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Garbage has found its poet, and her name is Elizabeth Royte. In her new book, Garbage Land, America's trash trucks, waste treatment facilities, landfills, and compost heaps, as well as her san men, haulers, bureaucrats, suspiciously taciturn landfill operators, and oddly evangelistic environmentalists, are lavished with the attention of a thorough, perceptive, graceful, and often witty writer. It is a book that will leave you feeling vaguely nauseated, guilty, and overwhelmed. That's not criticism.
The book is predicated on Royte's impulse to follow her own personal waste—her trash, her recyclables, her own individual biological by-products, her contribution to the approximately 232 million tons of municipal solid waste (the EPA, 2003) that's produced in America—to their final resting places. Royte's various explorations do seem to fit a certain pattern: encounters with various people who live la vida garbage; the forbidding realization that almost everything in the waste disposal process, from the dog peed-upon trash bag on our sidewalks to the combustible landfills to the large municipal composting operations, involves materials, locations, and most especially odors that make most of us feel something between icky and twitchy; and finally the dismal realization that whatever we think we're doing with our waste products, the processes are less neat, less tidy, less sanitary, and less sound than we think.
Now, very little of what Royte reports in this book may come as news to attentive waste policy experts, no doubt many of whom are readers of this magazine. But to the reader who considers himself a waste management expert if he can remember what days are trash days (me), the book is full of revelations. Nothing appears to work the way we'd like it to. Though landfills cost $210,000 an acre to build, they aren't a permanent answer. The plastic liners that separate the tons of trash from Mother Earth are susceptible to cracking, and one day all the terrible chemicals that lurk in the residue of household cleaners and hair dye and disposable batteries will seep into the ground and then into the water supply and then into mother's milk. (Yes, babies will be drinking Windex and Prell!)
Cities can build huge sewage treatment plants, but the old sewer drain systems can be easily overwhelmed, and during big rain storms, as much as 40 percent of a city's sewage can roll untreated into the sea. Recycling programs, at least according to some experts, are nothing more than a palliative, making people feel as if they're doing something about the environment when they ultimately in fact have little effect.
During the course of this dispiriting trek, Royte manages to communicate an enthusiasm for her subject that, if not quite contagious, at least ensures that we're being led by a companionable and often plucky narrator. Part of Royte's charm is her eye for the telling footnote and interesting aside. She notes that Iron Eyes Cody, who as “The Crying Indian” shed a tear at a polluted landscape in an iconic Keep America Beautiful commercial in 1971, was actually a Sicilian American named Espera DeCorti. She mentions that the average American elementary school student throws away three and a half ounces of edible food a day. She shares her delight at the safety posters at one plant, one of which drily reads, “Keep in mind: a truck on fire causes low productivity.” She points out that mob involvement in waste management in New York drove costs up—after federal prosecutions smashed the Mafia's stranglehold on trash removal, the World Trade Center's annual carting bill fell from $3 million to $500,000—but eliminating the mob hasn't brought costs down. Mob haulers have been replaced by large corporations (Big Mess, perhaps?), who are just as expensive. “The only difference between the majors and the boys,” Royte quotes one private carter in New York, “is that the majors don't actually kill you.” She quietly notes that the advice doctors routinely give to patients—to flush unused or expired prescription pills down the toilet—now has biologists studying the effects of so many birth control pills, steroids, antibiotics, and tranquilizers on aquatic wildlife. Want to know why our arsenal of antibiotics will one day prove ineffective to some bird flu flying out of Vietnam? It might be because we've eaten too much Chicken of the Sea.
In a counterpoint to her excursions through America's vast waste removal systems, Royte reports on her personal efforts to eliminate, recycle, and reuse the waste which she and her family produce. It gets a little obsessive-compulsive at times, but it's interesting to see the lengths she and other even further committed Zero Waste advocates, who repurpose their shower water and hook up special toilets to turn their poop into fertilizer, are willing to go. At one point, she seems dismayed at having to throw away a Fuzzy Flower Maker, a hard plastic toy someone had given her daughter that she no longer had any use for. Surely, it must be possible to be a good citizen of the planet and let children have their Fuzzy Flower Makers. I, for one, think it's a better world that doesn't require children to play with pine cones.
But maybe not. If we let Royte's daughter have her toys, we'll have to let 300 million other Americans have theirs. (But only Americans. Royte quotes the finding of biologist Edwin O. Wilson that if the rest of the world consumed at our levels, we'd require the resources of four more Earths.) The crushing conclusion of Royte's book is that we are a sinfully wasteful society, that we spend fortunes on materials and processes to create goods that ultimately require us to spend additional fortunes not to throw entirely away, with often the briefest interregnums of usefulness in between.
It's tremendously fun to live in a consumerist society, where the rich can casually toss away yesterday's minerals-laden electronic gadget in favor of today's, and where even the poor can afford ornaments and distractions. But it's sobering to think that everything from iMacs to crack vials will still be sitting around a thousand years from now, along with disposable diapers and two liter containers now emptied of their Caffeine-Free Diet Cherry whatever. The perfect metaphor for our situation is captured in the tale Royte tells of a metals scrap yard where employees used to scrounge for coins that fell out of cars heading for a shredder. Although that activity netted the company $30,000 a year, they recently stopped because the sum didn't justify the labor that went into it. That's it in a nutshell: We're throwing away money.
I once saw a New England sampler, expressing a Yankee credo: Use it up/ Wear it out/ Make do/ Do without. In our wealth, we laugh at the foolish penny-pinching thriftiness of that advice. But ultimately, if we really wanted to do something for the environment, we would take those words to heart, and just buy less stuff.
And then where the hell would we be?
Royte is a journalist with a nose for the "sordid afterlife" of trash, thoroughly at home in the putrid world of "Coney Island whitefish" (used condoms); "disco rice" (maggots); and--the darling of American consumer culture and the nemesis of waste activists-- "Satan's resin" (plastic). Her book takes the form of a quest for the surprising final resting places of her yogurt cups, beer bottles, personal computer, and organic-fig-cookie packaging, and leads to an impassioned attack on overconsumption in America. If Royte does not quite demonstrate the muckraking skills of an Eric Schlosser in "Fast Food Nation," she does expose the feculent underside of our appetite for things and challenges her readers to disprove the resigned assessment of a former New York sanitation commissioner: "In the end, the garbage will win."
Setting out to explore what Americans throw away, how it hurts the environment and whether there's a better way, Elizabeth Royte decided to take it personally: She followed her own trash to its final resting places.
In Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, the Brooklyn resident's quest takes her to the sewers beneath her street, out-of-town landfills, in-town recycling centers, the compost bin in her own backyard, and beyond.
Along the way she meets everyone from the "san men" who pick up her garbage, to waste managers who profit from burying it, to maybe not-so-impractical visionaries who dare her to dream that someday she won't have to trash anything at all.
My favorite chapter is the one about Zero Waste, the idea that everything we buy can be recycled or reused. It's a term I first heard from Mayor Daley's young new environment commissioner, Sadhu Johnston...
ZW, as I will call it to conserve ink, is actually the goal -- quixotic though it may be -- of San Francisco by 2020. The city aims for a 2010 diversion rate of 75 percent, by weight the amount of waste it keeps from being landfilled. San Francisco already claims a 52 percent diversion rate. (Chicago's is 22 percent or 8 percent, depending on whether you ask the city or recycling advocates.)
