CNBCfix review: ‘Trash Inc.’
shows we’re all in this together

          Posted: Friday, October 1, 2010

Some people complain that all they get on TV is garbage.

Carl Quintanilla delivers.

There are a couple good questions Quintanilla could've asked but didn't during "Trash Inc.: The Secret Life of Garbage." Even so, the "Squawk Box" co-anchor and his CNBC crew put together an informative hourlong production that actually makes trash watchable.

The images of Quintanilla standing in landfills get repetitive but feel necessary. A documentary on garbage without a recycling angle would be sort of like Laurel without Hardy. Quintanilla does spend 1 of about 5 or 6 segments explaining the latest in reusable technology. But mostly this is about problems, not solutions, an observation of the amount of trash bespoiling our landscape. For that, this production deserves healthy marks.

Quintanilla opens from the Manhattan curbside, where the story, as he puts it, is just beginning. This to many is probably the most important element of the story. Quintanilla's pictures of the N.Y. sanitation workers — one of them a weightlifting champ — tossing large objects into the garbage trucks offer an appreciation for the work these guys do but lacks a bit of color and, surprisingly for a business channel, statistics. Quintanilla notes the wages of the trash haulers (anywhere from $70,000 to $100,000-plus) and the cost of trucks but does not explain what a typical resident — anywhere — pays to have trash picked up once a week. Surely someone must've analyzed a bunch of municipal budgets to figure out the typical cost per homeowner.

Having no idea what that ultimate number is, the gut feeling says it's probably a bargain.

Nor does Quintanilla explain how many communities force residents to sort out recyclables or whether most cities simply pick everything up and sort it later.

Garbage pickup anecdotes are probably endless and Quintanilla chooses to skip them, though an article on the subject at relates this likable story from a New York City sanitation exec: "In late '70s, we received an evening phone call from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis saying that 17 paintings had been mistaken by the building staff as waste. We were able to identify the truck, and we diverted it to a marine transfer station.”

The program is almost evenly divided between success and failure. On the one hand there is the efficiency and strategy of Manhattan's trash removal, the cleanliness of a huge Nevada dump with a purportedly ground-protecting liner, the ability to tap methane from dumps, and the enthusiasm of Waste Management's CEO as the company finds profit in recyclables. On the other hand, there is the mob, the Pennsylvania town that fears a radioactive landfill threat to its water supply, and of course there is China, and there is even a steady flotilla of probably decades-old toothbrushes regularly turning up on a beautiful Hawaii beach.

It's entirely possible Quintanilla, and this review, are not just burying trash, but a lede. One might wonder if a few people who spoke to Quintanilla in Beijing might need to start fearing for their lives after complaining about the government's handling of illegal or poorly run landfills. We even see members of Quintanilla's team being briefly detained. Yet, Quintanilla explains that a Chinese photographer's pictures of illegal dumping actually prompted the government to act. Is a free press — gasp — actually working in China? That's for the next documentary.

Two things that people might want to know: 1) When I drop an empty water bottle/styrofoam cup/old newspaper into a trash can in any random city, what are the chances it ends up recycled? And 2) What about all those old Pepsi bottles from 10, 20 years ago still sitting in landfills, will there ever be an extraction?

Quintanilla notes, interestingly, that 80% of the stuff in landfills is actually recyclable, but only 28% of it actually is being recycled. One expert says only 20% of the nation's 51 billion plastic water bottles each year are being recycled.

Quintanilla doesn't take the program this far, but the question must be inferred: Are we winning the battle against turning seemingly half our world into a dump? The answer feels like a "no," that for now we're all generally OK simply because there's still a lot of room, even in China, for garbage, and that whatever gains the U.S. and developed countries are making in recycling is being offset by the rising economies of less-developed nations who don't care so much about landfills just yet.

"Trash Inc." is a CNBC original production but appears to be a rather slimmed-down effort. Graphics are minimal to nonexistent. The credits list is not particularly deep though it still bears the signature of long-form veterans such as Mitch Weitzner (senior executive producer), Victoria Todis (creative director), chief photographer Angel Perez and manager of post production Vito Tattoli. The camera crew is notably light in numbers, and the audio contingent is bolstered by free-lancers.

If there is a silver lining to any landfill, it's the understanding that this is the ultimate egalitarian problem. People can say "My trash goes to the same dump as Bill Gates' and Barack Obama's" and basically be correct. The problem is that it stays there, and neither Gates nor Obama nor Quintanilla's viewers knows what to do about it. Like most national issues, that solution will be put off for another time.

"Trash Inc.: The Secret Life of Garbage" (2010)

Featuring: David Shafer, Michael Hoffman, John J. Doherty, Assaf Biderman, Dietmar Offenhuber, Mark Clinker, Rick Hind, Michael Keller, Ron Quagliani, Li Bo, David Steiner, Dave Rowell, Charles Moore

Host: Carl Quintanilla
Senior executive producer: Mitch Weitzner
Senior producer: Wally Griffith
Producer: Alison O'Brien
Editors: Allison Stedman, Conrad deVroeg, Joyce Haverkamp
Camera: Marco Mastrorilli, Leroy Jackson, Joe DeWitt
Writers: Alison O'Brien, Carl Quintanilla
Audio: David Schumacher, Shaun Baker
Broadcast Associate: Kimberly Saunders
Production Associate: Michael Beyman
Additional camera: Michael Luciano, Michael Vaughn
Additional audio: Bobby Cruz, Jeff Hoien, John Pones, Phil Velasco, Claudio Musajo
Creative director: Victoria Todis
Managing art director: John Rehm
Senior designer/animator: Jacqueline Dessel
Director of post production: Vito Tattoli
Manager and chief photographer: Angel Perez
Special thanks: Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, Waldorf Towers
Vice president, long form programming: Ray Borelli

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