garbage: a slippery story

Every week in most neighborhoods across the country, garbage trucks stop before every home and business to pick up trash. Usually, the things we throw away are carted to a landfill, where they’re buried in a triple-lined hole. Often, our piles of garbage grow many stories high — so tall that they become ski resorts. Sometimes our garbage is dumped in the ocean. Are there better ways to deal with our trash – and why aren’t they more commonly embraced? What role can journalists play in this scenario?

What do you think about how journalists can do a better job covering garbage issues?

Here are links to a few stories about this controversial but completely commonplace topic.

This story from the website A2politico looks at issues at Ann Arbor, Michigan’s recycling facility.

Here’s an interesting industry overview by Chicago Tribune columnist Andrew Leckey.

This New York Times story from 2003 describes how residents of tiny Sumpter Township in Michigan felt at the time about receiving truckloads of trash a day from Toronto at the local landfill. Now that those shipments have stopped, how do you think township residents feel now? Have their feelings — and the story — changed?


About emiliaaskari

Journalist, teacher, news game designer. Promoting digital literacy and content creation in the public interest.

27 Responses to “garbage: a slippery story”

  1. I think that the topic of garbage and landfills is very interesting and important to our lives now. The fact that the average waste per person per day is 4.6 pounds is mind blowing, and the fact that we only recycle nearly one fourth of it is simply disappointing. Most of these articles do a nice job in portraying the importance of recycling and showing the efforts that are being made to recycle, but what about putting some responsibility on the individual themselves? The problem begins with too much consumption to begin with. Can a journalist point fingers at their audience and tell them to take initiative at either buying less or advocating for recycling in their own city or even their own household? Also, these articles do not talk of alternatives to landfills aside from recycling. There have been many studies done on new technology that converts garbage into energy and can eliminate the need for landfills altogether. I think that these are important things to consider when discussing waste and pollutants.

  2. I was thinking much of what Danielle posted above–these articles don’t seem to scare people and make people think about their own contributions to the issue. We’re reminded to not only make the article relevant to the reader, but also answer the “why should I care?” question. In many articles that I see about the trash issues, especially in Michigan, the focus in on trash coming from Canada and the big, bad waste companies, but what about the point that the New York Times article made about trash being constant throughout any economy. Nothing is going to make less trash except for a concerted effort by the citizens to create less waste.

    It would be good to see more personal responsibility called for in these articles. I liked the 4.6lbs per day statistic, but would have liked to see more in terms of the cost of each person’s waste each day if it were recycles versus trashed. The journalists here have done a good job informing the reader on the issue, but could do more to pull readers in by making it personal.

  3. I was amazed to read that 350 trucks traveled from Ontario to Michigan filled with trash every day in 2010. It’s definitely a problem that we are accepting waste from other countries that we don’t have the resources to inspect—but underlying that, the amount of waste produced daily is a much bigger issue. After reading the articles for this week, I was wondering which strategy do you think would have a greater impact on reducing waste volume, tipping and boarder fees or recycling policies and incentives? I thought the EPA Game Day Challenge competition was an interesting and creative way to harness competitive energy between football schools and reduce, recycle, and divert waste. Do you think some sort of similar competition could work between cities or between counties? How would it have to be different from this collegiate competition to be effective? How might the media play a role in a competition between cities or counties to reduce/divert waste? I think that journalists should make it clear that the amount of waste we produce as a city and as individuals is actually a big problem. Everything that we throw away has to go somewhere, even though it seems like it’s out of our lives when it leaves our homes–news stories should convey this better. In this case, pictures or picture stories might do a better job than words to convey the message.

    • Kendall, I really like the way you’re thinking about adapting the EPA Game Day Challenge! This might be an interesting idea for your Knight Challenge team to explore. Let’s brainstorm about this tomorrow. Please don’t be surprised if I call on you to expound on this a little further. Thanks!

