Thursday, May 16, 2013

Garbage Land

Garbage Land: on the Secret Trail of Trash
© 2006 Elizabeth Royte
335 pages

Where does the garbage go? In an impressive attempt to answer that most pressing question of modern life, Elizabeth Royte spends a year following her trash to landfills, incinerators, recycling centers, municipal compost dumps,  and even water treatment plants. As she learns how waste is handled, managed, and (sometimes) reclaimed, Royte puts the lessons learned into effect in her own household.  Subjecting her kitchen rubbish bin to a weekly weigh-in, she strives to emphasize the “reduce” aspect of environmentalism’s mantra: reduce, reuse, and recycle.  The result of her study is the best book on garbage you’ve never read, one that follows the entire waste stream and offers ways households and nations can stop wasting so many resources while  simultaneously producing so much garbage.

Royte opens with a chapter on the history of waste, quoting Susan Strasser’s Waste and Want: A Social History of Garbage. Strasser's account demonstrated how, in an era where households were regarded as productive places themselves, and not just dens of consumption, people found uses for virtually everything -- feeding scraps to chickens and pigs,  burning rubbish for fuel, using their sewing talents to repurpose aging clothing. The account also illustrated the trends that create such so much waste today, like the emphasis on sanitation that led to paper cups and pigless streets, as well as the rise of the consumer economy, fueled  by goods created with a short design life.  Royte's account, however, is not a history of how waste came to be, but how we handle it today.

She tracks first her regular garbage,  tagging along with sanitation men on their route and learning the ins and outs of their occupation, before meeting with the corporate executives of waste management firms and getting an idea for the large-scale practicalities: how does one design a sanitary landfill, for instance? It's not simply a question of digging a hole and throwing rubbish in: in fact,  modern landfill cells are elaborate, hermetically sealed tombs to our waste, horrifically expensive but still not quite up to the job of preventing noxious chemicals from leaching into the soil.  Although some garbage CEOs are proud of their dumps, others are secretive, and Royte's attempts to get a first-hand look at them involve canoing around perimeters and sneaking through fences in the wilderness.

Royte next examines composting, both in households and by cities. Composting organic wastes like kitchen scraps (barring meat) not only removes them from the trash can, but puts them to use: if tucked away properly,  scraps can be broken down into garden soil and put to use growing more food. Royte adopted composting herself, with mixed results.  She then moves on to recycling: some cities and states have mandatory recycling, and others only encourage it. Recycling proved more problematic than she expected: while paper was a straightforward affair,  "recycling plastic" seemed to mean nothing more than "dumping plastic in another hemisphere".   With the kitchen exhausted, Royte took on the bathroom, following the waste stream down the toilet, learning how liquid and solid wastes are reclaimed or otherwise dispose. Here she emphasizes the waste of using clean water to dispose of waste, and introduces the reader to people who are rethinking plumbing: one man has redone his pipes so that grey water ("gently used" water, the kind used when rinsing dishes and so forth)  collects behind his house for use in watering plants; another has constructed a toilet that turns our own biological waste into compost. The book ends with the rise of anti-waste movements, with sections on the "ecological citizen" and the zero waste idea.

Although most people consider garbage to be an 'icky' subject,  accounts like Royte's should command our attention not only because of how much needless waste we produced, but because of how much more the human race is expected to produce as the 'developing world' continues to develop and demand the middle-class lifestyle of the developed world, with all the buying and throwing away that entails.  Garbage Land takes readers on an adventure, sometimes exciting and sometimes disgusting, and is commendable for its depth. Waste and Want was only a history; Gone Tomorrow only covered landfills. Garbage Land combines the best elements of both and adds to them inquiries into composting, recycling, and bathroom waste.

Flushed! How the Plumber Saved Civilization
Waste and Want: A Social History of Garbage, Susan Strasser
Gone Tomorrow: the Hidden Life of Garbage


  1. Your reading @ the moment is making mine seem frivolous....

  2. My current read right now is a re-read of 1984...after it, I'm going to NEED something frivolous to recover from the depressing ending I know is inbound. Care to recommend your current? ;)

  3. I can certainly recommend the Jack Tanner Series by James Holland. It's advertised as 'Sharpe for the Blitz years' and lives up to the hype.


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