Letters From Idaho

Credit: Peter Kaminski

Garbage Night

Every night, another bag goes in the garbage, more waste goes in the landfill. A startling look at America’s capacity for garbage-making.

Owen, nearly three years old, is helping me collect the garbage. He opens cupboards in various rooms; he upends, without much accuracy, our wastebaskets into a kitchen trash bag.

“Oooh,” he says, peering into the bucket we leave by the diaper station. “Lookit all the diapers.”

He heaves it, dumps it, studies our haul.

“The garbage man is going to be so happy, Dad.”

I laugh. Then I feel guilty. As I do most Wednesday nights, I have to climb onto the hood of our car, step into our garbage can, and stomp down the trash in order to fit the last bag in.

In case you didn’t know, we Americans are the best trash-makers the world has ever seen. We are maestros of refuse, champions of rubbish. In 2005, according to the EPA’s Municipal Solid Waste Report, Americans generated 4.54 pounds of trash per person per day.

That’s 1,657 pounds a year. Each.1

Not startling enough? Try this: We constitute 4.6 percent of the world’s population. We generate 40 percent of the world’s trash.

Before I became a parent, I didn’t bother to think about garbage all that much. Lately, I can’t seem to forget it. Maybe this is partly because parenting in the new millennium converts average, sane humans into trash-making fiends. Disposable diapers, wipes, nipples, formula bottles, breast pads—eventually, they all end up smelling bad, and they all end up in the garbage. Car seats, pack ‘n’ plays, high chairs, cribs, fold-up strollers—they all come in big boxes, sheathed in plastic bags, clamped in Styrofoam.

Toys might be the worst offenders: Most come in boxes inside boxes, wired in with diabolical 6-inch twist ties or screwed with actual screws into plastic backings. For even the most garbage-conscious parent, holidays, baby showers, and birthdays can become Saturnalias of trash-making: paper plates, batteries, invitations, half-eaten chunks of cake. At the holidays alone, Americans buy, send, and dispose of 1.9 billion Christmas cards. We throw out 38,000 miles of ribbon: enough to tie a bow around the equator. What parent hasn’t spent a portion of Christmas or a birthday sawing away with a bread knife at some obstinate plastic panda incarcerated inside a PVC clamshell?

Less than 4 percent of the world’s children are American, after all, but our kids consume more than 40 percent of the world’s toys.

It’s not as if we’re unique. Humans have been making trash for a long time. Athens had a garbage dump as early as 500 B.C. Imperial Rome left behind Mt. Testaccio, a 236,000 square-foot landfill-turned-mountain, 164 feet high, built entirely out of the broken clay vessels they used to transport olive oil. The Mayans had garbage dumps that got big and hot enough to occasionally explode. In the Middle Ages, garbage supposedly piled up so thick outside the gates of Paris that it interfered with the city’s ability to defend itself.

To live is to make leavings. Hair, dust, fingernail clippings, love letters, old paperbacks, bones. But the volumes at which we’re creating detritus in the new millennium is unprecedented. We’re recycling more, sure, but we’re also throwing out more: nearly twice as much per capita as we did in 1960. Eighty thousand tons of uneaten food are junked every day. Two and a half million plastic bottles are drained every hour.

It was nearly 15 years ago now that 1,600 scientists, including over half of the living Nobel laureates, admonished in their Warning to Humanity:

“A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it, is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”

How have we responded in the years since? Higher carbon emissions. Rising oil consumption. Increased rates of deforestation. California sea lions are spontaneously aborting fetuses, beetles are devastating the spruce forests of Alaska, and bluefin tuna are going the way of the buffalo. Last year, the U.S. Geological Survey found earthworms in farm fields have an average of 31 pollutants in their bodies, including perfumes, caffeine, household disinfectants, and, get this, Prozac.

If we need motivation to reshape our lifestyles, maybe the overwhelming, almost depthless reservoir of feeling we have for our children is the best place to start.

Before my kids turn 40, the vast majority of the world’s coral reefs could be devastated. Before my kids turn 20, 135 million people worldwide may have died from diseases resulting from a lack of clean water. Extinctions are currently happening faster than they did when the dinosaurs died off, the world population is more vulnerable than ever to epidemics, and fertilizer run-off in the Gulf of Mexico has created a dead zone—an expanse of ocean without sufficient oxygen to support life—the size of New Jersey.

And still the months tick past. Can we claim ignorance? Not anymore. Not with George Clooney hawking electric Smart Cars and Katie Couric getting “chills over climate change” on her blog and Wal-Mart running recycling programs for six-year-olds.

This is not about saving the Earth. The Earth is not in danger. The Earth is going to be fine. The Earth has coasted through its share of ice ages and asteroid impacts and hot, swampy millennia. Biodiversity, no matter how severely it has plunged in the past, has always subsequently increased again.

The Earth is not in danger. It’s humans who are in danger. It’s our children who are in danger.

And still, I run our furnace and take long showers and fly on commercial jets. Still, I buy coffee in disposable cups and throw away bagged lettuce that has transformed overnight into dark green mush. What’s my problem?

To be fair, I’m trying. I’m starting. My wife and I recycle everything we can. We buy in bulk. We tell check-out clerks we don’t want bags. We reuse wrapping paper. I ride my bike to work.

But tonight, as I haul the garbage can to the curb, and my sons run out ahead of me, stomping in puddles, cackling, I can’t help but wonder: Someday, will I have to apologize to them for the way we lived when they were little boys?

If we need motivation to reshape our lifestyles—reducing our dependency on automobiles, buying local foods, cutting back on packaging-intensive products, or a myriad of other ideas—maybe the overwhelming, almost depthless reservoir of feeling we have for our children is the best place to start.

Love, and the hope we can live long enough to see our kids grow up in a safe, healthy place. That’s where we can look for the discipline, the maturity, and the farsightedness we’re going to need.


  1. If current rates don’t change, and if I, my wife, and my two sons are lucky enough to live until we’re 75, our family will generate 497,100 lbs of trash. That’s almost 250 tons. That’s a 747. That’s two and a half adult blue whales.

TMN Contributing Writer Anthony Doerr is the author of four books: The Shell Collector, About Grace, Four Seasons in Rome, and most recently, Memory Wall. He lives in Boise, Idaho, writes the “On Science” column for the Boston Globe, and is a 2010 Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Learn more at anthonydoerr.com. More by Anthony Doerr