On a side trip to the city by the bay, Royte hangs out with its recycling chief, Robert Haley, "apple-cheeked and enthusiastic, with a cap of short dark curls." Although she's already concluded ZW is "a condition perfected only by nature," here is a guy who has no trash can at work and at home is supported 99.9 percent by his partner.
And the remaining one-tenth of 1 percent? Haley replies, "She draws the line at twist ties" -- refusing to strip the paper off the little wires. He mails his worn-out sneakers to Nike, which shreds the rubber into flooring for gyms. Confronted with a product that can't be recycled, he simply doesn't buy it.
San Franciscans recycle the usual paper, glass, plastic and metal. But -- and this is something Sadhu Johnston wants to see in Chicago -- they also put out an additional bin in which they've deposited yard waste, kitchen scraps and food-stained cardboard to be turned into compost.
Pickup of both trash and recyclables in San Francisco isn't free; the pay-as-you-throw system encourages conservation. This requires the poor to pay a larger proportion of their income for trash disposal, Royte pointed out to an executive of the company that hauls the city's garbage. His response -- "What are low-income people throwing out? They're poor!" -- sounded less unkind to Royte when she reflected that rich people discard more stuff.
But much as she would like it to be otherwise, the author realizes that recycling is only a drop in the garbage pail on the way to ZW. To achieve that would require reducing consumption, mandating high percentages of recycled content in consumer products, and even forcing manufacturers to take back and reuse their packaging.
Besides, ZW applies only to what citizens throw away. Of all the waste generated in this country, by mining, agriculture, manufacturing, food processing, construction and other sources, municipal solid waste makes up "a mere 2 percent," she writes. "Two percent!"
Still, Royte sees recycling as a moral imperative, a way for people who can't do anything to stop the deaths of right whales, the poisoning of our rivers or the melting of the polar ice caps to make a difference in the life of our planet.
Omigosh. I'm running out of space and I've only written about my favorite chapter. Although I could rationalize that Garbage Land is worth reading for this chapter alone, I'd feel guilty if I didn't at least mention some of the book's findings that made me mad:
Burying and burning, in landfills and incinerators, are the two chief ways Americans dispose of their trash; unlike recycling and composting, both are subsidized by tax breaks. Making paper from trees is one of the most environmentally harmful industries on Earth, but it too is subsidized, so it's cheaper than using recycled paper. Solid waste companies pay small towns big bucks to bury big cities' garbage, but all landfills eventually leak, contaminating groundwater for future generations. Coal-fired power plants, like those that produce about half of Illinois' electricity, and incinerators generate two-thirds of the mercury in the atmosphere.
Royte also is subject to a guilty feeling or two. It pains her to know this book -- which her publisher assured would be printed on paper that uses only half as much virgin fiber as other papers -- still results in the destruction of new trees.
She even regrets wishing Garbage Land will sell a lot of copies, and hopes future editions will be printed on recycled stock or mostly sold electronically.
Anyone who cares about the environment half as much as Royte does should read this book. Then, recycle it. Or better yet, give it away.
Elizabeth Royte lives in Brooklyn and writes for The New Yorker and other magazines, most of them based in New York. That knowledge makes it easier to understand a few things about her new book.
First, the New York connection might explain why a 304-page book was written - and published - about what happens to Royte's trash. Little, Brown publishing executives, and all their NYC friends, must have been curious at some point about what happens to their trash. If publishers saw a proposal from, say, St. Louis, well, thanks but no.
Second, The New Yorker connection also explains why Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash is larded with words like concordance in place of words like agreement. The first chapters, especially, are written in that distinctly New Yorker style, which makes a writer susceptible to sanitizing a subject by calling, say, a computer case a "carapace."
But something happens to this book along the trail of trash: It gets real. And it gets real good, too.
Royte's premise is simple: She wants to know what happens to all her trash - everything her small family throws into the trash can and the recycling bin and down the sink and the toilet. It's not easy to track. During her reporting, she's chased off of some landfills and has to approach others from a boat.
But she uses the journey to write about the realities of trash. Most of what she digs up is interesting, such as the history of the word biosolids, which is much more sanitary-sounding than sewage sludge (which is what the stuff actually is). Other tidbits are more tedious, such as the endless lists of the exact kinds of cancer and birth defects caused in lab rats by other endless lists of toxins found in various forms of garbage.
But even involved citizens and active recyclers will undoubtedly learn some things from Garbage Land, despite its New York-centric viewpoint.
For example, did you know that the water that gets flushed in Brooklyn, and other big cities, sometimes mixes with storm-sewer runoff during heavy rains and gets washed out to sea? It wasn't until the 1980s that New York connected Royte's sewage lines to a treatment plant. Before that, it all drained into the New York Bay, flowing in the general direction of the Statue of Liberty.
I, for one, also had no idea that New York City burned trash until 1994 and that plenty of other places around the country still do.
Most of the people in the trash business whom Royte interviewed tried to make the case that they were doing something good for the planet, and it's hard to dispute.
After all, someone has to deal with all that stuff we throw out.
So recycling must be superimportant, right? The answer here is surprisingly nuanced.
Paper or plastic? Well, Royte points out that it just doesn't matter all that much. Plastic is bad, bad, bad, but paper is much bulkier, and paper production is certainly no friend to the environment.
Some fundamentalist environmentalist recyclers refuse to accept plastic, saying that nothing worthwhile happens with the recycled material anyway and that it's the production of the plastic that's environmentally destructive.
To get all wrapped up about that is to get wrapped up in the tiniest of minutiae, especially given what Royte calls the "mind-boggling statistic that municipal solid waste constitutes just 2 percent of the nation's waste."
That's right, what you and every other family in America throws out adds up to one-fiftieth of the waste discarded, with the rest being produced by industry, mining, agriculture, etc. to provide us with pork chops, pillows, paddleballs and the rest.
So the most adamant of the anti-trash church advocate essentially not buying anything new, anything wrapped in plastic, etc.
Royte quotes a Marxist graduate student who says that just throwing whatever you want into the trash is fine. "There are very few environmental benefits to recycling," the student says, adding that recycling is just a big corporate mind job.
In the end, Royte seems to advocate recycling mainly as a philosophical exercise, a way to keep people aware about what they're throwing out.
That isn't such a bad rationale, considering that most of us toss our trash without giving it a second thought. Still, for all the minutiae Royte covers, there's one issue she never tackles: the amount of trash generated by the thousands and thousands of copies of her book that are printed, distributed in cardboard boxes and, if not sold, sent almost certainly to a landfill.
To prevent that, there's a simple solution: Buy a copy of this book. Garbage Land is a thoughtful look at the history and future of trash. Most important, it's a look at what we can learn about ourselves by studying what we discard.
Who hasn’t wondered where their garbage goes after they bag it up and set it on the curb?
This is exactly the question Elizabeth Royte sets out to answer in Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash . Starting by cataloguing and weighing her own waste, Royte’s interest in garbage soon takes her beyond her Brooklyn home to landfills, recycling plants and junkyards. As she follows her refuse across the country, Royte finds herself immersed in the largely unexplored world of “garbage fairies,” recycling gurus, and landfill operators who don’t return her phone calls. She meets composting connoisseurs who extol the virtues of red worms, sanitation men who sweat through three t-shirts in an hour, and even a student from the University of California at Davis who recycles his own excrement.
