by Elizabeth Royte
In Garbage Land, author Elizabeth Royte tackles a subject that's as complex as it is fetid. What drives her story is the answer to a seemingly simple question: Where does her trash go? The answer leads to waste treatment and trash compacting centers in the metro New York area, and into western Pennsylvania where she finds it's a lot harder than you might think to look at garbage. Royte treats us to detailed exegesis on the politics of sludge and does a fascinating job exposing lesser known players in the waste industry whose fear of public scrutiny is evidenced by the fact that so many of them hang up the phone on her mid-sentence.
What works about Garbage Land is Royte's big picture approach. One minute we're hanging with New York sanitation workers who sweat through three T-shirts on a summer day, then we're chatting with a policy wonk who gets giddy over the mere mention of anaerobic food digesters. My favorite is a humorless lower Manhattan eco-Nazi who corrects the author each time she says "garbage." Apparently the PC term is "waste." Equally memorable is the University of California grad student who keeps his scat, or "humanure," in his bedroom for later composting under his apple tree.
There's tons of great reporting in Garbage Land--interesting tidbits that one might think would, or should, be common knowledge. For instance, the fact that wastepaper has become our leading export to Asia? Or that trash collection is a $57 billion industry? Who knew?
Garbage Land does reek with the inescapable tone of precious yuppie do-gooderism, epitomized by cloying first person passages like: "The more I learned about plastic, the worse I felt about the way I transported short-grain brown rice from the food co-op to my home…" But this is just nit-picking; Royte has taken a simple, smelly idea and blown it up large, refusing to stump for simplistic answers to our waste-dependent economy like, say, the "buy green" movement and its promise of Sierra Club credit cards. Oddly echoing the current administration, Royte writes, "I hate to think our strength is based in consumption, not moral clarity."