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Elizabeth Royte hones a smelly idea with Garbage Land

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Funny that a book on human refuse can make you nostalgic for a time when pigs roamed city streets, slurping on our slop.

Not much more than a century ago, in New York and other cities, sanitation had nothing to do with beefy guys in trucks and everything to do with reconnoitering swine. Today, it's a little bit of front yard composting here, some curbside recycling there, but mostly just tons and tons of trash being compacted and trucked to landfills in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and beyond.

In Garbage Land, author Elizabeth Royte tackles a subject as complex as it is fetid. What drives her story is pursuit of the answer to a seemingly simple question: Where does her trash go?

The answer leads to a potentially endless investigation involving waste treatment and trash compacting centers in the New York metro area and into western Pennsylvania, where Royte 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. Their 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 doesn't do anything so hands-on as composting, but gets giddy over the mere mention of anaerobic food digesters.

My favorite player 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. (He claims to watch his carbon-nitrogen ratios and says he's never had an odor problem.)

Garbage Land has tons of great reporting, interesting tidbits one might think would, or should, be common knowledge: Wastepaper has become our leading export to Asia; trash collection is a $57 billion industry; 35 percent of garbage comes from packaging. Who knew?

A few caveats: About a dozen too many sentences begin, "According to a study by (insert advocacy group here)..." And Royte wastes energy detailing the personal mannerisms of sources that disappear a page later.

Finally, there's 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..." You might hate to give credence to latte liberal stereotypes, but some of this book makes that quite hard.

But this is just nitpicking. Royte should be praised for taking a simple, smelly idea and blowing it up large. And she refuses 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."

-- John Dicker

capsule

Garbage Land

Elizabeth Royte

Little, Brown

$24.95/hardcover

  • Elizabeth Royte hones a smelly idea with Garbage Land

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