Garbage Land is not just a book for avid recyclers and composters. Anyone who has ever felt guilty at the sight of their trash can filling rapidly, will appreciate Royte’s perceptiveness as she attempts to determine not only where trash goes, but also the social connotations of garbage. Indeed, the relationship between garbage and social class is one of the book’s most interesting elements. Wealthy areas, explains Royte, generate the most waste. Conversely, low-income and mixed-race neighborhoods tend to serve as destinations for garbage. A lack of financial resources forces many communities to accept contracts for sewage treatment plants, landfills and waste disposal centers. The consequences, which include high concentrations of airborne lead and astronomical asthma rates in these communities, prove that our “throwaway culture” is not just hurting the environment, but also ourselves.
Every now and then - probably not often enough - most of us have occasion to think about one of the chief consequences of consumerism: a swollen stream of waste that could someday overflow its banks.
With "Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash," Elizabeth Royte takes a literary dumpster dive. In the spirit of other recent examinations of seemingly hum-drum fixtures of daily life, this book takes a gritty topic and makes it shine.
The lid that Royte bravely chose to lift reveals a great deal more than grit.
An accomplished freelance writer (Harper's, The New Yorker), she brings participatory zeal to a local story of global importance. A kayak trip near her Brooklyn home sets Royte to wondering about the final resting place of the estimated 1.3 tons of refuse she - like every American - generates each year.
That wondering draws her deep into the world of the sanitation worker, whose work is statistically more dangerous than police work or firefighting. And it takes her far from the sack-strewn alleys, into the "sordid afterlife of garbage" in the byzantine universe of transfer stations, "scum concentrators," landfills, and incinerators - places with their own lexicons, class topography, pathogens, episodes of secrecy and corruption.
Disco rice? That's trash-man speak for maggots. Mongo? It's trash worth saving. (And though keeping it is officially forbidden, plenty of barely used castoffs - from lawn mowers to designer clothes - are harvested.)
Other waste is just that. Paper, metals, and "toxic trash" merit their own chapters. Plastic - "satan's resin" - does too.
Buyers of all of that NYPD and FDNY garb so popular since 9/11 might justifiably seek out "DSNY" in a T-shirt tribute to New York's less heralded hero - the "san man." The act would celebrate, by extension, those "dark angels of detritus" everywhere.
Just don't ask the seller for a plastic bag.
But Royte doesn't preach. Her style is reportorial - unblinking and full of sometimes arch but generally nonjudgmental characterizations of the "garbage folk" she encounters. That's everyone from the joshing front-line muscle with whom she rides to a solution-seeking bureaucrat who peers back at Royte with narrowed eyes to intone that "it's not garbage, it's waste."
Along the way, the reader learns. In a section on the economics of megafills come details about the interstate import-export game that had Pennsylvania, for example, accepting 10 million tons of other states' waste in 2002 alone.
Elsewhere the lesson is on composite landfill liners that conduct "leachate" to treatment plants - liners whose "geomembranes" are stealthily eaten away by common household chemicals.
You might imagine that the organic garbage, at least, morphs into a rich loam at landfills. Wrong. Bagged garbage, compacted and buried, ends up out of reach of the microorganisms that affect decay. Below eight feet, they lack enough oxygen to do their work. Hot dogs can hang around for decades.
But Royte shows mercy. Just when readers may have had enough on, say, fecal coliform levels, Royte pulls them back, interviewing a "scholar of smell." (The book is redolent with discussion of sensory reactions. Elsewhere she interviews an experimental psychologist who explains humans' threshold for odors.)
Riding with one of her sources, a man who works with biosolids (use your imagination), Royte notes an "ionic breeze" gadget on the dashboard of his Volvo.
"I supposed it was working," she writes, "because the car still smelled pretty new ... despite having hauled its share of Granulite [highly processed feces] back home to Tarrytown."
Royte does not squander the richness of the material that full immersion grants her. Her writing is wry and appealing. A landfill is "like Sleeping Beauty's castle, protected on its lower slopes by a thick undergrowth of spiky brambles."
In a chapter titled "Stalking the Active Face," Royte is at her journalistic best on the ground at a Pennsylvania facility, tracking her household trash. Denied access at the front door, she waxes Woodwardian.
"I talked to the neighbors about the smell of the place, the trucks on the road, the gulls kettling over the trash mountain....
"I wanted to find a way to get into the landfill on foot, but a tall chain-link fence topped by three strands of barbed wire surrounded it, and the woods were heavily posted," she writes. She finally found a dirty creek flowing under the fence along the paradoxically named Applebutter Road.
"I made my way to the creek, crossed it on a rotting log, and wriggled under a gap in the fence. Deer tracks showed me the best route. Then I headed north, toward the mound."
All part of a detailed investigation that winds up, as it should, with discussions - some practical and promising, others altogether bizarre - of waste-to-energy solutions and the ideal of "zero waste."
An ominous quote from a former New York sanitation commissioner in the last chapter should serve to motivate: "In the end," he says, "the garbage will win."
But there's little waste in Royte's winning words. Finishing it, the reader feels armed. Seldom has garbage been handled with such care.
Our soda man delivers. He comes bounding up the steps, easily cradling an ancient-looking wooden crate under one arm. The contents are 24 seven-ounce bottles of cola and birch beer, for which we hand him $7, and last month's crate. The thick, wavy glass bottles bear an old-fashioned logo that reads, "Castle Soda: Food for Thirst."
Bottled in a declining industrial town in Connecticut, Castle is like some visitor from another time. The idea of returnable, refillable bottles seems quaint and archaic in the age of plastic. Indeed, the bottler tells us it's impossible to find anyone who makes seven-ounce glass bottles anymore, so the company's crates are dotted with outcasts from other local bottlers that went out of business in Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania.
I buy Castle not because it's better than Coke, but because I love seeing those empties taken back to their source. Like Elizabeth Royte, author of Garbage Land, I've wondered and worried about what happens to all that non-returnable waste I generate. With me it's idle curiosity; with Royte -- who sets out to track down just where trash ends up -- it becomes an obsession.
It turns out that following your garbage wherever it leads is, like compost, darkly rich material. This is probably the best book ever about trash. Usually, garbage is too much "out of sight, out of mind" to make a lively subject, and what little coverage exists is dry and technical. But Royte, author of the much-lauded The Tapir's Morning Bath, knows how to orchestrate telling statistics and vivid description to illuminate every dirty corner of the business (though if you were expecting the gory details of mob infiltration, you might be disappointed).
Americans generate more than four pounds of trash per person, each day -- more than twice the per capita rate of Oslo, Norway. We have gifted the world with Styrofoam, non-returnable soda bottles, and innumerable forms of redundant packaging, all of which now litters every corner of our planet and is found washed up on even the most remote beaches. And now here's Royte to tell us that even the most conscientiously managed landfills leak and leach and pollute.
The author lives in New York City, which for decades sent about 13,000 tons of trash a day to the largest landfill in the world, Fresh Kills on Staten Island. Intrepid to a fault, she refuses to be kept out of Fresh Kills -- closed to regular use since 2001 -- and ends up paddling around it in a boat. (Garbage Land is not for the squeamish, and you may not want to read it over dinner. Royte is very good at evoking the sights, sounds, and especially smells of the landfills and waste-processing plants she visits all over the New York metropolitan area, in rural Pennsylvania, and as far afield as San Francisco.)
Talking to an endless series of experts who seem glad that someone cares about what they do, she learns that the retaining walls in place at Fresh Kills can allow the daily release of one million gallons of toxic stew (a mixture of such chemicals as cyanide, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and mercury) into New York Harbor.
