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Garbage, he says, doesn't have to be

"Outsmart Waste: The Modern Idea of Garbage and How to Think Our Way Out of It" by Tom Szaky. (From the book jacket)
"Outsmart Waste: The Modern Idea of Garbage and How to Think Our Way Out of It" by Tom Szaky. (From the book jacket)
"Outsmart Waste: The Modern Idea of Garbage and How to Think Our Way Out of It" by Tom Szaky. (From the book jacket) Gallery: Garbage, he says, doesn't have to be

Outsmart Waste

The Modern Idea of Garbage and How to Think Our Way Out of It

By Tom Szaky

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    Reviewed by Sandy Bauers


    Tom Szaky hates garbage. The very notion of it strikes him as preposterous. Ridiculous. Unworkable.

    We take what is often perfectly good stuff and toss it into a landfill, where it mummifies and oozes out bad chemicals that can pollute our air and water.

    Instead, Szaky wants us to recognize the value of the stuff - if not in its current form, then as a resource that will become something else useful.

    Old vinyl records can become clocks. Juice pouches can be stitched into purses. Dirty diapers can be shredded and separated into compostable fibers and reusable plastic.

    Wait a minute! Dirty diapers?!

    Yeah. "If we can outsmart even diaper waste and make it into entirely useful outputs, every type of waste can and should be outsmarted," Szaky writes. "It's all possible - it just takes a little extra effort."

    Szaky knows it's possible because he's done it, even the diapers. More than that, he has proven it can be profitable.

    In 2002, he founded TerraCycle, a Trenton-based company that takes all manner of refuse and finds new ways to use it. The company even pays for the juice pouches, chip bags, and other stuff that "brigades" of students or nonprofits send in.

    It now operates in 24 countries.

    To Szaky, the overarching problem is that we view our waste as, well, waste.

    True garbage doesn't occur in nature, where everything is recycled into something else. And it was pretty much like that for humans, too, until plastics and other complex materials that don't naturally decompose entered the arena.

    But still, everything is simply a combo of composition, form, and purpose. You can fiddle with any of these at will. "Why not melt that discarded plastic up into a new plastic fork?"

    Under that scenario, pretty much anything can be reused, reinvented, reimagined, repurposed, and reincarnated into something of value. (No matter how repulsive. He's also working with chewed gum and cigarette butts.)

    But not for Szaky the ponderous weight of endless data and trips to landfills to chronicle the horror of our waste, as a few previous trash-book authors have done.

    Instead, he wows with genial encomiums: "By dissecting the components of garbage, you can see that garbage doesn't really exist - it is just a highly misunderstood resource whose unique characteristics require a new perspective and a little bit of creativity."

    In Outsmart Waste, Szaky has written a charming, persuasive, somehow cheery - and happily brief - treatise of the ickier side of things.

    His message and delivery are fun, quirky, and elegantly simple.

    At its heart, the book is also a call to action. Szaky wants us to change our attitudes - and take responsibility for the stuff we put in the can by the curb.

    This starts with not buying, a challenge even for him, he notes, given that he drives a fancy sports car, recently bought a larger house, and cares about how much his business grows.

    When you do buy, buy durable so you don't have to replace it as often.

    Buy consciously, with some notion of what will happen to the product next - can you reuse it for something else when it wears out, or donate it, or compost it?

    This manner of thinking will put pressure on manufacturers, he contends. "The checkout line is at least as powerful as the voting booth . . . . The consumer vote, unlike the votes we cast in elections, is one that you make daily with your hard-earned dollars. It is profound and it fundamentally controls what is made and what is not - what ends up as garbage and what doesn't."

    Surely there will be plenty who shake their heads and say Szaky is being naive and unrealistic. But the only thing really novel is his citizen-activist take on waste. How else to explain the increasing view that our trash has value - from trash-pickers at Third World landfills to vast "waste" companies that now think of themselves as "resource recovery" enterprises?

    Little by little, perhaps the rest of us will come to a new relationship with our refuse. As New Age guru Deepak Chopra notes in the foreword, "Thanks to this book, I can no longer acquire and discard unconsciously."


    Sandy Bauers is The Inquirer's environment writer. She also composts her food waste and really, really tries to curb that buying impulse.




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