GARBAGE LAND: A Dirty Investigation
Do we really know where our trash goes? Each day, tons of garbage makes the long and tedious journey to landfills around the world and we take it all for granted. Most of us don’t understand the impact of our waste. Billions of dollars are spent to produce aluminum cans, paper and plastic bags, and other disposables that are created primarily for our convenience. These products sometimes serve a useful purpose for only a very short time, e.g., the millions of plastic bags in which we put our consumables, and then are thrown out into the garbage can on our street corners. A billion more dollars are spent to process the trash and help it along its journey to settle somewhere in the ground, a compactor, or an incinerator. Although there are many books written about man-made trash, Garbage Land, by Elizabeth Royte, is one of the best books about waste because the author literally crosses boundaries to obtain information about where our trash goes, the processes and drawbacks of recycling, and possible solutions to our growing garbage problem.
Royte goes where no other author or person has gone before when she decides to follow her trash from the curb side to the landfill. What makes her book so effective is that she is able to entertain her audience as well as educate and inform them. Her goal is to ultimately influence citizens to be more environmentally conscientious. The book is broken into two parts; there is the entertaining adventure that Royte embarks on to find out just where her trash ends up, and there is the scientific part which talks about the technicalities of landfills and provides statistical evidence of biodegrading trash. Along the way, Royte amuses her readers by telling tales of people she has met along her expedition. The purpose of these illustration is to show that there are many different things people try and do to reduce waste and “go green”, but we should not be lured into complacency by the new green mantra. Much more needs to be done and Royte seeks to provide better education on this topic to the general population. Royte’s opinion is that we have already dug our graves, now were sitting in them, and it’s time to work on getting out of the grave before we are buried.
According to Royte, the entire recycling industry is a feel-good exercise that lets us purchase things we do not need and feel better about throwing them out. She does not believe recycling has any real environmental benefits. Her position is that recycling just gives waste hauling companies, who run the recycling programs, the opportunity to look as though they care about the environment and, in turn, make more money because no one looks below the surface of these operations to see whether they really are green. While talking to Tom Outerbridge, head of the City Green program in New York, she asks whether recycling is even cost effective. Outerbridge states that, in one park, there used to be four garbage trucks picking up trash each day: the garbage truck; the metal, plastic and glass truck, the paper truck, and the compost truck. The manufacturing, oil, fuel, and emissions of all these vehicles have a huge effect on the environment, not to mention all the bulldozers pushing the compost around at the facilities. It hardly seems economical or beneficial to the environment. This is only one of the reasons why Royte has a cynical and critical outlook on recycling. On her journey, she stops by multiple recycling plants, tallying numbers, asking questions, and exploring the operations. Most workers are hesitant to inform her of their disposal rituals, which makes the reader really leery of their regime. This is exactly the point that Royte is trying to make clear; we do not know where our trash goes and disposal facilities and recycling plants will go to any length to keep that from us.
The only solution Royte has come up with is to be more aware of what we are consuming and throwing away, she does not really offer any other guidance about the topic. In a way, Garbage Land leaves the reader feeling helpless and insignificant when it comes to ridding our planet of toxic waste. Even Royte feels helpless after her adventures. She explains how her friend invited her to pick up the beach on Earth Day and her first thought was “I knew too much about our combined sewage overflows by now to think that cleaning up this sandy strip would do any good. The next big rain would bring a load of trash from the sewer pipes, and a sunny day would bring beach goers who littered.” Royte’s opinion is 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.
In her book, Royte offers up some astonishing facts about our waste. She incorporates statistics and scientific evidence in an effective style that does not bore or bog the reader down. However, her passion for the topic is clearly evident. After spending days following her trash, recyclables, and even her own feces, Royte comes to the conclusion that there is no easy solution to the growing trash problem pervading our planet. She asserts that the best answer for improving the environment is for humanity to stop its excessive consumerism. Royte’s obsessive compulsive attitude towards a clean plant is what makes this book so powerful. Towards the conclusion of her book, Royte contemplates her own death and worries about her personal footprint upon planet earth. She debates the options of cremation versus burial; “Cremation is energy intensive and polluting, especially if you have mercury in your teeth; and conventional burial pollutes groundwater with embalming fluids.” I think that, even in the afterlife, Elizabeth Royte will be worrying about what her body is doing to the environment.