Many of us assuage the guilt over our contributions to such planet-trashing by embracing curbside recycling programs, feeling virtuous every time we fill up the blue bin. But is it worth it? Royte sheds light on the process -- and the drawbacks -- of recycling everything from plastic bottles to electronic gadgets.
Ever feel a warm glow about hauling your old desktop down to electronics recycling day at the local high school? Did you imagine highly trained workers carefully disassembling your old components under surgical conditions? Think again. Imagine instead a Chinese village, where men, women, and children wearing no protective gear extract copper yokes from our exported monitors with chisels and hammers. "Squatting on the ground, they liberated chips and tossed them into plastic buckets while acrid black smoke rose from burning piles of wire," reads a report cited by Royte. After using a mix of hydrochloric and nitric acid to coax small amounts of gold out of the components, they "dumped the computer carcasses and the black sludge in nearby fields and streams." Many other recyclables are similarly shipped overseas, where their handling is unrestrained by environmental regulations.
If that's true, then what's the point? Garbage Land is a reporter's book; it's highly readable and exhaustively documented, but not very prescriptive. We're left with the distinct impression that there's no clean answer to the trash problem. Europe's wide-ranging recycling laws, bio-waste plants, and emphasis on manufacturer responsibility (all detailed within) offer one way forward, and the concept of zero waste (now a national aim in New Zealand and a publicly stated goal in San Francisco and Seattle) offers another.
But in the U.S. -- where only 11 states have bottle bills, and 95 percent of the 12 billion magazines produced every year are printed on virgin paper -- we have a long way to go. In fact, with her merciless revelations of the hard realities of garbage and its processing, Royte leaves the clear impression that there's only one real solution: use less stuff.
"Looking for exercise one day, author Royte took a paddle along a Brooklyn waterway---where floating trash made her wonder where her garbage went. She headed for landfills, treatment plants, and recycling centers, dug up unsettling stats ("Every American [generates] 1.31 tons of garbage a year.") and ended up worried. Royte's eye-opening book warns that even if we recycle, unless we tackle how much is made--and how much we want--'we'll never escape our own mess.' In a throwaway culture, a must read."
Funny that a book on human refuse should make you nostalgic for a time when pigs roamed city streets slurping on our slop. Not much more than a century ago, in New York and other cities, sanitation had nothing to do with beefy guys in trucks and everything to do with reconnoitering swine. Today, it's a little bit of front-yard composting here, some curbside recycling there, but mostly just tons and tons of trash compacted and trucked to landfills in West Virginia, Ohio and beyond.
In "Garbage Land," author Elizabeth Royte tackles a subject that's as complex as it is fetid. What drives her story is the answer to a seemingly simple question: Where does her trash go? The answer leads to a potentially endless investigation involving waste treatment and trash compacting centers in the metro New York area, and into western Pennsylvania, where she finds it's a lot harder than you might think to look at garbage. Royte treats us to a detailed exegesis on the politics of sludge. She does a fascinating job exposing lesser-known players in the waste industry whose fear of public scrutiny is evidenced by the fact that so many of them hang up the phone on her midsentence.
What works about "Garbage Land" is Royte's big-picture approach. One minute, we're hanging with New York sanitation workers who sweat through three T-shirts on a summer day, then we're chatting with a policy wonk who doesn't do anything so hands-on as composting but gets giddy over the mere mention of anaerobic food digesters. My favorite is a humorless lower Manhattan eco-Nazi who corrects the author each time she says "garbage." Apparently, the PC term is "waste." Equally memorable is the University of California grad student who keeps his scat, or "humanure," in his bedroom for later composting under his apple tree. He claims to watch his carbon-nitrogen ratios and says he's never had an odor problem.
There's tons of great reporting in "Garbage Land," interesting tidbits that one might think would, or should, be common knowledge. For instance, who knew wastepaper has become our leading export to Asia? Or that trash collection is a $57 billion industry? Or that 35 percent of garbage comes from packaging?
"Garbage Land" is quite readable, except for the detailed scientific debates on recycling and composting - scintillating to an environmental insider, perhaps, but a yawn to the layperson. About a dozen too many sentences begin with "According to a study by" - (insert advocacy group here). And Royte wastes energy detailing the personal mannerisms of sources that disappear a page later. Finally, there's the inescapable tone of precious yuppie do-gooderism, epitomized by cloying first-person passages like: "The more I learned about plastic, the worse I felt about the way I transported short-grain brown rice from the food co-op to my home."
As much as one might hate to lend credence to "latte liberal" stereotypes, Royte doesn't much help debunk them.
But this is just nitpicking as Royte is to be praised for taking a simple, smelly idea and blowing it up large. Not only that, but she refuses to stump for simplistic answers to our waste-dependent economy like, say, the "buy green" movement and its promise of Sierra Club credit cards.
Perceptively, Royte writes, "I hate to think our strength is based in consumption, not moral clarity."
Remember those commercials in which Madge the friendly manicurist encouraged her customers to soften their hands by using her favorite soap?
"Dishwashing liquid?" was each customer's invariable response.
"You're soaking in it," Madge would say with a triumphant smile.
Replace "dishwashing liquid" with "garbage," and you've got the theme of Elizabeth Royte's captivating new book. The skin-softening power of rubbish has yet to be established, but its ubiquity is beyond dispute.
When we're not literally soaking in trash (by bathing in the polluted water that flows from our taps), we're taking it in through our pores and lungs. Much of our intimacy with garbage stems from lax laws that allow industries to taint our streams and befoul our skies. But it is also true, as Royte makes clear, that we ordinary citizens play a substantial role in transforming the land of the free into the republic of rot. She cites figures from the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University showing that in 2003 every American generated 1.31 tons of garbage. Where did it all go? Less than 27 percent was recycled or composted; 7.7 percent was
incinerated; and 65.6 percent was "buried in a hole in the ground."
For nearly 50 years, New York City, Royte's hometown, buried its trash in the largest such hole in the world, the 3,000-acre Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. The city buried "a peak of thirteen thousand tons a day from houses and apartments," according to Royte, "plus an additional thirteen thousand tons a day from commercial and institutional buildings." "For as long as state and federal environmental laws have existed, Fresh Kills had
been violating them," Royte notes. When it closed in March 2001, it
contained "2.9 billion cubic yards of trash (about the volume of 1,160 Pyramids of Cheops."
Royte's most recent book, The Tapir's Morning Bath , explored a tropical rainforest in Panama. In Garbage Land, she plunges into a mysterious world much closer to home. Curious about how New York handled its garbage after it closed Fresh Kills, she found that "from the moment my trash left my house and entered the public domain . . . it became terra incognita, forbidden fruit, a mystery that I lacked the talent or credentials to solve."
The action -- and putrefaction -- unfolds when she puts on her freelance reporter's hat and decides to follow the rubbish. "I knew that the city's garbage was now trucked far and wide," she writes, "but I didn't know exactly where my stuff went or what happened to it once it arrived." But even as she rides with garbagemen, sneaks into landfills and sits in on countless recycling roundtables, Royte never lets us forget that she is an ordinary citizen just like the rest of us, coping with the demands of marriage and motherhood while chasing her story. She meticulously charts her household's garbage management, earnestly sorting her recyclables while struggling to maintain a compost bin. "Every few days, I dumped my kitchen
trash onto my daughter's blue plastic toboggan," she writes.
