Please Explain: How to Save the World—the Future of Garbage

Friday, February 10, 2012

Wherever humans go, they leave trash behind. The average American throws away over 1,130 pounds of waste per year. On this week’s Please Explain, we continue our series How to Save the World, looking at how we dispose of garbage, how recycling and composting and smaller packaging can cut down on the amount of garbage people throw away around the world, and how garbage can be used as a renewable, green energy source. Joining us are Nickolas J. Themelis, Director, Earth Engineering Center, and professor in the School of Engineering at Columbia University, and Elizabeth Royte, author of Garbage Land and Bottlemania.


Elizabeth Royte and Nickolas J. Themelis

Comments [35]

furnished rentals New York from yuma

Your method of explaining all in this article is in fact nice, all can easily know it, Thanks a lot. furnished rentals New York

Jun. 13 2012 09:20 AM
Mary from Staten Island

We can easily get rid of the plastic if we eliminate them from packing our food, eliminate the plastics bags from the supermarkets and deli, increase the price for disposable and educate people to reuse the glass container.
In our house we reuse the glass container to store the left over in the refrigerator and if we buy something in plastic we move the content in the glass. You will be surprised how much longer you can keep the parsley leaves, basil and ohter food in the glass container versus plastic bag, huge difference.
Pleas try to save this beautiful planet.

Feb. 29 2012 11:51 AM
arto from Lima, Peru

First response: bio-degradable plastic.

Big business can't complain because they only have to change their raw material and some machine settings. They work for their (sad) single use and then some; I use for garbage bags and are tougher than some plastic.

Then we get the double-benefit: plastic's low energy production costs and bio-degradable.

Lima, Peru, not the example of 1st World, does it already...

Feb. 10 2012 03:16 PM

I saw on the web a few months ago equipment ( small scale ) which convert plastic back to the petrochemical(oil ) it was made out of so that this then can be made into fuel ( diesel etc. . In upstate NY they were building a large scale plant which was waiting for licensing.

Feb. 10 2012 02:04 PM
Henry from Catskills

You really notice the ubiquity of non-degadable waste when you go to developing countries where, only 30 years ago, most things were compostable and degradable - now with the influx of western packaging, what once could be disposed of and compost itself now sits on the sides of roads.

Feb. 10 2012 01:59 PM

New York does have a wine industry - Long Island, Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley, couldn't they reuse the colored glass?

Feb. 10 2012 01:57 PM
Georgina from manhattan

so many ways to RE-USE that are not eve3r discussed!

ps--recycling and re-using and repairing since 1975 (Go Ann Arbor!)

Feb. 10 2012 01:56 PM
Ellen from Brooklyn

Many people in my Brooklyn neighborhood have given up on recycling because they get a ticket if they make a mistake and put in the wrong kind of plastic. They can be sure of not getting a ticket if they just put everything in a black garbage bag.

Feb. 10 2012 01:54 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Wearable Collections takes textiles for recycling. They're at some Greenmarkets, & you can get a large bin in apt. buildings (

Feb. 10 2012 01:52 PM

Why are certain neighborhoods held to a higher recycling standard than others? When I lived in Boerum Hill my landlord would get ticketed if we didn't put recyclables our properly. Now I'm in Bed-Stuy and recycling is not adhered to much if at all.

Feb. 10 2012 01:52 PM

Are the containers that food comes delivered in recyclable?

Feb. 10 2012 01:52 PM
Ellen from Brooklyn

Here's a question for the guests:

Why haven't reusable shipping containers caught on more here in the US as they have in Europe?

That would cut an enormous amount of waste.

Feb. 10 2012 01:50 PM
Nan from Westchester County

It seems to me that there has been a proliferation of plastic packaging in supermarkets. Orange juice is now getting hard to find in cartons and is in plastic jugs instead. Is there any movement to get manufacturers to reverse this trend?

Feb. 10 2012 01:50 PM
Chartles from Hoboken


Isn't it pretentious to think that our human activities can destroy the world? What we can destroy is our North-American lifestyle but the world is bigger than us and will continue until astrologically life on earth will not be possible anymore. The Roman world was destroyed but life continued and other civilizations emerged.

Feb. 10 2012 01:49 PM
marcela from Inwood

Florists are very happy to receive vases back.
I was offered $5 the other day for one that I just gave back.

Feb. 10 2012 01:49 PM
Danielle Jensen

I am all for recycling but on garbage days in my neighborhood all the recyclables are put out in plastic bags which seems like a whole other problem. also for years I only have used grocery store plastic bags for my garbage. once they are outlawed i will have to buy garbage bags - i never hear anything about the garbage bag industry-seems to me it is better to recycle used grocery bags than to produce those big,heavy bags except that it supports an industry.

Feb. 10 2012 01:48 PM
Dan K from Washington Heights

I'm puzzled about why the city recycles plastic bottles with the numbers 1 and 2, but not containers with the number 5 and 6. The latter are mostly take out food containers. Considering how vast the volume of takeout food is in this city, there must be a market for that stuff.

