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Talk The Satya Interview with
Photo by Tony Israel
An Adventure in Trash Book Review by Kymberlie Adams
Garbage Land: On the Secret
Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte (New York: Little,
Brown, 2005). $24.95 hardcover. 311 pages.
Until recently, I never gave much thought to where my garbage went. I simply
sorted, bagged and carried it down four flights of stairs to the bins. But
then I started wondering, where did my recycled tin cans go? My soiled paper
towels and coffee grinds? I hadn’t a clue. Garbage Land: On the Secret
Trail of Trash unveils the hidden truth. Author Elizabeth Royte had a
simple mission—finding out what happens to her trash. A fellow Park Sloper,
Royte led me into the sewers beneath my hood, to landfills near and far, and
recycling centers where things aren’t always on the up and up. An effort
of peculiar research, Garbage Land explores the business, social and
scientific aspects of waste disposal.
As Royte follows her own refuse across the country, she tells the story of
America’s waste treatment facilities, compost heaps, sanitation workers,
haulers, bureaucrats, operators and environmentalists. Considering the wealth
of detail it contains, Garbage Land is a quick and interesting read.
Facts and figures blend nicely with Royte’s anecdotes. Readers easily
pick up important tidbits, such as the average American elementary school student
throws away three and a half ounces of edible food a day. Two-thirds of New
York City’s residential and commercial waste flows through transfer stations
in just two neighborhoods: the Bronx’s Hunts Point and Brooklyn’s
Greenpoint-Williamsburg. And Pennsylvania is the number one importer of other
states’ waste—10 million tons in 2002 alone.
Royte also dispels the common myth that organic garbage morphs into a rich
loam in landfills. Bagged garbage is compacted, buried and ultimately ends
up out of reach of the microorganisms that promote decay. Food, in fact, can
hang around for decades.
We are also introduced to lively trash lingo—’’Coney Island
whitefish’’ (used condoms), ‘‘disco rice’’ (maggots), ‘‘mongo’’ (salvageable
garbage). And are reminded of the nostalgic times when pigs roamed city streets
slurping on our slop, turning “waste into edible protein.” Royte
writes, “Rag pickers and peddlers took old clothes, ashes, metal, even
bones for reuse. What could not be recycled was disposed of in the stove.”
Royte’s sine qua non is that garbage is a product of our consumerism.
The average American throws out “4.3 pounds of garbage...per day—1.6
more pounds than 30 years ago.” She says that we “don’t need
better ways to get rid of things. We need to not get rid of things, either
by keeping them cycling through the system or not designing and desiring them
in the first place.” Garbage Land will leave you feeling faintly nauseated,
guilty, and overwhelmed...but she offers plenty of solutions to help citizens
connect to and minimize their trash. Ultimately, this adventure in trash is
Trash: It’s everywhere,
but nowhere. We compile it, sort it, throw it out, only to have it
picked up and taken somewhere else—out
of sight. Most of us not only don’t know where it goes, but we
don’t really want to know. We don’t want to find out just
how much recycling gets thrown into landfills, or whether recycling
is more energy or cost efficient than dumping. We’d like to cut
down on waste, but as the names—“trash,” “rubbish,” “waste,” “crap”—suggest,
mostly we just want to forget about it.
Elizabeth Royte, author of Garbage Land: On the
Secret Trail of Trash (Little,
Brown, 2005), decided to follow everything that leaves her house to see what
happens to it along the way and where it ended up. Paper, plastics, bottles,
garbage, human waste, and just about everything in between came under Royte’s
scrutiny. She hung with the san men, tried to break into the shadowy world of
landfill companies, visited the now defunct Fresh Kills landfill, and toured
plenty of plants that crush, sort, deliquify and melt our tossed products into
something else and make money. Royte also looks at the workers who collect and
sort our trash, and how messy and hard being a sanitation person is. In the meantime,
she asks very pointed questions about how viable are the alternatives for dealing
with trash in urban environments where the infrastructure is old, the citizens
are distracted and uninformed, and the hard choices that need to be made will
always find a constituency to oppose them.
Royte is also the author of The Tapir’s Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries
of the Tropical Rain Forest and has written for the New York Times Magazine,
Harper’s, National Geographic, The New Yorker, and numerous other magazines.
A former Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband
and their daughter. Satya Founding Editor, Martin Rowe, a fellow Brooklynite,
former composter and avid freecycler, had a chance to talk trash with Elizabeth
Throughout Garbage Land, you seem to struggle between recognizing
solid waste—the stuff we individuals throw out—is only two percent
of all waste produced and knowing that more significant change would be made
if we consumed less and wasted less making the products themselves. Is this situation
We need to remember that 98 percent of the U.S. waste stream—nonhazardous
industrial waste, agricultural and mining waste, cement-kiln waste, construction
and demolition debris, hazardous waste, etc.—isn’t unrelated to the
two percent that is municipal solid waste. Those upstream wastes are generated
because we demand certain goods and commodities for our existence—food,
shelter, clothing—and our pleasure—cell phones, couches, cars. By
reducing consumption, reusing what we’ve already got, and recycling whatever
we can, we will chip away at the 98 percent.
Your household of three produces only 4.65 pounds of trash a week, whereas the
average American manages to discard 4.3 pounds a day! Part of why you produce
less is because you recycle, compost and don’t consume much or throw out
big items. Are there any other reasons for that discrepancy?
