You are here

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Solving the Problems with Long-Distance Trash Transport
Vivian E. Thomson

BUY Cloth · 192 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813928241 · $55.00 · Sep 2009
BUY Paper · 192 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813928258 · $23.50 · Sep 2009
BUY Ebook · 192 pp. · ISBN 9780813928715 · $23.50 · Sep 2009

Your garbage is going places you’d never imagine. What used to be sent to the local dump now may move hundreds of miles by truck and barge to its final resting place. Virtually all forms of pollution migrate, subjected to natural forces such as wind and water currents. The movement of garbage, however, is under human control. Its patterns of migration reveal much about power sharing among state, local, and national institutions, about the Constitution’s protection of trash transport as a commercial activity, and about competing notions of social fairness. In Garbage In, Garbage Out, Vivian Thomson looks at Virginia’s status as the second-largest importer of trash in the United States and uses it as a touchstone for exploring the many controversies around trash generation and disposal.

Political conflicts over waste management have been felt at all levels of government. Local governments who want to manage their own trash have fought other local governments hosting huge landfills that depend on trash generated hundreds of miles away. State governments have tried to avoid becoming the dumping grounds for cities hundreds of miles away. The constitutional questions raised in these battles have kept interstate trash transport on Congress’s agenda since the early 1990s. Whether the resulting legislative proposals actually address our most critical garbage-related problems, however, remains in question.

Thomson sheds much-needed light on these problems. Within the context of increased interstate trash transport and the trend toward privatization of waste management, she examines the garbage issue from a number of perspectives--including the links between environmental justice and trash management, a critical evaluation of the theoretical and empirical relationship between economic growth and environmental improvement, and highlighting the ways in which waste management practices in the US differ from those in the European Union and Japan. Thomson then provides specific, substantive recommendations for our own policymakers.

Everything eventually becomes trash. As we explore the long, often surprising, routes our garbage takes, we begin to understand that it is something more than a mere nuisance that regularly "disappears" from our curbside. Rather, trash generation and management reflect patterns of consumption, political choices over whether garbage is primarily pollution or commerce, the social distribution of environmental risk, and how our daily lives compare with those of our counterparts in other industrialized nations.


Thomson's commitment to reduction in the amount of trash is welcome and important; it comes as a breath of fresh air within the policy literature on garbage transportation. Moreover, it digs beneath the surface of our trash transport problems in a normatively admirable manner.

Perspectives on Politics

This topic is of immense importance. Garbage In, Garbage Out is original and is a substantial contribution to the field of environmental policy. Thomson demonstrates convincingly that the problem of solid waste management is far more complex and serious than most would conceive.

John Wargo, Yale University, author of Green Intelligence: Creating Environments that Protect Human Health

Garbage In-Garbage Out is an outstanding work that sheds much light on the current solid waste business model past and future.I highly recommend it to anyone in our industry, and to all who care how we dispose of waste and where.

Bruce J. Edmonds III, Environmental Research Solutions

This work covers new comparative territory, provides a rich source of information on waste legislation, and helps us understand the political reasons why our trash travels so far.

Journal of Southern History

About the Author(s): 

Vivian E. Thomson is Associate Professor of Environmental Sciences and of Politics at the University of Virginia, where she is Director of the Environmental Thought and Practice program. From 2002-2010 she served on the State Air Pollution Control Board as member and Vice Chair.

Interested in this topic?
Stay updated with our newsletters:

Related Books