Feb. 10 2012 01:48 PM
Martin Laurence from Ridgewood NJ

What efforts are being made by the generators of packaging; i.e. companies and farmers, etc. to find other ways of shipping, packaging, etc.? The whole system seems parallel to the automobile gas guzzling problem. If packaging was reduced or even eliminated, we wouldn't have to be so concerned with recycling.

Feb. 10 2012 01:48 PM

I live in Portland Oregon and our neighborhood was part of an experimental program which is now city wide. Garbage picked up every two weeks and we put all food wastes, including meat products in our yard debris pail, recycling picked up weekly.

Feb. 10 2012 01:46 PM
Mike from Manhattan

What has happened to electric arc incineration where a high voltage electric arc is run at the bottom of a landfill that burns the garbage at 6000+ degrees so that everything is reduced to the pure elements. Metals including heavy metals melt out and are easily collected and chemicals like PCBs are completely destroyed. This was talked about in Scientific American and other respectable publications in the 90s.

Feb. 10 2012 01:45 PM
John A.

What percentage of what Can be recycled Is recycled?

Feb. 10 2012 01:40 PM
HD from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn

Just a generation ago, most beverages came in glass (remember six-packs of those tall Coca-Cola bottles)- can your guests explain how glass bottles are recycled? How does the deposit figure in? Why not a push to go back to that? Beer comes in bottles, some soft drinks, organic milk too

Feb. 10 2012 01:38 PM

Does the benefit of shopping online (not driving and contributing to carbon
emissions) balance the drawback of shopping online (contributing to the
trash stream)?

Feb. 10 2012 01:36 PM

I'm always impressed in Italy how mineral water is delivered to your home's doorstep. Metal bins with glass bottles arrive in the morning; you leave empty bottles door side to be picked up. So simple that it stuns me that isn't done in NYC!

Feb. 10 2012 01:36 PM
Amy from Manhattan

And the flip side is for both individuals & businesses to *use* products made from recycled materials so there's a market for what we recycle!

Feb. 10 2012 01:35 PM
Kaori Kitao from Manhattan

The large size of garbage in America not only owes to the double, triple packaging but to the 20th-century culture of developing and producing many
"disposable" items for those many household and personal items which in the old days were meant to be washed and reused, it seems to me.

Feb. 10 2012 01:34 PM
jeremyjava from Manhattan

I just discovered the local Mail Boxes Etc type stores love it if you bring your bubble wrap and styrofoam corn things, boxes, etc.

Feb. 10 2012 01:31 PM

I try not to use plastic bags, but what bags I do collect I bring to the grocery store in my neighborhood of Ridegewood, Queens. However guilt-free it makes me feel, I don't quite believe they actually recycle the bags. Any thoughts on this? Are they required to recycle bags?

Feb. 10 2012 01:31 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Even if not many usable materials can be extracted, the waste can be disposed of safely. GrowNYC is having an NYC SAFE event in each borough in April & May (

And the Office of Recycling Outreach & Education told me bubble wrap *can* be recycled, & they didn't say anything about needing it pop it 1st!

Feb. 10 2012 01:30 PM
Larry In Nyack from Nyack

Plastics have various number codes for each recyclable.

Why would a municipality like Rockland County only request certain platic numbers?

What happens if you add other than the requested plastics into the mix?

Feb. 10 2012 01:29 PM
caleb from jersey city

My impression from reading Garbage Land is that consumer recycling is mostly a placebo, i.e., compared to construction/corporate waste individual garbage is a drop in the bucket. Is that a fair take-away?

Feb. 10 2012 01:26 PM
Stephen from Manhattan

Best Buy has a drop-off recycling program for electronics at their Geek Squad desk at some locations. They have a video loop running explaining how it works. I dropped off a dead external drive at the 86th & Lex location last week. Do your two guests know if Best Buy's program is a good one or just another sham?

Feb. 10 2012 01:26 PM
ANdy from bkln

i've looked on the city DSNY and the LES ecology center recycling events but still dont know what to do with certain broken appliances. do i just through a broken dust buster in with my trash? what about a broken radio?

Feb. 10 2012 01:26 PM
John from Clinton Hill

Why is it that my Canadian friends tell me that they typically put out one (small) bag of "garbage" per week? They seem to have a much better system of recycling/composting and have mentioned the fact they have legislation regarding uniform plastic types - none of this "Type 1-7" plastic".

And besides plastic bags, ban those horrible blister packs used to display items on hangers - you can never open them, they cut you b/c they are so sharp and they serve almost no purpose but for store display - what a waste!

Feb. 10 2012 01:23 PM
Benny from UES

It was reported in the news the other day that a team from Yale University has discovered a fungus deep in the South American rainforest that can live entirely on plastic. Does your guest know anything about this and how it could help?

Feb. 10 2012 01:16 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.