  4. I really agree with Kendall’s last point. If you think about all of the “stuff” that we consume in one day and throw away, you honestly cannot even imagine how massive a pile would ensue. We produce A LOT of trash each day. Rather than simply leaving it up to the reader to picture landfills or recycling spots, why not show them? If provided the visual, people will be more affected by the enormity of the issue.
    While showing people piles of trash is helpful, it is also frustrating. We can see all of this waste and be impelled to do something healthy for our environment about it, but not really know a guaranteed way to do so. Currently, we would take action through a middle guy like recycling companies or trash collecting companies. I personally have been out of the loop on news about this topic, and blindly trusted these companies. However, I was a bit apprehensive and concerned after reading this week’s articles. Like the A2politico article suggests, we don’t really know where our trash goes when those companies collect it. The last two lines of the article evoke second-guessing.

    “It remains to be seen whether the collected materials are being sold, or simply land-filled. That information remains to be released by a city staff, or provided to a Council member who requested it.”

    We think that we are making an eco-friendly choice by giving the recycling companies business, but can we be certain of this?

    It would be devastating to believe that you are making decisions to lead the enivronment in a better direction–preserving it and warding off disease agents–and then find out that you were actually being duped all along.

    The A2politico article insinuates that recycling companies might be more obsessed with the business end of their work than the end goal of clean trash handling. Do you think these recycling companies are just like other businesses, eyes fixed on profits, rather than on how their decisions affect the people and the environment? Sure, they are indeed businesses, and they must make money and provide salaries to their workers, but are they being greedy, immoral, tricky business people?

    When Recycle Ann Arbor (RAA)’s request for more money from the government–to send their funding over a million dollars–was appeased, most of this money went to paying recycling collectors. It costs less money to pay garbage collectors (to go to landfills), yet, in the past five years, the amount of garbage pick-up has increased and the amount of recycling has decreased. It is hard to say whether this is a reflection of recycling companies like the RAA, because it is ultimately up to the citizen to decide to recycle or use ordinary trash. However, one thing is clear. Tax payers should not be robbed of their money if the recycling movement is not actually ramping up. When recycling is increasing, then the RAA can ask for more money.

    It is suspicious that the RAA did not address the firing of its CEO Melinda Uerling, with who the decline in recycling and increase in solid waste removal in Ann Arbor overlapped. The RAA also would not disclose what happens to the recyling pick-ups and where they go. It is awesome that they are being collected, but not if they are going to landfills. Why are they being so sneaky?

    I align recycling with something ethical and righteous. It is not so difficult to put something in the recycling bin, but it has always given me a sense of pride, knowing that I am enabling a cleaner future. With all of the questions that arise from the feature on the RAA, I question my confidence in this action. I could be contributing to the problem rather than the solution all along. If I cannot trust companies supposedly executing citizens’ good-willed actions, by recycling, do I have to take my recycling to a recycling place myself? For the population en masse, if we can’t trust public services, who can we trust, for our recycling? We all need to stay abreast of these issues, because it very well might take public action to make sure recycling companies are doing their job and fulfilling their promises to society.

  5. Going off of my classmates’ responses above, I’d agree that the articles we were given to read focused on the business side of the garbage/recycling industries and much less on recycling at the individual level. But my question is, is it a journalist’s responsibility to encourage individuals to recycle and produce less waste, or is it our job to simply inform the public what is going on?

    There’s a very fine line between educating the public and acting like we know better than them. While it’s great to include statistics like the 4.6 pounds of waste/day, it’s probably not ok to imply that readers are at fault and need to change — rather, it’d be better to, like Abby suggested, show readers with pictures in the hopes that they will make positive changes on their own. Unfortunately, not everyone will respond the way we may hope to an article or photograph. But I question whether it actually is a journalist’s responsibility to tell people what they should be doing differently in their lives.

    • Good points, Alicia. It’s certainly easier and often more effective to quote someone else with more authority or expertise suggesting ways that people should change their behavior. One big problem for journalists is that it’s hard to repeat that kind of how-to information in story after story. News stories demand some new angle. So once you’ve done one story quoting someone whose main point is, “Stop throwing away so much stuff,” what’s your next story about garbage going to say? That’s a huge challenge when it comes to selling stories to editors and other gatekeepers.

  6. Going off of what Kendall said in her last point, I think a big problem with trash today is that people just throw things away and then are never forced to think about them again. You just toss it into a bin and then off it goes, disappearing forever and no longer having an impact on your life. However, this is not the case. The more we throw away (and less we recycle/reuse), the greater negative impact it will have in the long run. I think people today have an “out of sight out of mind” mentality when it comes to garbage. Especially if they do not live near the landfill in which their trash is buried.

