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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Author Ed Humes explores not-so-wonderful world of waste with Northwest Passages Book Club

Author Edward Humes, on right, discusses his new book “Total Garbage: How We Can Fix Our Waste and Heal Our World” with Spokesman-Review Editor Rob Curley during a Northwest Passages event held Thursday at the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center’s Rehearsal Hall.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

Pulitzer prize-winning author Ed Humes spoke to more than a hundred students and community members Thursday evening at the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center at Gonzaga University with the hope of getting Spokanites to engage with what could be the most consequential challenge the country is facing: waste.

Humes’ new book “Total Garbage: How We Can Fix Our Waste and Heal Our World,” delves into the slate of environmental crises facing the planet and how they can all be traced back to society’s wasteful nature. He told Northwest Passages Book Club attendees Thursday that the non-fiction novel was inspired in part by one of his prior books, “Garbology,” which examines the vast amount of trash produced by everyday Americans.

“I wanted to write a book about the larger world of waste,” Humes said. “Not just what we throw away, which is what the first one, ‘Garbology,’ was about. My idea was that we’re only dimly aware of that part of our waste and where it goes and where it ends up.”

“Total Garbage” is Humes’ 16th book, and each one has shone a light on important, lesser-known stories in the criminal justice system, environment, transportation and healthcare – just to name a few. He said his passion for finding those stories and bringing them to a larger audience started in college, and he hasn’t looked back since.

“I took this course, and I learned about the muckrakers of the early 20th century, these journalists who were exposing all kinds of problems and wrongdoing and had a huge impact,” Humes said. “And they really helped their communities, all over the country, deal with it by telling the story.”

Humes said he wanted to explore waste as a larger concept to bring it the attention of the public but also to highlight efforts from community leaders across the country actually doing something about the issue.

“We need to see it, because it’s embedded in everything, and it’s also fixable,” Humes said. “And the key takeaway for me was talking to people who are solving the waste-in-transportation piece of it, who are helping to turn wasted resources into food in food deserts. They just look at the world differently and see the opportunities that await if you’re just open to them.”

Waste can have daily impacts on an individual’s life, whether it be one’s health, happiness or bottom line, Humes said. To illustrate this, the event began with a survey attendees filled out on their phone about the audience’s own waste-related habits and patterns while seeing the entire crowd’s results in real time.

Results showed a majority of the crowd were thrift shoppers, kept gardens, recycled and brought reusable bags to the grocery store, all key actions individuals can take to combat the waste epidemic, Humes said. Instead of the classic “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” Humes posits eight new R’s for individuals to follow: rethink, repower, reuse, reduce, refuse, repair, recycle and rot.

“Rethink is a kind of the key,” Humes said. “Because if waste is much bigger than what we throw away, we need to think about it differently.”

Humes said he found reason to hope for a brighter future in communities across the country while conducting his research in the book, like the residents of a Georgia town who have rethought their daily commutes. Electric golf carts have become the de facto town car.

Transportation is one of those areas where waste can have an insidious effect on one’s quality of life, Humes said.

“Transportation is the most wasteful thing we do,” Humes said. “The physics of internal combustion, I’m sorry guys, but 80% of the money we spend at the gas pump goes to waste and only $1 out of $5 is actually turning those wheels.”

There are several things consumers can do about the waste issue, Humes said. Finding repair cafés to fix broken items, planting gardens in place of water-guzzling grass lawns and turning away from gas-powered appliances can all improve one’s health while also helping the world around them.

Avoiding disposable plastic is another consumer decision that can have real impacts. Humes begins his book with the same reminder he gave the crowd Thursday: most of us are consuming 285 bits of microplastic, roughly a credit card’s worth, each day.

Decisions like that compound on one another, and a community’s worth of decisions can lead to real change, Humes said.

Stamping out waste goes beyond just the consumer, and momentum is building across the country to hold the producers of waste more accountable. Humes said he’s encouraged by legislation popping up in a variety of jurisdictions that are aimed at holding those corporations accountable.

“That turns out to be a game changer,” Humes said. “Because if a producer, beverage company, a big brand is responsible for dealing with the consequences of their wasteful product, it’s a big incentive to rethink their packaging.”

Humes said there’s reason to hope real change is possible, even if it may be an uphill battle.

“I don’t think any of us want to be wasteful,” Humes said. “I just think we’ve been so heavily marketed and normalized by this enormous amount of waste embedded in our daily lives, and it’s really hard to see, and hard to see as anything but normal.”

“But, I think we instinctively know wasting is wrong, and that’s why it’s such a great conversation,” he added.