Put It Out There
On the Secret Trail of Trash
By Elizabeth Royte
Little, Brown. 311 pp. $24.95
Remember those commercials in which Madge the friendly manicurist encouraged her customers to soften their hands by using her favorite soap? "Dishwashing liquid?" was each customer's invariable response. "You're soaking in it," Madge would say with a triumphant smile. Replace "dishwashing liquid" with "garbage," and you've got the theme of Elizabeth Royte's captivating new book. The skin-softening power of rubbish has yet to be established, but its ubiquity is beyond dispute.
When we're not literally soaking in trash (by bathing in the polluted water that flows from our taps), we're taking it in through our pores and lungs. Much of our intimacy with garbage stems from lax laws that allow industries to taint our streams and befoul our skies. But it is also true, as Royte makes clear, that we ordinary citizens play a substantial role in transforming the land of the free into the republic of rot. She cites figures from the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University showing that in 2003 every American generated 1.31 tons of garbage. Where did it all go? Less than 27 percent was recycled or composted; 7.7 percent was incinerated; and 65.6 percent was "buried in a hole in the ground."
For nearly 50 years, New York City, Royte's hometown, buried its trash in the largest such hole in the world, the 3,000-acre Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. The city buried "a peak of thirteen thousand tons a day from houses and apartments," according to Royte, "plus an additional thirteen thousand tons a day from commercial and institutional buildings." "For as long as state and federal environmental laws have existed, Fresh Kills had been violating them," Royte notes. When it closed in March 2001, it contained "2.9 billion cubic yards of trash (about the volume of 1,160 Pyramids of Cheops."
Royte's most recent book, The Tapir's Morning Bath , explored a tropical rainforest in Panama. In Garbage Land , she plunges into a mysterious world much closer to home. Curious about how New York handled its garbage after it closed Fresh Kills, she found that "from the moment my trash left my house and entered the public domain . . . it became terra incognita, forbidden fruit, a mystery that I lacked the talent or credentials to solve."
The action -- and putrefaction -- unfolds when she puts on her freelance reporter's hat and decides to follow the rubbish. "I knew that the city's garbage was now trucked far and wide," she writes, "but I didn't know exactly where my stuff went or what happened to it once it arrived." But even as she rides with garbagemen, sneaks into landfills and sits in on countless recycling roundtables, Royte never lets us forget that she is an ordinary citizen just like the rest of us, coping with the demands of marriage and motherhood while chasing her story. She meticulously charts her household's garbage management, earnestly sorting her recyclables while struggling to maintain a compost bin. "Every few days, I dumped my kitchen trash onto my daughter's blue plastic toboggan," she writes. "Picking through my trash felt subversive: it ran counter to the media message that household dirt should be whisked quickly into a compactor or garbage pail. . . . Composting my organic matter, reclaiming my own mess, was beginning to feel political." Her frequent returns to the many scenes in her tiny kitchen are never intrusive and help ground her expansive narrative in a way that keeps it fresh -- in a manner of speaking -- and accessible.
Accessibility is especially valuable in Garbage Land , because the information Royte relays quickly piles up as fast as the trash she relentlessly tracks. Some of the morsels she shares fall into the "who'd have thunk it?" category; others would fit comfortably in the next edition of Ripley's Believe It Or Not .