"Picking through my trash felt subversive: it ran counter to the media message that household dirt should be whisked quickly into a compactor or garbage pail. . . Composting my organic matter, reclaiming my own mess, was beginning to feel political." Her frequent returns to the many scenes in her tiny kitchen are never intrusive and help ground her expansive narrative in a way that
keeps it fresh -- in a manner of speaking -- and accessible.
Accessibility is especially valuable in Garbage Land, because the
information Royte relays quickly piles up as fast as the trash she
relentlessly tracks. Some of the morsels she shares fall into the "who'd have thunk it?" category; others would fit comfortably in the next edition of Ripley's Believe It Or Not.
Among her cavalcade of facts: "While the fatality rate for all occupations is 4.7 deaths per 100,000 workers, garbage collectors die at a rate of 46 per 100,000. In fact, they're approximately three times more likely to be killed on the job than police officers or firefighters." "Depending on its burial context, a Granny Smith apple can biodegrade completely in two weeks or last several thousand years." "As late as 1892, a hundred thousand pigs roamed New York City's streets, feasting on scraps tossed out doors and
windows by the working poor, who relied on these animals to convert waste into edible protein." "In 2001, American companies sent out seventeen billion" holiday catalogues, "fifty-nine for every man, woman, and child in the United States -- weighing a total of 7.2 billion pounds."
While mulling over these revelations, readers will discover that there are many ways to describe the cast-off materials and byproducts of our disposable society. Besides the conventional "stuff," "mess," "trash," "litter," "rubbish" and "refuse," Royte occasionally resorts to "feculence," "putrescible waste" and a four-letter word that rhymes with "spit." Then there are the quirky acronyms with which habitués of garbage and recycling circles pepper their speech. ONP means old newspapers; MOW is shorthand for mixed office waste; and OCC stands for old corrugated cardboard. None of these would wind up in a MRF (materials recovery facility, pronounced "murf"), the destination of recycled metal, glass and plastic.
In contrast, the designations for the pollutants deriving from waste
mismanagement are totally devoid of quirk. Unsurprisingly, such poisons are plentiful in Garbage Land and generally burdened with less pronounceable names, which helps to endow them with the necessary malevolence. Furans, mercury, lead cadmium, polyvinyl chloride, trichloroethane, benzene and methyl ethyl ketone are among the caustic chemicals that Royte discusses.
As impressive as Royte's doggedness and investigative skill is the care she takes with language. In a book where facts and figures are so plentiful and ominous, felicitous phrasing can work like the proverbial spoonful of sugar. Above a vat in a recycling plant, Royte observes "a shroud of steam" that "obscured its contents until a sudden draft revealed a surface of bubbling brown scum: primordial paper soup." She describes a truckload of cardboard,
loose paper and junk mail, newly dumped and entered into the recycling process, as a "mass with a million edges." The immense mounds at Fresh Kills are adorned with "waving fields of fescue." A pile of recycled metal is "a monadnock of shredded ferrous scrap." The prose in Garbage Land flows as if its author read each sentence aloud before committing it to print.
Ever the intrepid reporter, Royte even ventures into the pungent world of human waste disposal, an area that one zealous recycler calls "the realm of taboo." This chapter should not be read while eating. As Royte tells it, cities used to just chuck human excrement into the ocean. The Ocean Dumping Reform Act went into effect in 1991. Until then, Boston dumped 400,000 gallons of sludge into the ocean every day. New York dumped similar amounts.
So what do cities do with it now? They begin with a trick of language. "Somewhere between the treatment plant in Bay Ridge and a factory on the South Bronx waterfront," Royte writes, "my sewage was transformed, semantically, into 'biosolids.' "
In some cities, the newly labeled product is packaged and sold as
fertilizer, sporting brand names such as Nu-Earth and Nitrohumus. Fifty-four percent of our waste is handled this way, according to Royte. "The rest is buried in landfills (28 percent), incinerated (17 percent) and 'surface disposed' without processing (1 percent)."
Her investigation of waste-transfer stations and raw sewage dewatering plants enables Royte to cast necessary light on environmental racism. She rightly condemns the practice of building such facilities mostly where poor, nonwhite citizens live. She cites a 1987 study's finding that "three out of every five African Americans or Hispanic Americans live in communities with one or more unregulated toxic-waste sites."
Royte reserves her greatest indignation for plastics, which are not
biodegradable in any conventional sense. She laments, "It's estimated that Americans go through about a hundred billion polyethylene bags -- the ubiquitous eighteen-microns-thick grocery sacks that snag on branches, skip along on the breeze, clog sewers and storm drains, and burrow into ditches and dunes -- a year. . . . They persist in the environment for decades, if not centuries."
Royte discovers that alternatives, such as recyclable paperboard boxes, generate waste as well. "Which was preferable? The choices, like so many at the intersection of consumerism and environmental concern, were agonizing. "The difficulty of making wise, meaningful decisions is a factor Royte often acknowledges in her praiseworthy book. But just as important as her admission that she doesn't have all the answers is her persuasive demonstration that no one does.
She leaves us with a foreboding premise that even the cynics she has encountered along the trail of trash may grudgingly agree with: "If we don't wake up and make the connection between our economy and the environment (which provides the resources to make all our stuff), the planet will eventually do it for us. And it won't be pretty." ·
Jabari Asim is deputy editor of Book World.
Imagine a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder that leaves you unable to throw or flush something away without tracking precisely where it goes. Not just from your indoor container to the curb or trunk line; this affliction makes you unable to put your mind at rest unless you follow your castoff into the truck, the transfer station, the landfill, the scrap-metal shredder, the treatment tank.
Elizabeth Royte apparently has such a disorder, but rather than (or perhaps in addition to) letting it ruin her life, she has turned it into a likable chronicle of rubbish-realization, ''Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash.'' Hers is a journey that everyone should take but few will. Put it in a class with how and where we get our gasoline, our food, our bluejeans and sneakers: best not to know the details, because not knowing allows you to not take responsibility.
Royte, whose previous book, ''The Tapir's Morning Bath,'' followed researchers in the tropical rain forest, here follows an assortment of garbage collectors, recyclers and sewage treaters, beginning with the men who pick up the stuff she leaves at her curb in Brooklyn on trash day. The idea is to see how much damage she is personally doing in the grand scheme of things and how she might minimize it; to get beyond the easy plateau of environmental awareness (don't eat endangered fish) and look at, well, the outflow. ''It wasn't fair, I reasoned, to feel connected to the rest of the world only on the front end, to the waving fields of grain and the sparkling mountain streams,'' she writes. ''We needed to cop to a downstream connection as well.''
The resulting journey introduces her to a colorful collection of characters: rabid composters, paranoid dump owners, starry-eyed crusaders, even some levelheaded businessmen and -women. She encounters a fair amount of colorful vernacular as well: ''Coney Island whitefish'' (used condoms in the Gowanus Canal), ''disco rice'' (maggots), ''mongo'' (''trash'' that curbside collectors deem worth saving -- televisions, microwaves, silk blouses, designer skirts).
Royte's quest to see where her discards end up hits a number of human obstacles: in parts of the waste underworld, people don't want to talk to her or let her view their landfills or plants. ''Why was it so hard to look at garbage?'' she laments at one point. ''To me, the secrecy of waste managers -- which was surely based on an aversion to accountability -- was only feeding the culture of shame that had come to surround an ordinary fact of life: throwing things away.''