    It would be interesting if journalists could somehow change this. In reading the articles for this week, I was slightly overwhelmed with the amount of data being thrown at me. Sure an article may indicate that in 2007 74 truckloads per day moved from Toronto to Michigan, but how much garbage is that actually? I find it kind of difficult to picture what 441,363 tons actually looks like. All I know is that it is a lot of garbage. I found the bit about each person producing 4.6 lbs of waste per day interesting. But what does 4.6 lbs of garbage look like? If readers were somehow forced to visualize this amount of waste right before their eyes, would it be able to change their habits? How can journalists represent data in a way that is not only easy to understand but also provides some sort of imagery or visual representation?

  7. Overall, I think the garbage articles did a good job of explaining the issues of importing trash and the problems associated with the amount of waste we produce.
    Like Kendall stated, seeing images may make people reduce waste volume. I also think the journalists could have done a better job of citing and emphasizing direct health impacts that garbage dumps produce. This could influence people to recycle more.

    Another issue I found with the articles was discrepancies in information. In Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin’s press release, it states they will charge $420 per garbage truck entering the U.S. from Canada. Meanwhile, the Associated Press article states garbage trucks will be charged $500 each time they enter the U.S. These differences really confused me and I didn’t know which amount was the correct one. Eighty dollars is a big difference between the amounts. Could the amount have been rounded in the second article? To me, $80 seems like a huge difference to round up. Which article are you supposed to believe? As a reader, what should you do when you find conflicting facts in different articles? Are the differences to blame on the journalist or their sources?

    • I agree with Stephanie – where is the focus on what the trash is doing to the environment? Although I do recycle and compost, I’d be much more willing to put in even more effort if I knew what exactly is happening to the soil based on my contribution. Is the watershed being effected? How long does it take Mother Earth to break down my 4.6 pounds of daily trash? How about Ann Arbor’s daily trash? I would like to see also how much of what people are throwing away could actually be recycled. I know that before moving in with my PiTE roommate, I was throwing away loads of things that I had no idea could have been recycled. How much have I been wasting? Staggering numbers in these articles would add a sense of urgency to the article that I think would be really impactful for readers. Also, an emphasis on what it truly means to reduce and re-use along with recycle could go a long way for helping our mountainous garbage problem.

    • Stephanie, I’m not too comfortable with the way you’re calling the press release an “article.” It’s a one-sided view of the issue, whereas the AP article attempts to be fair. You’re right that the difference in tipping fees is substantial. Perhaps the release and the article were written at different times, when the tipping fees were under discussion and revision. Or perhaps one of them is mistaken. You should make a point of asking about the current tipping fees tomorrow. Please keep in mind that these stories are a little old, so the tipping fees may have changed since they were written. This landfill was big in the news for many years and now has faded from attention because the Canadian garbage is no longer being trucked to Michigan. We’ll explore why — and the role the media played — tomorrow.

  8. The New York Times article that Emilia posted did a great job in bringing this issue to attention. I was not aware that Michigan imported Canada’s trash until I read these articles. It was surprising, but at the same time it makes sense, Michigan being one of the worst states economically…

    I think this is where journalists play a vital role in society. Discovering stories that affect many people, but which are also tried to keep quiet by the government or another organization.

    Money is a common theme in these articles. The USA gets money from Canada from letting them use our land as their landfill. Obviously the journalist wants to emphasize the effects that this garbage could have on our environment, which is perfectly logical. But, (and I’m playing the Devil’s advocate here) what if they did an economical analysis on the Canadian trash? What if it brought in a huge amount of money, enough to fund one public school per year? Would people’s opinions change?

    It seems that journalists often want to write stories that will get readers up in arms about something, but why don’t we see a lot of Devil’s advocates out there in the media?

