Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash

Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte. Little, Brown and Company, 2005; 311 pages; $24.95.


Into our trash cans go dead batteries, dirty diapers, bygone burritos, broken toys, tattered socks, eight-track cassettes, scratched CDs, banana peels.... But where do these things go next? In a country that consumes and then casts off more and more, what actually happens to the things we throw away? Garbage Land, science writer Elizabeth Royte leads us on the wild adventure that begins once our trash hits the bottom of the can. Along the way, we meet an odor chemist who explains why trash smells so bad; garbage fairies and recycling gurus; neighbors of massive waste dumps; CEOs making fortunes by encouraging waste or encouraging recycling -- often both at the same time; scientists trying to revive our most polluted places; fertilizer fanatics and adventurers who kayak amid sewage; paper people, steel people, aluminum people, plastic people, and even a guy who swears by recycling human waste. With a wink and a nod and a tightly clasped nose, Royte takes us on a bizarre cultural tour through slime, stench, and heat -- in other words, through the back end of our ever more super-sized lifestyles. By showing us what happens to the things we've "disposed of," Royte reminds us that our decisions about consumption and waste have a very real impact -- and that unless we undertake radical change, the garbage we create will always be with us: in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we consume.


From Publishers Weekly: Where does it all go? Most of us are content to shrug off the details [of our garbage] -- 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 Newtons carton end up, anyway?), interviews and fieldwork with more technical research.

From Booklist: 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...downright entertaining.... What her staggering exposé 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.


Elizabeth Royte has written for the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, National Geographic, Outside, Smithsonian, and The New Yorker. She was the recipient of an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship in 1999. She lives in Brooklyn.


Elizabeth Royte was born in Boston in 1960. On the morning we talked, she told me, "I grew up outside Boston and went to Bard College and took a B.A. in literature, and then I moved to New York and started working at magazines. I've been a serious magazine writer since about 1985. I finally got around to writing my first book, The Tapir's Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest, in 2001." To my remark that I liked the title, Ms. Royte said, "It's a little hard for people to relate to. I didn't come up with that, my editor did. And I'm not sure it was a great idea to go with that. People don't know how to say tapir or they don't know what it is. Once you read the book it makes a little bit of sense what the title is, but it's mysterious until you get to that part of the book, but anyway."

"Did your parents read?"

"Well, The New Yorker wasn't in the house growing up. My father is a psychologist, and I don't think they were fiction readers. We used the library a lot. Reading was encouraged. I read a great deal of the time, and we learned to read very early. And my mom, she was always reading early childhood education stuff. She was a teacher. So they weren't reading great literature. I mean, we had great literature around the house, but I don't remember my mom sitting around reading Hemingway or anything like that."

"When did you decide that you wanted to write?"

"When I came to New York, I worked at magazines and thought that I wanted to be an editor. And I worked at The Nation and learned the important skills of copy editing and fact checking. And then when I worked at Conde Nast , as an editorial assistant, and then moved to another magazine and was actually assigning and editing stories as a junior editor and when the magazine folded, my boyfriend, who's now my husband -- he's a freelance writer -- urged me not to try and find another job but to try to be freelance. I started book reviews, just sort of for fun, and it didn't pay very well, as you know, but I started doing them. I also kept looking for an editing job. But people offered me writing jobs instead. So that launched my freelance career. I haven't really had a job since then. So I never really consciously said, 'I want to be a writer.'

"I tried writing fiction in college, and I was terrible at it. Now, though, I'm so wedded to nonfiction I don't think that I could really make anything up. I don't have that much imagination. Like most writers, I have a lot of curiosity about the natural world. This book about garbage was a complete departure for me. I'm used to writing about science and the environment. And talking to people who are happy to talk to me about their work and proud of their work. And excited about the natural world. That's why I like writing about scientists or people who can explain the natural world to me. Writing a garbage book was completely unlike anything I've ever done. It's all about dead stuff, and I had to deal with people who weren't happy to talk about their work."

"They sure weren't."

"But this book started just with my curiosity about where stuff went. I think everyone has that curiosity, but maybe it's because people were so unwilling to help me that it got my hackles up. I'm a curious person and a stubborn person. The more they said 'no,' the more I had to keep pushing to find out where everything was going."

