August 2005

James Campbell Martin

nonfiction

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

Elizabeth Royte's Garbage Land is the gross but engrossing story of the things we throw away. It is witty and colorful, but left me somewhat bewildered by too many facts and too few interpretations.

The book braids together two narratives. The first comprises Royte's own experiences: portraits of the sanitation workers, engineers, and environmentalists she talks to; descriptions of the landfills and recycling plants she visits; her personal quest to recycle as much as possible; and her sly observations on all of these. The second narrative is the scientific part of the book, what happens to American trash at the statistical level.

The time we spend with Royte personally is fun. Trying to follow her trash from her Brooklyn home, Royte contends bravely with cynical sanitation workers and secretive landfill owners. ("Good luck saving the planet!" one "san man" shouts at her.) She has to sneak a kayak into Staten Island's famous Fresh Kills landfill and is surprised and impressed by the open space and the view. (She also mentions that "kill" in Dutch means river -- no more need for me to wonder who lost his job over that name.) She weighs her own garbage every day, tries without succes to dispose of her toxic old paint cans properly, and struggles with composting. She corresponds with Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me) and goes to visit a thirty-three-foot-long art installation called the Cloaca that defecates twice a day. Royte's fine ear and dry sense of humor come out beautifully in these scenes from the book. (She titles one chapter, about trying to visit a working landfill, "Stalking the Active Face.") But in any popular science book, anecdotes such as these are to some extent playing to the peanut gallery. There is an adage that every equation in a popular science book cuts its sales in half, and from a strictly scientific point of view Royte is only sweetening and diluting her facts and figures with the human interest scenes.

The second story is the more essential, scientific one. What are landfills and incinerators (the two final destinations of trash) like? Well, landfills
leak toxic liquid and give off toxic gas, and incinerators produce toxic ash that is buried unsegregated in regular landfills. What can be partly recycled before it gets to its final destination? Paper, metal, toxics such as mercury, and plastic each get a chapter here: plastic recycles so poorly that it is nicknamed "Satin's resin." What about human waste? Royte finds a man who recycles his own "humanure" into compost, and wonders "how little sense it makes... to dilute our solids with water and then, at great expense, separate the two." It is in these parts of the book that I wish Royte would do more to help me reach the top of her mountain of facts. At one point, she asks two experts about in-sink food disposers. "Disposers?" says one. "I think they're great!" Says the other, "Food waste disposers suck." This is funny as intended, but I wish she had done more to decide who was right. Royte is a writer first, not a scientific expert, and she had a deadline. With the exception of rare dual-talents like Steven Pinker, there are writers who write science books and there are scientists who write science books: each has their advantages. Here, more scientific expertise, or simply more time to chew over the data, might have helped.

Royte is not a polemicist. She gives us plenty of "what" before coming to "what next." Only at the end of the book, in a section wittly called "Piling On," does Royte make a plea for more trash-consciousness. Having pointed out that the average American throws out "4.3 pounds of garbage... per day -- 1.6 more pounds than thirty years ago," Royte 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 palce." She cites Craigslist as an example of the former, also called "freecycling": for booksluts interested in this, I recommend a website called Bookcrossing.

Garbage Land is excellently written and doggedly researched and reported, and Royte is a funny and observant companion. I only wish she had made a few more judgments to help me make my own.

Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte
Little, Brown
ISBN: 0316738263
320 Pages