Royte may have subconsciously let this stonewalling affect her: when a site does let her in for a look, she often seems to give it a free pass; her writing loses its skeptical edge and begins to sound like a report from a school field trip. Still, for the vast millions whose knowledge of waste disposal ends at the trash can and the recycling bin, any glimpse at all into this world is illuminating. Royte's lively description of a beast called the Prolerizer, a giant metal-crushing machine, makes you want to pay it a visit yourself: ''The Prolerizer has a 6,000-horsepower synchronous motor and enormous blades that can convert whole cars to fist-sized chunks of scrap in 30 to 60 seconds. . . . Cars plummeted onto the shredder's spinning rotor, which bristled with 32 bow-tie-shaped blades that weighed 300 pounds each. . . . They were 30 inches long, and though made of a steel-manganese alloy, they lasted a mere 24 hours, such was the ferocity of their labors.''
The deeper into trash and sewage Royte gets, the more discouraging the picture becomes. Landfilled trash does not biodegrade into the ''rich, moist brown humus'' of our guilt-free fantasies; it stews for centuries, generating poisonous leachate. The whole problem of junked computers and cellphones has barely reached public consciousness, even though we're already knee-deep in electronic waste. And as for recycling, some parts of the system seem to work, but the vagaries of markets and the ever-changing array of plastics and mixed-material containers make it hit-or-miss at best; it is in large part something we do for our conscience, not our planet. Some recycling is merely a delaying tactic (mixed plastic, for instance, can be reused only once, as plastic wood or some such), and some is downright harmful (with plastic again the main culprit) because of the toxic substances the process produces. Hard-core enviro-types actually oppose plastic-recycling programs, Royte says, because they foster the belief, held even among those who fancy themselves eco-conscious, that it's all right to swig that all-natural spring water out of a plastic bottle. The true ideal, in this formulation, should be ''closed-loop recycling,'' where no new materials are coming into the system and no waste is being generated.
NONE of this is news to those versed in garbology and environmental advocacy, but Royte is not writing for them. She is aiming for a more general public, and a strength of ''Garbage Land'' is that it doesn't get too preachy and is full of humor and self-deprecation. Here, for instance, is what Royte says about finding a mouse in her home composter: ''The E.P.A. has a regulation, called 40 CFR, Part 503.33, concerning 'vector attraction reduction' in soil enhancements. Obviously, I was out of compliance.'' And here is how she describes her encounter with a fertilizer made from septic sludge: ''I shook some Granulite onto my hand, just to see what holding someone else's highly processed feces felt like. It was no worse than handling raw meat, in the sense that it was so recently part of a living organism.'' She remains casual and scold-free even when she works her way around to the notion that the main thing any of us can do to reduce the waste stream is to buy less stuff.
''Garbage Land,'' though, does have a fundamental bias, one that Royte never confronts: her jumping-off point seems to be the idea that our best, highest use as human beings is to keep our ''garbage footprint'' to a minimum. That is a value judgment, because minimizing waste -- sorting trash, composting, cooking from scratch rather than relying on dinners in microwaveable dishes -- takes time, and time is a currency. Royte sounds smart; it's hard for the reader not to wonder what else she might have done with all those hours she spent washing out her used yogurt containers.
Nothing lasts forever, but garbage comes pretty close. After being whisked away by the sanitation department, it may change location, or, after recycling, morph into unrecognizable forms. But it never really goes away. Even when dead and buried, it can come back to life decades later. In Ireland, to cite a recent instance, erosion has exposed tons of dumped garbage, which is now tumbling into the sea.
In "Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash," Elizabeth Royte shines a light on everyone's dirty secret. Like a garbage detective, she follows the used plastic bags, drink containers, old newspapers and, yes, bodily excretions that disappear into the trash can or down the toilet, only to reappear somewhere else, out of sight and out of mind. She starts at home, in her Brooklyn apartment, and then heads out on an odiferous odyssey that takes her from landfill to recycling center to sludge depot, following her own small contribution to the nation's municipal waste stream, which reached a staggering 369 million tons in 2002.
It's a fascinating, sometimes tiring, often depressing tour. Ms. Royte, the author of "The Tapir's Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest," is a dogged reporter and a vivid writer, which means that her catalog of crimes against nature hits the senses hard. She has a keen eye and a sensitive nose. At the New York Organic Fertilizer Company in Hunts Point, in the South Bronx, where human waste emerges as fertilizer pellets bound for Florida citrus groves and Ohio soybean fields, she inhales tentatively, trying to pinpoint the fragrance that the plant's manager describes, hopefully, as "a musty, cheesy odor." Ms. Royte has her doubts. "This wasn't the aroma of any cheese I'd ever sniffed," she writes. "Nor was it the ammoniac smell of a Port-O-San or the earthier tones of the outhouse. It wasn't the chicken or cow manure of my childhood garden. Elusive and remote, the name of the scent lingered just out of my reach (unlike the odor itself, which would stay with me for several hours to come)." Even after a shower, she sends fellow subway passengers fleeing on her way home from the plant.
Unpleasant odors are the least of it. As she makes her rounds, Ms. Royte cites a blizzard of studies, statistics and experts to prove that the garbage problem threatens to bury us all. The numbers, flying from every direction, are alarming, and they are meant to be. Americans now throw out 4.3 pounds of garbage each day, 1.6 pounds more than they threw away 30 years ago. Now that the Fresh Kills landfill is closed, it takes 450 tractor trailers, traveling 135,000 miles in combined round trips and burning 33,700 gallons of diesel fuel to transport a day's worth of New York City's garbage to out-of-state landfills and incinerators. And this is just municipal waste, which accounts for a mere 2 percent of the national total, making Ms. Royte's feverish efforts to re-use, recycle and compost seem close to futile.
She recognizes this. A running theme in "Garbage Land" is her own battle to reduce her household garbage to an absolute minimum. She sifts through her garbage ever more finely, weighing and separating according to ever more arcane formulas - "I began to slice my banana peels into squares the size of Wheat Thins and whittle my celery stalks into matchsticks" - knowing full well that her efforts make little or no difference.
In the end, she writes, "I wasn't convinced my compulsive sorting was doing much good, but it made me feel less bad about so many other things." She approves wholeheartedly of recycling and even thinks it can be made to pay, but recycling is only a small piece of the puzzle. It is also a diversion, since it shifts the focus from producers to consumers. What Ms. Royte would really like to do is reverse "the treadmill logic of capitalism."
Ms. Royte is a true believer, with a strong utopian streak. This makes "Garbage Land" suspiciously partisan. It's impossible to tell which studies have an agenda and which do not. Ms. Royte tends to cite studies by environmental groups uncritically. She regards the Environmental Protection Agency as authoritative when its findings coincide with her beliefs and a pathetic lapdog for industry when they don't. Her argument is moral rather than economic.
The welter of studies and statistics, and the laundry lists of potential hazards posed by garbage, end up having a dulling and dispiriting effect. The noxious chemicals in sludge, for example, sound awful, but so do all the chemicals and compounds referred to throughout the book. It's impossible, in "Garbage Land," to get a sense of relative risks, and as a result, the reader succumbs to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. New Yorkers recycle a mere 19 percent of their paper waste, which is quite easy to do. "If we couldn't do right by paper, I wondered, how were we going to manage with materials that had a more complicated recycling profile?" Ms. Royte writes.