Composting goes a long way toward reducing my garbage weight. So does living
in a neighborhood where it is completely acceptable to place unwanted goods—clothing,
children’s toys, kitchen items, furniture—on the sidewalk for anyone
who wants them. I shop at a food coop, where things aren’t overly packaged
and one can buy in bulk, so I have far less food packaging to deal with than
the average shopper. I don’t buy individually wrapped foods or disposables.
I’m also pretty frugal, getting things through Craigslist and Freecycle.
I avoid buying things that aren’t going to last very long.
I was struck by how much the stuff we recycle and throw out gets re-used.
there is money to be made, there seems to be somebody wanting to do it. What’s
your judgment regarding the role of market forces versus government oversight
in helping us deal with recyclables and trash?
Strong markets drive successful recycling programs; if no one wants the stuff
that’s collected, there’s no point in collecting it. When New York
City’s Department of Transportation quit using glass when repaving roads—glassphalt—broken
bottles and jars started piling up at recycling centers. There was no nearby
outlet for glass, and it was too expensive to transport. That contributed to
the temporary suspension of glass collection.
While some local governments seem to have little interest in helping develop
markets for recyclables, others—with more political will—require
local bottle makers to use recycled content and offices that receive state or
city funds to buy recycled paper. Local governments can also partner with private
companies to build infrastructure for recycling. For example, New York City helped
build the privately-owned paper recycling plant on Staten Island.
You seem skeptical about vermicomposting as a practical way of dealing with food
I don’t think worm bins work in small apartments because of space constraints
or for families that cook a lot of vegetables, like mine. I’d need a lot
more space to hold a lot more bins. But if you mean large-scale composting operations,
I would love to see cities large and small composting food scraps, yard waste
and even paper, but there are odor and “vector” [i.e. rodents and
other disease transporters] issues to contend with, especially in densely populated
areas. It’s more likely we’ll see anaerobic digesters handling these
biological nutrients. Everything gets cooked in a vertical tank, and methane
is collected and used to generate energy.
What technology or policy holds the most promise of making a real impact on how
much waste we create?
A policy of extended producer responsibility (EPR) holds the most promise of
decreasing the volume of durable goods that head toward landfills and incinerators.
If manufacturers are forced to take responsibility for their products’ end-of-life—if
they’re going to be seeing this stuff again—they’ll have a
strong incentive to design consumer goods that last longer, contain fewer or
no hazardous materials, and are easier to take apart and recycle. We also need
to see lots more composting for food, yard waste and paper. According to the
EPA, 60-odd percent of our landfill contents are potentially compostable. As
a zero waste proponent told me, “In the 90s we had a recycling revolution.
Now it’s time for a composting revolution.”
You talk about the insanity of mixing our compostable fecal matter with
metals and toxins in the waste stream—and mixing both with fresh water.
You suggest non-flush toilets as one solution. But how could this be undertaken
on a mass scale? What alternatives are there?
The United Kingdom’s chief drinking water inspector said that if Britain
was planning sewage disposal from scratch today, “[they] wouldn’t
flush it away—[they] would collect the solids and compost it.” But
no, I don’t think we’re going to tear apart our cities’ sewage
systems and go to non-flush. Ideally, manufacturers wouldn’t use materials
that are hazardous to human health or the environment. They wouldn’t dump
noxious wastes into public sewer systems. Until green chemistry—and government
regulations—catch up with these ideals, we should make sure that what we’re
spreading on agricultural land isn’t moving into the water and the food
It seems we’re out of touch with what it actually takes to make
and grow things. Yet cities, where most people live, are actually quite energy
per capita. How do we balance the benefits of dense urban living with the negatives
of urban consumption patterns and waste production?
I like to think that simply by becoming aware of our intimate connections with
the natural world—both upstream and down—we will tread more lightly
on the planet. If you know your computer monitor is going to leach lead in a
landfill or send mercury into the air from an incinerator, you might try a little
harder to recycle e-waste responsibly. If you understand the toll that virgin
papermaking takes on air, water and biodiversity, perhaps you will remember to
buy paper with recycled content. Consumers have a lot of power and individual
actions do matter. Solely in response to consumer pressure, giant food corporations
have added organic products to their lines; sales of hybrid cars are up, etc.
You had difficulty getting into some landfills. Indeed, landfilling seems to
be the least transparent of the industries dealing with trash and recycling.
Why do you think that is?
That’s a tough question. The industry in general is defensive because they’ve
been perceived, quite accurately in some cases, as being involved in shady practices.
Some waste hauling companies have been convicted of price fixing and bid rigging
and many landfills have long lists of environmental violations. The neighbors
aren’t always happy with them, studies have associated landfills with illness
and disease, and landfill operators probably see little [benefit] in opening
up their properties to freelance writers. Not all landfill managers are as mysterious
as the ones I dealt with. Other writers in the New York area had better luck
visiting area landfills than I did.
Also, landfills are ugly places, and waste has always been associated with guilt
and shame. I never understood why landfill operators acted as if the mess were
their own, when we’re all complicit, but if the public were invited in
and understood the operations, the safeguards in place and the potential for
failure, we’d take better care to keep things out of dumps.