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Waste land

Elizabeth Royte lifts the lid on the ever-expanding world of debris and its disposal

Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash
By Elizabeth Royte
Little, Brown, 311 pp., $24.95

Garbage has become a metaphor of modernity. It's the main character in Don DeLillo's novel ''Underworld," where the sinister and shadowy waste trader, Jesse Detwiler, claims that the throwaway culture forced postindustrial countries to ''come up with a resourceful means of disposal" and ''build a social structure to carry it out -- workers, managers, haulers, scavengers." DeLillo expects us to add to the list organized criminals, corrupt congressmen, and environment-endangering entrepreneurs.

In a book-length meditation on a mountain-chain of trash along I-95 in Florida, the poet A. R. Ammons agrees that ''garbage has to be the poem of our time." It is ''spiritual, believable enough to get our attention . . . piling up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and creamy white: what else deflects us from the errors of our illusionary ways?"

As the literature on it piles up, so does the garbage. At last count, Americans generated 4.3 pounds per person per day, triple the average in 1960. At the same time, garbage has become more privatized and less visible, except to those who live in less affluent communities like Tully, Pa., dump sites for somebody else's discards. An investigative reporter in the 21st century, then, might follow the trash as well as the cash. And that's what Elizabeth Royte decided to do on Earth Day 2002. For a year, she got down and dirty, tracing household disposals, compostables, recyclables, and sewage from her home in Brooklyn to their not-so-final resting places in landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and as sludge, in the soil, in the sea, and as exports to developing countries.

If ''Garbage Land" doesn't induce queasiness, it may cause depression. During the 20th century, Royte tells us, the proportion of food in refuse declined from 65 to 13 percent, but packaging, appliances, and household hazards -- batteries, thermometers, paint, insecticides, fluorescent light bulbs -- more than make up the difference. Given a Parkinson's Law of Garbage, whereby refuse expands to fill all available containers, a sanitation worker in New York City lifts five to six tons a day, and is three times more likely to be killed on the job than police officers or firefighters.

Less than 27 percent of garbage is recycled and composted. There are, Royte suggests, insufficient incentives to do so. Virgin papermaking, for example, depletes forests and is the third-largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States. Paper can be recycled as many as nine times -- and old newspapers, mixed office waste, and old corrugated cardboard, are easy to collect. But because the timber industry is subsidized by the federal government, virgin paper is cheaper than recycled paper. So, 95 percent of magazines printed in the United States have zero recycled content. Although Americans wax enthusiastic about recycling, moreover, they are sometimes reluctant to purchase recycled products. Marcal Paper Mills Inc. doesn't advertise the ''green" content of its toilet paper because customers want pristine tissues touching their tushies.

According to Royte, the nation's landfills, wastewater, and sewage treatment plants are woefully inadequate. Landfills are the largest anthropogenic source of methane emission in the United States, in part because their owners get tax credits for collecting the gas. Many landfills permit so little biodegradation below the surface that Granny Smith apples might lie in them for several thousand years. Even state-of-the-art facilities do not prevent leachate, ''a noxious stew of household toxics," from leaking into groundwater. Without modern water and sewage treatment plants (with their ''digesters" and ''scum concentrators"), Royte acknowledges, New York Harbor might be solid with waste. But even with them, a fisherman tells her, so much garbage gets into the waterways that the tongues of the bluefish and stripers he catches are often black. And 54 percent of sewage sludge is processed, relabeled ''biosolids" (or ''all natural organic fertilizer"), and applied to the land. The second-largest source of dioxins in the United States, land-applied sludge is regulated less stringently here than in Europe. The Environmental Protection Agency has opposed legislation to label as such food products nurtured on it.

Surrounded by sobering statistics, Royte is a modern-day, modernist muckraker, exhibiting more irony, realism, and resignation than righteous indignation. Her head and heart are with the gung-ho greens, but she wishes they'd lighten up a bit, and comes down ''in the middle of the argument," placing blame on producers but embracing individual responsibility as well. Royte wants to believe that ''this moment in garbage history was a blip along our route to sustainability," that pay as you throw (charges for curbside pickup), Humanure, Christmas tree mulching, and miniature rooftop wetlands might build momentum toward zero waste. But ''there was always something that seemed to lie outside the bounds of reuse," and something else that commingled with and contaminated her recyclables. Royte entertained the idea that ''we were, at great cost, shifting our messes from one place to another." Someday, she hopes, ''there is going to be gold in green waste. But not today."

To stave off ecological disaster, Royte supports a supply-side solution: Buying less brings the biggest environmental bang for the (non)buck. As we worry about whether to ask for paper or plastic at the supermarket, she observes, we often forget that transportation, housing, and meat consumption pose far greater dangers. ''Already, the stuff we set on the curb is circling back to bite us. . . . We can recycle and compost as much as we want, but if the total waste stream continues to grow -- and it is growing . . . -- we'll never escape our own mess." If we don't act soon, the planet will, and ''it won't be pretty," she writes.

But ''Garbage Land" issues no clarion call to action, and offers no program for reform. Instead, as Americans continue to say ''buy, buy" every time we leave the house, Royte appears to agree with Norman Steisel, the former commissioner of sanitation in New York City: ''In the end, the garbage will win."

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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