Garbage! The Revolution Starts at Home

A new documentary about garbage — what we generate and where it goes — is set to cause a stir in waste management circles and, hopefully, boost interest in waste diversion among ordinary citizens.

Produced and directed by Toronto filmmaker Andrew Nisker, “Garbage! The Revolution Starts at Home” was screened simultaneously in cities around the globe on November 19. The film’s debut was covered extensively by local media, especially in its home town by newspapers such as the Toronto Star and CBC’s radio show Metro Morning.

The filmmaker no doubt hopes that his 76-minute flick will raise awareness over garbage just as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth did for global warming. The film “hits home” by focusing on a typical middle-class family with kids — the McDonalds (friends of the director) — who get to know their garbage intimately after agreeing to hold onto all their trash and not set it at the curb.

For three months the family dutifully lugs their garbage (in green garbage bags) and recyclables (in blue transparent bags) to the garage. At various points the husband rebels and refuses to participate. (Many a female viewer will mutter, “So what else is new!”) They even bring wrappers, used beverage containers and packaging home from work and kids’ birthday parties. The only thing sent away is the family’s compostable organic material (already collected separately via Toronto’s green bin program). But they still keep track of it via weighing on a home bathroom scale.

Not surprisingly, the McDonalds are amazed to discover how much trash their family generates. When they finally carry their garbage out to a truck so that Nisker can haul it off, they find they’ve generated 83 bags of material in addition to the 145 kilograms of weighed organics — roughly double what they predicted at the film’s outset.

This large volume was enhanced by the fact that the film was shot toward the end of 2005, and included the Christmas season. In December the McDonalds generated more waste than the previous two months combined. Segments include the family struggling with difficult to open (let alone recycle) multi-material packaging of toys and other presents made up of wire, plastic, cardboard and (of course) Christmas wrapping paper that the parents are surprised (as was I) to learn is not recyclable.

The segments highlighting the MacDonald’s young children are delightful, but Nisker doesn’t just dwell on this family’s home scene. Instead, he uses their story as a point of departure to show how their consumer behavior is the nexus of a wider web of activities that have devastating environmental consequences.

A flushing toilet, the driving of a car, the use of dishwasher soap or the putting up of Christmas lights are linked to sections of the documentary filmed further away that show sewage sludge being dumped at a landfill in Michigan, or oily road runoff contaminating local surface waters and making them uninhabitable for marine life. Various experts connect the dots and a picture gradually emerges: pollution isn’t something that happens elsewhere at the hands of other people; it occurs as the sum consequence of all the little things we do in our ordinary lives.

The most dramatic scenes in the film concern not garbage, but energy generation. Nisker travels to West Virginia, from which comes some of the coal used to power Ontario’s electricity grid, especially at peak times. Heartbreaking panoramic shots capture a devastated Appalachia moonscape where the tops have literally been blown off more than 450 mountains (so far) in order to extract coal. He interviews lone hold-out Larry Gibson who has turned down multi-million dollar offers for his land and has survived various attempts on his life in order to save a small piece of once pristine wilderness. Sadly, explosions from surface mining operations have caused deep fissures through his property. Gibson states that even a goat would starve to death if plopped down on the un-navigable terrain.

The films weakest segment is Nisker’s interviews with neighbors of the Michigan landfill that receives 130 trucks of Toronto garbage every day. It’s true that this is a serious nuisance for people whose homes abut the landfill property; their lives are impinged by dust, noise and devalued house prices. But modern sanitary landfills are hardly the threat they once were and these interviews fall short of portraying the kind of Love-Canal-in-the-making the director might have hoped for. The real indictment against landfills these days relates to the fact that they serve as repositories for all the crap we still consume but can’t recycle — a point that could have been emphasized more.

People who follow environmental issues closely may also wish the filmmaker had spent more time exposing the “upstream” environmental impacts of creating consumer goods in the first place. This is implied in the whole exercise of the McDonald’s saving their trash and the close-ups of wasteful packaging. But experts know that the greatest environmental gains come from offsetting natural resource extraction (especially for plastics made from non-renewable petroleum) and the energy inputs at each stage of a product’s manufacture, distribution and use.

I’d like to have seen items being produced inside Chinese factories with no environment or health and safety laws and follow them by ship and truck to the shelves of big box retailers in North America. It’s in displacing this sequence that reuse, reduction and recycling score their biggest points.

Perhaps that could be the topic of Nisker’s next documentary, or an addition to a “director’s cut” version. (The film is well under an hour and a half.) Maybe some casual interviews offering further insights could run along with the closing credits. In the meantime, we should all be grateful Nisker has got the debate started. In order to get the word out, his team is using some savvy “viral marketing” including home screenings in different countries, plus releasing the documentary online. You can buy the film for just $19.99 at

Note: This magazine is starting a new project to solicit ideas from readers to assemble a master list of relatively easy-to-do things that householders and businesses can do to help the environment. See for details. According to media reports, after the movie the McDonalds traded in their two SUVs for more eco-friendly vehicles, replaced their five toilets with low-flush models, started using reusable cloth shopping bags, and stopped buying bottled water. We’d like to hear your ideas, too!

Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine.