BookBrowse Reviews Wasteland by Oliver Franklin-Wallis

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The Secret World of Waste and the Urgent Search for a Cleaner Future

by Oliver Franklin-Wallis

Wasteland by Oliver Franklin-Wallis X
Wasteland by Oliver Franklin-Wallis
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  • Published:
    Jul 2023, 400 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Herschbach
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About this Book



An eye-opening account of the global waste crisis—and how our throwaway culture is trashing the planet.

Globally, we generate more than 2 billion tons of household waste every year. That annual total includes more than 400 million tons of discarded plastic, more than 50 million tons of electronic waste and an estimated 90 tons of clothing and textiles. In the United States, the world's most wasteful nation, the average person produces a whopping 4.4 pounds of waste every day and throws out some 1,000 pounds of food every year. Worldwide, a full third of all food produced is discarded without being eaten—even as some 820 million people go hungry every day.

In Wasteland, British journalist Oliver Franklin-Wallis follows our trash to landfills, recycling facilities, incinerators and dumpsites to track what happens to all the stuff we throw out—and what it does to the planet. It's a journey that takes him from an e-waste processing site in Ghana contaminated with toxins to the sewage-choked waters of India's most sacred river, and from a Superfund site in Oklahoma to a floating island of discarded wet wipes in the Thames River in West London. Along the way, the book weaves in the stories of people whose lives, in different ways, are shaped by our global waste crisis—waste pickers scavenging for recyclables in a mountain-high trash dump in New Delhi, an English freegan who dumpster dives to salvage food waste, and secondhand clothing traders in Ghana battling a deluge of textile waste shipped in from Western nations.

An award-winning magazine journalist whose work has appeared in WIRED, GQ, The Guardian, The New York Times and many other publications, Franklin-Wallis is a compelling writer, adroitly balancing vivid on-the-ground reporting with informative statistics and discerning analyses that provide context. The book is full of heart-sinking revelations about the waste industry—for example, the rampant dumping of vast amounts of waste on lower-income countries by wealthy nations, a phenomenon known as "toxic colonialism." Dismayingly, readers also learn that returned, unsold and overstocked consumer goods are often simply dumped or incinerated by retailers and that, despite the ubiquitous recycling symbols on plastic containers, only a tiny fraction of plastic is actually recycled. Indeed, plastic recycling campaigns have largely been a corporate greenwashing tactic to ease consumers' guilt so that they'll keep buying all those single-use plastic items.

Wasteland is an engaging read, and Franklin-Wallis writes in a personable style lightened by occasional touches of wit. But it's hard not to come away feeling deflated, despairing at the sheer scale of our wastefulness—and how deeply embedded it is in our way of life. As the book convincingly argues, waste isn't just a byproduct of our consumer economy. In a very real sense, waste is what keeps it running. Corporations' very business model depends on disposability, on consumers buying—and throwing out—more and more stuff. "The modern economy is built on trash," as Franklin-Wallis pithily observes.

The consequences for the environment and our health are devastating. Landfills—where the bulk of the world's waste ends up—are responsible for some 11 percent of global emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas with a greater planet-warming effect than carbon dioxide. Dumpsites leak toxic chemicals that contaminate the soil, air and water, exposing those who live or work nearby to health risks ranging from asthma to cancer. Plastic pollution has infiltrated every part of the planet, from the heights of Mount Everest to the depths of the oceans. Microplastics—the tiny fragments plastic degrades into—now literally rain down on us, contaminating the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and even our own bodies.

And then there is all the waste generated before the point of disposal—the staggering amounts of industrial waste built into the production process itself. The trees felled to make the paper and packaging we toss in the trash. The water wasted to grow all that food that goes uneaten. The toxic chemicals and greenhouse gasses spewed to manufacture the plastic bottles we dump. The land contaminated by mining the rare metals in our electronics, which we ditch for the latest upgrade—or because the manufacturer made the battery impossible to replace. "For all our focus on household recycling rates," Franklin-Wallis notes, "the vast majority of waste happens upstream, before our products ever get to us."

In an epilogue, Franklin-Wallis reflects on some of the practical changes he has made in his own life in response to his research: using as little plastic as possible, composting organic waste, recycling what you can of everything else, buying less stuff. As he acknowledges, such suggestions feel underwhelming in proportion to the problem. However, that is not a failure on the part of the author or a fault of the book; rather, it's a reflection of the enormity of the crisis. Given the scale of global waste, nothing short of massive systemic change is enough.

One obstacle to change, Franklin-Wallis argues, is that so much of the true environmental cost of what we buy and what we throw out is hidden from view. For that reason, we need to force corporations to be upfront about the actual waste footprint of their products, from the resources depleted and pollution emitted in manufacturing them to the environmental costs of disposing of them. And we need a waste management system that works in a transparent way, so that we know what gets recycled, what gets trashed and what the consequences are for people and places around the world—and for those who will inherit the wasteland we're creating. "If out of sight is indeed out of mind," Franklin-Wallis writes, "then let's put our waste in full view." As insightful as it is unsettling, Wasteland does just that—brilliantly.

This review first ran in the September 6, 2023 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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