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Mondo Trasho

Elizabeth Royte Follows Her Waste From The Home To Its Environmentally Unfriendly Resting Places

Daniel Krall

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 9/7/2005

Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash By Elizabeth Royte

Little Brown, hardback

Guess what you did last year? You generated 1.31 tons of garbage, that’s what. Every bag of your kitchen trash collectively weighs as much as about 11 of you. (And that figure doesn’t include what you left in the toilet, either.) Doesn’t sound possible, does it? Elizabeth Royte didn’t quite believe it either. But a canoe trip in 2002 down a polluted canal sparked her curiosity to learn where her tuna cans and peanut butter jars found their final resting place. Her travels through the artificial ecosystem constructed to deal with our trash forms the bulk of Garbage Land, Royte’s exploration of what happens to waste when it’s thrown out—and a reminder that thrown out is not synonymous with ceases to exist.

Royte, a science writer whose previous book, 2001’s The Tapir’s Morning Bath, similarly analyzed an ecosystem (the rain forest) unbeknownst to most of us, begins her investigation by quantifying her trash. Like a disposal anorexic, she keeps a meticulous log of everything she consumes in lists that read woefully familiar. “October 3. Foil packaging from Fig Newtons, empty box of sandwich bags, waxed paper bag from muffin shop, 2 plastic bags from vegetables, plastic bread bag . . . ” and so on, until she’s thoroughly embarrassed by her output. Royte surmises that other well-meaning, environmentally sympathetic people feel the same way, making the good point that it’s “no wonder we prefer opaque garbage bags. And no wonder that recycling bags, which flaunt our virtue, are often translucent.”

Curiosity piqued, she volunteers for a stint with her neighborhood “san men” (garbage collectors), and quickly discovers what intense physical labor their job is—san men lift five to six tons worth of trash during their daily 3.5-hour shift, and are many times more likely to be killed on the job (heavy equipment, passing cars, hazardous waste) than a police officer. The work is hard and the men gruff, but the san men are friendly and accepting of Royte and answer all her questions.

From there, however, her efforts to track her trash’s path becomes oddly Kremlin-secretive as one spokesperson after another gets shifty-eyed when Royte makes reasonable-sounding requests, such as when her attempts to visit a landfill in rural Pennsylvania are thwarted for “liability issues.” (Royte rises ably to the challenge, earning her Nellie Bly points by finding a gap in the landfill’s fence and wiggling through a glade thick with raspberry bramble to try for a better look—but to no avail. However, her reflections on the untouched, trashless glade prove an unintentional, palate-cleansing respite for the garbage-sullied reader.) Other attempts to get to the bottom of other disposal alternatives, such as incineration or the Orwellian-sounding “biosolids” industry (hint: remember that toilet?) prove equally frustrating.

Royte comes across in print as earnest, curious, and just self-deprecating enough to be amused by the absurd situations in which she finds herself. (In a plastic recycling factory she takes dry notice of her favorite safety warning: “Keep in mind: A truck on fire causes low productivity.”) She genuinely wants to do the right thing by the earth, but cannot get a straight answer as to what the right thing is.

The problem may be, as Royte eventually concludes, that our current economic system offers no solution to garbage. Palliative measures such as composting (which she gives a good try in one chapter, only to have her front-yard bin become infested with grubs) and recycling are just stopgaps. (And that doesn’t even cover the things we don’t think we throw away but do: computers, cell phones, appliances, even cars, all leaking mercury and cadmium into the groundwater, all of it needing to go somewhere.) Her conclusions about recycling are the most stunning, asserting that recycling’s virtue is only symbolic: glass’ post-consumer resale value is negligible or nonexistent, paper can only be reused nine times in theory, four times in reality, and plastic (dubbed “Satan’s Resin” by a particularly scorn-heavy environmentalist) is the worst of all, mostly because of its inorganic and toxic essentiality. Royte quotes one anti-waste activist as saying that plastics recycling “is not recycling at all . . . we’re just delaying its eventual dumping.”

Concluding that Americans serious about saving the earth, if not making the move to Europe (whose cited progressive policies make our system look, in contrast, nakedly slavish to the dollar rather than to the earth’s best interest), would do well to consume less, not recycle more, Royte convinces us of the urgency of our trash-related decisions without harangue or superiority. Well-paced, well-researched, and sprinkled with tension-breaking trash-related anecdotes just for fun (did you know the Supreme Court declared that rifling through people’s garbage isn’t a violation of their civil rights?), Garbage Land proves an illuminating tour through a territory in which we forget we are full citizens.

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