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May 2006
Trash Talk
The Satya Interview with Elizabeth Royte


Photo by Tony Israel

An Adventure in Trash
Book Review by Kymberlie Adams Matthews

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 worth it.

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 Royte.

Throughout Garbage Land, you seem to struggle between recognizing that municipal 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 resolvable?
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. If 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 waste. Why?
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 heavy 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 chain.

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 efficient 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.

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