On the Secret Trail of Trash
By Elizabeth Royte
LITTLE, BROWN; 312 PAGES; $24.95
We can toss it or ship it, but the problem remains
Reviewed by Tess Taylor
Several years ago, canoeing past rusty cans and spent condoms in the oil- slicked, muck-filled waterway Brooklynites now know as the Gowanus Canal, Elizabeth Royte decided she wanted to know more about where her trash ended up. She thought she might be floating in some of it already, since it seemed likely to her that the waste around her might have drifted down from her Park Slope brownstone up the hill. What does happen to the world of lost socks and old bleach bottles? Royte decided to figure out. fixed-asset perfectPixelWide noGen: item_perfectpixelwide 19 e fixed-asset perfectPixelWide
In some ways, it's not a hard question for a New Yorker to ask. The city, living at its dense breakneck pace, sloughs off tuna cans and bleach bottles faster than almost anyone can say "junk." At dusk, lunch garbage lurks outside closed restaurants. Old computers wait gape-faced in the alleys. In the summer, the ripe smell of rot wafts over even the toniest neighborhood. And, at any moment, the city itself is only three days away from a complete garbage backlog, yet New York, which depends on the quick removal of its waste, has no local place to send its trash. The city clogs its freeways and pollutes its air, trucking thousands of tons of commercial and municipal waste a day to places as far away as Virginia. The haul is not cheap: Last year the city garbage budget approached $1 billion.
Of course, New York is only the most visible hub of the garbage problem: Americans waste a lot, and lots of municipalities send their waste into far- flung pits. (Everyone seems to want their trash elsewhere: Sometimes this approaches the absurd, as some Ohioan garbage travels to Pennsylvania, while other Pennsylvanian garbage travels to Ohio.) Royte has decided to join the convoluted trail of her trash, seeing what she can learn by following her own garbage on its odyssey into the pit.
It's a great premise, and, en route, Royte cheerfully unearths New York's quirky garbage culture. She meets Robin Nagle, the thin live wire who teaches the anthropology of garbage at New York University's Draper School, Vito Turso, the ebullient, mustached spokesperson for the Department of Sanitation, and the very aptly named Dennis Diggins, who oversees the closing of the (also aptly named) Fresh Kills, Staten Island's monstrous landfill. Royte travels amid the oddly cool, the stinky and the completely absurd: She kayaks around the landfill as it is planted over with native grasses and restored to wetlands; she argues with sketchy shiny-shoed recycling officials; and she sneaks into a Pennsylvania landfill, hoping to make her way to the top.
Meanwhile, perhaps because it's so hard to get access to landfills, Royte spends a lot of her narrative navel gazing, or more precisely trash gazing, sifting through her kitchen scraps and wondering out loud whether she might have recycled a receipt or candy wrapper -- not that Royte's the type to eat too much candy. She bemoans the fact that a friend's disposable diaper has ended up in her special basket. She competes to "beat the national average" by making less waste than the national statistic (1.31 tons per year). More than occasionally, she makes a song and dance out of her own garbage guilt:
"I was a little embarrassed about the contents of my trash, especially the chocolate milk container. It had been a treat for Lucy. I didn't usually buy individual servings of anything: they were expensive and their packaging created more trash." Herein lies this important book's somewhat annoying pitfall: It's a little boring to watch Royte repeatedly reassure her readers that she's trying so hard to get an "A" in environmental consciousness. In the end, her baggage gets a little hard to take.
After all, Royte's put her finger on a systemic problem, and it isn't one that she's going to solve by choosing wax over paper. As she admits, the real tragedy of garbage is not in Royte's indecision about her granola wrapper, but the fact that because of it, something less obvious, but toxic, is going on somewhere else. One wishes she would have spent more time quantifying that elsewhere: the leacheate draining out of landfills into streams in North Carolina, the growing asthma epidemic linked to kids inhaling garbage truck fumes in the Bronx, or the small towns near landfills in Pennsylvania with "mysteriously" soaring cancer rates.
But Royte has opened an important query and begun to highlight the weird problem of waste and wasting and the odd systems and costs of a society that values and then devalues material objects so quickly. It is to be noted that if there is any hero in this book, it is San Francisco, which, stating its priorities, has an Environment Department instead of a Sanitation Department. San Francisco has invested in technologies up front -- a leader in the sorts of systems that make it easier and more cost-effective to reuse and recycle objects.
But, before patting the city on the back too hard, Royte admits that there is a long way to go. •