Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash
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Out of sight, out of mind ... Into our trash cans go dead batteries, dirty diapers, bygone burritos, broken toys, tattered socks, eight-track cassettes, scratched CDs, banana peels.... But where do these things go next? In a country that consumes and then casts off more and more, what actually happens to the things we throw away? In Garbage Land, acclaimed science writer Elizabeth Royte leads us on the wild adventure that begins once our trash hits the bottom of the can. Along the way, we meet an odor chemist who explains why trash smells so bad; garbage fairies and recycling gurus; neighbors of massive waste dumps; CEOs making fortunes by encouraging waste or encouraging recycling-often both at the same time; scientists trying to revive our most polluted places; fertilizer fanatics and adventurers who kayak amid sewage; paper people, steel people, aluminum people, plastic people, and even a guy who swears by recycling human waste. With a wink and a nod and a tightly clasped nose, Royte takes us on a bizarre cultural tour through slime, stench, and heat-in other words, through the back end of our ever-more supersized lifestyles. By showing us what happens to the things we've "disposed of," Royte reminds us that our decisions about consumption and waste have a very real impact-and that unless we undertake radical change, the garbage we create will always be with us: in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we consume. Radiantly written and boldly reported, Garbage Land is a brilliant exploration into the soiled heart of the American trash can.
leachate for thousands of years: the dumps of the Roman Empire, more than two thousand years old, are still leaching today. But there’s one problem with dry-tomb landfills: plastic covers and plastic liners break. It is widely acknowledged, including by the EPA, that even the best plastic will ultimately leak, and well before the waste it contains ceases to threaten the environment. How long does waste pose a threat? According to G. Fred Lee, an environmental engineer who’s devoted his entire
efficiently, they had to raise rates high enough to make the capital improvements that would let them capture and process more recyclables, to say nothing of bringing their facilities up to city and state standards. (The MRFs were notoriously dirty, dangerous places. The New York Daily News reported three accidental deaths in 1996 at Waste Management’s transfer and recycling facility in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. In 1999, a severed human head—badly damaged—showed up on a conveyor
steel. Recycling precious metals, like much of the recycling industry, is a dirty business, the absence of dead geese notwithstanding. But it spares the earth the far larger insult of mining virgin metals, with all its attendant energy use and pollution. Extracting one ton of copper, for example, requires miners to move an additional nineteen tons of rock. According to a Commission on the European Communities report on battery recycling (the EU, having embraced the precautionary principle, is
Africa has prohibited the sale of plastic bags under 80 microns thick, and Taiwan and Bangladesh, where plastic trash clogged street drains that carried human waste, have banned free distribution of the bags in stores. Ireland reduced bag use by 90 percent by instituting a fifteen-cent charge for each sack. Because they were so light, plastics left barely a mark in my trash logs, though I was going through an average of 5.2 Ziplocs and thin vegetable bags a week. When I began separating the bags
“green” goods. What spurs them over the hurdle is guilt about their planetary impact. “A brand can help us feel good,” said Marc Gobé, author of Citizen Brand. “If you buy this yogurt, you don’t have to make any other effort. You just buy it.” It is the same with scrupulous recycling. I could spend all day wrapping up my free AOL discs for a recycler in Green Bay, Wisconsin, organizing my polystyrene peanuts for another niche buyer, and baling my unwanted textiles to be shredded for felt. But