Kirby's Reviews > Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash

Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte
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May 21, 08

bookshelves: wonktastic
Recommended for: litterbugs, global warming skeptics, people who watched roc
Read in May, 2008

The set-up is straightforward. Royte follows her trash wherever it leads her: to the sanitation truck, to the waste transfer station in Bayridge, to private landfills in Bethlehem, PA, to waste-to-energy facilities in Newark, NJ, to paper/metal/plastic recycling facilities in Staten Island, Jersey City, and Long Island respectively, to her neighbor's composting bin, to the water treatment plants in Owls Head, and yes, she even follows the trail of her poo to Hunts Point in the Bronx. (That is dedication, people.) In sum, her work is an effort to be fully accountable for the waste she produces and the waste that she tries to divert. It's pretty outstanding in concept and in practice.

Some of what she reveals during her journey I expected, but was still saddened/angered by, e.g., that 2/3 of New York's residential and commercial waste flows through the city’s poorest communities—Hunts Point, which sustains up to 20,000 diesel truck trips per week, and Greenpoint, which has the highest concentration of airborne lead and the second-highest rate of asthma in the city. Waste companies across the country, much like the railroad and coal industries decades before them, gladly pay "host fees" to cash-starved rural towns and counties who rely almost exclusively on these funds to meet important public initiatives and also almost exclusively bear the brunt of illness and disease that result from the attendant air, water, and land contamination. Pennsylvania alone has 51 landfills of trash, mainly from NY/NJ, and made $40 million in 2002 from out-of-state dumping. That trash is big business is disheartening from virtually every perspective.

A few elements of her various trails were new to me, e.g., international impact of our domestic efforts to be green. For example, some of New York’s e-waste—old computer monitors and other electronic products gathered in feel-good citywide recycling events—is sent from Manhattan to Guiyu, China where men, women, and children wearing no protective gear mix nitric acid in open vats to extract gold components from these items. Developing nations absorb much of the scrap iron, paper, and plastic that we recycle, but have little by way of worker rights. Add to this that many of the least pleasant jobs in the U.S. necessary for successful reuse efforts often involve a similarly invisible and neglected workforce of Black, Latino, and increasingly elderly populations. The intentional non-mention of this reality, which Royte calls “the dark underside of the green revolution,” is disingenuous and justifies lingering class resentment/suspicion of environmental awareness efforts.

The numbers and information she dropped on the industry-based political analysis were humbling. Virgin papermaking is destructive beyond the harm done to trees, as it is the third largest source of greenhouse gases and requires the dumping of billions of contaminated water. The government provides this industry with $2.6 billion of tax subsidies; recycling and reuse industries get nothing. Royte saved her biggest statistical reveal for the last chapter though: of all the waste generated in the U.S., municipal solid waste (what they pick up from the curb) accounts for only 2% of the total. The other 98% comes from mining and agricultural waste, oil and gas waste, construction and demolition waste, incinerator ash, hazardous waste, etc. This ratio is straight crazy and begs the question of whether we should do anything at all as individuals.

It is clear that large-scale changes in corporate behavior will come only with legislation. Royte repeatedly noted that the European Union is way ahead of the U.S., e.g., building the cost of recycling into the prices of various goods, in virtually every area, but I wanted more from her on the reasons for this. Are the markets there stronger for recycled goods? Does the proximity of EU member-states to each other create an atmosphere for more collective discussion of environmental issues? Are they just superior beings?

Corny as it sounds, I am motivated to make small and large changes in my behavior after reading this, even knowing of the minimal impact. I have no excuse for not recycling pretty much every scrap of paper; I can make buying recycled goods and earth-friendly household products a habit. I can buy and drive less.

At the end, Royte says that one of the most important things she learned in her research was the names of her local sanitation workers. I groaned out loud, but I get her point. Waste everywhere affects someone somewhere and usually in very harmful ways and her connection to her san men makes her mindful of the human impact of her choices. I'm for that.
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