Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash [NOOK Book]

Overview

Out of sight, out of mind ... 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? In Garbage Land, acclaimed 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...
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Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash

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Overview

Out of sight, out of mind ... 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? In Garbage Land, acclaimed 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 supersized 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. Radiantly written and boldly reported, Garbage Land is a brilliant exploration into the soiled heart of the American trash can.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Garbage Land lifts the lid on trash. As author Elizabeth Royte notes, rubbish is a national industry: If you include pre-consumption waste, we Americans generate about 11.7 billion tons of waste per year. For most of us, garbage is "out of sight, out of mind," but Royte proves that our refuse will always be with us. In this fascinating book, she takes us on a jaunty guided tour of waste management, compostable matter, recyclables, and sewage.
Neil Genzlinger
Royte, whose previous book, 'The Tapir's Morning Bath, followed researchers in the tropical rain forest, here follows an assortment of garbage collectors, recyclers and sewage treaters, beginning with the men who pick up the stuff she leaves at her curb in Brooklyn on trash day. The idea is to see how much damage she is personally doing in the grand scheme of things and how she might minimize it; to get beyond the easy plateau of environmental awareness (don't eat endangered fish) and look at, well, the outflow. ''It wasn't fair, I reasoned, to feel connected to the rest of the world only on the front end, to the waving fields of grain and the sparkling mountain streams,'' she writes. ''We needed to cop to a downstream connection as well.''
— The New York Times
Jabari Asim
Royte discovers that alternatives, such as recyclable paperboard boxes, generate waste as well. "Which was preferable? The choices, like so many at the intersection of consumerism and environmental concern, were agonizing." The difficulty of making wise, meaningful decisions is a factor Royte often acknowledges in her praiseworthy book. But just as important as her admission that she doesn't have all the answers is her persuasive demonstration that no one does.
— The Washington Post
William Grimes
In Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, Elizabeth Royte shines a light on everyone's dirty secret. Like a garbage detective, she follows the used plastic bags, drink containers, old newspapers and, yes, bodily excretions that disappear into the trash can or down the toilet, only to reappear somewhere else, out of sight and out of mind … It's a fascinating, sometimes tiring, often depressing tour.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The v-p of a New York City waste transfer station recommends, "You want to solve the garbage problem? Stop eating. Stop living." Indeed, to ponder waste disposal is to confront the very limits of our society. Where does it all go? Most of us are content to shrug off the details-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 Newmans carton end up, anyway?), interviews and fieldwork with more technical research. Her method yields palpable benefits, not least a wealth of vivid refuse-related slang (maggots are known as disco rice). The details unavoidably venture into the nauseating on occasion, and some might find the chemistry of trichloroethane and other toxins a bit dull. As the NIMBY logic of waste disposal forces its practitioners into secrecy, Royte is obliged to engage in some entertainingly furtive skullduggery. All in all, this is a comprehensive, readable foray into a world we'd prefer not to heed-but should. Agent, Heather Shroder. (July 13) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Royte (The Tapir's Morning Bath) reminds us that what we dispose of is a window on our culture and consumption habits. Determined to follow the path of household trash, sewage, and recyclables, she began by visiting the New York City Department of Sanitation (she lives in Brooklyn) and accompanying sanitation workers on their routes. In the course of tracking the garbage to landfills, incinerators, and sewage and recycling facilities, she discovered that America disposes of 369 million tons of municipal waste annually-which generates over $50 billion a year in revenue. She explains the many facets of garbage disposal, what determines the location of a landfill, and the array of disposal and processing alternatives. She also raises serious questions about garbage disposal and its impact on public health. The upbeat views of garbage workers who see their roles as performing a vital service are particularly revealing. Royte's exploration of the economic, territorial, and ecological perspectives of garbage disposal adds up to a fascinating trail of trash. Recommended for all who throw things away.-Irwin Weintraub, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The Great Garbage Tour may sound like a grunge music extravaganza, but it's actually the author following her "rejectamenta" to its logical end. Who hasn't wondered about where our colossal amount of garbage goes? Journalist Royte (The Tapir's Morning Bath, 2001) wants to find answers: How does recycling work? Where, when we flush the toilet, does its cargo go? And what happens to all the plain old putrescence we create? The U.S. produces 369 million tons of garbage a year, or 1.3 tons per person, annually. Happily, 27% of it is recycled or composted, while nearly 8% is incinerated, and a godawful 65% goes into the ground. It's not surprising that for years "garbage has changed hands through cronyism and favors, and landed on the backs of disenfranchised," usually in great landfills that bring dollars to destitute communities, along with health and standard-of-living problems. These landfills are aptly named "brownfields," with their attendant groundwater contamination, litter, leachate and scavenging birds, all guarded like strategic targets for whatever secrets they hold. Only 100 years ago, 100,000 pigs cleaned New York City's streets of the organic wastes casually thrown there, but now the pigs-which created their own organic wastes, it must be said-are gone, and our wastes are different, consisting of more paper, more glass, more plastic. The last will prove to be the real bugaboo. It can be recycled to a point, but then degradation simply turns it into landfill material. Paper, in particular, Royte shows, doesn't get the attention it deserves: only 19% gets recycled, despite its clear economic value. You may not even want to know about the sludge farm experiments, where concentratedfecal material has created the ultimate of brownfields. While there are obvious ways to cope with waste-Royte clearly outlines them-the biggest problem is mindset: we're accustomed to the ease of the toss. Royte is a natural storyteller and skillful natural historian. Few others could have pulled off turning our feculence into fascination.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316030731
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 10/15/2007
  • Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 500,851
  • File size: 401 KB