In a telling moment, Ms. Royte describes her own predicament as an ecological citizen. She wanted her book to be printed on completely recycled paper. Time Warner, her publisher's parent company, uses paper that is 50 percent recycled. Trees died to make "Garbage Land" live. Ms. Royte admits, sheepishly, that she hopes to sell many copies of her book, thereby dooming more trees. When push comes to shove, in other words, she votes for self-interest, as any author would.
She takes a much sterner line when other people make the same sort of decision and buy an SUV or a big energy-consuming house. Our current predicament is the sum of such decisions. As Norman Steisel, a former New York sanitation commissioner, once put it, "In the end, the garbage will win."
Recently, a new class of muckrakers has investigated the hidden infrastructures that provide us with the things we want-from fast food to fossil fuels. With Garbage Land, Elizabeth Royte reverses the formula, shrewdly exposing the mechanisms by which "our unwanted stuff keeps disappearing." That is, she rakes actual muck. She begins by cataloguing her kitchen garbage, and then sets out to follow all her refuse, from Brooklyn to beyond. We're talking compost, recyclables, and even crap. They all wind up somewhere, and Royte scrutinizes their journeys with a sharp eye and a pinched nose.
Tracking trash-even your own-is not easy. Royte initially has to sneak around New York's Fresh Kills landfill in a kayak, and no one will tell her where old battery acid goes. We've built up bureaucracies to allow us to keep throwing stuff out without thinking too hard about where it ends up. For years, New York's sewage was exported to a "sludge farm" in a tiny, working-class Texas town.
But Royte accepts some of the prickly realities of the trash-disassembly line. After all, not everyone can cultivate composting wetlands under their bathroom, like one eager environmentalist she meets. And while more Americans now recycle than vote, municipal waste accounts for only 2 percent of the country's total refuse in the first place. Our national garbage problem is really an industrial one: Making 1 pound of sellable product generates 32 pounds of waste.
Ultimately, waste is an ideological dilemma, a problem of consumption. It's the stinky corollary to a world where we constantly choose between"one overpackaged, poorly made product and another." The solution, Royte argues, is to start dealing with trash preemptively, recognizing it in all its many-colored, sweet-smelling disguises.
.It seems everyone in Fort Worth has something to say about the city's garbage collection system. Some bemoan the cost, others have had problems with spotty pickup service, and yet others complain about the cost and the spotty pickup service, not to mention the confusion over what is and is not recyclable.
For a dose of sympathy and a fascinating education, pick up Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte, a Brooklyn author and reporter whose basic curiosity about the afterlife of her own household refuse led her to explore landfills, recycling plants and sludge facilities.
Since 1960, America's municipal waste stream has nearly tripled, to 369 million tons annually. Some of the rise is due to population growth, but most of it stems from our increasing obsession with all things disposable (perhaps you, too, have recently replaced your old toilet brush with one-use, flushable wands). The average American throws out 4.3 pounds of garbage per day. The obvious question: Where does it all go? The more curious question: Why don't we talk about garbage more often?
Royte provides thorough answers to both questions, based on attributed research, keen social observations and shoe-leather reporting that takes her from a salt marsh near Staten Island's infamous Fresh Kills landfill to a recycling facility in San Francisco. The author recounts her experiences -- including some less-than-helpful discussions with the chief executive of IESI, a waste management company based in Fort Worth -- with a dose of humor that makes it easier to swallow the sobering statistics about our trash.
Royte occasionally lets the minutiae about a metals recovery center or a waste treatment facility get in the way of the storytelling. But she always brings her point home. The passages about Royte's own home, where the author struggles to manage her trash outlay and feed her new composting bin, are among the book's best, because they show us the direct link between our everyday actions and the long-term environmental and sociological impacts of our garbage.
Garbage Land is not just for tree huggers. Anyone who rolls a trash cart out to the curb once a week will appreciate Royte's inquisitiveness as she tries to determine not only where our trash goes, but also what its treatment says about our society. Amid all the data, Royte uses her sharp analytical ability to step back and contemplate the nature of our trash in thought-provoking, philosophical terms. "The contents of the landfill say that we are rich, we have choices, we can afford to buy new sheets when we want to, not just when we need to. A century ago, refuse was an issue of poverty; now it is a sign of abundance, of economic vitality," she writes. If only we could use that vitality now to develop less wasteful ways to live.
Reading Elizabeth Royte's Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, I was struck again and again what a perfect book this would be for a Spike Jonze/ Charlie Kaufman film.
Part cultural, political and social study, part environmentalist manifesto, mostly Garbage Land is a quirky, dark personal quest by a highly intelligent, possibly highly neurotic New York writer to find out just where her trash ends up. When I picture Royte sitting in her kitchen, meticulously and compulsively weighing her garbage so that she can compare it to statistical averages, boating down the suspicious waters of the Gowanus canal, and spending a night on the road with a couple of veteran NYC san men, somehow I keep seeing Meryl Streep.
But there is one great movie moment in particular. Royte has been trying desperately to get a tour of the Bethlehem landfill in Pennsylvania, where much of NYC's trash is shipped. Reasoning and pleading with the landfill's manager hasn't worked. Neither has trying to sneak through the surrounding wilderness. "The landfill, it turned out, was like Sleeping Beauty's castle, protected on its lower slopes by a thick overgrowth of spiky brambles." Finally she phones Al Wurth, a political scientist at a local college, to see if he has any insight into why she's having such a hard time getting access. Wurth explains: "They may arrange a tour for a class of third-graders, but they're not going to let a writer in,"
"Geez" says Royte, frustrated. " I mean, what have they got to hide?"
"Look," says Wurth, significantly, "this isn't goods they're transferring from place to place. This is bads."
In the movie, this would be where we meet up with the mob. In the book, we get an interesting little history lesson on why "waste management" really isn't just a cover for Tony Soprano. Carting waste in our day and age is a huge business, which until very recently has been controlled without much opposition by organized crime. In the early '90s, however, transportation conglomerates began to undercut the "little guy." One supervisor early in the war reported finding the head of a German Shepherd on his lawn with a note in its mouth, reading "Welcome to New York." Loosening the mob's hold on garbage was one of Giuliani's first projects, and it's been largely successful; but the nature of the job, its repulsiveness to "upstanding citizens" who prefer not to look too closely at it, will always make it a magnet for criminals.
The business of garbage, however, wasn't always this dirty, and it seems in many ways to be becoming less and less so. Royte also visits some pretty cool large-scale sanitation projects. As the lead character in Don DeLillo's Underworld points out, garbage, more than almost anything, is one of the most significant motivations for building a civilization. These days, the pressure to recycle and detox has created whole new social sciences.
Yet, Royte's quest turns out to be essentially Quixotic. After a long, amazing journey that charts a spectacle of disposal as awesome sometimes as a trip to Alaska or the Grand Canyon, we learn that Municipal Solid Waste - the only kind of trash she's been tracking - makes up a mere 2 per cent of waste in the U.S. The other 98 per cent is industrial, agricultural and mining, a fact that no amount of green boxing is going to change. Recycling is always a good thing, but all in all, Royte decides it's mostly a balm on the conscience of people who aren't really willing to change what really needs to be changed.
For every 100 pounds of product that is made, 3,200 pounds of waste are generated. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but essentially, we don't need to find new ways to deal with our old crap. What we really need to do is make a radical decision to stop producing and buying so much new crap. And something tells me this is a true story Hollywood will probably want to stay far, far away from.