The Sunday New York Times wrote, about Garbage Land: "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.... Hers is a journey that everyone should take but few will."

I asked Ms. Royte what she made of the Times ' reading of her as afflicted with an obsessive-compulsive disorder. She laughed a lot and loudly. "I'm really not obsessed with garbage. I'm not a person who fretted about landfills filling up. I had a lot of other environmental concerns, but garbage and recycling was not one of them. I'm still not obsessed with garbage, but I do care a lot about where things go and think things could be a lot different and a lot better.

"I was interested because no one could tell me at first. So it got even more mysterious. Like, people would give you a partial answer and that just made me mad. You know, they'd say, 'Oh, we recycle it.' And you'd say, 'Well, what is it recycled into, and where is it done?' No one had the whole picture because the waste business is so segmented, and it's in public hands, and it's in private hands, and then it changes hands and the rules change."

"How did you get interested in garbage?"

"It started because I was actively looking for a book subject, and, as I said, I usually write about plants and the environment, but I used to travel a lot to report those stories. And now that I had Lucy, our three-year-old, I didn't want to go away.

"So I had to do something in New York. I was going around to universities and talks and readings and talking to scientists. I met a woman at Columbia University who was studying the city's coffee footprint, and I was intrigued by the sound of that. What is a coffee footprint?

"Well, she was figuring out how much land and water it took to grow the beans that came to New York and turned into our coffee. And also how much paper and water and trees and energy and water it took to make the cups that we drink the coffee in.

"So I got interested in the idea of an ecological footprint and realized that it also includes the surface area it takes to assimilate waste. This was the germ of my idea, that the city had a garbage footprint, that we were eight million people in a very small place and had no place nearby to put our garbage.

"So that was the germ of the idea that I could look at the city's garbage footprint. And as I say in the book, I also was mildly curious about where things went. I always wondered where to put a tissue after I blew my nose, whether it should go into the trash can or in the toilet, and where it would have the least environmental impact. So that's how I got interested in garbage."

"People have such distaste for garbage, or for offal. I think that behind this distaste dwells our fear of death and disintegration."

Ms. Royte did not disagree. In her chapter rather ominously titled "Dark Angels of Detritus," she quotes from a 1993 essay by Italo Calvino. In this essay, Calvino wrote about his daily transfer of trash from the kitchen to a street-side container. "Through this daily gesture I confirm the need to separate myself from a part of what was once mine, the slough of chrysalis or squeezed lemon of living, so that its substance might remain, so that tomorrow I can identify completely [without residues] with what I am and have."

"I thought," said Ms. Royte, "about the death of the things that we confined to the landfills. And there's a sadness to it, seeing these things laying there. When I went to Barren Island and saw all these leather shoes that had been worn in the '20s and the '30s, it made me sadder than seeing anything else, and I'm not exactly sure why. You can see that these shoes and boots were worn nearly to death. The people whose shoes were lying around Barren Island, maybe their wearers had long and healthy lives, but it's just sad somehow to see these twisted little shoes. You know, men's shoes, women's shoes, babies' shoes, lying there with the water lapping at them. It just makes you think about what a short time we're here for and what a mess we're leaving behind. And how long this stuff is going to linger."

"What will linger the longest?"

"Glass. Because it's heavy to transport, and the stuff that goes into making it, silica and sand, are abundant. There's not a lot of motivation to keep the stuff cycling. Although it saves a lot of energy to make new glass from old glass. You don't have to heat it up nearly as much. So it is an energy saver. But if you don't have a place to use the glass nearby, then you're in trouble because you've got to pay to ship it."

"How do you feel about home recycling?"

"Recycling on its own, in terms of recycling that I did, reduced my garbage input quite a bit and got me well below the national average. I think recycling is good and important, but it's not going to mean that much unless manufacturers and designers start thinking about designing things to be taken apart and reused by them and keep the stuff cycling through the system.

"It's also not going to mean much if it continues to be possible to take resources from the earth and pay less for them than it costs to reuse stuff that's already here. Right now it costs less to extract virgin resources than it does to reuse old ones. There's not going to be much of an incentive for manufacturers to change the way they do things if they can keep getting new stuff cheaper. And recycling won't be able to compete on a level playing field unless those subsidies are ended."