Read an Excerpt

Garbage Land


By Elizabeth Royte

Little, Brown

ISBN: 0-316-73826-3


Chapter One

The Dream of Zero Waste

I had been touring San Francisco's garbage infrastructure for two days now - prowling around the city's transfer station, poking into its curbside bins, and following its garbage trucks. My hosts were Bob Besso, who worked for Norcal, the private company with which the city contracted to pick up refuse, and Robert Haley, from the Department of the Environment. Dressed in blue jeans and sneakers, Besso had the lankiness of a marathon runner. He was in his fifties, and he'd worked in recycling for decades. His and Haley's easy-going attitude, and their penchant for plain speaking, were diametrically opposed to the formal inscrutability of New York's sanitation operatives. The best part of hanging around Besso was his competitive streak: both he and Haley were walking poster children for Zero Waste. Who could throw out less? Who had more radically altered their lifestyle to leave a smaller human stain?

The Zero Waste concept was a growing global phenomenon. Much of Australia had committed to achieving the goal in 2010, and resolutions had been passed in New Zealand, Toronto, twelve Asia-Pacific nations, Ireland, Scotland, the Haut-Rhin Department in the Alsace region of France, and several California counties. So far, no community had reached this nirvana, a condition perfected only by nature. For humans to achieve zero waste, went the rhetoric, would require not only maximizing recycling and composting, but also minimizing waste, reducing consumption, ending subsidies for waste, and ensuring that products were designed to be either reused, repaired, or recycled back into nature or the marketplace. Zero Waste, said Peter Montague, director of the Environmental Research Foundation, had the potential to "motivate people to change their life styles, demand new products, and insist that corporations and governments behave in new ways."

I didn't take Zero Waste literally. I considered it a guiding principle, a rallying cry for green idealists. I understood its intensive recycling component, but what about goods that simply could not be recycled? Over lunch in a Vietnamese restaurant, I learned that Zero Waste wasn't just rhetoric to Haley. "I don't have a trash can at work," he said. On his desk sat a grapefruit sized ball of used staples - ferrous scrap that he couldn't bear to throw out. "If I'm going to be a leader in Zero Waste I have to live the life," he said. I asked what affect this had on domestic harmony. "My partner is 99.9 percent with me," he said, nodding enthusiastically.