    • Adam, you’ll hear some of that perspective from the township officials we’ll meet tomorrow. Actually, I think that journalists often play devil’s advocate during interviews, asking questions like “How would you respond to critics who say xxx?” Also, I would say that people who are playing devil’s advocate aren’t always trying to calm people down — sometimes those devil’s advocates are trying to get people riled up! But I agree with your basic point that in the package of stories I posted there wasn’t enough focus on the financial benefits of the landfill to the local community. I believe that when the landfill was initially proposed, the local folks weren’t for it. Now more of them are, in my understanding, though I don’t follow this story closely. We’ll get the real story from the local people tomorrow.

  9. The sad reality is that in spite of all our education that teaches us to not litter and to recycle and reuse, the bottom line is: people are going to do whats most convenient for them. This mean that the best way of making recycling known is to do it in a way that is most convenient for the public!

    Environmental journalists need to step outside of the box and find new way to engage the public without actually having to ‘engage’ them. What do I mean by this? Well, the stories that come from legitimate publications like the Chicago Tribune are not going to reach as many people as they want to reach because they require people to actually go out of their way to click a link or purchase a newspaper. In spite of how easy and effortless it sounds, not many people are going to exert any action towards something they have zero interest in, especially when it comes to reading a story that implicitly critiques their lifestyles. For the narcissistic new generation of Americans, journalists have to find new ways to talk to the public without needing the public’s permission, in that news about recycling and environmental statistics have to be interwoven into the public’s everyday lives.

    In San Francisco, many posters of environmental statistics are put up in public areas, such as public bathrooms. Behind the bathroom doors and near where people wash and dry their hands there are posters and stickers saying things like “Did you know that this hand dryer saved ____ trees from being cut down in 1 year?” As plain as it sounds, these sorts of visual and print media actually work- they’re easy to remember, and importantly, they don’t require any time, money or really any effort from the public.

    These statistics should also be printed on our household items, like instead of just printing the word “RECYCLE” on every tissue box, explain to the person who is deciding what to do with the finished box, why it is so important to recycle it. I think sometimes journalists feel that they have to be smart and articulate when they’re trying to make their voices heard, especially in controversial matters, but when it comes to matters that affect the entire population as a whole, and not just a single segment, journalists just have to assume that the population is not very bright and communicate to them accordingly. So I think that the best way to educate the public on this global issue is to communicate in a language that does not alienate anyone and interweave these stories/statistics into everyday life.

    • I like the way you’re thinking. I wonder how much it costs to install these signs in San Francisco — and where the money comes from. Have you seen the paid ads in some public bathrooms? I wonder why those aren’t more common. That seems like an untapped source of potential income for state highway authorities and other people who run public bathrooms. I wonder if anyone is trying to put changing “news” on those kinds of signs.

  10. Sometimes the downside to environmental journalism is that it can bore those readers that do not feel connected to the story or see how it would impact their daily lives. However, this week’s topic on garbage is one of the environmental topics that people can easily link into their personal lives. As a journalist, this is an important concept to consider when researching and reporting on new waste technologies. Having the knowledge that a story will be important and beneficial to all readers puts the pressure on to be sure to write it well and make sure it is all fact so readers can create their own opinions.

    On the other hand, there are new technologies that are not being used but not for a lack of reporting on such innovative ideas. A journalist’s job is to get the information out there, but cannot force their stories to be considered and implemented. This is apparent in the article about the truckloads of trash going to Toronto daily, and while it was reported on there wasn’t a lot done in the past ten (ish) years. I think journalists are doing an okay job of reporting on trash and it is the responsibility of the readers to take the information and do something with it. How, as students, can we work to change recycling and trash habits? What are some techniques we see everyday here on campus? Do you find them effective?

  11. It’s interesting how Adam mentions that one role for journalists is to inform the people about something that may be secretive. While off topic, it’s great to have the freedom of speech by your side, which allows the journalists here to write about almost anything they please. I say this because there are still countries with and without the freedom of speech who are prepared to kill journalists and reporters if they say the “wrong” thing.

    The issue I see with trash disposal is that once it’s there, it’s there forever. Covering it up, building it into something, or just leaving it there all result in problems. It doesn’t matter what you do because once it’s there, the problems begin, either being short term or long term. The only way to fix the problem is to reduce trash, which is a hard thing to solve. I don’t imagine the average waste per person to decrease anytime soon either. The best way to keep trash from being a bigger problem is to keep promoting proper garbage disposal and waste management.

