. And fewer mountains of garbage.

Cross-posted at