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Vol. 4, No. 6, 2005
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reviewed by


Gary Wisby is the Environment Reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times

Setting out to explore what Americans throw away, how it hurts the environment and whether there's a better way, Elizabeth Royte decided to take it personally: She followed her own trash to its final resting places.

In Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, the Brooklyn resident's quest takes her to the sewers beneath her street, out-of-town landfills, in-town recycling centers, the compost bin in her own backyard, and beyond.

Along the way she meets everyone from the "san men" who pick up her garbage, to waste managers who profit from burying it, to maybe not-so-impractical visionaries who dare her to dream that someday she won't have to trash anything at all.

My favorite chapter is the one about Zero Waste, the idea that everything we buy can be recycled or reused. It's a term I first heard from Mayor Daley's young new environment commissioner, Sadhu Johnston.

-- Garbage collectors are three times more likely to be killed on the job than cops or firefighters.
-- The average American produces 1.3 tons of trash a year, 65.6 percent of which goes "into a hole in the ground."
-- Most of lower Manhattan is built on garbage.
-- The ancient Trojans piled up waste at the rate of 4.7 feet per century.

ZW, as I will call it to conserve ink, is actually the goal -- quixotic though it may be -- of San Francisco by 2020. The city aims for a 2010 diversion rate of 75 percent, by weight the amount of waste it keeps from being land filled. San Francisco already claims a 52 percent diversion rate. (Chicago's is 22 percent or 8 percent, depending on whether you ask the city or recycling advocates.)

On a side trip to the city by the bay, Royte hangs out with its recycling chief, Robert Haley, "apple-cheeked and enthusiastic, with a cap of short dark curls." Although she's already concluded ZW is "a condition perfected only by nature," here is a guy who has no trash can at work and at home is supported 99.9 percent by his partner.

And the remaining one-tenth of 1 percent? Haley replies, "She draws the line at twist ties" -- refusing to strip the paper off the little wires. He mails his worn-out sneakers to Nike, which shreds the rubber into flooring for gyms. Confronted with a product that can't be recycled, he simply doesn't buy it.

San Franciscans recycle the usual paper, glass, plastic and metal. But -- and this is something Sadhu Johnston wants to see in Chicago -- they also put out an additional bin in which they've deposited yard waste, kitchen scraps and food-stained cardboard to be turned into compost.

Pickup of both trash and recyclables in San Francisco isn't free; the pay-as-you-throw system encourages conservation. This requires the poor to pay a larger proportion of their income for trash disposal, Royte pointed out to an executive of the company that hauls the city's garbage. His response -- "What are low-income people throwing out? They're poor!" -- sounded less unkind to Royte when she reflected that rich people discard more stuff.

But much as she would like it to be otherwise, the author realizes that recycling is only a drop in the garbage pail on the way to ZW. To achieve that would require reducing consumption, mandating high percentages of recycled content in consumer products, and even forcing manufacturers to take back and reuse their packaging.

Besides, ZW applies only to what citizens throw away. Of all the waste generated in this country, by mining, agriculture, manufacturing, food processing, construction and other sources, municipal solid waste makes up "a mere 2 percent," she writes. "Two percent!"

Still, Royte sees recycling as a moral imperative, a way for people who can't do anything to stop the deaths of right whales, the poisoning of our rivers or the melting of the polar ice caps to make a difference in the life of our planet.

Omigosh. I'm running out of space and I've only written about my favorite chapter. Although I could rationalize that Garbage Land is worth reading for this chapter alone, I'd feel guilty if I didn't at least mention some of the book's findings that made me mad:

Burying and burning, in landfills and incinerators, are the two chief ways Americans dispose of their trash; unlike recycling and composting, both are subsidized by tax breaks. Making paper from trees is one of the most environmentally harmful industries on Earth, but it too is subsidized, so it's cheaper than using recycled paper. Solid waste companies pay small towns big bucks to bury big cities' garbage, but all landfills eventually leak, contaminating groundwater for future generations. Coal-fired power plants, like those that produce about half of Illinois' electricity, and incinerators generate two-thirds of the mercury in the atmosphere.

Royte also is subject to a guilty feeling or two. It pains her to know this book -- which her publisher assured would be printed on paper that uses only half as much virgin fiber as other papers -- still results in the destruction of new trees.

She even regrets wishing Garbage Land will sell a lot of copies, and hopes future editions will be printed on recycled stock or mostly sold electronically.

Anyone who cares about the environment half as much as Royte does should read this book. Then, recycle it. Or better yet, give it away.

Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash
By Elizabeth Royte
Little, Brown. $24.95.



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