    If journalists took stronger views when writing articles and really challenged the current state of garbage disposal that promoted a more eco-friendly behavior , would we see a concurrent improved response by the people to improve trash disposal conditions?

  12. What I find most interesting about this subject is how the media has acted in neglecting all aspects of this undoubtably universal act. Taking from the original post, we see articles criticize that the industry, the environmental impact, and provide public scrutiny. Where’s the article that explains how important trash pick is and how there are many who are dependent on the trash industry as necessary service. Where’s the profile of the trash collector and the expose supporting the revenue generated by the Michigan-Toranto partnership?

    When we say reporting is fair and unbiassed, are we being honest on all issues that are being reported?

    Trash disposal–with its unquestionable impact on the environment– is obviously an issue that needs be address thoroughly. At this time Journalist’s can’t afford to keep reproducing the same article–the consequences of overlooking the issue and under-acknowledging the necessity of the trash service, are just too big now.

  13. Most of the articles I read about garbage, recycling, and composting seemed the same to me–long articles with blurbs about protecting the environment and some statistics about cost and waste. I agree with Peter. Journalists needs to provide more of a “why should I care?” story to the audience. The public has been hearing about the topic of garbage and recycling but there hasn’t been much significant effect. Providing more pictures and possibly even stories about what people (local citizens) have to say after seeing an actual landfill. As emphasized in journalistic writing, sometimes things have to be shown rather than told.

  14. Yes, the waste industry does have function like any other industry and finances are an integral motivator. But at what point do we find this inexcusable? This perspective draws strong parallels to the anti-corporation argument. Because the act of encouraging landfills and incinerators is proven to harm our environment and our health, how long will it take for journalists to excite the public or environmental/health experts on the treatable subject?

    I must admit that I am learning that the issue has much less to do with policy and much more to do with business than I previously thought. My naivety surprises even me. But I must also say that I’m not quite sure which force would be easier to combat for a better solution. Part of me doesn’t sympathize with the entities that don’t know where to put their own waste. With the trash they are creating comes the duty, responsibility and obligation to find a solution. A “you make the mess, you clean it up” mentality. This would empower and hold responsible people to be innovative and creative for a better solution for all, and no matter where this is, I’m confident there are profits to be had! The idealist in me thinks this could be a win win if we adapt to our changing world and cease from relying on convenience.

  15. I think that the issue of trash is a major one that affects every individual in this country. We all produce trash, so why was I having trouble relating to the article? I agree with Jenna. I was overwhelmed with the data being thrown around in these articles regarding trash. I feel like one of the major issues when it comes to talking “trash” is the shear quantity of garbage produced on whole. I wish the authors of these articles could’ve tailored the articles to more specific audiences.

    I think it’s so great that Becky mentioned composting, however most college students don’t know the first thing about composting. From city living, suburban living, rural living, and even college living there should be unique solutions to dealing with waste. Every community is different. I think it’s important to talk about trash as a general issue, but when it comes to solutions, I think it needs to be community specific.

    The last article talked about legislation when it comes to Canada and U.S. trash issues. I think these issues could be tackled much more efficiently on a city by city basis.

  16. It’s interesting that the trash collection industry is such a for profit business. While I agree with recycling and think it should be promoted more in all cities it really doesn’t have a chance to prosper against the incentives of profit from trash collection.

    I think that journalists can play a role in this by drawing the public’s attention to the fact that these trash companies are running on such a for profit basis. If this was done effectively sanctions could be placed upon trash companies to ensure that their profits are limited and fair. This would open up room for the recycling industry – bringing more good to the environment.

    Also, the math on “4.6 pounds per person per day” is slightly off – it comes out to about 3.7lbs. Just saying – seeing as we had a presentation on the topic…

  17. While I think all of the articles do inform readers of issues and facts they may not have been aware of, this does not mean that the public will react or that anything will change any time soon. Its no surprise that even the trash industry is focused on profits. Still, telling the public this isn’t going to make them recycle any more.
    The role of journalists should be to search for ways that will inspire the reader to make a change. Talking about big companies or long term effects is only going to make the reader feel small, but approaching these stories on a more local will help readers understand how they can make a difference and perhaps give them a sense of more power.

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