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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Book review: ‘Total Garbage’ shows how each of us can make a difference

Pulitzer-winning author, Edward Humes, will speak in Spokane this week

By Ron Sylvester For The Spokesman-Review

The most startling revelation for me in Edward Humes’ “Total Garbage” is the story behind the “Crying Indian Keep America Beautiful” commercial of 1971.

Those of a certain age will remember the impact of commercial designed to tell us, “People start pollution, people can stop it.” The Indian man with a tear rolling down his face at the site of so much pollution was image so stark and carried a message so impactful to me as an 11-year-old, if you saw it the first time, you remember it today. You can also find it on YouTube. It influenced a generation to think keeping the earth clean was our responsibility.

Like many other environmental lessons we’ve been told over the years, it was also a lie.

The “Crying Indian” commercial, Humes reveals, was propaganda paid for by the bottlers of soft drinks who were tired of taking responsibility for the waste they were manufacturing. It proved to be just as fake as the Italian actor dressed as an Indian.

It’s one of many falsehoods we’ve been fed as a society chronicled in “Total Garbage.”

Hume’s follow-up to “Garbology” is the book you don’t want to read and absolutely should.

It’s full of information you don’t want to know.

“You swallowed 285 pieces of plastic today,” we learn in the first sentence.

Well, like, eww.

Microplastics are in the food we eat, the water we drink, the refreshing IPAs at our local brewery. All told, we munch on a credit card’s worth of plastic every day and probably will for the rest of our lives.

The reason? It started with plastic two-liter beverage bottles manufactured in the 1970s. Those old enough to remember the “Crying Indian” probably also remember a few years before paying deposits that you would get back when you returned the glass bottles to the stores. A favorite pastime in our youth became collecting what we in the Midwest called pop bottles that some careless adult had thrown to the side of the road and cashed them in for cash at the grocery store.

Those bottles were returned to the manufacturer, who washed them and reused them like good stewards, keeping waste at a minimum. Then someone figured out plastic bottles and not having to return stuff cut costs and increased profits. So they stopped, then fed money into a marketing campaign to convince us that if they produced more trash, it was all our fault.

As we eat more plastic, from the lining in the paper cups at coffee shops, to straws and utensils, companies go on oblivious to what they’re doing to our health while cashing their big checks.

What about all those recycling programs that replaced our search to earn coins from glass bottles with trash pickups and stream cleanups on Earth Day? Yeah, those didn’t work either.

Humes uncovers lie after lie in “Total Garbage.”

Meanwhile, while overwhelming in its detail, Humes also reveals the heroes trying to carve out detours on our human path to self-destruction.

We meet the father in Seattle who created a business bent on taking all the stuff we can’t put in a recycle bin – and then finding ways to really recycle them.

We meet the woman in Maine who stared down the powerful industry lobbyists while getting law passed to hold companies who produce single-use plastics responsible for the mess they make.

We meet the chefs at the heart of education that cooking with gas isn’t as good as we thought, and we can cook better with magnets on electrical induction countertops.

We meet the engineer in the snow-capped mountains of Colorado who designed a house that’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer with no mechanical heat or air conditioning – just the power of nature strengthened by some really good insulation.

Humes takes us through story after story showing us that we can, indeed, make a difference, if we make the right choices.

But as he points out, at every turn, we will be faced with people telling us making the right choices for the planet, for our children’s health, is not right. Industry money is being poured into trying to get us to continue making bad choices. Remember those people a couple of years ago who got so darned insistent that giving up plastic straws would damn their very souls?

They were being swept up by their own crying Indian.


Hume’s book is a must read, even if you think you know about recycling and trash in America. Much of the latest information has come out in recent years. It turns out the problem is worse than we thought – to the tune of eating a whole credit card worth of plastic a day.

Hume’s well-researched and rightly written book does a great job of turning on the hose to douse a bunch of fiery pants.

He also arms us with the information we each need to help clean up this mess and maybe even send a message to the people who made it. they need to pick up their rooms.