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


Review by David Starkey

In 2013’s Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, Edward Humes describes in detail the massive harm caused by America’s profligate production of trash. Garbology does look at some of the ways we can counteract our carelessness, but specific solutions to environmental problems are the central focus of his new book, Total Garbage: How We Can Fix Our Waste and Heal Our World. And while curbing the refuse that’s likely to end up in a landfill—or in our food and water—continues to be a concern of Total Garbage, this time around Humes has plenty of other wasteful practices on his mind.

The first section, which shares its title with Garbology’s subtitle, looks at issues like “reengineering plastics to make them more recyclable” and “fixing our broken recycling system,” familiar material for readers of the earlier book. However, later chapters in Total Garbage investigate everything from gas stove emissions, to passive house design, to renewable energy sources, to food waste, industrial agriculture, smaller electric vehicles, and zero waste packaging. Humes covers a lot of ground, but he does so with just enough detail to make his points convincing, and in prose that is friendly and, surprisingly, often funny.

Total Garbage is eminently practical, with “do-this” lists punctuating the book, and the author is not shy about borrowing, and acknowledging, good ideas from others. In “Stick a Fork in It,” for instance, he references tips from “Zero Waste Chef” Annie-Marie Bonneau for avoiding food waste. Among these are “shop your refrigerator,” that is, look at what you already have on hand before you go to the grocery store; avoid overbuying at the store, especially fresh produce; be adaptable with recipes; and serve modest portions, making “vegetables the largest portion and animal proteins the smallest (to maximize health benefits and minimize environmental harm).”

Perhaps the most useful aspect of the book is the “master list” at the end: “What You Can Do Right Now about Waste.” Here, Humes summarizes everything he has covered in Total Garbage in bullet-pointed lists that are easy to remember, and often fairly easy to carry out. What a difference it would make it if we could all follow simple rules like “Don’t accept plastic bags when you shop anywhere.” “Avoid all single-use plastic beverage bottles.” “Cook with the windows open” (to mitigate gas stove emissions). “Power down computers at night instead of letting them sleep. “Make soup your main go-to dish on work nights.” “Repair, rather than replace, when possible.” He makes rational behavior sound, well, rational.

Indeed, one of the most appealing aspects of Total Garbage is that while Humes is ultimately advocating for a change in our overall ethos and mindset, he’s not insisting that we undergo a complete mental makeover in a single day. That’s not to say that the book isn’t filled with a sense of urgency. Humes points out that “With a little more than 4 percent of the world’s population, Americans consume nearly 20 percent of the world’s energy output.” However, despite its depressing subject matter, Total Garbage is an uplifting read. It’s the sort of book we need if are going to avoid the climate catastrophe that looms a little closer every day.