"What's the one-tenth-of-a-percent problem?"

"She draws the line at twist ties."

"Well you know you could strip the paper from the wires and -" I interrupted myself. Haley already knew how to recycle a twist-tie. At home, he was diverting 95 percent of his waste from the landfill. The 5 percent he threw out was "manufactured goods" - recently some beyond-repair leather shoes. Worn out sneakers, of course, were mailed to Nike, which shreds rubber and foam into flooring for gyms. The company accepts non-Nike footwear too, and is also trying to tan leather without questionable toxins and developing shoes made of a new rubber compound that doubled as a biological nutrient - something that could be harmlessly returned to nature. This would be quite an improvement, since according to designer William McDonough conventional rubber soles are stabilized with lead that degrades into the atmosphere and soil as the shoe is worn. Rain sluices this lead dust into sewers, and thence into sludge bound for agricultural fields. According to the National Park Service, which has more than a passing interest in manmade stuff that lies around on the ground, leather shoes abandoned in the backcountry last up to fifty years (if they aren't eaten, one presumes), and rubber boot soles go another thirty.

McDonough's 206-page book, Cradle to Cradle, was printed on "paper" made of plastic resins and inorganic fillers. The pages are smooth, and waterproof, and the whole thing is theoretically recyclable into other "paper" products. The book weighs one pound, four ounces. A book of comparable length printed on paper made from trees weighs an entire pound less. "What do you think of that?" I asked Haley. He nearly spit out his mouthful of curried vegetables. "McDonough's book will be landfilled! I'd rather cut down a tree!"

To Haley and Bob Besso, landfilling was the ultimate evidence of failure. Avoiding the hole in the ground-which in San Francisco's case was owned by Waste Management, Norcal's archenemy-had become a game to them, albeit a game with serious consequences. Haley didn't use his paper napkin at the restaurant, and he scraped the last bit of curry from his plate. But we all knew there was waste behind his meal - in the kitchen, on the farm, in the factory that made the boxes in which his bok choy had been carted to San Francisco.

I wondered if Zero Waste really meant anything, considering the limits of our recycling capability and our reluctance to alter our lifestyles. It was as dreamy an idea as cars that ran on water. And just as appealing to industry, too. "Zero Waste is a sexy way to talk about garbage," Haley said. "It gets people excited." I considered that for a moment. Could we solve our garbage problems by making garbage sexy?

Seeing how little I could throw out was fun for me, if not exactly sexy. I'd gotten caught up in the game, back home with my kitchen scale and Lucy's blue toboggan. I recorded my weights in a little book, I crunched my numbers, and I measured my success by how many days it took to fill a plastic grocery sack.

In the months to come, I'd find people who neither lived nor worked in the Bay Area who were having fun (if not sexy fun) with garbage reduction. Shaun Stenshol, president of Maui Recycling Service, had toyed with the idea of decreeing a Plastic Free Month, but ultimately deemed such a test too easy. Instead, he issued a Zero Waste Challenge. Over the course of four weeks, Maui residents and biodiesel users Bob and Camille Armantrout produced eighty-six pounds of waste, of which all but four (mostly dairy containers and Styrofoam from a new scanner) was recyclable. Alarmed to note that 35 percent of their weight was beer bottles, which they recycled, the Armantrouts vowed to improve. Bob ordered beer-making equipment to help reduce the amount of glass they generated, and Camille promised to start making her own yogurt. Despite these efforts, the Armantrouts didn't win the Challenge. The winner of the contest, as so often happens, was its inventor. All on his own, Stenshol had produced an even one hundred pounds of waste, of which he recycled ninety-nine pounds.

Fresh Kills Landfill

Paddling

One of my favorite expeditions while researching Garbage Land, though this part of the story didn't make it into the book, was kayaking around the Fresh Kills landfill, on Staten Island, with Carl Alderson, a coastal restoration specialist who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. After a delightful paddle around the dump, Alderson and I narrowly escaped arrest by a sanitation cop only to end up in very shallow water with the tide going out.

