Garbage Land

Anyone who lives on this earth should pick up a copy of Garbage Land, by Elizabeth Royte. I won’t say this book will change your life, but it may. After you finish reading, “out of sight, out of mind” will be a foreign phrase.

Royte, a resident of Park Slope, Brooklyn, a fairly well-off, educated, environmentally-conscious neighborhood, decided to trace where her trash went after it was picked up by the New York City Department of Sanitation. She rode in garbage trucks with “san men,” visited landfills and recycling plants all over the country, paddled illegally around Fresh Kills in a kayak, visited a water treatment plant and witnessed excrement being turned into fertilizer. She learned which materials recycle well (paper, metal) and which don’t (glass, plastic). And she wrote it all down in an engrossing, 300-page (though it feels like half that, so quick is the read) book.

This book delves into disgusting, depressing material. Read about leaky landfills dripping toxic chemicals into our groundwater, soda companies building plastics recycling plants in poor third-world countries (and then denying it!), and the paper and free gifts sent out as fundraisers by supposedly “green” organizations, and it’s likely you’ll want to hole up in a cave in the wilds of Canada and never come out. We really are running out of places to put all the stuff we consume.

I’m a fairly environmentally-conscious girl. I’m the weirdo who reuses plastic bags at the grocery store, and the person who will walk five minutes out of her way to find a recycling bin. Royte, even at the beginning of the book, with about 4 pounds of trash weekly for a three-person family, had me beat. (And the rest of the country; the EPA says that number is almost 20 times lower than the national average.) This number does not include material she sent to be recycled or the “putrescibles” she composted in front of her brownstone. (Despite the mice and the maggot-like worms, the neighbors reportedly loved it.)

Royte doesn’t provide utopian solutions to the trash problem. She readily admits that her compost was a failure, and that her geographical location was a big help in keeping her trash down:

If I didn’t live in a neighborhood where I could leave stuff on the sidewalk for others, didn’t have access to curbside recycling and a compost bin, and had to throw out a major piece of furniture, I’d be right up there with the rest of the nation.

Rather, she points out that it is both the consumer’s responsibility (consume less, recycle more) and the corporate world’s responsibility to solve this problem. She argues that litter clean-up days, which are often sponsored by some of the worst polluters and dumpers, aim to move the burden of trash off factories and corporations and onto the individual. A Coke bottle floating in a pristine river had to have gotten there by a consumer. But who made the bottle? Who made it out of plastic poisonous to recycle and impossible to reuse? (Not entirely true; in some parts of Europe, plastic bottles are returned to companies that sterilize and refill them. Try getting that to fly here.) In addition, even were all the Coke bottles drunk in America returned, reused, recycled, or otherwise diverted from a landfill, we’d still be in trouble, Royte says, because municipal waste makes up only 2% of the junk in this country. The other 98% is industrial waste–7.6 billion tons of it yearly.

So what can we do? Not, really, much. Buy less–much less–recycle more, and hope for the best.

And read this book.

  1. chriscombs says:

    Garbage Land’s most useful aspect to my mind was the candor with which it discussed the physical means of dealing with trash. Really, we see the garbage trucks scoop up our bins, and that’s the end of it – but this book describes exactly how the trash is muscled, compacted, and interred.

    Recycling, too; I now know that there’s no need to remove the labels from metal cans, because there’s a huge snarling ten-story-tall shredder that’s going to gnash them into shrapnel, little paper labels or not.

    and her description of the Gowanus Canal and surrounds really made me want to go spend a few days down there with a big ugly camera and some waders. (Yeah, that Gowanus.)

    Also, tangentially, when environmentalism and Big Business find themselves agreeing on something.

  2. michael says:

    Thanks for the link pointing me here … I’ve added it to my reading list.

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