Ms. Royte writes about the problems that electronic waste causes. This waste, she said, "is growing at a faster rate than any other fraction of the waste produced by people like you and me. We have computers that don't work anymore or are too slow or can't be upgraded to do what we want, and they contain a lot of heavy metals and other hazardous materials. And in a landfill these things reach into the groundwater, if landfills leak, and when they're burnt they emit toxins.

"Some people try to do the right thing, and they go to these community drop-offs at landfills. I took my broken router. I brought it to a drop-off event, and I thought that something would be done with my router, I didn't know what. I didn't know if it could be fixed, but it turned out it had no value to anyone.

"A lot of computers that work and that don't work, I should say most of them collected at these drop-off events, are shipped overseas and are smashed apart. Workers go after the copper, silver, and gold that are in them, and then they toss the rest of it aside; it's creating a pretty big environmental problem overseas, contaminating groundwater."

"Isn't that the very worst, contaminating the groundwater?"

"Yes. And also they burn away a lot of the wires to get at stuff inside or maybe just to reduce their cash heaps, so they've got this smoke going up into the air and it's filled with flame retardants and plastics, which sift around in the breeze and settle down in the waterways and are consumed by fish and cows. Everyone on Earth I think has dioxin in their bodies."

"One thing that has shocked me is that you can no longer open a can of tuna fish and safely eat the tuna."

"It's so sad to me because I love tuna. This is a change that we've seen in our lifetime. Even within the last year, you've probably felt okay eating a tuna sandwich a couple of times a week. And this is such a dramatic example of how something that seems far off and unconnected to us is hitting us right at home, right in our kitchen cabinets.

"It's not someone else who's doing it. When we put our computer waste into the incinerator or if your thermometer breaks, or a thermostat, you're putting mercury into the air."

Late in the 19th Century and early in the 20th Century, New Yorkers kept pigs as "recyclers." I asked about this.

"Well, when I started composting I was bowled over by how much food waste there is in volume and in weight, and I was glad to get it out of my trash so it didn't count against me because I was keeping track of how much everything weighed and trying to shrink that.

"I was reading Charlotte's Web for the tenth time to my daughter, and Wilbur ate three enormous meals a day, and just everything went to the pig. I started thinking how great it would be to have my own pig and where I would keep it. On my roof, of course. I wanted a hen up there so I could have my own fresh eggs.

"I don't really want to eat pork. I don't like bacon. I don't want to slaughter my pig. I would use it for my garbage digester. Pigs are, of course, garbage collectors. And a hundred thousand of them. I've seen pictures of them in books about old tenement life in New York. People would keep pigs in their basement.

"They were probably brought over as stock. The Dutch when they came here, they had their pigs. Started farms."

"You did a lot of 'dirty work' in service of the book."

"Yes, especially the sewage part. I was squeamish about that. Someone asked if I was worried being around all these toxic places and disease and getting dirty. I was not in the least bit concerned. It never even occurred to me. I believe in soap and warm water. When I went to the surge plant in the Bronx and held the stuff in my hands, I just had a split-second's hesitation. I thought, 'All right, I've got to get into it. Here I am writing about it. I've got to do it.' My tour guide, the plant manager, was handling it, and if it was good enough for him, I could touch it too.

"But he completely forgot about washing his hands. Before I left the place I said, 'Give me a minute, I'm just going to go in there.' I'm usually against anti-microbial soap, I don't think anyone should use it, but there was a big jug of it in that bathroom and I was happy to use it."

"How did writing the book change you?"

"I changed my buying habits. I started thinking about what kind of garbage something would make before I even bought it. I asked myself if what I was buying could be reused when I was done with it, or recycled, was it going to break soon, and if it did break, could I repair it? How long would it last?

"I tried not to be a scold about this stuff with people I know. But it's hard, and I tried to set an example. I always use, as I write in my book, linen napkins. I use sponges and rags. I don't use paper towels. As I say in my book, don't go too crazy worrying about recycling every tiny little scrap. The important decisions are about what you're driving and how you're heating your home and meat-eating; they have the most planetary impact."

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