... For several yards we poled and pried, but soon the kayak was stuck for good. Our car was parked a half mile up Main Creek, but the creek had turned into a mere trickle of brown water. Alderson seemed strangely optimistic. He checked the time on his cell phone and started muttering to himself about the tide. "Okay," he said. "We can wait four hours till it turns, or try again to get upstream, or we can roll over the mud to the edge." The edge, a field of waving Spartina patens, was about 60 feet away.

"How deep is the mud?"

"Over your waist."

I thought about that. "Have you done it before?"

"Oh yeah. You've just got to keep from panicking. It's like quicksand."

Alderson was standing in the stern, wind-milling his arms to generate warmth. My feet were ice blocks. "Is that the wind?" he said, his voice rising, hair fluttering heroically. "It's pushing the water back in!" It was the wind, but it wasn't delivering any more water. The afternoon was just getting colder and more dismal. At least the snow had stopped.

Opening his cell phone, Alderson dialed the office of the William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge, where we'd picked up the kayak. "Hey, Linda. Could you do me a favor and check today's tide chart?" He paused. "Uh-huh, you sure of that? Okay, thanks." With a look of resignation, Alderson snapped the phone shut. He had another plan. "There's a bunch of pallets in the refuge greenhouse, maybe we can get Sam and Nate to bring them down and make a path over the mud." It seemed a little hare-brained to me - we'd need about fifty pallets - but I liked the idea of involving others.

Alderson slapped the mudflat with his paddle. It quaked. The mud didn't look particularly ominous in the fading light, but I knew it was roiling with life, with the stuff that feeds the marsh's birds, fish, and mammals. There were marine worms down there, some of them voracious predators more than five inches long, and lugworms and clamworms that ate algae or detritus extracted from the sand. These organisms were tough, able to withstand a half-day of submersion, a half-day of drought, baths of incoming salt water and rinses of sewage- and leachate-tainted fresh. Alderson advised his assistants to avoid touching the mud or water. A woman planting cord grass for him once fell in up to her baseball cap and emerged with a mysterious skin condition he called "full-body pink eye."

"How deep did you say the mud is?" I asked Alderson for the second time in twenty minutes.

"You can't tell," he said. "It seems bottomless. The silt and organic layering have been going on for millennia. I've watched a few people go down in chest waders. It's scary to watch someone sink deeper in muck and further in panic. I've dragged a few frightened folks out in my day."

That shut me up. As we waited for Sam and Nate, I thought about how this landscape had changed. In the Paleo-Indian period, between 10,000 BC and 8,000 BC, the western side of Staten Island was a much higher and dryer place. We know that Lenape Indians occupied the area because they left their tools and high middens of clam and oyster shells behind. Sometime between 8,000 and 1,000 BC, rising sea levels created vast swamps on the western side of the island, at which time Lenape settlements became larger and more permanent. Eventually, Europeans would grow salt hay in these marshes, and it would become Staten Island's largest cash crop. Just two hundred years ago, before the hydrology of the swamps had been altered, both Richmond and Main Creeks were navigable for more than a mile. Today, the island's biggest export was garbage.

With a low whine, a golf cart kitted out with a forklift emerged from the dun-colored reeds. While Sam and Nate - vague figures in dark clothes-struggled with the pallets, Alderson lounged like a beer drinker in a lawn chair and offered encouraging suggestions. "Not too far apart, boys." They grunted. "So did you know we all passed the navigation course?"

"Yeah, Carl," said Sam, with no affect. "But when are they teaching the course about tides?"

Alderson laughed, his eyes crinkling. "I guess that's next," he said.

