HAMMOND — Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Edward Humes found it ironic that Purdue University Northwest presented him with a bottle of water at the podium Thursday as he spoke about his book — “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash — and the Way Back.”
"This university and everyone I've met have been such a great host, but I've got to give you one little tip: If you have someone in to talk about waste, don't put this on the podium.
"It's the single-most wasteful product you'll ever see," he said, half-jokingly as he uncapped his own reusable water bottle. "These are so much easier to use."
The award-winning Humes was well-received on Thursday as he shared the data and inspiration behind his 2012 book to more than 150 students, staff and community members seated in a packed Alumni Hall.
As "champions of waste," Humes said the average American throws away 7.1 pounds of waste per day, compared to the average 2.5 pounds thrown out by the people of Japan. In Indiana, 6 million tons of municipal waste is tossed annually into landfills and just 1.3 million tons are diverted from landfills, he said.
Plastics are a special challenge, he added. In Indiana, 18,552 tons of plastics are recycled each year, or just 1.85 percent of the 1 million tons of plastics that wind up in landfills.
At the corporate level, companies like Wal-Mart have found ways to reduce waste, but others, like Coca-Cola, have for years exacerbated our global packaging waste problem with its large-scaled use of plastic bottles.
“That cost (to package and recycle) is external. Coca-Cola bears little to no responsibility for the impact of its product,” he said. “It’s not reflected in their price or something they have to do anything about. So they have an incentive to choose a more wasteful model than the low-waste model.”
Coca-Cola as recently as last month announced a plan to redesign its packaging in an effort to reduce the company’s carbon footprint.
Humes, however, said there is a way out.
Companies must find new, less wasteful ways to manufacture, recycle and design their products, and society must get into the habit of utilizing reusable bags, purchasing e-books, and buying used items through thrift shops and websites like Craigslist — rather than buying anew, he said.
Deziree Langford, 19, a freshman of psychology, said for a recent assignment, she and her classmates had to come up with ways to recycle on campus.
Her group wanted to team up with a waste organization in an effort to bring more recycling bins to campus and partner with the company to haul away the materials, but money became an issue, she said.
“So we ended up turning back to what we can just do here for free. So, yeah, we’re trying,” Langford said.
Joshua Emge, 24, of Mokena, Illinois, said personal accountability is a critical part of societal changes.
“I’ve thought about the ramifications on a global scale, but the idea of taking personal ownership as an individual is another thing. The data is valuable, but people need to take the time to listen,” Emge said.
Emerging from Humes' speaking event at Alumni Hall on his way to his next class, Emge grabbed a plastic bottle of Diet Coke from his backpack to further prove his point.
“I know the waste is ridiculous, but I am still using and purchasing bottles from the university. The main thing it takes is talks like this. The public needs to be informed and data helps," he said.
Humes’ recent visit to Purdue is the culmination of the university's "One Book/One University” common reading program. Through "One Book/One University," first-year students at Purdue Northwest share academic experiences through reading a common text, according to the university.
Humes also led a panel discussion of Purdue Northwest students and Region environmental experts on Friday. The discussion, titled “Garbology: A PNW Perspective,” is part of Purdue Northwest’s annual Founders Day programming.