THE SECRET LIFE OF TRASH
Gary Wisby is the
Environment Reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times
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
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
who cares about the environment half as much as Royte does should
read this book. Then, recycle it. Or better yet, give it away.
Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash
By Elizabeth Royte
Little, Brown. $24.95.