Sam dropped the pallets onto the mud, then went back to the greenhouse for more. When the makeshift dock stretched twenty feet, Nate, a burly young man in chest waders, went to the end and strapped on a pair of mud shoes. These resembled snowshoes but were made of webbed rubber that collapses when the foot is lifted and spreads out, like a heron's foot, when it's plopped down. With his thick beard and rubber clothing, Nate looked like a vulcanized hero from the underworld. He trudged toward us in a hulking manner. In his hand was a length of frayed rope. If he had a plan, no one knew it. I watched with growing fascination as he drew nearer-slop, slop, slop. Alderson sat still. I sat still. Nate reached the boat, still silent. Now he tied his line to our bow cleat, turned around, and heaved the boat forward and up the sloping mudflat.

"Wow," I said. Alderson nodded at me and smiled. Barehanded and coatless, Nate hauled on the line again and again. "Shouldn't we get out?" I asked Alderson. "Nope," he answered. Apparently, there was just enough water in the mud to lubricate our passage. It dawned on me that Alderson and the boys had been through this routine before, in exactly these positions.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : quantifying in the kitchen 3
1 Dark angels of detritus 27
2 Amphibious assault 50
3 Stalking the active face 63
4 The spectacle of waste 85
5 Behold this compost 105
6 Forward into the Flexo Nip 127
7 Hammer of the gods 142
8 Mercury rising 158
9 Satan's resin 176
10 Downstream 197
11 In the realm of taboo 210
12 It's coming on Christmas 235
13 The dream of zero waste 251
14 The ecological citizen 277
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 18, 2010

    GARBAGELAND JM-3

    This book probably taught me more about garbage than I have leaned about math in calculus this year. Nearly every trash related question I have ever had was answered in this book. The book is full of facts that would probably be considered boring if presented the wrong way, but mixed with Royte's humor and her journey, this book was as fun to read as any fiction I have read. She goes to almost every sort of trash and waste related area, building, or center and finds out the most interesting things about the cycle of trash. There was no area that was left uncovered. Weather it was what happens to Christmas trees, incineration, or how long some pieces of trash can survive in a dump, she throughly explained the pros and cons of every aspect of waste. I good and informative book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2009

    Garbage is so interesting

    This is a fascinating and well-written story about the waste management process in the U.S. The book touches on landfills, composting, recycling, and much more and draws together Royte's mass amount of research with a solid storyline about the author trying to track her own trash and limit her personal waste stream. I bought this book to read because I am very interested in recycling and thought this would further enlighten me. Now I'm obsessed with garbage too. I'm starting my Masters in Environmental Policy next semester and now I want to focus on garbage because it's so interesting. Waste disposal is an issue in all societies and it will never cease to exist - therefore everyone should read this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2005

    Riveting

    This is a remarkable book - a great read, and at the same time thick with information everyone ought to know, but doesn't. How is it that we're allowed to be so ignorant of what happens to the great piles of trash we all create (in the US)? Royte's dogma-free narrative doesn't force any conclusions - but is thoroughly stimulating. I'm recommending it to anyone who will listen.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2007

    A reviewer

    After you read an inconvenient truth track your personal garbage and find more ways to improve on recycling and buying.Went to a recycling talk with the author,walmart and recycling businesses and she was an excellent speaker and I got my book signed!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2006

    Well written. Poorly attributed

    This is an important book about a topic that will only grow more present in the national debate in the coming years. The United States creates an enormous amount of garbage and the writer takes us to the places few of us acutally see or even think about in order to make us aware of the gargantuan nature of the disposal problem. Her adventures in visiting the various stages of the trail her garbage takes from her home in NYC to a landfill in Pennsylvania are sometimes harrowing and often amusing. Some of her throwaway comments about the situation and the statistics she uses need direct attribution since they are not necessarily widely accepted, particularly by the waste management industry. Overall an excellent story told by a gifted writer.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2005

    A MUST READ FOR EVERYONE!

    An important and well written book. It will change the way you look at trash forever and hopefully spure us to change our wasteful habits.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2012

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2011

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