'Garbology': How Our Everyday Trash Eventually Becomes Our Food

We love garbage. Alan Levine [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

You've probably heard the saying, "you are what you eat." Soon it may have to be rephrased as, "you are what you throw away."

That's one eerie consequence of our modern-day culture of waste. Not only do Americans generate more trash than any other society in the history of Earth, but growing evidence now suggests that our garbage — plastic waste in particular — is re-entering the food chain. In a roundabout way, we are quite literally eating what we throw away.

In his new book, "Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes chronicles the long journey that our trash takes around the world, and eventually back into what we eat. In a recent interview with NPR, he discusses some of the shocking findings detailed in the book.

According to Humes, Americans produce about 7 pounds of trash per person each day, the vast majority of which is packaging and containers — mostly plastics. About 69 percent of our trash ends up in landfills (the rest is either recycled or, in some cases, left blowing in the wind). What you may not realize, is that those landfills are not always local. In fact, there is a growing export industry for our trash. A lot of it ends up as far away as China.

"They're finding value in material we're not able to find value in and paying relatively little for it — shipping it immense distances with enormous environmental impact involved in that, and then using it to manufacture products they're shipping back to us. And we're buying and basically turning it into trash again, and then it's an endless cycle," Humes told NPR.

That endless cycle just increases the likelihood that trash will escape and contaminate the environment. Much of what gets discarded eventually ends up in the ocean.

"What we're actually seeing in the ocean is this kind of chowder of plastic — these tiny particles that are the size of plankton," said Humes. "It's plastic that has been weathered and broken down by the elements into these little bits, and it's getting into the food chain."

Humes is referring specifically to the world's 5 massive ocean gyres — stirring ocean currents which trap our trash like a giant pot of murky soup. The gyres become both a depository for our trash and a means for breaking it down into plankton-sized bits. Those bits are then consumed by fish and other organisms that mistake them for food. It's in this way that our trash re-enters the food chain. In fact, about 35 percent of fish in the north Pacific Ocean are now found with plastic in their stomachs. We then eat the fish that ate the fish that ate the plastic, etc., thus ultimately consuming our own waste through bio-accumulation.

"The scarier part is that these little bits of plastic become sponges for some potentially dangerous chemicals that are released into the marine environment, and we may be ingesting that, too," said Humes.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of this poisonous cycle is that most of the waste that we throw away can be recycled and reused, but we are either too lazy to recycle it, or our recycling programs are not efficient enough to account for it all.

Of course, if we don't recycle it, nature eventually finds its own means to recycle. Unfortunately for us, that means as our food.