Royte (The Tapir's Morning Bath) reminds us that what we dispose of is a window on our culture and consumption habits. Determined to follow the path of household trash, sewage, and recyclables, she began by visiting the New York City Department of Sanitation (she lives in Brooklyn) and accompanying sanitation workers on their routes. In the course of tracking the garbage to landfills, incinerators, and sewage and recycling facilities, she discovered that America disposes of 369 million tons of municipal waste annually-which generates over $50 billion a year in revenue. She explains the many facets of garbage disposal, what determines the location of a landfill, and the array of disposal and processing alternatives. She also raises serious questions about garbage disposal and its impact on public health. The upbeat views of garbage workers who see their roles as performing a vital service are particularly revealing. Royte's exploration of the economic, territorial, and ecological perspectives of garbage disposal adds up to a fascinating trail of trash. Recommended for all who throw things away.
Funny how a book on human refuse can make you nostalgic for a time when pigs roamed the streets lapping up our slop. This was the case in New York City not much more than a century ago, when sanitation had nothing to do with beefy guys in trucks, but rather thousands of roving swine. Now it's a little bit of front-yard composting here, some curbside recycling there, but mostly just tons and tons of trash compacted and trucked to landfills in rural Pennsylvania, West Virginia and beyond.
In Garbage Land, Elizabeth Royte tackles a subject that's as complex as it is fetid. What drives her story is finding the answer to a seemingly simple question: Where does our trash go? The trail of refuse leads the author on a tour of waste disposal centers in Brooklyn, on a paddling excursion around the perimeter of Staten Island's defunct Fresh Kills landfill and into western Pennsylvania, where she finds that it's a lot harder than you might think to look at garbage.
What works about Garbage Land is Royte's big-picture approach. We hang out with New York sanitation workers who sweat through three T-shirts on a summer day, and then we're chatting with a Manhattan policy wonk who doesn't do anything so hands-on as composting but gets giddy over the prospect of anaerobic food digesters. My favorite is the humorless eco-Nazi in the Lower East Side, who corrects the author each time she says "garbage."
There's some great reporting in Garbage Land — interesting tidbits that one might think would be common knowledge. For instance, wastepaper has become our leading export to Asia. Trash collection is a $57 billion industry. Thirty-five percent of garbage comes from packaging. Who knew? Royte deserves commendation for magnifying a simple, smelly idea to such an expansive scale while encapsulating some of the wonkier debates on waste management into easily digestible pieces. Even better is her knack for bringing out the human side of a story most humans prefer to ignore.
Starred Review --A visit to the filthy Gowanus Canal near her Brooklyn home got Royte thinking about garbage. What exactly does her family throw out each day? Who carries it away, where is it taken, how is it processed? To find out, she catalogs her daily household garbage and tracks her trash to garbage transit stations, landfills, and recycling plants. Royte's nervy and unprecedented journey through the land of garbage is fascinating, appalling, and--thanks to her keen first-person journalism, commonsense skepticism, and amusing personal asides--downright entertaining. Some of her more troubling disclosures include the hazards of sewage sludge and "e-waste," that is, discarded computers, televisions, and cell phones. Smart and persistent, Royte annoys the heck out of closemouthed government officials and waste-management businesspeople and trespasses when denied access to key sites, enduring foul smells and bad vibes to glean the truth about how waste is handled, who profits from waste, what opportunities are wasted, and how waste can be reduced. What her staggering exposť tells us is that as the quantity, variety, and toxicity of our garbage increases, we must, like nature, evolve ways to reclaim and reuse everything we make.
YA/C: Interested teens will be riveted by Royte's odyssey and environmental disclosures. DS.
Who hasn't wondered about where our colossal amount of garbage goes? Journalist Royte (The Tapir's Morning Bath, 2001) wants to find answers: How does recycling work? Where, when we flush the toilet, does its cargo go? And what happens to all the plain old putrescence we create? The U.S. produces 369 million tons of garbage a year, or 1.3 tons per person, annually. Happily, 27% of it is recycled or composted, while nearly 8% is incinerated, and a godawful 65% goes into the ground. It's not surprising that for years "garbage has changed hands through cronyism and favors, and landed on the backs of disenfranchised," usually in great landfills that bring dollars to destitute communities, along with health and standard-of-living problems. These landfills are aptly named "brownfields," with their attendant groundwater contamination, litter, leachate and scavenging birds, all guarded like strategic targets for whatever secrets they hold. Only 100 years ago, 100,000 pigs cleaned New York City's streets of the organic wastes casually thrown there, but now the pigs—which created their own organic wastes, it must be said—are gone, and our wastes are different, consisting of more paper, more glass, more plastic. The last will prove to be the real bugaboo. It can be recycled to a point, but then degradation simply turns it into landfill material. Paper, in particular, Royte shows, doesn't get the attention it deserves: only 19% gets recycled, despite its clear economic value. You may not even want to know about the sludge farm experiments, where concentrated fecal material has created the ultimate of brownfields. While there are obvious ways to cope with waste—Royte clearly outlines them—the biggest problem is mindset: we're accustomed to the ease of the toss.
Royte is a natural storyteller and skillful natural historian. Few others could have pulled off turning our feculence into fascination.
The v-p of a New York City waste transfer station recommends, "You want to solve the garbage problem? Stop eating. Stop living." Indeed, to ponder waste disposal is to confront the very limits of our society. Where does it all go? Most of us are content to shrug off the details—as long as it's out of sight (and smell). Not so journalist Royte, whose book in some ways (including its title) echoes Fast Food Nation. That McDonald's is more immediately engaging a subject doesn't make, say, the massive, defunct Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, N.Y., any less compelling. Royte nicely balances autobiographical elements (where does her Fig Newmans carton end up, anyway?), interviews and fieldwork with more technical research. Her method yields palpable benefits, not least a wealth of vivid refuse-related slang (maggots are known as disco rice). The details unavoidably venture into the nauseating on occasion, and some might find the chemistry of trichloroethane and other toxins a bit dull. As the NIMBY logic of waste disposal forces its practitioners into secrecy, Royte is obliged to engage in some entertainingly furtive skullduggery. All in all, this is a comprehensive, readable foray into a world we'd prefer not to heed—but should.
"Elizabeth Royte immerses herself in the underworld of garbage, a stranger, murkier, more complicated place than any of us would have imagined. Endlessly curious and infectiously enthusiastic, Royte hefts cans with her local "san men" and sneaks into landfills, bagging the secrets of this overlooked but vitally important realm of life on earth. Ecology has never been so entertaining, and entertainment rarely so eye-opening." Mary Roach, author of Stiff
“This book stinks! It also entertains, illuminates, frightens, and inspires. Part rollicking road trip, part reconnaissance from the scary front lines of the ecological sciences, Garbage Land takes us deep down into a ninth circle of our own making to reveal the maggoty truths of our throwaway culture.” Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers and Americana
“An excellent excursion into our ephemera and rejectamenta, both of which say more about us that we ever seem to understand. Plus, there's nothing sanitary about Royte's wonderfully disgusting field work, and, despite what you may think, this is a very good thing.” Robert Sullivan, author of Meadowlands and Rats
“This is the most comprehensive (and funny) look by far at a subject of perennial interest--where does it all go? Any city dweller will read it with fascination and mild horror; if you've ever survived a garbage strike, every smell will come unbidden back to your flaring nostrils.” Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Wandering Home.